Escape to Margaret River: Of entertainment and epicurism

16 Oct 2017 by Business Traveller India
Castle Rock Bay

This charming town in Australia has something for all kinds of tourists. A regular visitor to the destination, Nikhil Agarwal suggests things to do here, with focus on the Gourmet Escape event

Tucked away in western Australia, the otherwise touristy Margaret River exudes a countryside charm on the rare occasions it’s quiet. The winding and slightly narrow roads of Margaret River are flanked by trees on both sides with sunlight pouring down through the web of leaves. Drive through its residential neighbourhoods and they almost appear to be isolated. Visit the city centre, and most businesses in this part of the world, you’ll notice, are run by locals.

Roughly half of its 2,243 square kilometres are inhabited by around 14,500 people, and the remaining half is protected area with national parks, nature reserves and forest land. The nearest airport is in Perth, which is a three-hour drive from here.

I love driving around Margaret River. On each of my visits I feel even more connected to this town. There are few cars on the roads flanked by towering lush trees, and I don’t remember a single time I was stuck in a traffic jam here; even when filled with tourists, which is often.

During the weekends and on holidays, especially during the months from December to March, this beach destination receives large party crowds. This is when the temperatures average around 21 degrees Celsius and the sun shines bright. I have spent a lot of time partying on its beaches. Food kiosks are available in plenty around here, but I’ve always preferred barbecuing the fresh produce sourced from the local markets. In the night my friends and I used to relax around bonfires, watching the moon rise from the sea, joining the million stars in the clear skies. It is a sight just as beautiful as the setting sun, if not more.

There is never a “best time” to visit Margaret River though. It is known to be a perennial holiday destination for most part of the year. Surfers find the best waves in early April, accessible from the beaches abutting the Indian Ocean.

Farmers’ Market

I’m not a surfer, and so my interest lay in the billion-year-old limestone and granite here. To be honest, they’re nothing different from the usual rock formations. More interesting than these are the underground limestone caves that formed nearly a million years ago beneath Leeuwin Naturaliste Ridge. Wooden bridges and carefully cleared pathways lead you through these dimly lit caves. Some are easy strolls, others are a tight squeeze just beneath the pointy formations, and the harder ones are like an adventure where you  “walk” down the cave’s walls deeper towards the earth’s core  your only support is the thick rope tied around your waist. If for nothing, visit for the colourful artificial lights strategically aimed at these crystals, and their reflections on the still lake beneath them. Some of the older limestone formations are thicker and look a lot like trees artistically carved out of the mineral — a surreal sight given that they’re  “colourless”. These are accessible year-round.

More timely is whale watching. Visit any time from June to November to watch the magnificent humpback, southern right, minke and blue whales migrating from the Antarctic to warmer waters. Boats take you towards the deeper areas of the ocean where the gentle giants swim close to the surface. If you’re lucky, you may even catch sight of an odd one playfully jump into the air, flip and crash through the waves. To see them up-close is an indescribable feeling of wonderment.

The weather is cool around September-November and wild flowers reach their full bloom in the forests during this time. One can spot an awe-inspiring variety of flora, especially over 150 orchid species. I particularly enjoy my visits around late March though, between the sunbathing crowds and the whale watching season, when it isn’t too hot and one can enjoy Margaret River for what it really is — laid-back and picturesque. The pleasant weather allows visitors to walk through local vineyards, and enjoy a tasting session under outdoor sun canopies. This region arguably has some of Australia’s best wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

If you don’t want to restrict your visit to a select few wineries, head to the town centre where some of the better bars and restaurants, with wine lists representing the region, populate either side of the road. These are relaxing places to sip on a cooling drink and order a light lunch on a lazy afternoon. If you are a lot into food like me, the Farmers Market (open 8am-12pm on Saturday) down Bussell Highway allows you to sample and buy excellent local produce — cheese to charcuterie, fruits and vegetables are available in abundance and at affordable prices.

Gourmet Escape event

The last time I visited Margaret River, it was to attend Gourmet Escape (gourmetescape.com.au), a massive food and drink festival. This year, it will take place from November 16-19. The event isn’t restricted to just one location of the town. Its  “satellite” or  “fringe” events happen simultaneously at the numerous wineries, breweries, gardens and beaches of Margaret River for a period of three days.

