Above: Cape Lodge’s lakeside restaurant is considered one of the best in Western Australia.
Wild coastal scenery, gourmet restaurants, and wineries by the dozen await on a ramble through Western Australia’s Margaret River region
By Jonathan Lobban
Photographs by Jason Michael Lang
Margaret River’s gray-barked eucalyptus trees form an imposing arch above our car as we hurtle down Caves Road at dawn. The morning air is thick with fog and the pungent, menthol-like aroma of their leaves. These towering native hardwoods go by the names of jarrah and karri, and wherever you see them, local vintners tell me, the soil is likely “gravelly” and thus ideal for wine growing. As we speed on toward Gracetown, a legendary surf spot midway between the capes of Naturaliste and Leeuwin on Australia’s southwestern corner, the trees are ubiquitous. It’s ironic, really, considering that the township of Margaret River was founded in the 1850s as a timber hub, yet now relies on the eucalyptuses’ strong, earth-grounded roots to provide sustenance for the region’s young wine industry.
I’m here with photographer Jason Michael Lang for five days of wining and dining in the name of journalistic research, but already we’ve veered off course. Over a few too many glasses of a fine Sauvignon Blanc the previous evening, we’d accepted an invitation to go dawn surfing. Now, in the sober light of morning, I’m nursing a hangover and wishing I was back in bed. So when Jason mutters something about a surfer being taken by a shark here recently, it’s all he can do to restrain me from turning the car around.
Instead, we turn right onto Cowaramup Bay Road, and minutes later are rounding a panoramic headland that brings the Indian Ocean into focus. It’s 6:30, but already the sea is an electrifying blue-green, foaming and churning with gusto. My mind starts to execute the mental arithmetic one does when weighing self-pride against public loss of face, but before I can do the math we’re in the parking lot and Christo Edwards, a local viticulturist whose family owns and operates Edwards Wines, is handing me a wet suit, telling me, “She’ll be ’right.”
Halfheartedly, I paddle out to the first line of breaks at South Point, bobbing like a cork before catching an innocuous wave in to shore. Paddling back out, I’m passed by a half-dozen laughing, sun-browned kids aged six to twelve (“Grommets,” Edwards later tells me, meaning junior surfers). I watch as the pint-size board riders effortlessly negotiate the swell.
Let them have their waves, I peevishly think as I head back to the beach and a much-needed breakfast. Me, I’ll stick with the wine.
Just as this rugged coastline is good for surfing, so too does it provide excellent conditions for growing wine grapes: cool sea breezes, loamy, mineral-laden soil, and a mild climate that recalls the Mediterranean. The results are a spectacular lineup of Cabernets, Merlots, Sauvignon Blancs, and Semillons whose flavors are intense and complex; Margaret River may produce just three percent of all Australian wine, but it accounts for 20 percent of the country’s premium-wine market.
More than that, it’s got amazing food. Just over 40 years since the first vines were planted here in 1967, the region is experiencing a boom in fine dining, with cuisine on par with anything you might find in California’s Napa Valley. Fresh produce is king, and Margaret River’s new royalty is its chefs, farmers, providores, and the multigenerational fishermen (“artisans of the sea,” I hear them called) from the town of Augusta, who shuttle first-rate seafood (blue crab, green-lip abalone, king prawns, scallops, rock lobster, and succulent fish like bream and pink snapper) to local kitchens each morning.
Above from left: local “grommets” at Cowaramup Bay; room decor at the Injidup Spa Retreat; inside the kitchen at Voyager Estate.
Above from left: Cape Lodge accommodation; Christo Edwards at his family’s estate; a surfer on the beach north of Gracetown.
For Southeast Asian visitors, the region also has the benefit of accessibility. A direct flight gets you from Singapore to Perth, the laid-back capital of Western Australia, in just over five hours; from there, it’s a passably scenic two-and-a-half-hour drive to Margaret River. More difficult is deciding where to start once you get there. At last count, there were 5,000 hectares under vine and some eight dozen wineries within Margaret River’s 300-kilometer circumference, a good number of which welcome guests with convivial tasting rooms and sophisticated restaurants.
Among our first visits is Clairault Wines, a 35-year-old estate owned by the Irish-born Martin family, just five minutes down the road from the seaside village of Yallingup. For the oenophile, Clairault offers a robust range of Bordeaux-style wines. Its best-kept secret, however, is its restaurant, which nestles between grape vines and a stand of red gum eucalyptus trees. Fremantle-trained prodigy Jake Drachenberg heads the kitchen, and like most of Margaret River’s top chefs, he spends his mornings sweating over a hot stove and his afternoons surfing. It’s a routine, Drachenberg says, that keeps him “calm and cool as a cucumber.”
