Southwest WA is now a world-renowned tourist destination

Busselton Jetty on the southwest coast of Western Australia

Before the wine and food, Margaret River was about the surf.

It was where Perth people, especially young people, went to camp near the beautiful beaches in the summer, and where some seeking an alternative lifestyle in the 1960s and 1970s stayed on to build mud brick houses and try their hand at arts and crafts.

It’s hard to believe that the first commercial vineyard, Vasse Felix, was only planted in 1967, with the first wines a few years later.

Over the years, winegrowing developed alongside the dairy industry that thrived in this lush area three hours’ drive from Perth. The service town grew and the vineyards multiplied but it was still about agriculture, not tourism.

Fifty years from those first plantings, Margaret River and nearby Busselton are the two most visited areas in Western Australia, adding about $1.1bn to the local economy each year.

The region’s success is a brilliant demonstration of how a country area can evolve from a popular spot for summer beach holidays to an all-seasons destination boasting international-level wine, food and accommodation along with literary, gourmet and arts festivals.

The surfers who discovered the region still come in their thousands, attracted by the stunning coastline and superb waves and an annual international surfing championship, the Margaret River Pro, every April.

Indeed some in the surf industry and the arts complain that while they pull in numbers, they get less marketing support for their sectors and the vineyards get all the attention.

But Margaret River lucked out when those early growers, led by pioneer Dr Tom Cullity, saw the potential for wine in a region with a similar climate to Bordeaux in France.

Without the cellar doors it would have been hard work to build and sustain a tourist industry that has transformed the southwest of the state with its stunning forests and granite outcrops and pristine beaches, and turned the once sleepy service town of Margaret River into an international brand.

Vineyards at Vasse Felilx, Margaret River’s first winery. Picture: Tourism Western Australia
Vineyards at Vasse Felilx, Margaret River’s first winery. Picture: Tourism Western Australia

International tourists are nowhere to be seen right now, of course, thanks to Covid-19. Interstate visitors are slowly coming back, but plans to attract an extra 60,000 people over three years via direct flights from Melbourne to the Busselton-Margaret River airport are on hold thanks to uncertainties on lockdowns. When the flights begin, the expectation is they will add $40m to the local economy.

Last year was tough for the town’s retailers, with several shops caught by the first lockdown and unable to make it through the 2020 winter, but the region is busy now and new shops are on the way. Visitors report elbow-room-only on the pavements of the main street during the recent summer and long weekends and festivals. They talk of the challenges of finding parking near the shopping strip or a table for lunch in the vineyards that stretch north towards the beautiful coastline of Yallingup and Dunsborough and south to the Leeuwin Estate winery and the pretty town of Witchcliffe, which is developing its own version of cool culture.

At Margaret River itself, there’s still a sense of a real community, as the school buses disgorge the kids from surrounding areas and the big recreation centre buzzes with young swimmers on a Friday afternoon. On Saturday mornings, the local farmers market has wonderful produce, good coffee and pastries and a Zen mix of locals and visitors.

The southwest has stunning forests, granite outcrops and pristine beaches

It’s the same out at the coast where the White Elephant café at the Gnarabup Beach boat ramp near Prevelly Beach is an oasis of warmth – actual and metaphorical – on a wet winter’s morning. There are some hardy swimmers careless of the cold but happy enough to dry off near the roaring wood fire, a couple of local women discussing the renovations they’re doing to prepare their homes for Airbnb, and a table of teens in jerseys and beanies debating the surf and the world.

The surf is a big industry with several outlets in the town. The oldest, Beach Life, was launched in 1986 and is run by the founders’ son, Paul Thompson, who says that while surfers comes for the waves, they’re also keen to dig into the local craft beers and wine scene.

The Settlers Tavern in the main street is a pub that has a lively music scene for the surf crowd, many of whom are FIFO workers who live in the town, as well as young tradies. There are other food outlets of varying styles and price levels – which offers great choice for families and those seeking something less expensive than the fine dining at the cellars.

The shopping strip of “Margs”, as the West Australians call it, is no Noosa. It’s short on glamorous cafes and high-end fashion. But that’s a relief to some and Brianna Delaporte, who with business partner Erin Molloy runs the 10-day Cabin Fever festival in the region every July, is keen to paint it as a positive.

