Ditch the tour bus. It’s time to self-drive. Here’s what you can expect when you cruise 700km across Western Australia.
Western Australia is vast. For sophisticated travellers who prefer free and easy travel, self-drive is probably a better way to cover Western Australia comfortably. My gourmet adventure drive with Isaac Tan, Executive Chef of Bedrock Café in Singapore, began at Perth to Valley of the Giants and back. It’s a journey over 1400 km or 7 hours, if one was to drive non-stop. But not a chance; there are too many things to see, eat, drink along the way in Western Australia!
With a self-drive*, you’d be able to visit landmarks or attractions at your own pace. So get your Singapore driving license ready. There’s no need to convert or anything! But before you pack, here are 11 reasons to get you excited!
Hassle-free car rentals at the airport
Perth has a small airport by Changi standards. It simply means it’s easy to get to different parts of the airport, such as your rental car, without trams or shuttle buses.
Book a car online before you leave Singapore. Drop by the car rental counter in the airport, pick up your keys and it’s a 3 minute walk to the car. Simple.
Splurge. Hire a premium vehicle. What about a BMW X3?
You know how you’ve always wanted to drive a BMW or Merc in Singapore. Well, here’s your chance in Australia. For a few hundred dollars more, you can upgrade to a BMW X3 for the week! Sure, it will cost about AUD$800/week, but that’s cheap by Singapore standards!
There are lots of open road. Thankfully, petrol is cheaper here. Average petrol costs AUD $1.30 per litre (as of Jan 2015). You will need enough for about 1500 km, round trip between Perth and Pemberton. It’s about the same round trip distance as Singapore to Hat Yai, Thailand.
Pit Stop at Scenic Busselton
200 km from Perth, your first pit stop should be Busselton. Located in Geographe Bay, the claim to fame for this small town, founded in 1832, is their heritage listed Jetty, now a tourist destination. Extending 1.8 km into the bay, it is the longest timbre-piled jetty in the Southern Hemisphere. At the end of the Jetty is an underwater observatory, where you can descend 8 metres and watch the sealife through their glass ports. Or you can see live webcasts online at their website: (www.busseltonjetty.com.au)
If you want to avoid the long walk, opt for the Jetty Train, a quirky small scaled train that “choo-choos” passengers down the jetty, to and fro the observatory.
But for me, the best thing about Busseltown is eating at the The Goose Café with its great views of the bay, beach, and the iconic Jetty. The food was great, the atmosphere was relaxing, and the local draft beers were delicious! (www.thegoose.com.au) So fill up before heading towards Margaret River 50 minutes away.*
Small Town Bustle at Margaret River
Between the Mediterranean-like weather, fertile land, and a thousand other reasons only a viticulturist will appreciate, Margaret River has a reputation for vineyards which produce premium wines. Their range is spectacular: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Shiraz, Merlot, Chenin blanc and Verdelho. So while you’re there, be sure to imbibe*.
Visit the main street, located on a part of “Bussell Highway”, and experience the charm of the little town. Most shops cater to locals’ needs, so there isn’t much to buy or do, except sip flat whites and watch locals and tourists.
If you can drop by on Saturdays, be sure to catch the Farmers Market, between 8am and noon, where you can find artisanal breads, artisanal chocolates, artisanal cheese – whew! — artisanal soaps, and even artisanal eggs! I’ve never seen farmers as sophisticated!
Gourmet Escape and Vineyards
Not coincidentally, we timed this trip to catch the 2014 Margaret River Gourmet Escape Gourmet Festival up and down the coast of Western Australia. It has dozens of gourmet events, attended by celebrity chefs, journalists, critics and gourmands.
We only had time for three events where we were able to hobnob with celebrity chefs, talk about food, drink fine wines, and, of course, try fascinating food.
- The Audi Gourmet Beach BBQ was held in giant teepee on Castle Beach overlooking the Indian Ocean. Hosted by Anna Gare with local celebrity chef Dan Hong.
- Gourmet Village at Leeuwin Estate Winery, At the heart of the Festival is the Gourmet Village. a two day event featuring producers of wines, food, cooking classes, wine tasting sessions, and master chefs. Tickets are for admissions only. Once inside, you’ll need to buy vouchers (called GEMs) which the restaurants and vendors will accept.
- “East meet West Dinner” at Voyager Estate. This is formal dining event featuring dishes prepared by Sam Leong, a Singapore celebrity Chef, and Nigel Harvey, the house chef at Voyager Estates.
