Albany is 15,433km, 83 latitudinal degrees, and a hemisphere away from my hometown of Seattle, yet there’s something uncannily familiar about it.
Like Seattle, Albany is a coastal town famed for wet weather. Albany’s Minang Nyoongar name, Kinjarling, means 'place of rain', while Seattle’s grey skies have inspired the moniker of Rain City. Surrounded by an island-dotted expanse of ocean, hilly terrain and briny air, the denizens of both cities are quietly grateful
a rainy reputation keeps the tourists at bay.
But that can’t last for long in Albany. Visitors are starting to cotton on that the Great Southern has a lot more to offer than just respite from the summertime heat. It’s a place boasting incredible natural beauty, amazing food and wine, a rich and well-preserved heritage and, when the sun decides to peek out – which it occasionally does – some of the most glorious beaches in the world.
Founded in 1826, Albany is WA’s first European settlement, chosen for its sheltered, deep-water harbour which became the ideal British military outpost and commercial port linking Britain with the Australian colonies. In WWI, Albany was the point from which ANZAC troops departed for Gallipoli, and, until the late 70s, it was home to a thriving whaling station that at its height saw the annual processing of between 900 and 1100 sperm and humpback whales.
That history is preserved in Albany’s award-winning museum Whale World, part of the newly rebranded Discovery Bay. Located on the shores of King George Sound and on the site of Australia’s last working whaling station, the facility comprises the interactive whaling museum along with native gardens, a wildlife park and a restaurant with one of the best views in town.
Beloved WA author and playwright Tim Winton experienced Albany’s whaling history first-hand, having called the city home for three of his teenage years. “When I lived there, (whaling) was a fixed idea,” Tim told ABC News Australia in 2012. “It was a fixed idea as a tourist to go out and see them chopped up and boiled up for cosmetics and fertiliser. And if you’d said to people in the 70s that this town won’t be like that in 20 years and it’ll be a different place, people would have called you an idiot or a scumbag. Or both. I think a town like Albany is testament to how a culture changes, and how quickly.”
And change it has. The last few years have seen tourism numbers soar – Albany
now receives more than 200,000 overnight visitors a year.
I have a hunch that most come for the same hedonistic reason I did: to eat and drink and then eat some more. Albany is home to some of the state’s most delicious produce. From the sea come dhufish and the famed Western Rock Oyster. Inland, Albany’s rich coastal soil produces fantastic asparagus, berries, avocados, apples, olives and persimmons. And then, of course, there’s the wine: incredible pinot noir, riesling and malbec.
You know a region has become a bona fide foodie destination when a celebrity chef decides to move there. Anna Gare is taking the leap in February. “From a young age I always wanted to live in the country,” says Anna. “The Great Southern is a delicious culinary region that celebrates the farmers and food- and-wine producers who live and work in it. It’s a self-confessed food maniac’s dream – to be able to grow your own fruit and veg and create beautiful food from a seasonal garden!”
Rumour has it Anna’s husband, Luc Longley, has culinary aspirations of his own. The former basketball great is a big fan of Comida do Sul, the Brazilian food truck that parks near the couple’s South Fremantle home – so much so, he’s joked about converting a campervan and selling fish tacos from the driveway of their Denmark property.
He’s already got his first customer lined up – Stephanie Alexander. “I was blown away by the local dhufish that Luc caught for us,” says Stephanie of a meal prepared for her during her visit to the region, while participating in Taste Great Southern last March. “It was absolutely sensational. We had these massive, juicy steaks of fish prepared expertly by Anna. It was a wonderful experience of the Great Southern produce.”
Lucky for me, I arrive in Albany on market day. Even luckier, I have a local chef as
my guide. Albany local Dan Sharp is one of the region’s biggest champions when it comes to Great Southern produce. You can spot him almost every Saturday morning at the markets, shopping for his catering business, Sharp Infusion.
“I get all of my produce, minus some staples like flour, salt and sugar, from these markets,” says Dan, leading me from stall to stall. “I get my bread and pastries from this stall, Royale. And this one here is Fairy & Co. The owner, Ruth, has only got about three or four cows and sells her products just here at the markets. She makes incredible mascarpone, yoghurt, halloumi, feta, crème fraiche… Then these guys, the Eden Gate Blueberry Farm, sell the most amazing blueberries you’ve ever tasted. Here, try one.”
I do, as the market buzzes around me. Children dance to a busker’s violin while customers chat with the farmers about whatever just-picked produce they should cook for dinner that night. No one seems to notice as the drizzle starts. The community atmosphere is electric.
