A Taste of Western Australia: A Driving Tour, Plus Recipes
Aerial view of the cliffs at Red Bluff Beach, Kalbarri National Park. Photo: Courtesy of Tourism Western Australia
I’m driving north along the lonely, quiet coast of Western Australia. I’m supposed to check into my hotel in the town of Kalbarri at 5 p.m., and it’s already dangerously close to that. I really should motor on … but there’s a particular quality of light in the sky. It’s then that I see a sign that points the way to a coastal section of Kalbarri National Park — and just like that, my schedule is all but forgotten.
I drive down a winding road towards the setting sun and pull into the closest parking lot. A few metres down a slight hill I find a viewing area that looks out over the Indian Ocean. Off to my left, there’s a pure, soft, golden light hovering under low-lying, puffy grey clouds in a sky of brilliant blue. Stretched out in front of me, towering cliffs rise out of a royal blue ocean, infused with the golden light of the late afternoon sun and topped with pale, olive green chaparral. Waves that have travelled thousands of kilometres slam into the coast, sending caps of white foam high into the air.
The contrast between the golden rays of sun, the light sky, the deep orange-red cliffs and the green of the plants is almost too much for my eye, and my mind, to comprehend. I take a few (okay, tons of) photos with my phone and head back to my car. I’d seen signs pointing to other viewing areas and I want to see as much as I can before the light fades.
I drive quickly — rather too quickly I admit — to the next car park and dash down the path to the cliffs. This time I’m gazing down at a massive rock that has been partly hollowed out by the unceasing waves, creating a natural rock bridge. The ocean has gone a deeper blue, and the sun is now a fiery ball making a mad dash for the horizon. I jog to the next lookout and furiously snap more photos, until the sun has disappeared for the day.
I like to think of my travel writing research as a careful balance. I need to gather information and check out photos of a place to find out where I want to go. But I don’t want to do so much preparation that a place gets overhyped in my mind. If that happens, I risk being disappointed and losing some of that sense of travel wonder.
I knew there was a good deal of natural beauty in this massive state (almost the size of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba put together) but I had no real idea what I was getting myself into with Western Australia. Time after time, day after day, I find myself gobsmacked by the beauty all around me.
In Kalbarri, a roughly six-hour drive north of Perth on quiet country highways, I bunk down in a large but simply furnished one-bedroom suite at Kalbarri Edge Resort. I wander into The Edge restaurant for dinner shortly after my clifftop excursion and peruse the menu. It looks like the safest bet is a steak or some local lobster, but I’m intrigued by the idea of pumpkin soup and an order of duck confit in a town with just 1,400 residents.
The waitress emerges a few minutes later with a gorgeous bowl of pumpkin soup that’s topped with a thin, crispy wafer, garnished with shaved pecorino cheese and tiny flower petals. Okay, I’m pleasantly surprised.
Later, my main course emerges: two generous servings (something I learn to get used to in the smaller towns of Western Australia) of duck, with a pressed square of potatoes and perfectly al dente broccoli and carrots. The presentation and quality of the cuisine is what I’d expect in Montreal or Vancouver. To get it here, in this small, spartan dining room at a modest resort nearly 600 km north of the only real city in the state? I’m sorry, but there’s something wrong — or very right — here.
As I finish things off, the chef comes running out. He’s discovered a Canadian is in the house and he wants to practice his French. Alas, I speak more Spanish than French, but we chat for several minutes anyway. Fabrice Passicos is from the Bordeaux region of France and trained for six months at a restaurant in Montreal. He’s also worked at fancy hotels around the world, including the St. Regis in Singapore. He said he’s now trying to elevate the food scene in WA. He’s damn well succeeding if you ask me.
More Touring Highlights
A small plane ride over the Albrohos Islands has me staring down at coral atolls and swirling bays of emerald green and Delft blue, with pods of dolphins rifling through the water. Near the town of Jurien Bay, I snorkel with inquisitive sea lions that dance and dart around me.
In the Margaret River wine region, I tour a vast limestone cave that drips with massive, ancient stalactites and listen to a local aboriginal man play a deeply moving tune on a didgeridoo. I also dine on cuisine that’s nothing short of miraculous, sample locally made gin and sip elegant Margaret River wines.