Sugarloaf Rock in the Leeuwin Naturaliste National Park
Sugarloaf Rock in the Leeuwin Naturaliste National Park

“The region really punches above its weight,” says Delaporte. “There are only 14,000 people (in the broader region) but the quality of the food and wine and what we do is amazing. Sometimes we forget it’s really a small town.”

She loves the idea of “barefoot luxury” that defines the region’s special mix of gourmet food and wine and swimming and surfing.

“You can be at the beach in the morning and out to a winery at lunchtime,” she says. “It’s not a negative, it’s a positive. It’s understated and not pretentious.”

Cabin Fever began in 2017 as an effort by the local tourism authorities to build winter tourism in the region. Next month (July 16-25) it will offer events across almost 40 venues in the region, everything from cellar trips to rice masterclasses to truffle cooking to riverside parties and a cheese toastie battle.

Festivals of all types, from arts and books and music to food and wine, are intrinsic to the area’s business model: a new report by the Queensland University of Technology (part of a huge national “hotspots” project looking at the creative industries) lists 16 annual creative and cultural festivals alone.

That’s before the premier gourmet events that bring in chefs from around the world and the vineyard music concerts that have attracted big stars like Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, James Taylor and Carole King over the years.

Beyond the wine and food experience and the big waves, there’s a thriving arts and crafts scene, with some of the finest wood work in the country, as befits a region of dense forest: Pemberton, the inland town famous for its giant karri trees, is 90 minutes away.

At Margaret River you can visit the JahRoc Galleries, renowned for its handcrafted hardwood furniture and fine art.

Lara Bennett, one of the co-owners, who with sister-in-law Joanne Paris is front of house day in, day out, says the biggest change in the two decades the showroom has operated in the town is that visitors are as constant in the winter as the summer months.

“It’s a perfect scenario to have an outlet in a tourist town,” says Bennett, who owns JahRoc with her husband Gary and Joanne and David Paris. “When people are holidaying, couples are together and they have time to look at furniture and make decisions.”

The husbands, along with one employee, make the furniture; the wives run the outlet. They have orders well into next year.

“We have a lot of repeat clientele,” says Bennett. Items range from a marri timber chair at $3300 to a jarrah bench seat at $8500, a marri sideboard at $13,600 and a 4.4m-long table at $40,000.

Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse which was built 1895
Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse which was built 1895

Bennett loves the creative buzz in the area: “You feed off that creativity.”

The interest in regional arts is growing, according to a recent report by the Arts Council of Australia which found that the southwest is the second most visited region for arts in WA, after Perth. Many are drawn by the Margaret River Open Studios, a “free and annual open art event which involves more than 100 artists opening their studios to visitors”.

One local creative is John Streater, regarded as one of the earliest and finest designers and craftsmen in the region. Streater came to nearby Yallingup 40 years ago at the age of 25, driving across the Nullarbor for the surf, and never looking back.

He learnt his trade from a local maker and built his workshop in 1987, with the gallery a decade later. His operation is slightly off the track in an isolated area, but worth the trip to see the examples of jarrah and marri tables and the adjacent workshop.

“I wanted to create Australian culture in my furniture,” says Streater, who sees himself as a custodian of the trees and timber in the area.

He’s not crazy about the proliferation of vineyards around Margaret River (which he describe as more mung bean and alfalfa than “sophisticated” Yallingup) and feels the wine and food industry gets too much of the marketing dollars.

The solitude and sheer natural beauty of the strip from Eagle Bay and Yallingup south to Margaret River is what has held Streater for 40 years: “I drove over the hill and saw the ocean and said, we’re never going home.”

It’s what has attracted Perth people who for generations have built holiday homes and shacks around Yallingup and Dunsborough.

In the past two or three decades, the big money has migrated to stunning coastal areas like Eagle Bay where the multimillion-dollar, architecture-designed houses are as stylish as anywhere in the world. It’s these areas, along with the vineyards and restaurants along Caves Road that runs south to Margaret River, that have branded the region as a high-end destination.

