A continent unto itself, brash, sun-splashed Australia serves up the perfect mix of adventure and urbanity for 30-somethings who spent the twilight of their 20s Instagramming Italy’s piazze and tweeting from Trafalgar Square. The land down under fuses carefree youthfulness with a jazzy sophistication, raw nature with edgy architecture—and not just in the expected places, such as relentlessly cosmopolitan Sydney or along the Great Barrier Reef.
Head to Oz’s southwest corner, and you’ll discover the Margaret River Valley, a cloistered world of wild beaches, jewelled caves, towering eucalyptus forests, and world-class vineyards that connoisseurs compare favourably to Napa and Bordeaux. Just to its north sits Perth, the sunny capital of the surrounding state of Western Australia.
“For a long time the only folks who came down this way were surfers and hippies,” says Australian food and wine writer, Max Veenhuyzen. Better roads in the 1980s improved the area’s accessibility, turning the town named Margaret River and its surrounding countryside into one of Perth’s toniest weekend getaways. “And yet this area still feels very much like rural Australia,” Veenhuyzen adds.
Therein lies its magic. Margaret River, as the bigger region calls itself, continues to draw board-loving bohemians as it has since the late 1960s—even if some of those surfers now sport silver hair and bring their grandchildren.
“Friday afternoons, I’d pester some of the older guys for a lift to the beaches,” says Bill Gibson, who started coming here as a teenager to ride the big, glassy Indian Ocean rollers that break along the coast. “If I couldn’t score a ride, I’d get my Mum to drop me and my board in Fremantle, then I’d stick out my thumb. The drive was a classic Aussie adventure: four hours on a road that just got narrower and narrower and more crowded with trees. The cars were old bombs on wheels; we picked up great mechanical skills during that era. And the waves along the south coast never disappointed.”
Hand-picked grapes await collection. Photo: Andrew Watson/Alamy Stock Photo
Gibson up and moved to Margaret River as soon as he finished school, snagging jobs on local farms, stints at the sawmill, or gigs at area vineyards, which were just starting to be planted. Those fledgling vines he and his mates tended have flourished, transforming this into one of the world’s premier wine regions—though at 52 square kilometres it’s relatively small, and generates just four per cent of Australia’s wine. Yet its 200-plus wineries punch well above their weight, accounting for 25 per cent of the nation’s premium wine market. The reason is simple.
“We have a nearly perfect maritime Mediterranean climate,” says Dianne Laurance, owner and chief winemaker at Laurance Wines, “and gravelly loamy soils that are ideal for producing premium grapes and premium wines. I’ve always thought Napa produces wines similar to Margaret River; we’re both justly famous for our Chardonnays and Cabernets. We also have a lot in common with Bordeaux.”
The wineries have helped the low-slung town of Margaret River quadruple in size, chock-a-block with breezy eateries, art galleries, and wine cellars. And the rich terroir that fosters Margaret River’s premium grapes turns out a cornucopia of other foodstuffs, from cheeses and honeys to olive oils, fruits, and nuts. It also delivers those rarest and costliest of delicacies, truffles, which are celebrated at the Truffle Kerfuffle, an annual event held near the town of Manjimup, about 150 kilometres east of Margaret River. Among the festival’s highlights: truffle-cooking classes by world-class chefs and truffle-hunting demonstrations by truffle-sniffing dogs.
Local truffles grab the attention of a truffle-hunting dog. Photo: Russell Ord/Elements Margaret River
“The pristine environment here in the southern forests, with its fertile soils and plentiful rainfall, apparently makes it ideal for truffles,” says local grower David Pottinger, who supplies rare black truffles to Michelin-starred restaurants around the world. “As far as we’re aware, we have the most prolific truffière in the world.”
Pottinger and other area farmers went into truffle cultivation about 15 years ago, planting oak trees and inoculating them with black-truffle spores.
“Personally, I didn’t expect much,” he says. “We joked about our expensive plantation of oak trees. It was a very big gamble.”
Why this particular pocket of west Australia proves so conducive to growing the tasty fungus remains a mystery.