“This place is about as good as it gets for cooking, to be honest,” he tells me as we sit down to enjoy a post-lunch 2009 Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc that is brimming with tropical fruit-driven notes like passion fruit and pawpaw. His enthusiasm stems from the fact that all his ingredients are hand-delivered at dawn each day from producers located within an hour’s drive of the restaurant. There’s venison and lamb from a nearby farm, as well as seafood delivered straight from the boat. Drachenberg calls his menu “simple, elegant, and respectful,” meaning he doesn’t mess around with the ingredients. But that’s not to say the food is unimaginative: highlights include pink snapper served with salted lime, curds, and sweet potato; caramelized scallops marinated in aged soy; and kangaroo tail broth with abalone and ginger. If you have the time, appetite, and budget, settle in for Drachenberg’s eight-course degustation menu. “We throw everything at you,” he says.
From Clairault, we drive 30 kilometers south down Caves Road to Leeuwin Estate, a winery described by The Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker as “one of the benchmarks, if not the reference point, in Margaret River.” A former cattle ranch, Leeuwin was built from the ground up by Dennis and Tricia Horgan with the help of Robert Mondavi, the late California pioneer of New World wines. The Horgans’ Chardonnays, crisp and citrusy, are considered among the best in Australia, while their award-winning restaurant, a verandaed affair that looks across a meadow, does wonderful things with rabbit rillettes and freshly poached marron (the local crayfish). What impresses me even more is the on-site art gallery, which sits in an old barrel store. The space features only Australian artists, but they are among the country’s most iconic: Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker, John Olsen, and Sidney Nolan.
For dinner we head to Margaret River proper, a sleepy town on the banks of an unspectacular river of the same name. Must restaurant, the year-old country sibling of Perth’s popular Must Winebar, is helmed by a 27-year-old Singaporean-born, Margaret River–raised chef named Chris Cheong. An immensely likable “larrikin,” not to mention a genius in the kitchen, Cheong too is a devotee of the Slow Food movement. Like Clairault’s Drachenberg, he champions single-source ingredients, buying his meat and produce direct from the farmers each day.
“There’s a journey,” Cheong tells me by way of his raison d’être, “that begins in the paddock and ends coming out of my kitchen door to a guest’s table. The food starts off with the farmer, who puts his passion, his blood, sweat, and tears into making his meat or produce the best in the world. My challenge is transforming those efforts into art.”
Cheong’s menu includes some of the best steaks I’ve eaten, cut from dry-aged beef sourced from a farm at the base of Western Australia’s Stirling Ranges. “Margaret River is the greatest food bowl in the world,” Cheong says.
“The quality of supply and the range is just incredible. Really, for chefs here, the world is your oyster.” As if to underscore that point, we spot Sydney’s pony-tailed celebrity chef, Neil Perry, at a nearby table. “Fantastic,” he tells us as he gets up to leave, giving Cheong two thumbs up. And so our days continue, mixing visits to the beaches with tours of outstanding wineries: Fermoy Estate; Fraser Gallop; Knee Deep; Lenton Brae; Thompson Estate; Vasse Felix; Voyager. All are superb, though if I must single out a favorite, it would be Edwards Wines, not just for the sublime Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays, but also for the personalities and drive of the Edwards family, in particular Christo and his winemaking brother Michael, who run the estate. Drop into their tasting room outside Cowaramup, go large on the Edwards 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, and—what the heck—check out the World War II–vintage Tiger Moth biplane that the brothers’ late father flew in from England two decades ago to raise money for charity. Just think twice if Christo invites you to go surfing at dawn.
On the accommodation front, Margaret River once had a reputation for somewhat dowdy guesthouses and cottages. This, too, has improved. Fermoy Estate recently opened a four-bedroom lodge amid its vines, overlooking a pretty little lake; Clairault is in the process of developing something similar. For unsurpassed sea views, Smiths Beach Resort in Yallingup offers chic, streamlined villas that are just steps away from a stretch of white sand, while its sister property, Injidup Spa Retreat on Cape Clairault Road, is wonderfully secluded and overlooks the azure waters of Injidup Bay.