At Skeeta’s waterfront restaurant in Geraldton, there’s a lovely salad with feta cheese and luscious strawberries the colour of Marilyn Monroe’s signature lipstick. In Perth and the Margaret River region, I can’t resist local Wagyu beef as tender as a first kiss, and seafood lifted out of the ocean mere hours before it hits my plate.
A Postcard From Perth
But it’s not just out-of-the-way surprises that spark my appetite in Western Australia. In Perth, I sit down for dinner at Hearth, the main restaurant at the new Ritz-Carlton hotel on the city’s booming waterfront. I nibble on exquisite octopus and lamb, as well as Wagyu beef so tender it almost cuts itself, accompanied by soft, flavourful Pinot Noir from Margaret River.
At Indigo Oscar in Perth, a beautiful restaurant perched above perfect, white sand Cottlesloe Beach, I feast on lime-cured Albrohos Island scallops, whole-fried prawns with toasted coconut and grilled corn with coriander, chilli mayo, and grated feta.
I also have a fabulous food and drinks tour of the city, with its number one fan, the irrepressible Adie Chapman. She runs a Perth tour business called Oh, Hey, WA, and is passionate about her home, an enthusiasm that quickly rubs off on a visitor from half a world away.
“Perth has totally outgrown its reputation as Dullsville,” she tells me as we walk through downtown. There are new condos rising high in the sky, new hotels, and plenty of brightly lit restaurants and bars in the city centre.
We sip outstanding margaritas and wolf down tacos at a speakeasy-style bar called The Volstead Lounge, with booths and thick, heavy drapes that conjure up images of a New Orleans bordello. We sample a bacon and bourbon pairing at a bar called Varnish, where I spot a stuffed animal on a shelf that’s named Justin Beaver.
As we walk to our next stop in the trendy Northbridge section of town, Chapman points out the minimalist Art Gallery of Western Australia. She also notes nightlife, including the city’s first gay bar and a nearby place called Tiki as F–k. At Rechabite Hall, a former temple for teetotallers, we dine at a ground-floor restaurant/bar called Double Rainbow, where we dig into octopus with kimchi and delicious brussels sprouts with maple syrup and crispy pork belly.
The next morning at The Melbourne Hotel, breakfast consists of a flat white coffee and a bowl of bircher muesli for breakfast. The latter is nearly the size of a volleyball and is covered with fresh fruits: strawberries, kiwis, blueberries and bananas.
“Geez,” I say to my waiter in my best North American accent. “Look at the size of this.”
He smiles and replies, “Welcome to Western Australia, mate.”
Just a short ferry ride away from Perth is Rottnest island, home of tiny, smiling (well, sort of) marsupials called quokkas. They’re only found in a few places in Australia, and this is one of the best places to see them. The little critters are everywhere, and they’re often underfoot on the tiny main shopping street.
They’re beyond adorable, and I enjoy a wonderful Segway ride that takes me past rolling cliffs and deserted, white sand beaches fronted by brilliant green waters. “I like to say it’s the most fun you can have standing up,” says Belinda Hill, owner of Segway Tours WA and my Rottnest tour guide.
After my tour I walk over to a lovely island restaurant called Isola, where I have a divine lunch with pasta, local crab, basil, tomato and crème. I also down a lovely Fenice cocktail with Campari, lemonade, lemon juice, bitter and Cocchi Torino syrup.
The Margaret River Region
As surprising as the Perth area is, I’m even more impressed by the Margaret River region. We don’t see a lot of Margaret River wine in Canada, where South Australia products tend to dominate the shelves. Not only is the wine superb, but the region is also bound in the west by long, lovely beaches and rocky coastlines. It’s like Carmel meets Napa. It’s simply not fair.
At Smiths Beach Resort, just outside the town of Yallingup, we sample a small section of the Cape to Cape Trail, which links Cape Naturaliste in the north with Cape Leeuwin in the south, It’s a glorious coastline, topped with granite outcroppings that have been twisted and crumpled into large, spiky boulders in shades of tan, orange and soft gold, surrounded by low-lying, olive-coloured shrubs. Following our hike, we tuck into wonderful local cheeses and Western Australia lamb at the resort’s dining room.
