Great food, fine wine, dark chocolate, creamy nougat and juicy olives – they’re the essentials for any good itinerary. Now add glamping to the list and you’re close to understanding why people drool over the words ‘Margaret River’.
I can often be caught saying: “I don’t have a sweet tooth; I’m a savoury girl. Give me wine, cheese and olives any day.”
This statement was once true, but it’s based on the fact that, growing up, all my parents had stashed was a family block of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate. And if it was a really posh occasion, out came the Top Deck. We had Lipton tea in the pantry and honey was a no-name affair from Franklins.
So it’s no wonder that when I visited my first wine region and tasted the local produce from markets bursting at the seams with wickedly wonderful fresh goodness, I had to reassess what my tastebuds had been telling me since primary school. I did have a sweet tooth after all.
As my sense of taste developed, I indulged with trips to the Hunter Valley, Orange, Mudgee, Mornington Peninsula, the Yarra Valley, Coonawarra, the Barossa, the Derwent and Tamar, traipsing across the country in search of great food and wine.
The timeless charms of Margaret River, Western Australia
And then, when I visited Margaret River for the first time 15 years ago, I fell in love. Perhaps it was the blending of a well-established surf culture and alternative lifestylers with nature, art, wine and food in sheer abundance at every turn. Or perhaps it was the fact that everything just felt different, because it was like being in another country.
Whatever the case, I’ve been madly in love with this seaside strip of bustling hamlets, villages and towns strung together with magical caves, deserted white-sand beaches and towering Karri forests ever since.
‘Margs’, as it’s known by the locals, has come a long way in the 15 years I’ve known her. But it still feels like a gathering of farms and cellar doors linked by sun-dappled roads with forest canopies shading the borders of verdant paddocks. On every second gate there’s an enticing sign signalling another treat to be tried. Here are some of my latest favourites, but it’s really only a tiny tip of the delectable iceberg.
The Margaret River Chocolate Company and Bettenay’s Margaret River, WA
In business for almost two decades, The Margaret River Chocolate Company isn’t shy about claiming they make the best hot chocolate in Western Australia and the best brownies in the country. Sitting in the factory’s garden with lush lawns fanning out into the native bushland peppered with all manner of bright flowers, I found the sweeping claims hard to argue. Plus they do handmade truffles, chocolate sauces, cakes, desserts, fondues and cocoa powders, not to mention chocolate-based body products.
When you’ve had your fill – and a free tasting – bounce down the road to family-run Bettenay’s Margaret River in Cowaramup. It’s home to some of the creamiest, chewiest, handmade French-inspired nougat in the country, and there are 32 flavour combinations to agonise over, including white chocolate and apricot, and cranberry and pistachio. And don’t miss out on the family’s renowned wines (they’ve scooped more than 40 medals to date) and revered Nougaretto liqueur, lovingly made in two flavours: honey and almond, and coffee and almond.
In retrospect, it’s downright laughable I ever thought I didn’t have a sweet tooth.
Cullen Wines and Voyager Estate in Margaret River, WA
Now that we’re on to wine, where to start and where to end will only cause a severe case of FOMO (there are 215 vineyards and 187 wineries in Margs), so it’s best to pick a few favourites and you’ll always end up swinging by some others on the back of local recommendations.
Celebrating 50 years of winemaking in 2017, the region is bursting with bright, progressive, new-world winemakers who balance out the plethora of producers dedicated to traditional methods and varietals. Here, the world’s your oyster.
I chose Cullen Wines and Voyager Estate as my big guns – they’re both legendary and the families behind them were instrumental in establishing Margaret River as a respected wine region. Both come with stunning cellar doors and restaurants with sensational views to boot. Cullen Restaurant’s food is organic and biodynamic, and over at Voyager you can enjoy a seven-course Discovery Menu. If you have time, fit in both to get a taste for what these institutions offer dedicated food and wine lovers.
Glenarty Road, Amelia Park Wines and Wills Domain in Margaret River, WA
I also visited Glenarty Road, which takes a ground-to-glass approach to wine, ensuring guests taste a ‘true representation of the site, the season and a bit of hard science’. The restaurant menu revolves around the grass-fed lamb reared on the farm and fresh seafood caught by local fishermen.
I then stopped by Amelia Park Wines to experience its exquisite cellar door and the well-priced, high-quality drops produced by award-winning winemaker Jeremy Gordon. Squeezing in one more place, rightfully famous for its vineyard views, superb wines and fine food by head chef Seth James, I spent a couple of hours at beautiful Wills Domain.
Glamping at Olio Bello in Margaret River, WA
To immerse myself in nature, I stayed at Olio Bello, a glamping experience that seriously raises the bar on eco-accommodation. Surrounded by thousands of olive trees in their sentinel-like rows, I awoke every morning to the bleats of hundreds of sheep and the early morning warbles of friendly magpies. A family of resident ducks and fluffy ducklings following in Mum’s wake regularly caused gentle ripples in the reflections of towering gumtrees. My luxurious, air-conditioned designer ‘tent’ was complete with floorboards, a lounge area before a bi-flame fireplace, a full bathroom and a cosy kitchenette.
There, on my last night, sitting on my verandah with the sun setting in its fiery glory across the land, I arranged savoury treats I’d bought from the farmers’ markets on a locally made chunky wooden breadboard (prosciutto, goats’ cheese, beetroot dip, a perfect pear and some chili crackers), accompanied by Olio Bello’s homemade, thick-crust sourdough and a bowl of garlic-infused olives that were a welcome gift. I’m still a savoury girl at heart, but a bit of cranberry nougat and some dark, salty chocolate paired with a glass of Margs’ finest cab sav is an exceptional way to wind up a day living it tough in WA.