More impressive still is Cape Lodge, a handsome lakeside hotel designed in the Cape Dutch style. It’s world-class; some of the staffers still speak in reverent tones about the time Sting checked in—along with his wife, masseuse, yoga instructor, and entourage—while playing a concert series in Margaret River in 2005. They occupied the five-bedroom Vineyard Residence, a onetime homestead now replete with golf green, tennis courts, and helipad. The lodge’s “standard” accommodation is of a humbler sort, but when your sumptuously furnished suite comes with a private courtyard and serene views of parkland and forest, you’re not likely to grumble.
The restaurant at Cape Lodge is held to be one of the best in Western Australia. The star of the show is chef Tony Howell, who combines the charisma of George Clooney with the craftsmanlike virtuosity of Tetsuya Wakuda. Like his culinary compatriots in Margaret River, Howell espouses a philosophy of “keep it simple, don’t mess with it.” He also maintains a large vegetable patch outside the kitchen, “so it all comes down to what we’ve got growing in the garden,” he says. “If we pull out fennel bulbs, then we slice them up and go with that.”
Howell’s close relationships with local food suppliers means his dinner menu isn’t set until 5 p.m. each day, after they have dropped off their lamb, venison, crayfish, scallops, or whatever else happens to be available and in season. “It drives our restaurant manager crazy, and you never know if it’s going to work out, what we might have to turn away at the last moment,” he says.
Most of the time, however, the deliveries are of exceptional quality. “We get live marron that comes in once, maybe twice a week, and jewfish, which is seasonal,” Howell continues. “A yellowtail kingfish came in just the other day, and was perfect for sashimi. And we get sensational cuts of Wagyu. There’s a bloke I’ve been dealing with for 14 years and he gives me the first and last pick of his asparagus. It’s pretty much straight from the ground.”
Howell also does a mean breakfast, with five dishes à la carte, including smoked salmon tart and homemade baked beans with Iberian ham. He credits the dynamic nature of his approach to the menu as one of the reasons Cape Lodge manages to retain its kitchen staff. “The team doesn’t get bored, there’s no robot scenario. The guys get to play with the food. That’s the biggest thing.”
Across the way, Patrick Coward and Martin Black’s Margaret River Providore is the final word on field-to-plate dining. Every fruit and vegetable on the café’s bistro-style menu comes directly from its vast organic garden: chives, garlic, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, shallots, asparagus, strawberries, beetroot, zucchini. The operation also encompasses a well-regarded winery and a 5,000-tree olive grove. “We don’t want to be big,” Coward says when I compliment on him his work, then quiz him on his ambitions. “All getting bigger does is get you more money. To be honest, I don’t need the stress.”
And there you have it: Margaret River’s competitive advantage. These winegrowers, chefs, and providores are truly of international standing, yet their ambitions remain modest. For Margaret River’s epicurean artisans, simply living in one of the world’s most beautiful coastal areas—the Australian land of milk and honey—is a reward in itself.
Perth’s international airport is well connected to Southeast Asian hubs; Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com) and Tiger Airways (tigerairways.com) fly there from Singapore, as does Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific .com) from Hong Kong and Garuda Indonesia (garuda-indonesia.com) from Jakarta via Bali. For information about the onward drive to Margaret River, visit mronline.com.au.
When to Go
Its mild climate makes the region a year-round destination, though early autumn (March and April) is a good bet for balmy, rain-free days. This year, Margaret River will hold its annual wine festival March 17-21.
Wine and Dine
There are dozens of wineries to visit in the area. Among the best for both food and wine tastings are
- Clairault Wines (61-8/9755-6225; clairault wines.com.au)
- Fermoy Estate (61-8/9755-6285; fermoy .com.au)
- Thompson Estate (61-8/9755-6406; thompsonestate.com), all in Willyabrup;
- Edwards Wines (61-8/9755-5999; edwards wines.com.au)
- Vasse Felix (61-8/9756-5000; vassefelix .com.au) in Cowaramup
- Leeuwin Estate (61-8/9759-0000; leeuwinestate.com.au) outside Margaret River town.
Where to Stay
For accommodation by the water, book a villa at Smiths Beach Resort (Yallingup; 61-8/9750-1200; smithsbeachresort.com.au; doubles from US$298). Set on a vineyard, Cape Lodge offers more of a country-estate vibe, as well as direct access to its stellar restaurant (3341 Caves Rd., Yallingup; 61-8/9755-6311; capelodge.com.au; doubles from US$473).
For layovers in Perth, try the new Pan Pacific (207 Adelaide Ter.; 61-8/ 9224-7777; panpacific .com; doubles from US$141), where rooms overlook the Swan River.
Originally appeared in the February/March 2011 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Take Me to the River”)