Checking out of my Perth hotel, the receptionist casually queried where I was heading to. On learning I was driving to Albany, she snorted in a belittling tone, "Oh – it's windy down there." Not exactly the most reaffirming endorsement, but a very strong whiff of big city sanctimony in her dismissiveness.
Four and half hours drive south of Perth, Albany has Anzac heritage braggability by
the bucketload. But in addition to the trove of war stories and revered sites, nature's surrounding bounty is enthralling. It's also a god-send destination for those seeking refuge from extreme heat.
In the height of summer, when Perth is baking at 44C, Albany is likely to be topping out around 28-30C. The surrounding Great Southern region boasts heart-stealing scenery, from unspoilt coastline to untamed national parks carpeted in wildflowers. Along the south coast, the tumultuous Southern Ocean has dramatically sculptured the land – and continues to.
The roll call of tantalising rock formations warrants a trip to Albany, in its own right.
The early spring morning had dawned crisp and clear as I scooted around the sun-kissed shoreline of King George Sound to Torndirrup National Park. My first assignment was to experience The Gap, a gaping chasm between two towering granite shelves, where the ocean water surges in.
An ingenuous viewing platform has just been constructed, that juts well past the cliff edge and is buffeted by the ocean breeze. Dare to venture out?
I mustered up the requisite courage as the wind whipped around me, succumbing to the elements, to stand directly above the pounding sea rushing into the chasm, 40 metres below me.
Gazing down was like staring into a deadly watery abyss. This intimate encounter with the savage power of mother nature is quite the freak-out frisson to start your day.
After recovering from that undeniably edgy sensation, I followed the adjoining signposts on the pathway out to the Natural Bridge.
The wide expanse of the coastal perspective is arresting, as you cast your eye from Bald Head to West Cape Howe. Shuffling into view was the stately sight of the bridge, a monumental span of granite, with a wide opening for the pounding surf to rush in. With a reasonably heavy swell running, the awesome theatrics of ocean power was in full cry.
Then there's the Blowholes, a crackline in the granite, 'blowing' air and occasionally spray, like a giant whale.
The acoustical booms rumbled across coastline. The terrain is a feast for the senses, with windswept coastal heaths giving way to massive granite outcrops, sheer cliffs, steep sandy slopes and powdery dunes.
As I headed out of the national park, I called into Albany's Historic Whaling Station, pinned to the edge of King George Sound, at Frenchman Bay. Previously home to the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company, it was the last whaling firm to cease operations in Australia. The station only shut up shop in 1978 – now transformed into an interactive museum.
You can now explore an intact whale processing factory and see the world's only preserved whale chasing ship. Plus there's a giant blue whale skeleton on display.
Heading west from Albany, I tootled around to William Bay National Park. In stark contrast to the drama and ferocity of the surging ocean at Torndirrup, William Bay was tranquil, gentle and ethereal.
As the name suggests, Greens Pool is the most bewitching bay of gentle turquoise waters, edged by pristine white sand.
It's a show-stopping scene of beachside paradise drenched in colour. A line of rocks further out to sea has bestowed Greens Pool with an abiding sense of serenity, with the reef-like buffer protecting the beach from the heavy seas.
Inside the reef, pools, channels and granite terraces create a fascinating seascape perfect for beachcombing and snorkelling. Zebra fish, silver drummer, sixspined leatherjackets and mosaic sea stars are just some of the creatures you're likely to encounter, year-round.
Back at the Greens Pool car park, I followed the signposts on the ten minute walk traversing a rocky headland, on a well-maintained track, to Elephant Rocks. Nature has conspired with these rich-red granite rocks, uncannily moulding them to look like a lumbering herd of elephants, stopping to drink at a waterhole.
It is the most wondrous spectacle. I had to pinch myself, half expecting them to
gleefully swing their trunks and shower themselves. If the tide is out, you can descend the staircase and shimmy your way through a rocky crevasse, out onto the sands of Elephant Cove.
Just keep an eye on the waterline as you ogle these animal-shaped outcrops. All along William Bay, wildflowers can be savoured at any time of the year, even though the peak flowering occurs in spring.
Unsurprisingly, William Bay is a favourite haunt for ramblers. In fact, the 1,000 km-long
bushwalking trail, Bibbulmun Tracks, sweeps right through William Bay National Park.
After drinking in more photogenic oceanside splendour at Madfish Bay, I sauntered inland to Denmark, a prodigious little town, studded with boutique wineries, craft brewers and producers.
I enjoyed some wine and artisan gelato at Rockliffe Winery, some chocolate and wine pairing at Singlefile Wines and a hearty vineyard platter lunch at The Lake House.
Just five minutes drive from town, through undulating pastoral countryside, under the shade of mighty gums, The Lake House Denmark cellar door and restaurant is a perennial favourite. The idyllic lakeside setting, bracketed in stunning gardens, is blissful spot to indulge and relax.
In addition to noshing and wining, The Lake House Gourmet Store stocks a fabulous range of Vinofood condiments, natural WineSpa skincare products, plus a cornucopia of goodies to fill your picnic hamper. www.lakehousedenmark.com.au
Back in Albany, after savouring a dreamy sunset over Middleton Beach, I enjoyed a cracking pub dinner at the effervescent Hybla Tavern. Headliners on their a la carte menu include their own Melt Beef and Hawthornden Lamb. My ebullient waiter, Andrew, kept me effortlessly entertained all night long. www.hybla.com.au
Where to stay? Just beyond the dunes of Middleton Beach, The Beach House at Bayside is an irresistible choice, where multiple award-winning 5 star hosted accommodation awaits. Warmly greeted by Sally and Craig Pullin, their sparkling, gracious and authentic brand of homely hospitality sets the benchmark.
It's a family affair for Craig and Sally, who after pursuing careers in pubs, restaurants and 5 star hotels event management, now operate the business that Sally's parents started 17 years ago.
The primary property offers eight bespoke and stylish hotel rooms, while the adjacent property sports elegant and modern Mediterranean style villas. My luxuriously-appointed accommodation was beyond impeccable, from the cloud-comfortable bedding, en-suite spa bath and creature comforts aplenty, to the afternoon tea delivered to your room, evening port and chocolates, and succulent gourmet breakfast.
Add to that the complimentary mini bar, free local and interstate phone calls, bike hire, gold club hire, plus Craig's delectable array of baked sweets and cakes. The trimmings spill forth. Sally and Craig offer a wide range of packages and specials, including a Field of Light seasonal deal. You'll be in the lap of affordable, unforgettable and exquisite hosted luxury. Don't even think about staying anywhere else. www.thebeachhouseatbayside.com.au
Air New Zealand offers year-round direct services from Auckland to Perth, and non-stop flights from Christchurch with its seasonal summer service between December and April. Go West in style and comfort. A variety of inflight product choices are available including; Seat, Seat+Bag, The Works, as well as Premium Economy and Business Premier. Connections are available ex all Air New Zealand serviced domestic airports. Bag a seat to suit at www.airnewzealand.co.nz
For more tips and insights on exploring the great temptations of Western Australia, head to the regional tourism site. www.westernaustralia.com