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Why did Wayne Hemingway take his children out of school for a trip to Australia? There's a lot you can learn about life when you're let off the leash on some of the world's wildest beaches

The Hemingway family is a rolling stone that doesn't gather moss. We don't sit around and watch the world go by. Holidays are about discovery and excitement, and when our kids get their term-time holiday requests turned down by the headteacher we can tell them where to shove their refusal forms because our kids will learn more from their travelling with us than they will at school. We were, however, concerned that we were compromising our own principles when we headed for Perth in Western Australia for the fifth time in 15 years. But it doesn't take long to realise that had you spent all of the past 15 years travelling in WA you would still not have seen it all.

The Hemingway family is a rolling stone that doesn't gather moss. We don't sit around and watch the world go by. Holidays are about discovery and excitement, and when our kids get their term-time holiday requests turned down by the headteacher we can tell them where to shove their refusal forms because our kids will learn more from their travelling with us than they will at school. We were, however, concerned that we were compromising our own principles when we headed for Perth in Western Australia for the fifth time in 15 years. But it doesn't take long to realise that had you spent all of the past 15 years travelling in WA you would still not have seen it all.

It may be one of the most expensive flights you can take but once you're in WA it's pretty easy to get by without spending much. Many Western Australians have a wonderful thrifty mentality, with Op Shops (charity shops) and "swap meets" (car boot sales) everywhere. After meeting up with our Aussie friends we headed down to Rockingham, picking up vintage bush-walking gear for me and some fantastic 1970s sun dresses for my wife from Good Sammy (The Samaritans). Our teenagers found some "so uncool they're cool" old T-shirts and caps, and the little 'uns some monster-wheeled trucks for the beach – a dollar each from St Vincent de Paul's (the mother of all charity-shop chains).

These buys were just right for our few days at Point Peron in an AS$35 per night (that's about £13) 1940s shack owned by the Australian Postal Service. I couldn't hide my relish at the look of disappointment on the kids' faces as we entered into what looked like Stalag 19. While some of us whistled the tune from The Great Escape, others suggested that the floorboards could be lifted and a tunnel dug under the perimeter fence.

We had a fantastic few days, with a wild beach outside that faced Penguin Island, where dolphins visited us every morning. Everyone was up at 5.30am; the weather is so lovely in this part of WA, almost guaranteed unbroken sun in summer with temperatures reaching mid 30s Celsius and the cooling "Fremantle Doctor" breeze coming in every day around noon. Lunchtimes were spent Op Shopping, afternoons walking, and after a nightly barbecue supper we were all asleep by 8.30pm.

We carried on south to Pemberton and came across Karri Valley Resort. We rented a lovely chalet overlooking the beautiful Lake Karri where we fished for trout, swam, kayaked and walked through the forests of Tall Trees which give this region its name.

We could have spent weeks in this part of WA. Four-wheel-drive tracks take you down to lakes and beaches that are unspoilt in the true sense of the word. Beaches like the stunning Contis, north of Augusta, make you feel as if you're the only people who have ever stumbled across it. We'd never bothered with the Margaret River region before, thinking it was for middle-class, semi-retired wine buffs, but it's a lovely place full of surprises, good food and great beaches. As we headed back north we wished we had more time to explore the architecturally experimental Yalingup, the 2km-long pier and old-fashioned British seaside feel of Busselton, and the burgeoning waterside developments of Mandurah. But it was time to get back to our friends in Perth, where we cycled through this wonderfully planned city, along the Swan river and the riverside suburbs of Matilda Bay and Peppermint Grove to Fremantle, ogling the contemporary individual Modernist houses and stopping to swim in a clean city river teeming with crayfish and shrimps. There's so much affordable stuff to keep kids stimulated, from cable skiing (get pulled around a course on wakeboards or skis by an overhead cable), to jet skiing. My children might drop a grade in Latin, but they are learning how to live.

We left the crystal blue skies of Perth and landed in a very grey Sydney with temperatures akin to that of a disappointing British summer day. Everyone cheered up, however, when we checked into the very un-Stalaglike Radisson Plaza. This is one seriously cool hotel, beautifully designed without being pretentious and probably the first hotel that we have stayed in with the kind of art on the walls that we would have hung in our own house.

The children would have been happy to laze about by the pool or watch a film but the headmistress would have disapproved. We decided to do city stuff, so our friends took us to Newtown, a shopping area of Sydney that doesn't appear in tourist literature but is a must for anyone interested in style (and I don't mean international designer labels). Newtown is full of vintage clothes and retro furniture shops and has some great delis where you can watch "healthy" types consume raw celery, cucumber, spinach and asparagus smoothies.

The clouds refused to budge; we bought a useful See Sydney card that got us free or discounted use of ferries, museums and various attractions. Wobbly legged dad (who was still feeling queasy at the thought of "brussels sprout, cabbage, beetroot and guacamole smoothies") left the others to do the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb, and longed for the sun-soaked, uncrowned adventures for which we return to Australia. When you have sat on deserted, pristine 10-mile-long surf beaches, Bondi with its uninspiring surrounds of dull apartments, graffiti covered sea wall and bottle-top strewn sand just doesn't inspire. Our friends took us to various coves and beaches, and I'm sure that under blue skies Sydney would have been a much more attractive proposition, but the joy of a country as varied and as big as Australia and the joy of keeping your trip unplanned is that you can move on.

