The Complete Guide To Western Australia

David Orkin explores the largest state Down Under


WHY NOW?

WHY NOW?

Because it's spring south of the Equator - and because air fares are falling fast. Britain's late autumn and early winter comprise the optimum time to visit the largest of Australia's six states, which will soon be in full bloom.

Western Australia (WA) grew rich on its mineral wealth (especially gold, diamonds, opals and - around Broome - pearls), but it also claims over 10,000 species of wild flowers. In the north of the state, flowers can appear as soon as July, with early rains hastening their arrival. In November a blaze of colour will take over the south of the state when the warmer weather settles in. There are many places to view the full-colour natural carpets, such as the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park (00 61 8 9752 1677). Make sure you look but don't touch - picking wild flowers is illegal. (You can buy the dried variety at craft and souvenir shops.)

A GREEN AND PLEASANT LAND?

Hardly. The state is larger than Western Europe, yet the arid nature of most of it means it is home to fewer than two million people, the vast majority of whom live in Perth and its port, Fremantle. WA takes up almost a third of the Australian continent, and extends from the Indian Ocean in the north to the Southern Ocean and Timor Sea in the south. Away from the coast most of WA is Outback, arid scrubland used for little more than cattle farming and mining, with the Nullarbor Plain in the south, the Great Sandy Desert in the north and the Gibson and Great Victoria Deserts in between. Large tracts of land are protected as national parks; details of all can be found online at www.calm.wa.gov.au/national_parks.

WHERE SHOULD I START?

Western Australia's vibrant capital, Perth. This is the most isolated city on earth, 4,400km from Sydney by road. The city claims to be the sunniest state capital in Australia, and life is lived on the streets - or in the park. Close to the downtown core is Kings Park, an extensive bushland area with spectacular city views, fine walking trails and a botanical garden. Stay nearby at the Outram (00 61 8 9322 4888; www.slh.com), a brand-new 18-room boutique hotel; prices from A$185 (£77) per night.

The Perth Cultural Centre includes the fascinating Western Australia Museum (00 61 8 9427 2700; www.museum.wa.gov.au), which opens 9.30am-5pm daily (admission free) and the equally impressive (and free) Art Gallery of Western Australia (00 61 8 9492 6600; www.artgallery.wa.gov.au), open 10am-5pm daily.

The Swan River passes through the centre of Perth and there are many opportunities to take a cruise or hire a boat. It flows into the ocean at Fremantle, Perth's lively seaport. See the museums, markets, convict buildings and historic streets, and rest at an outdoor table on South Terrace, the so-called "cappuccino strip". One peculiarity of the weather in Perth is the "Fremantle Doctor", a wind that blows in from the sea every day in the late afternoon. This cooling breeze is one of the most consistent winds in the world.

CAN I GET OUT OF TOWN?

Perth makes a great base for several excellent excursions: one of the most popular day trips is the short boat ride to tiny Rottnest Island, which is just 11km long and 5km wide. A variety of boats leave for "Rotto" from both Perth and Fremantle: from the latter the trip takes less than half an hour and costs from A$48 (£20) return with Rottnest Express (00 61 8 9335 6506; www.rottnestexpresscom.au). You can even charter a plane through Rottnest Air-taxi (00 61 8 9292 5027; www.rottnest.de) for A$150 (£62) each way (this is the price for whole aircraft, which holds three passengers). The island offers good swimming and diving. Because it is virtually car free, explore by bike; these are available from Rottnest Bike Hire (00 61 8 9292 5105).

Back on dry land, explore the south-west - the prettiest part of WA, much greener than the rest of the state and with large tracts of forest intersected by rivers. The region has something of a Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters. Rainfall is lightest from November to March and heaviest from May to August.

WA's coastline is varied: in some parts wave-smashed and rocky, in others calm and sandy. Inland you'll find forests of huge karri, jarrah and tingle trees, rolling vineyards - many with fine winery restaurants - and some charming towns.