If you can’t get your timing to coincide with these extravaganzas, it’s still worth visiting the vineyards. The two “must-visits” are Voyager (www.voyagerestate.com.au) and Leeuwin (www.leeuwinestate.com.au) Estates conveniently next door to each other. Tour their picturesque vineyards, try their fines wines, or make reservations for dining.*
Bounty of Nature in the South
150 km southeast towards Pemberton is Australia’s Southern Forest Region. Rich in quality agriculture, livestock, and flora, this remote part of the region is definitely the road less traveled for most tourists. From here on, cell and data roaming becomes unstable – a great excuse to put the phone down, look out and up, at the towering Karri trees overhead. Native to these parts, Karri trees grow up to 90 metres – the third tallest in the world – and typically lives over 250 years. You won’t find these anywhere else in the world.
Many of the tourist attractions are within 30 minutes’ drive from Pemberton and can be explored with 2WD cars. However, D’Entrecasteaux National Park will need a 4WD. Remember the BMW SUV I mentioned earlier? It may come in handy.
Walking Among the Ancients
Driving deeper south into Denmark, Western Australia, we visited the Valley of the Giants. It is the last 6,000 square hectare in the world, where generations of Yellow and Red Tingle trees thrived for 65 million years. The Red Tingle, which is the larger of the two, can live for 400 years and grow up to 75 metres tall and 20 metres wide at the base! It’s wide enough for cars to drive through. Visitors to the park, can use the treetops walk or the forest floor walkways. Both are ingeniously designed to limit impact onto the forest floor while providing glorious views of these precious ancient giants. (www.valleyofthegiants.com.au)
Gourmet Meals at Pemberton
Even though the area is remote, you can still find fine wines and gourmet meals at Silkwood Winery. 20 minutes from the quaint town of Pemberton, Silkwood offers gourmet meal worthy of any 5 star city restaurant. Unlike city restaurants, their dining area overlooks their own lake, and they serve wines from their winery. (silkwoodwines.com.au)
Another great dining option in this neck of the woods is Foragers. Six minutes by car from Pemberton’s, Foragers is a beautifully designed, farm-based cooking school and restaurant which serves scrumptious seasonal (AUD$75) and wood-fired dinners (AUD$55) after their classes.
While we were there, we had the honour of having Sophie Zalokar, the founder of Foragers, explain the finer points of Australia culinary heritage before she prepared our dinner in front of us! (www.foragers.com.au)
Catch Star-Studded Night Shows
No. you can’t find Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman here. But since you’re in these remote parts, free from light pollution, look for brilliant stars in the night sky! Stand in any safe, dark area, give your eyes about 10 minutes to adjust, then see the nightly cosmic wonder. FREE!
One particularly important constellation, exclusively in the southern hemisphere, is the Southern Cross. Its kite-shaped formation of 5 stars has the same navigational importance of the North Star in the north. In the southern hemisphere, the Cross tells travellers where south is.
It also helps Australians identify their flag, since the constellation is symbolized on their flag.
Soak up this rare opportunity while you can, by the time you get back to Perth, starlight will be replaced by streetlight.
Explore Perth’s Hidden Side
Prior to departing Western Australia, take some time to enjoy some light shopping at Perth’s historic Hay Street, or shoot over to Watertown Brand Outlet Centre. It may not have many of the first tier brands Singaporeans covet, but you might be able to get knick-knacks you can’t get in Singapore. Check online for brands or items you’re looking for before you go. (www.watertownbrandoutlet.com.au)
The real magic in Perth is their alley bars and food culture. Before boarding the flight, take some time out to experience Perth’s buzzing alley bar scene. Hidden all over Perth are alleys filled with cool bars and restaurants. There are too many to mention, but a few names come up repeatedly: Wolfe Lane, Helvetica Bar, Cheeky Sparrow. For restaurants: Andaluz, The Aviary, or La Cholita (mex). (www.experienceperth.com)
While we were there, we had dinner at Lot Twenty. Converted from a horse stable, Lot Twenty mixes sophistication with rustic farm sensibilities to derive its unique character. Most of its ingredients, from meats to butter, are sourced locally within the Western Australian region, as well as, their wines*, of course. The quality was fantastic and the taste was superb! (www.lot20.co) What better way to polish off a memorable road trip through Western Australia!
By Frank Young
Weekender thanks Tourism Western Australia for making this self-drive trip possible.
For more information visit www.westernaustralia.com or www.australiassouthwest.com
*Don’t turn a wonderful road trip into a tragic one. Please be sure to nominate a non-drinking designated driver for every drinking occasion.