Whether you have just a few days or weeks, the mind-blowingly large region of Western Australia offers so many opportunities to take an epic journey.
Whether you're hopping between cities by air, or spending weeks driving by car, there's a lot to check out on the western side of down under.
Local writer Ronan O'Connell plans your perfect 7-day journey by car through Western Australia.
Born and raised in Perth, Western Australia (WA), I was a daily newspaper reporter in the state for nine years. I’ve since spent the past 10 years traversing the globe as a travel journalist and photographer, while living mostly in Europe and Asia. That time overseas has only heightened my appreciation of WA’s natural splendor and beguiling atmosphere.
Why you should visit Western Australia
The antidote to years of suffocating-feeling pandemic life is a visit to one of the planet’s most serene and sparsely populated places. WA covers more land than England, Spain, France, Italy and Germany combined, yet is home to less than 1% of their collective population.
By no means does this mean the state is empty. WA has forests as tall as skyscrapers, reefs as long as countries, monoliths as big as airports, beaches as lengthy as rivers, craters as wide as provinces, gorges as deep as oceans and lakes as large as nations.
Even its capital Perth is remarkably green and spacious, wedged between dense forest and pristine coastline, and pierced by a river clean enough for swimming and bordered by endless parkland. Space, serenity and scenery: this is the holy trinity of WA.
Launch your journey in Perth
Each morning, native Australian animals frolic in a patch of wilderness only 1970ft (600m) from Perth’s skyscrapers. Join them by wandering one of the world’s biggest inner-city green spaces, Kings Park, to admire kookaburras, quenda bandicoots, brushtail possums, bearded dragon lizards and 3000 species of flora.
WA’s Aboriginal people coexisted with this natural bounty for 60,000 years before the British colonized Australia, as you can learn at Perth’s brand-new, multimillion-dollar WA Museum Boola Bardip. Its highlight is the Ngalang Koort Boodja Wirn permanent exhibition, which shares the lore, traditions and history of the more than 100 cultural language groups of WA’s Aboriginal community. WA is, and will always be Aboriginal land; come here to learn just what that means.
Cheer on Australian football
In the afternoon, immerse yourself in the roar of 60,000 spectators watching Australian football at Perth’s Optus Stadium. A cross between rugby, soccer and basketball, this homegrown sport is fast-paced, high-scoring and hard-hitting, which makes for a spectacular live experience. Afterward, to normalize your adrenaline levels, eat dinner on the southern banks of the placid Swan River as the Perth skyline twinkles opposite. That’s the soothing location of the Boatshed Restaurant, where the grilled barramundi fish and slow-cooked pork belly are as memorable as the view.
Catch the nearby South Perth ferry across the river, then walk through the city center toward a 27-story-tall mural depicting Australia’s multicultural community. That decorates the facade of the Adnate Perth, Art Series hotel, a new four-star property downtown featuring a big outdoor pool – a must in this sunny city.
The harbor town of Fremantle
Fremantle (or “Freo” as we call it in WA) is Perth’s bohemian, slightly scruffy cousin. In this harbor town 25 minutes southwest of central Perth, skyscrapers and suits make way for heritage architecture and thrift-shop threads. To slip into this distinctive vibe, stay at Warders Hotel, a new boutique accommodation built in an 1800s prison-guard facility. It adjoins Fremantle Markets, where in the morning you can fit a leather Akubra hat (like those worn by Aussie farmers for generations), buy juicy nectarines and plums from fresh produce vendors, and catch a busker singing Australian folk songs.
Then walk to the nearby, 167-year-old Fremantle Prison, a Unesco site that reflects WA’s convict roots. In the 1850s and 1860s, more than 10,000 male prisoners were shipped to WA to help build its infrastructure, and many were residents here. Though it hasn’t housed any incarcerated people for nearly 30 years, it’s now a popular and well-maintained tourist attraction. So join one of the regular tours of its dark and cramped cells, weathered halls and eerie underground tunnels.