You can also dig beneath the surface. The coast between Yallingup and Augusta is noted for its caves. Five are open to the public; start with the CaveWorks Interpretive Centre (00 61 8 9757 7411; www.margaretriver.com), which opens 9am-5pm daily, admission free. The town of Margaret River is another popular holiday spot - and not just with surfers. It is well positioned for exploration of the nearby coast, capes, caves and wineries. Stay at Basildene Manor (00 61 8 9757 3140; www.basildene.com.au), where doubles cost from A$264 (£110) including a hearty breakfast. There is also a tourist information office (00 61 8 9757 2911; www.margaretriverwa.com).

The forests of the south-west are prolific and awe-inspiring. Wander the Beedelup National Park (00 61 8 9776 1207). Nearby, the brave can climb metal pegs to the top of the 68m Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree in Warren National Park. Slightly less courage (but still something of a head for heights) is needed to walk the Valley of the Giants, a boardwalk leading to a 420m steel causeway suspended between tree-tops up to 38m above the forest floor in the Walpole-Nornalup National Park (00 61 8 9840 1027).

On the south coast three of the best parks are Rocky Torndirrup National Park (00 61 8 9842 4500), with its blowholes and natural bridge; Fitzgerald River National Park (00 61 8 9835 5043), declared a Unesco biosphere for its botanical and scenic diversity; and, east of Esperance, Cape Le Grand National Park (00 61 8 9071 3733) with its long, lovely beaches interspersed with rocky headlands.

WHERE NEXT?

Start travelling clockwise around Australia's Highway One. The first stop, 250km north of Perth, is Nambung National Park. Here you can see the Pinnacles, an expanse of needle-like limestone formations between one and two metres high. When passing them at sea, 17th-century sailors mistook them for the ruins of an ancient city.

Geraldton, just over 400km north of Perth, offers good scuba diving, windsurfing and fishing and is the centre of Australia's crayfish industry. The Kalbarri area, 170km beyond Geraldton, has a magnificent coastline. The highlights of Kalbarri National Park (00 61 8 9937 1140) are the red and white banded gorges cut by the Murchison River, while Monkey Mia, on Shark Bay 833km north of Perth, is renowned for its wild dolphins.

ANYTHING TO MATCH THE GREAT BARRIER REEF?

Yes. To appreciate this giant state properly head to Coral Bay, 1,200km north of Perth. This is the southern gateway to the Ningaloo Marine Park (00 61 8 9949 1676). WA's largest coral reef fringes the coast for 260km, and all you need to do to see the coral and tropical fish is don a mask and snorkel and walk off the lovely beach into the clear, warm water. Both here and at Exmouth (the largest town in the Northwest Cape and the base for visiting the impressive gorges of the Cape Range National Park), there are numerous possibilities that allow you to see the amazing marine life. Many consider the Ningaloo snorkelling and diving experiences superior to those on the Great Barrier Reef.

DIVING FOR PEARLS?

Go further north-east. The old pearling town of Broome's tropical charm and cosmopolitan atmosphere have made it a popular travellers' centre. With its steamy climate and history as a pearling centre - and possibly because Perth is twice as far away as Indonesia - it has a distinctly Asian feel. Stay at the Cable Beach Club Resort (00 61 8 9192 0400; www.cablebeachclub.com), six kilometres from Broome but just metres from the ocean. Double rooms start at A$138 (£58), room only. Contact 00 61 8 9192 2222 or visit www.broomevisitorcentre.com.au for tourist information.

Two notable features of this area are Wolfe Creek Crater (00 61 8 9168 4200), left in the desert by a giant meteorite 50,000 years ago, and the dramatic Bungle Bungle range of striped sandstone towers in Purnululu National Park. The tropical north has hot, sticky wet summers and warm dry winters. From May to November the nights are mostly cool and the days sunny. WA's desert and semi-desert areas have hot, dry summers and mild, dry winters. Do not head to the deserts between December and March unless you are comfortable in the heat.