“My epicentre will always be the Great Southern,” 25-year-old Dan says about his career ambitions. “The food scene here is really developing. It’s vibrant, totally sustainable and constantly evolving. Once markets like this one, which has been running for 12 years, start cranking and people start appreciating and understanding food and wine, then it’ll start changing people’s perspectives on what good produce is and where it is, because it’s here. I mean, in terms of produce, compared to places like Margaret River and Perth, the Great Southern has heaps more going for it.”
Long after Dan rushes back to his kitchen, I linger at the markets, tasting goat cheese from Ringwould Dairy, an incredible jam from Freshpict Strawberry Farm, and raspberries from Phillip and Sheelagh Marshall, the local farmers who first started the markets.
Inspired and hungry for more, I take to the road to explore more of the region’s gastronomical offerings at their source. I’m struck with how personal the experience is. Unlike Margaret River whose cellar doors are often manned by viticultural graduates, in the Great Southern it’s the winemakers themselves who pour you the wine and tell stories about how they harvested the grapes with their own hands. The hospitality extends even further at Oranje Tractor Wines: between tastings, visitors are welcomed to cuddle Merlot, the winery’s resident Jack Russell terrier. While I sample brie, second-generation cheese maker Chris Vogel of Dellendale Creamery lets me take a squiz at the inner workings of his dairy, where he does everything – from the culturing to the packaging – with his own two hands. I grab lunch at The Bushfood Factory and Cafe while owner Claudia Form tells me how the native Australian ingredients showcased in my meal were grown just outside the restaurant window. And, back in Albany, Cameron Syme leads me on an impromptu tour of the Great Southern Distilling Company, a labour-of-love business he runs alongside his law firm. His award-winning Limeburners whisky must impart some serious energy.
But while the food and wine scene may be the region’s hottest drawcard, the Great Southern’s unrivalled natural beauty has remained unchanged. So I spend my final day in the area visiting its best natural wonders. I start with the rugged and wind-whipped Torndirrup National Park, located 10km south of Albany, and understand why it’s WA’s most visited national park.
I take in the dramatic, wave-carved features including the Natural Bridge, The Gap, and the Blowholes, and from the sea cliffs I spot migrating whales in the wide expanse of the Southern Ocean.
A short drive east is the gorgeous West Cape Howe National Park. The lookouts off the bitumen road afford incredible views of the beautiful beaches below, including wine glass-shaped Shelley Beach, which the locals had told me was the park’s loveliest spot. I agree, my eyes following the undulating green hills as they plunge into white sand and vivid blue waters. Above, paragliders wheel in the wind. While I’m soaking in the view, two intrepid-looking bushwalkers pass. “We’re just out for the day,” says Paul, an engineer from Perth. “This is one of the most beautiful stretches of the Bibbulmun Track. We come back at least once a year – I mean, just look at it!” He gestures and I nod furiously, kicking myself for not having packed my hiking boots. Next visit.
As I drive east to my last stop of the day, William Bay National Park, just east of Denmark, I obsessively scan the sky. Is it my imagination, or is that a patch of blue sky overhead? By the time I arrive at Greens Pool, the clouds have all burned off and the land is bathed in vivid sunshine. The colours are brighter, and everyone has an expression that I recognise from home: a sunshine-induced joy that no sun-spoilt Californian or Perthite could ever feel. It's all the lovelier for its rarity.
Take the five-hour drive south or catch an hour-long flight with Virgin Australia, formerly Skywest.
Where to eat and drink
Albany is home to a number of excellent restaurants. For breakfast, Vancouver Cafe and Store, and Bay Merchants are favourites, while you can’t go wrong with Joop Thai, Lime 303, and Lavender Cottage for lunch or dinner. If you’re in the mood for a winery feed, Oranje Tractor Wines offers gorgeous lunch platters showcasing local produce. In Denmark, Kirby’s at Rickety Gate, and Pepper & Salt offer the best in fine dining. Foodies shouldn’t miss Taste Great Southern, an annual festival celebrating the region’s best produce. February 27-March 30, greatsoutherntastewa.com.
Where to stay
The Beachhouse at Bayside is an award-winning, luxury accommodation tucked behind the dunes of Middleton Bay between Middleton Beach and Emu Point. With just seven rooms, the hotel is incredibly cosy and homely. Its friendly owners, Sally and Craig Pullin, make guests feel welcome with their home-cooked breakfast (best in town) and the afternoon treats they hand-deliver to guests daily. 33 Barry Court, Collingwood Park (08) 9844 8844.