In the afternoon, see photos of the ships those convicts arrived on at Fremantle’s modern WA Maritime Museum, which also illustrates this town’s long-held status as WA’s chief port. WA’s coastline is famously perilous for shipping, and Fremantle’s WA Shipwrecks Museum will reveal tales of the state’s worst ocean disasters.
Evening mussels at Cicerellos
Refuel in the evening by gorging on mussels freshly plucked from the Indian Ocean. They’ll be cooked in chilis at Cicerellos, Fremantle’s oldest restaurant, an unpretentious venue overlooking the town’s harbor that is also renowned for its comforting fish and chips.
Drive to Busselton
A 2.5-hour morning drive south from Fremantle ends amid the towering Tuart Forest National Park in Ludlow. Raise your pulse by scaling the majestic tuart trees, up to 400 years old and 108ft (33m) tall, at Forest Adventures South West. This is just one of the park’s 77 daring activities, which include base jumps, flying foxes, high-rope unicycling and spider-web climbing.
From there, it's just a 15-minute drive to the longest timber-piled pier in the Southern Hemisphere, the 1.2-mile(1.8km)-long, 155-year-old landmark Busselton Jetty. Wander its length at your leisure, or catch the solar-powered train to its end, where an underwater observatory showcases more than 300 marine and coral species in the crystalline waters of Geographe Bay. For a closer inspection of this marine life, hire snorkeling gear from Busselton Dive Shop and spend the afternoon diving in the aquatic wonderland that surrounds the jetty.
That will build a hefty hunger, which you can satisfy at Shelter Brewing Co. alongside the pier. This huge, metallic structure houses a brewery and sprawling restaurant specializing in wood-fired pizzas and seasonal fish fried on the bone.
Busselton’s coastline is so dazzling you’ll want to keep it in view for your entire stay. So unpack your luggage at Broadwater Resort Busselton, a sprawling beachfront complex with a bar and restaurant, two swimming pools, and spacious accommodations ranging from studio rooms to one-, two- and three-bedroom villas that open out onto gardens.
Wine tasting on the way to Margaret River
Foster a fine mood with a morning swim at one of WA’s best beaches, Eagle Bay, where the sand is so fine and the water so clear it almost feels like a CGI-produced dream. Ground yourself back in reality by learning Aboriginal lore, watching a didgeridoo performance and cooking native Australian food like kangaroo and emu plum during a 2.5-hour Koomal Dreaming tour of Ngilgi Cave in Yallingup, a 25-minute drive west of Busselton.
You can also descend solo into this huge cave, studded by stalactites and stalagmites and accessed by stairs and walkways. After nourishing your spirit, do the same for your taste buds at one of the world’s top winemaking regions, just a 20-minute drive south. Margaret River’s ancient loamy soil and Mediterranean climate are tailor-made for vineyards, among the oldest of which is Vasse Felix.
In the afternoon, stroll its manicured grounds and do guided tastings of its range of wines, including the award-winning 2019 Heytesbury Chardonnay and 2017 Tom Cullity Cabernet Sauvignon Malbec. As the sun slips from view, dine overlooking the vineyard at the Vasse Felix restaurant, which uses unique local ingredients like emu and quandong fruit.
Sleep this all off at Margaret River’s Heritage Trail Lodge, nestled amid tall trees yet just minutes’ walk from the center of Margaret River town. This four-star boutique hotel has big rooms: many look directly into the forest and some have large spa baths, a prime perch from which to sip one last glass of wine before retiring for the evening.
Among the trees in Pemberton
Wilderness envelops your morning an hour’s drive southwest of Margaret River at Greater Beedelup National Park. You could walk for days through this protected forest and not encounter another human. Unless, that is, you follow WA’s popular 621-mile(1000km)-long Bibbulmun Track, a scenic section of which courses through here.
The further you drive southwest, the loftier the karri trees seem to get: at times it can be hard to see the sky through your windscreen, hidden as it is by the forest canopy. By the time you near the old timber mill town of Pemberton, in the afternoon, some of these monstrous karri trees will measure up to 262ft (80m), almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty.