To sum up what Gourmet Escape is about, its website reads:  “This once-a-year chance to feast, sip and party your way through an array of fine dining and casual events features all the old favourites, including the Audi Gourmet Beach Barbecue and the Gourmet Village at Leeuwin Estate.”

The events are collaborations between top chefs from around the world and local wineries, breweries and food producers. There are just too many events to attend them all in a short span of four days. I suggest doing your research and booking early so you can get to taste what you want. Access to all partner venues are ticketed and rates differ depending on the chef and the venue. The full Gourmet Escape experience itself can cost you anywhere from AUD 1,500 (77,000) to AUD 2,000 (1,02,802) per person if you’re planning visits to multiple events. Gourmet Escape doesn’t come cheap by any standards but is well worth it.

The Gourmet Village in Leeuwin Estate (AUD 40.80/2,097 general entry, per person, per day; 11am-6pm) will charm you with its sheer enormity. The space is filled with large tents that house a wide assortment of food, wine, craft beer and cheese. The list of what you can potentially consume here is endless, and that too from some of the world’s better known chefs. Live bands around the manicured lawns create a lively atmosphere. For a more peaceful time I would recommend setting up a picnic closer towards the wine booths. You could buy a pass to the platinum lounge that offers an exclusive place in the air-conditioned Leeuwin Estate Restaurant with panoramic views of the festival. Priced at AUD 254.90/13,102 per person, per day, the entry pass includes a wine tasting glass, two glasses of Leeuwin Estate wine, and unlimited servings of food. This year, the many food stations will have creations of western Australian seafood and lamb, under the purview of Leeuwin Estate’s Dany Angove and his team.

Last year, my Gourmet Escape experience started off with the launch party at Castle Bay Beach where star chefs, wine enthusiasts, winery owners and food journalists descended from all parts of the world for an evening of revelry. You’re served the best wines while enjoying the crystal clear waters from under teepee tents on the beach. The temperature in November is cool and becomes colder still as the night progresses, or maybe not if your glass isn’t empty for too long. You can’t go wrong with free flowing local wines of superior quality paired with barbecue marinations by iconic chefs using top-of-the-line-local produce.

Leeuwin Estate Vineyard

The days that followed were filled with just as much debauchery. The highlight of my trip though, in terms of pure wine pleasure, could be narrowed down to two particular experiences. The first is the tasting at the historical Vasse Felix (vassefelix.com.au).

The property describes itself as  “Margaret River’s founding wine estate”, which opened in 1967. I sampled its full range at a private session organised by Vasse Felix in the Wine Lounge. We sat by a long coffee table in the middle of a stone-walled, carpeted, cosy room, aesthetically populated by racks of homegrown wine. I’ve got to admit that from the entire tasting, I was most impressed by Vasse Felix’s sparkling, the Cabernet Sauvignon from its premier range and the Heytesbury blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petite Verdot. This year, Barbados-born chef Paul Carmichael, executive chef at Sydney’s Momofuku Seiobo, along with Vasse Felix’s head chef Brendan Pratt will prepare a five-course meal, suitably paired with the estate’s wines.(AUD 331.35/17,031)

The long lunch at Fraser Gallop Estate (frasergallopestate.com.au), was the  “satellite” event of last year’s Gourmet Escape and will repeat this year too. The estate too produces excellent Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay from its vineyards in Wilyapabrup. Last year, the wines were paired with a four-course lunch prepared by Chef Guillaume Brahimi of the eponymous Guillaume in Sydney. The menu included king fish and eel paired with Chardonnay, Wagyu beef paired with three vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon and a dessert of raspberry, pistachio, white chocolate and blackcurrant paired with ice-pressed Chardonnay — all of which lulled me into a gentle food-and-wine coma. This year, French chef Pierre Koffmann, known to have mentored the likes of Gordon Ramsay, will prepare dishes with local chef Russell Blaikie. The French cuisine will be paired with rare back vintages. (AUD 316.05/16,245)

Margaret River is definitely one of Earth’s lesser known paradises that is rapidly gaining popularity all over the world. Along with an enriching encounter with nature, the land is full of gastronomic wonders. Gourmet Escape is the biggest example of this. Besides that, the local restaurants are equally delicious, thanks to the superior quality of its homegrown produce.

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