ANOTHER AYERS ROCK?

Mount Augustus, 476km inland from Carnarvon, is the "biggest rock in the world", three times as old and twice as large as Ayers Rock. But it's hard to reach, less spectacular to look at (as it's largely covered by vegetation) and rarely visited.

The rugged Kimberley region in the far north is more impressive. It's very remote but the few who make the journey are rewarded with great rivers and waterfalls, oases and dramatic scenery. Time and the elements have formed deep gorges and impressive mountains, dry red plains and coastal sandstone rich in fossils. It's the quintessential Australian landscape of red earth and rock, mighty rivers, abundant wildlife and white gum trees against deep blue skies. The most popular time to visit is between April and September; in the "wet" season from October to March, rain makes many of the few roads impassable.

Between April and early November, stay at El Questro (00 61 8 9169 1777; www.elquestro.com.au) a million-acre working cattle ranch, or the aptly named Mornington Wilderness Camp in the King Leopold Ranges (00 61 8 9226 0340; www.australianwildlife.org). At El Questro, accommodation ranges from campsites (A$12.50 (£5.20)) to a luxury homestead (from A$800 (£340)). Mornington has ten comfortable safari-style tents: rates start at A$175 (£73) including meals and activities.

CAN I GET FIT?

Most outdoor sports (with the exception of those necessitating snow or ice) are huge in WA: the surfing is excellent, particularly near Margaret River, and windsurfers won't be disappointed either. Scuba diving and snorkelling are also very popular, as are sailing, fishing and golf.

This coming week in Perth, 250 of the world's best action-sports athletes will compete in skateboarding, kite-surfing and tow-in surfing at the Gravity Games (00 61 2 9994 4347; www.gravitygames.com/h2o). A Gravity Games Festival incorporating a BMX course, skate park, rock-climbing wall and other interactive opportunities will run during the Games.

I NEED SOME COMPANY

East of Perth explore the historic towns of the lush, picturesque Avon River Valley; Northam, Toodyay and Beverley. With some fine 19th-century architecture, rowdy bars and something of a Wild West feel, Kalgoorlie (644km east of Perth) is the centre of Australia's gold-mining industry.

Various gold-rush tours are offered and you can visit a lookout over the Super Pit, an immense working open-cut gold mine. For details and other Kalgoorlie attractions contact the tourist office (00 61 8 9093 1083; www.kalgoorlie.com/tourism). Not far away, Coolgardie is also worth a visit, as are several ghost towns in the area.

I JUST WANT TO LIE ON A BEAUTIFUL BEACH

Perth has the best beaches and surf of any Australian city. Of its 19 urban bays, Cottesloe is the most popular, followed by Scarborough and City Beach. Cape Le Grand National Park has superb beaches such as Lucky Bay; do not be surprised to see kangaroos relaxing under the trees nearby.

On the west side of the Cape Range National Park, about an hour's drive from Exmouth, are several pristine beaches: my favourites are Sandy Bay and, for snorkelling, Turquoise Bay. Note that between late October and early April, the possibility of box jellyfish means visitors to Broome often swim in the hotel pool rather than the sea.

I'M BEGINNING TO GET THIRSTY

WA produces some marvellous wines: major growing areas are the Swan Valley, the Great Southern (around Albany and Denmark) and Margaret River. Many wineries offer fine meals and cellar-door tastings. This year's Margaret River Wine Festival (00 61 8 9757 9990; www.mrwinefest.org.au) runs from 18-21 November. If you prefer beer, WA has a number of brew-pubs and microbreweries: Perth-based Swan is the major WA brewery, producing Swan and Emu beers.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

Next month, Qantas relaunches its direct service from Heathrow to Perth (stopping to refuel in Singapore). Fewer airlines serve Perth than Sydney or Melbourne, but fares tend to be lower because it's that much closer. Royal Brunei is perennially cheap but not quick; occasional "seat sales" from Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines or Qantasmay allow you to fly for less on speedier services.