Pretend you’re a 1930s fireman and climb the 100-plus metal pegs drilled into the side of two enormous trees near Pemberton. That will take you to the old wildfire lookout platforms, more than 164ft (50m) above the ground on the Gloucester Tree and Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree, from the tops of which you can see for miles across the forest roof.
Afterward, do as those firemen once did by sleeping and eating at the century-old Pemberton Hotel. With its red-brick facade, white balustrades and wide verandas, this is a classic, old-school Aussie place. It’s not outdated, though, thanks to the 30 modern accommodations (including two rooms specifically designed for disabled guests) added to the property in recent years. Inside the hotel’s historic dining room, you can savor the kind of hearty fare for which these pubs are known, like “scotch fillet” (or rib-eye) steaks and chicken parmigiana.
Truffles, family fun and the beaches of Bunbury
On the drive back to Perth, your inner foodie will rejoice at the next destination. Just 25 years ago Manjimup was an unremarkable timber and dairy farming town – until locals planted oak and hazelnut trees, from the roots of which grew an irresistible delicacy. That turned this town into a global truffle hub, with Michelin-star chefs across the world now plating up truffles sourced from Manjimup’s farms, including the property that started it all, Truffle Hill.
During truffle season, from June to August, tourists can join sniffer dogs on truffle hunts across that property, about 25 minutes’ drive north of Pemberton. Throughout the year, Truffle Hill offers tours of its farm by request, and from its large shop sells an array of truffle-infused products from oils to sauces, honey, salt and even risotto. After that, you can tap into this town’s roots by wandering the Timber and Heritage Park, which has historic cottages and vintage machinery, plus a blacksmith studio, logging museum and nature-based kids’ activity center.
Children will also appreciate what is reputedly Australia’s largest free playground, Apple Fun Park in Donnybrook, an hour drive north of Manjimup. That name references Donnybrook’s renown as a source of delicious fruit, with some of the town’s orchards allowing visitors to walk their pretty grounds and (for a fee) pluck specimens from its trees. Stop in at Donnybrook’s Fruit Barn shop to buy crunchy apples, juicy pears and addictive plums, then ask to visit its nearby orchard.
Continue today’s food theme with a dinner of crab risotto and grilled marron crayfish at Vat 2, a funky restaurant that spills out onto the sand at Jetty Baths beach in central Bunbury. Drink up – for it’s just a 10-minute walk home to the Hotel Lord Forrest, which, from its west-facing rooms, offers sprawling views of the Indian Ocean.
The tiny penguins of Rockingham
By this stage, you should have already spotted plenty of Australian animals in the wild – though you may not have properly sighted kangaroos, wombats, wallabies, quokkas, emus and dingos. They’re all waiting to say “G’day” to you this morning at the Bunbury Wildlife Park, an intimate zoo where animals graze in wide enclosures.
Complement that communion with nature by absorbing the creative brilliance of Aboriginal painters at Bunbury Regional Art Gallery. Spread across two levels of an attractive heritage building, this facility showcases an array of local artists, including Aboriginal dot painters, whose works are inspired by the ancient lore of their ancestral lands.
From there, it’s a 90-minute drive to Rockingham, which many WA residents deride as a touristy backwater to be avoided. Ignore their snobbery and admire the world’s smallest species of penguin as well as spot endangered Australian sea lions.
All of those majestic creatures are protected by the sheltered bay of Rockingham’s stunning Shoalwater Islands Marine Park. From mid-September to early June, visitors can take a 5-minute ferry ride from the mainland to tiny Penguin Island, and watch rangers do regular feeding shows of the cute waddling birds, which are only 16in (40cm) tall.
Finish your day at Rockingham’s beachfront dining strip, which looks across beautiful Mangles Bay. Alongside a huge park with multiple playgrounds, this row of venues includes Latitude 32 restaurant. Sit feet from the sand as you savor strip-loin steaks, lobster tails and garlic prawns alongside a jetty. The fact Rockingham is underappreciated in WA – despite its magnificent beaches and unique marine park – indicates just how spoiled for choice we are in a giant state abounding in exquisite scenery.