So it was a 4am start for a 10-hour drive up Pacific Highway 1 to Byron Bay. We had planned to stop off at various national parks, but a combination of violent thunderstorms, and resultant accidents added a few hours to our trip. Thanks be that Australia has the best national radio station in the world, Triple J, for making a long journey bearable.

The beaches around Byron are magnificent – various nine- and seven-mile long stretches of sand dune and mangrove-fringed, white powder beaches, separated by headlands such as the Broken Head promontory, with rainforest coming right down to secluded coves and rock pools. Byron itself is a truly eclectic town where alternative lifestyles sit quite happily alongside the Aussie equivalent of posh Kensington types. Tattoo and piercing parlours and backpacker bars operate next to chi-chi boutiques and posh restaurants. It's a very cool place but without the "catwalk" pretentiousness of European or American resorts of this kind.

Everywhere you look there are dreadlocked hippies, new agers offering all sorts of alternative medicines, religions, colon hydrotherapy, hypnomassaging, clairvoyance and psychics, cooking with cannabis, and lessons in all sorts of yoga-type gubbins. Technology has allowed us to travel and still run our business back home, but technology can also dampen the spirits. The same mobile phone Communicator (and the internet dial-up facility that enables you to use the web and access your email anywhere in the world for the cost of a local phone call) that helped us to decide that the weather wasn't going to improve in Sydney created the next lesson of the trip for our youngest daughter. Asking her to look after my bag while I ran to retrieve a dropped shoe during one of our many long walks along deserted beaches, she put it down and I returned to see my beloved Communicator floating in the surf of a big wave. All my travel notes for this article and some pictures were gone. Her schoolteachers would have been pleased, though, as she had to spend that evening listing everything we had done and every place we had visited on the trip thus far.

An hour out of Byron is the Nightcap National Park, where the height of Minyon Falls waterfall gave even the least vertigo-prone among us the willies. On the edge of the park is Nimbin, the self-styled hippie capital of Australia.

We had flights booked up to Cairns and planned to drive up the Bloomfield Track to Cooktown, but the weather forecast was poor and the lure of Western Australia too strong. The great thing about travelling in Australia is the fact that travelling is catered for: airlines can always seem to find you seats and the car-rental companies will get you that 4WD.

Back in WA we headed north up the coast from Perth, driving our 4WD on to deserted beaches where it was just us and the ocean. The cooling breezes made the 38C heat seem like a pleasant 25. We went sand-boarding at Lancelin and after spending the night in Cervantes we watched the sun rise over the eerie Pinnacles rock formations, with only kangaroos for company. Carrying on north, my eldest lad – who is doing his art AS-level – was trying to outdo me taking the perfect picture of the perfect Australian Aussie bloke sporting number one crop, ZZ Top-style beard, singlet, King Gee "Stubby" shorts and Blundstone boots. They are as ubiquitous as roos and probably more dangerous.

The early settlers must have been gobsmacked at discovering Kalbarri. The Murchison River empties out through beautiful estuary and ocean beaches on to rock pools and reefs, and is flanked by stunning coastal cliffs and rock formations after travelling through breathtaking inland gorges. Our two-day stay just wasn't long enough. We trekked, canoed and swam in the gorges, sandboarded almost vertical 70m sand dunes, and ate at Finlays BBQ, an outdoor restaurant that's madder than mad. Kalbarri epitomises non-metropolitan WA; it's rugged, beautiful, blessed with fantastic weather and you can't tell the haves from the have-nots (money seems less important when you have such a wealth of nature).

Our final adventure was the 600km drive back to Perth. We all learnt valuable lessons: in a country as large and as sparsely populated as this, keep your fuel topped up and don't bank on finding places to sleep, or you'll be forced to knock on the door of the Norman Bates guesthouse and then spend the night wondering what'll get you first: the evil-looking bugs or the sinister landlady.

After three and a half weeks away we were on our way home, planning our next visit to Oz. (It's Broome, Kimberley, Albany and Esperence next.) We had travelled as a family, shared experiences, shared the load, argued, laughed, met people, made friends, used all our senses and had our imagination well and truly stimulated. That's what I call an education.

The Facts

Getting There

Until 15 April, return fares to Perth start from £727 with Qantas (08457 747 767; www.qantas.co.uk). Between 16 April and 30 June, a Bushwhacker fare is available for £646 return. Car hire starts from AUS$380 (£145) per week with Hertz (08708 48 48 48; www.hertz.co.uk).

Being There

To find out more about the Perth bicycle network visit www.dpi.wa.gov.au. For up-to-date maps of the cycle network, contact The Bicycle Transportation Alliance on 00 61 8 9420 7210.

Double rooms at the Radisson Plaza Hotel (00 61 2 8214 0000; www.radisson.com), 27 O'Connell Street, Sydney, start from AUS$299 (£114) per room per night weekdays and AUS$149 (£95) at weekends and include breakfast.

One day See Sydney cards start from AUS$75 (£29) per adult and AUS$46.50 (£18) per child (aged five to 15) including transport, to AUS$255 (£98) per adult and AUS$155 (£59) per child for seven days. For information call 00 61 2 996 03511 or visit www.seesydney.com.

The Sydney Bridge Climb starts from AUS$145 (£56) per person for a midweek morning climb to AUS$175 (£67) for twilight and weekend climbs. For reservations telephone 00 61 2 827 47777 or see www.bridgeclimb.com.

For further information contact the Australian Tourist Commission on 0906 863 3235 (calls cost 60p per minute) or see www.australia.com.

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