At Vasse Felix, the first winery in Margaret River, we sample their delicious Idee Fixe sparkling wine and dine on luscious toothfish with spring onion, seaweed and bearnaise, as well as kangaroo. At Frui Memento, we enjoy Margaret River Wagyu beef with king brown mushrooms. At Windows Estate Winery, we have a great tour and sip wonderful wines accompanied by a monstrous board of charcuterie and delicious local cheeses. They can grow almost everything in the Mediterranean-like climate that exists in this part of Western Australia, including berries, avocados and even truffles.
At the Margaret River Distilling Company, we take a “giniversity” course to see how they make several varieties of gin, some with Australian botanicals. We also get a food tour with a local company called Walk Talk Taste, stopping at a family spot called La Scarpetta for pasta and arancini and then at a newer, trendy place called Tuck Shop for fresh fish with lime juice, yuzu and local plants for a garnish.
Over nine days I sample tremendous food and sip wonderful wines and I’m floored by the people and the natural beauty. This might be the best part of Australia I’ve seen yet.
Chicken With Turmeric, Ginger and Yogurt
Marinade for 1.5 kg chicken (We use boneless, skin on chicken thighs)
3 coriander roots, cleaned and chopped
30 g ginger
3 cloves garlic
30 g turmeric
2 tbsp mild curry powder
50 mls fish sauce
½ tsp salt
2/3 cup yogurt
1. Chop finely or blitz together all ingredients except yogurt. Fold blitzed paste into yogurt and
2. Marinate chicken for at least 4 hours — overnight if possible.
3. This chicken is best cooked on a grill or barbecue to give some smokey, caramelized flavours. Serve with fresh lime and yogurt.
Developed many years ago, this dish has been a menu staple firstly at Gunyulgup and then when we moved to Smiths Beach. It’s a rite of passage for our apprentices to master the skill as we make them in batches of 18 and each one needs to be perfect.
360 g egg whites
400 g castor sugar
2 tsp white vinegar
2 tsp vanilla essence
1 tbsp cold water
1. Preheat oven to 100 C (215 F).
2. Place all ingredients into a large mixing bowl and mix on low speed until all are well combined. Turn the mixer to high speed and whisk for 4 to 6 minutes until at a firm peak stage. We use the test of placing a small (half a teaspoon) of mixture on your thumb and draw up with your ring finger. If a smooth, even thread holds, the mixture is ready.
3. Spoon onto a tray lined with baking paper — or you can use a mould to form a large or small circle. Bake for 1 hour then turn oven off and leave the pavlova in oven until completely cool.
Makes approx. 2 cups
275 ml milk
125 ml double cream
3 egg yolks
75 g castor sugar
1 tsp vanilla essense
1. Place milk and cream in a saucepan and heat until nearly boiling. Meanwhile whisk yolks and sugar and vanilla thoroughly.
2. Pour hot milk mixture onto egg mixture and whisk vigorously until well incorporated. Return to the saucepan and cook over low to medium heat until it thickens. This mixture can split (the eggs can literally scramble) if overheated so take care and stir continuously — it takes around 10 minutes to thicken. When thickened, strain into a container and chill until required.
Poached berries (or fresh fruit of your choice)
Carefully place pavlova onto a plate, fill generously with cream and berries, drizzle with passionfruit and pour anglaise around the edge and serve.
Recipes courtesy of Smiths Beach Restaurant
Where To Stay
The Gerald Apartments: A boutique property in Geraldton with a rooftop bar and restaurant.
Kalbarri Edge Resort: Roomy units in the heart of Kalbarri. Great restaurant.
Pinnacles Edge Resort: A comfortable, spacious property in the small city of Cervantes.
The Ritz-Carlton, Perth: A stunning, new property on the waterfront at Elizabeth Quay.
Melbourne Hotel, Perth: A lovely, modern hotel in the heart of the city.
Smiths Beach Resort, Yallingup, Margaret River: Spacious, modern rooms next to a great beach. Terrific restaurant.