Ngilgi Cave near Yallingup
Ngilgi Cave near Yallingup

West Australians, of course, have been visiting Yallingup and its caves since the earliest days of the state’s development. Accommodation was built there in 1903 and by 1938 the Caves House hotel complex, which still dominates the area, was operating. The heritage-listed hotel has been expanded over the years but retains lovely art-deco touches.

It’s busy and buzzy but just out of Yallingup, the Little Fish restaurant demonstrates the great charm of the area. Overlooking a lake and with an adjacent art gallery, it feels like the middle of nowhere on a wet Thursday night in June. But it’s booked out thanks to a beautifully designed room and an excellent menu. The clientele is a mix of visitors and locals and the only problem is getting enough staff. The sign near the rest rooms says it all, asking for applications for “barista, bar, wait staff, cook and chef” vacancies.

The need to nurture newer, sustainable industries in the area is recognised in the QUT report, which focused on the bigger centre of Busselton, 40 minutes away by car, but acknowledges the creative industries emerging around Margaret River.

“Margaret River is widely recognised as a creative hotpot in the South West,” the report says. But while it has a higher creative intensity in creative occupations than Busselton, the latter is where the creative SMEs are concentrated, it says. There are strong interdependencies between the two centres – Busselton’s growth in creative industries depends in part on the “international magnetism of the Margaret River brand” but Margaret River in turn relies on Busselton as a gateway.

That gateway is about to get even more useful. November will see the opening of Origins Market in Bussselton. It’s a custom-built space that will house 100 West Australians vendors – “farmers, producers, winemakers, artisans and creators”. It’s seen as a game changer for sustainable produce and crafts in the region and an attractive destination for locals and visitors alike.

Injidup Natural Spa at Injidup Beach
Injidup Natural Spa at Injidup Beach

Mat Lewis, who works in regional development for the South West Development Commission and has lived in Margaret River for 25 years, told the QUT researchers that in Dunsborough (35 minutes from Margaret River, population about 5300) there’s “a great funky side street in a little industrial area … You’ve got Creatures of Leisure, which is one of the global surf brands, sunglasses. You’ve got Nauti-Craft, which is a revolutionary boat technology company that designs boats on a kinetic system, that’s exportable all over the world. So, you’ve got a real innovation hub in a small street. You’ve got all the surfboard manufacturers in that little cluster. So, you’ve got that whole little ecosystem working and fitting in nicely.”

And Dunsborough is also the location for the NOROCK café tables – locally designed with revolutionary technology that ensures the tables self-stabilise and do not wobble.

Lewis says he’s keen to connect local creatives with international markets and cites animators, photographers, under-the radar architects, artists, graphic designers and illustrators.

“If you actually put Busselton and Margaret River together, you’ve got a huge cohort of creatives,” he says. “Plus we have a great live music scene … musicians are paid well so you have a pretty good music industry.”

It’s hard to believe the first commercial vineyard was only planted in 1967

Lewis likes the town’s ability to appeal across tastes and income levels: “We want to keep it that way. Margaret River has still got a great underbelly of characters and personalities. While it is quite polished it does have the authenticity and charm. There are magical imperfections if you like. It’s not too well oiled, and you don’t want it to be.”

But the digital class is making its mark. Lewis mentions a colleague who was running a venture capital fund in Singapore when he got trapped in the town during the pandemic – and decided he was going to stay. Now he has a global talent visa and he and his family are here for a few more years.

“He’s on the phone and Zoom to South-East Asia and the US every second minute,” says Lewis. “But then he can get into the board shorts and go off to karate, the kids can come in and play ping pong…”

You can see the attraction. But Lewis is right when he says that the real beauty of the region is the choice it allows people – from hiking, mountain biking, fishing and surfing to upmarket dining, opera in the vineyards, guitars at the Settlers’ Arms and literary festivals.

And there’s quirkiness too.

In a nod to the history of dairy farms, Cowaramup, just 12km from Margaret River, has installed 42 fibreglass Friesians along its main street and parks. The name has nothing to do with cows but means place of the Cowara lorikeet that once lived in the area. But the insouciance has worked. On a recent Saturday morning there’s scarcely a parking spot in the main street as people stop to take their pictures alongside the cows dotted along the footpath before heading to the excellent French Bakery for a pie or vanilla slice. That’s creativity for you.

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