“Conventional wisdom says we’re too hot, too close to the sea, and not elevated enough to produce truffles,” says Pottinger. “But this is a very special place. Just how special was brought home to me recently when a French chef—one of France’s leading truffle distributors—visited our operation. His parting words to me were: Please plant more trees. What you have here is unique.”
Chef Paul Iskov forages for wild native plants. Photo: Michelle Troop
Those words apply to other features in the Margaret River Valley, starting with Bill Gibson’s cherished surf. This past June, a 35-year-old father of two, Justin Holland, mastered what is believed to be the biggest wave ever ridden in Australia, a 60-foot-high monster at a surf break in Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park nicknamed Cow Bombie. Not that surfing along this coastline requires expert skills.
“We have lots of hidden bays and coves where inexperienced surfers can get up to speed,” says Gibson.
Also in its own class: the Leeuwin-Naturaliste coast (named for the Dutch ship Leeuwin and French ship Naturaliste, which first explored the area), honeycombed with more than 150 caves, such as Mammoth Cave, where fossils of giant marsupials that once roamed Australia have been found; Ngilgi Cave, with an exquisite set of stalagmites, stalactites, and stone drapes; and one of Australia’s largest show caves, Jewel, known for its flowstone pipe-organ and waterfall formations.
Above ground—well above it—rise forests of giant karris, eucalyptus trees that grow nowhere else but this corner of Australia and, at heights up to 300 feet, rank among Earth’s tallest hardwoods. Some can be climbed, on ladders of metal rungs that spiral up the trunk. The loftiest is the Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree, with a 246-foot-high viewing platform reached by scaling 165 rungs.
The Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree is one of several climbable giant karris, or eucalyptuses. Photo: Russell Ord/Elements Margaret River
And what is a trip to Australia without seeing kangaroos? They’re here too; they occasionally bound around the local golf course. Guests at Yelverton Brook Eco-chalets sleep next to the Yelverton Conservation Sanctuary, home to roos, wallabies, bandicoots (rabbit-size marsupials), and other local fauna. About 27 kilometres south, young joeys, llamas, and more traditional farm animals roam the grounds at the Sunflowers Animal Farm and Farmstay, where optional farm chores come with the rustic quarters. A custom amenity: free buckets of animal feed.
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Morning bicyclists roll past Margaret River Valley vineyards. Photo: Russell Ord/Elements Margaret River
Drive east from Margaret River Valley to reach the Great Southern wine region, really a web of five subregions that take advantage of the area’s soil diversity to produce everything from Chardonnays to Cabernets. Rieslings and Syrahs receive special acclaim, from wineries like Howard Park and Harewood Estate. Also in the area: Western Australia’s oldest European settlement, Albany, and the dramatic granite outcrops of Porongurup National Park. (Howard Park, www.burchfamilywines.com.au; Harewood Estate, www.harewoodestate.com.au; Porongurup National Park, parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au).
A region of family vintners two hours east of Melbourne, Gippsland has earned a place in Australian wine lore with its Pinot Noirs. Accolades have gone to those crafted at Bass Phillip and Cannibal Creek wineries; the latter also wins awards for its Chardonnays. Wine pairs with pastas and other delectables at Narkoojee and Toms Cap vineyards, popular for their restaurants. Area attractions include Baw Baw National Park, for hiking and skiing, and the old gold-mining town of Walhalla, with its Heritage Walk. (Bass Phillip, www.bassphillip.com; Cannibal Creek, www.cannibalcreek.com.au; Narkoojee, narkoojee.com; Toms Cap, www.tomscap.com.au; Baw Baw National Park, parkweb.vic.gov.au).
Australia’s biggest island has been turning out flavourful, aromatic wines with grapes that thrive in cooler climates. Its densest concentrations of vineyards lie in the northern Tamar Valley and the East Coast region. Among the top varietals are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both recently adapted to make sparkling wines. Activities to check out: biking the Tamar Valley Wine Route (tamarvalleywineroute.com.au) and hiking in coastal Freycinet National Park (www.parks.tas.gov.au).
Appeared in the June 2016 issue as “Australia in Your Thirties”.
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is the author of "Cold Beer and Crocodiles", a National Geographic book about his cycling trip through the outback. He often works with National Geographic Expeditions, and has pursued stories for National Geographic on every continent.
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