AND GET AROUND?

Rent a car or motor home (readily offered by all UK agencies specialising in travel to Australia) to explore the more compact south-west of WA (an area roughly bordered by Lancelin to the north of Perth, Kalgoorlie to the east, Esperance to the south-east, and the coast). Before you plan a driving tour of other parts, remember that people, petrol stations and services in general are rarely seen. Outside cities and towns avoid driving at night, dusk, and dawn as it's easy to ram a roo.

Unless you are a fan of driving long distances through sparsely populated areas, fly. To reach Exmouth (and Coral Bay), Broome or the Kimberley, the easiest way to travel is by air. Skywest (00 61 8 9478 9999; www.skywest.com.au) is the state's main regional airline, with Qantas (0845 7 747 767; www.qantas.com.au) providing services to smaller towns. Other airlines offer limited routes.

Bus travel is largely in the hands of Greyhound Pioneer (00 61 8 9328 9920; www.greyhound.com.au) and Transwa ( www.transwa.wa.gov.au), which operates coach and rail services in the southern half of the state. Train lovers who are also visiting eastern Australia can spend three nights on the Indian Pacific, which links Perth with Sydney, 4,352 rail kilometres away, via Kalgoorlie and Adelaide (0870 751 5000; www.international-rail.com).

FOR SOMETHING MORE ORGANISED?

Australia specialists in the UK can organise a variety of touring opportunities by land, air and water. For example, Austravel (0870 166 2070; www.austravel.com) offers a 14-night stay in WA from £1,355 for departures until 15 December, including flights with Royal Brunei from Heathrow, internal flights with Qantas, a week in Perth at Sullivans Hotel and a week in Broome at the Cable Beach Club Resort (meals not included). The company also offers an eight-day wild flower tour taking in Perth, Wave Rock, Mulka's Cave, Kalgoorie, Lake Lefroy, Esperance, Pink Lake,and Albany from £1,075, including flights with Royal Brunei to Perth, seven nights' accommodation and 12 meals.

For departures in November, Travelmood (08700 664 556; www.travelmood.com) offers a self-drive Perth-Monkey Mia-Perth trip for £849 including two nights at Sullivans Hotel, Perth, six nights along the coast (at the Comfort Inn Geraldton, Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort, Kalbarri Palms Resort and Cervantes Pinnacles Motel) and a week's car hire. The "Kimberley Adventure" costs £1,059, including return flights from Heathrow or Manchester to Perth, domestic flights from Perth to Broome, two nights at Sullivans Hotel, and a four-day Kimberley tour. It must be booked by 15 November.

Aerial tours make sense in Western Australia, and Kookaburra Air offers a number of options (00 61 8 9354 1158; www.kookaburra.iinet.net.au). Kimberley Quest (00 61 8 9193 6131; www.kimberleyquest.com) operates one- and two-week cruises from Broome between February and November.

WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?

Contact Tourism Australia (09068 633235, calls charged at 60p per minute) or visit the dedicated website www.westernaustralia.com.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE: WILD AT HEART

Between now and late May there are opportunities to swim with wild dolphins south of Perth at Rockingham, Mandurah and Bunbury. Try, for example, Rockingham Dolphins (00 61 8 9591 1333; www.doplhins.com.au). Between March/April and June you might want to head for Coral Bay or Exmouth and try diving with Whale sharks. The world's biggest fish eat plankton - not humans - and can grow to up to 18 metres. Contact Ningaloo Blue Dive (00 61 8 9949 1119; www.ningalooblue.com.au). If you don't want to dive in at the deep end, visit the Aquarium of Western Australia (00 61 8 9447 7500; www.aqwa.com.au) 10am-5pm daily, A$22 (£9), 20 minutes' drive north of Perth.

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