Western Australia, the largest of Australia’s eight states, will turn your expectations of Down Under upside down. This incredible chunk of the continent has a character all its own — or make that multiple characters. A vast land that covers a third of the country, Western Australia offers everything from the sophistication of capital Perth and chic wine region Margaret River to the exquisite white sands, strange rock formations and turquoise waters of the Coral Coast; the wilderness, barren backlands and inland sea of the rugged North West; and the seemingly endless expanse of the interior, the Golden Outback.
Approximately five hours’ flight from either Sydney or Singapore, Perth sits on the Swan River; it’s a city of two million with a reputation for laid-back beaches, outdoor dining and a bevy of pubs and breweries — it’s the perfect bookend to a WA adventure. Spend days exploring hip port neighbourhood Fremantle; lounge on all 19 of the city’s beaches, including famed Rottnest Island; and picnic in the shade in the gargantuan Botanic Gardens. Make for the restaurants of downtown, Subiaco and Fremantle when you fancy sampling such local flavours as Manjimup black truffles, Ord River sweet papaya, Broome mangoes and local venison, berries and, of course, seafood. Liquid delights are on tap here, too; the wine regions of both Swan Valley and Margaret River are within easy reach and the state has a tasty crop of microbreweries. Stir in an influx of compact, specialist cocktail haunts, or “small bars,” that have sprung up in the city’s alleys and laneways and the city truly is a drinker’s delight.
Less than three hours away, Margaret River’s chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and cabernet lure oenophiles south. The picturesque town — think Niagara-on-the-Lake with an Australian accent — is crammed with artisan stores, galleries, boutiques, upscale dining and places to sample the area’s wines and ports. But if you think Australia’s South West region is all about grapes and groves, you’ll need to expand your palate. The area’s rugged, rural side is a stark contrast but makes a perfect pairing for the sophisticated wine scene that’s grown up between the gum and karri forests. Kangaroos lope about paddocks, and kookaburras scrawk like demented monkeys in the jarrah trees. You might round a corner and encounter a field of two dozen kangaroos or reach a crossroads and see two emu lope off into the dusty distance.
Towns like Augusta feel far from the airbrushed chic of Margaret River. Hunkered down on the precise point where the Indian and Southern oceans meet, it’s a one-pelican town. Pizzas are available on Friday and Saturday nights between 5 and 8pm if you order a week in advance. Sweet-and-sour kangaroo is on the menu in the Augusta Moon Chinese Restaurant. Checkout girls waltz with liquor-store boys in the last fish-and-chip shop before the Antarctic. In the town’s lone bar you’ll find weatherbeaten fishermen in ludicrously short shorts bream-boasting over Emu Bitters, conversations about the price of breeding ostrich and a jukebox that, regardless how politely you ask it to play your selection, will substitute AC/DC.
If you have longer to linger around these parts, perhaps the most captivating part of Western Australia is north of Perth. The Coral Coast stretches to the tip of the Ningaloo Reef, almost 1,300 kilometres of turquoise waters and dazzlingly white sands, punctuated by characterful towns and the occasional strange rock formation. You can reach Ningaloo via a short flight to nearby Learmonth, but taking the ocean road makes for an incredible road trip. Just a couple of hours outside Perth is the lunar landscape of the Pinnacles, a proliferation of otherworldly yellow rock spires that jut up out of the hot, flat desertscape of Nambung National Park, raucous pink parrots bobbing on top. Seeing this place where desert meets ocean is quite something.
Continue on up the ocean highway to surfing hotspot and lobster port Geraldton, on the Batavia Coast, where the Moresby Range backdrops intense sunsets and offshore the 122 Abrolhos Islands offer unparalled fishing and bird-watching opportunities. Further north again, friendly schools of bottlenose dolphins, rare burrowing frogs and white fairy wrens are among the hundreds of varieties of birds and beasts that await at Monkey Mia and Shark Bay. Dramatic blow holes and steep cliffs keep you on your guard in lush Carnarvon, while inland banana plantations stretch as far as the eye can see.
The endpoint of this antipodean trek is the seaside town of Exmouth, on the tip of Ningaloo Reef, home to 260 kilometres of nearly untouched barrier reef and a wealth of wildlife. Whatever you do you’re sure to encounter some of its 220 species of coral, whale sharks, humpback whales and 500 species of tropical fish. There are deserted desert islands from which to snorkel and dive and dugongs and rare sea turtles to view if you venture out by sea kayak. And endless beaches to explore in all directions. And dramatic gorges to scale in Yardie Creek. And open waters to sail beyond Exmouth Gulf. And still all of the North West and the rugged interior of the Golden Outback of this state to explore. It’s impossible to see all of this state in one trip, but Western Australia will have you boomeranging back for more.
The Northbridge area of Perth is home to most of the city’s LGBT bars, longstanding drag queen haven Connections and mixed LGBT community hub The Court. And 2013 saw a new addition to the scene in the form of the lesbian-owned Sparrow’s Nest café.
Small, chic and luxurious, The Outram in Perth basks close to the tropical Botanic Gardens and offers 22 rooms of Parisian townhouse style. For a homier introduction to the city, book a room at Richard’s in Northbridge, a gay-owned B&B close to bars and cafés and boasting excellent breakfasts. Margaret River has a plethora of LGBT-welcoming accommodation — try the opulent Cape Lodge, a five-star wine-country lodge on the water’s edge. At the northernmost point of the Coral Coast, book a house or apartment to rest after your journey through the super-friendly folks of Ningaloo Reef Holidays.