Regional Produce, Wine & Craft Beer
Regional produce and local wines are highlights of Western Australia (WA), and leisurely, outdoor eating is best experienced in the vineyard restaurants of the Margaret River, Great Southern and Swan Valley wine regions. Select spots up north – Geraldton, Kalbarri, Carnarvon, Kununurra and Broome – also include some local foodies gems. For the best of WA's excellent craft beer scene, focus on Fremantle, the Swan Valley and Margaret River.
Tipping & BYO
- Tipping is not required in WA restaurants, though 10% is appreciated if you've had a positive experience and your waiter was a good'un.
- BYO – bringing your own beer or wine to the restaurant – is a widely accepted and budget-friendly practice. You might be charged 'corkage' (how quaint) of anywhere from $5 to $20 a bottle (or sometimes per person) – restaurants have to make a profit somehow!
Wine & the Cellar Door
Wine is a big deal in WA, with the focus firmly on the quality end of the market. The Margaret River region has over 95 wineries producing just 3% of Australia's grapes, but this accounts for over 20% of the country's premium wines.
The first wineries were established in the southwest in the 1960s: Vasse Felix was a notable early player. Because the southwest has always focused on low-yield, quality output, it wasn't as influenced by the oversupply problems that beset the Australian wine industry in 2005 and 2006. Fortuitous combinations of rain and warm weather also produced consistently excellent Margaret River vintages from 2007 to 2013. Since then it's been steady-as-she-goes for Margaret River, the region maintaining its annual crush output while many other Australian regions have dropped away.
Aside from Margaret River, other key wine areas are the Swan Valley, the Great Southern (Frankland, the Porongurups, Denmark, Mt Barker), Pemberton, and the Peel and Geographe regions. These all uphold WA's reputation as a world-class wine producer. The Perth Hills also have some small, boutique producers.
WA's best wineries are in Margaret River (www.margaretriver.com/eat-drink/wineries), 250km southwest of Perth. The climate is defined by cooling ocean breezes, producing Margaret River's distinctively elegant and rich wines.
Margaret River also produces many blends of semillon and sauvignon blanc grapes. These very popular fruity wines are not Margaret River's very best, but they are often the most affordable. Cape Mentelle and Cullen Wines make good examples. Cullen Wines is also renowned for its organic and sustainable approach to wine making.
Smaller cellar doors to explore around Margaret River include:
Margaret River's Founding Five
Five top wineries compose the cornerstone of Margaret River.
- Cape Mentelle Makes consistently excellent cabernet sauvignon as well as a wonderful example of semillon–sauvignon blanc.
- Cullen Wines Still in the family, producing superb chardonnay and top-flight cabernet merlot while adhering to sustainable wine-making principles.
- Leeuwin Estate Stylish cellar door, a highly regarded restaurant, and responsible for putting chardonnay on the map in Australia with its Art Series.
- Moss Wood Makes a heady semillon, a notable cabernet sauvignon and a surprising pinot noir.
- Vasse Felix Must-see winery with a renowned restaurant.
Great Southern & Pemberton
The Great Southern region (www.greatsouthernwine.asn.au) will never challenge Margaret River's pre-eminence as a wine-touring region – Margaret River is so spectacularly beautiful – but Great Southern nevertheless produces good-quality wines. Wine tourism here is not as developed, and that can be a good thing. Shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, riesling and sauvignon blanc do especially well.
The region stretches from the southeast town of Frankland, further southeast to Albany, and then west again to Denmark. Mt Barker, in the middle, is 350km southeast of Perth. The Great Southern's wines are flavoursome, powerful and elegant – try the peppery shirazes.
In Frankland, Alkoomi is still a family-run business, and produces great cabernet sauvignon and riesling. Ferngrove produces an honest chardonnay, an excellent shiraz and a brilliant cabernet sauvignon–shiraz blend called 'the Stirlings'. Frankland Estate is one of the key wineries that has helped revitalise riesling.
There are more wineries in Mt Barker, and among the nearby Porongurup range. Riesling and shiraz are consistently great performers here; also try the lean, long-flavoured cabernet sauvignon. Two of the best are Plantagenet Wines, the Great Southern region's first winery, and Poacher's Ridge, a regular on lists of Australia's best wineries. West Cape Howe Wines, just west of Mt Barker, is another 5-star winery winner.
Further south, in Denmark and Albany, are some of Australia's most esteemed wine names. Must-visit Albany wineries include Montgomery's Hill, Wignalls Wines and the excellently named Oranje Tractor, an organic operator dong some good things with sparkling wines. In Denmark, try Moombaki Wines, Harewood Estate and Singlefile Wines – just three of the many cellar doors in this booming region.
Between Margaret River and the Great Southern region, you'll hit the Pemberton–Manjimup area (280km due south of Perth). Pemberton is a beautiful, undulating area, home to forests of the area's famous karri trees, and its cool-ish climate produces cooler wine styles – pinot noir, merlot and chardonnay, in particular.
Peel & Geographe Regions
Because the Peel region starts about 70km south of Perth, it tends to be hotter and drier than Margaret River and Great Southern regions. Much like the Swan Valley, the wines made here are not generally considered to be of global significance – but Millbrook Winery, relatively close to Perth, is excellent for lunch, with a verandah right beside the vines.
Further south, in the slightly cooler Geographe region, are wineries of varying quality. Many people come to visit Capel Vale, a winery with a 30-year history of wine-making excellence, particularly with chardonnay, shiraz and, more recently, merlot.
The Swan Valley (www.swanvalley.com.au/eat-and-drink) may once have aspired to take on mighty Margaret River, but now the region's true merit lies in its proximity to Perth and its small clutch of winery-restaurants – not the wines per se. It's hotter than down south, so long, languid outdoor-dining opportunities are the norm. Sandalford Winery is one of the region's big-ticket producers, hosting concerts on the lawns and with an excellent bistro. You can also get here by ferrry up the river from the city.
Houghton is the area's best winery, and the Houghton Classic White, a blend of white-wine grapes that drinks like a mix of tropical, zesty fruits, is the Swan Valley's most ubiquitous wine. Others of note include Pinelli Estate Wines and RiverBank Estate, both of which are great for lunch.
Just 30 minutes form Perth, the Perth Hills is a very low-key wine region, with a dozen small-time boutique producers around the Bickley Valley. But the Hills' proximity to the city makes it prime terrain for naughty weekends away! Stop by Brookside Vineyard for tastings and a lovely lunch, with further sippings at nearby Plume Estate. See www.experienceperthhills.com.au/wineries for more.
Then There's the Beer
WA's leading blue-collar beers are Emu Bitter (EB) and Swan Draught. They're both pretty bland – focus instead on exploring the craft-beer scene, which is booming. In Fremantle and the southwest in particular, local microbreweries abound; the Swan Valley is also a top spot.
In Fremantle, visit the Norfolk Hotel and the Monk for blackboards full of ever-changing brews. Freo also has the iconic Little Creatures, now owned by a multinational company but still tasting great with its hoppy Pale Ale. A few pints on the deck here as the sun sets is a quintessential WA experience.
In the Swan Valley, the best craft breweries are Homestead at Mandoon Estate, Feral Brewing Company and Mash. Mash also has an outlet in Bunbury. There's also the raffish Iron Bank Brewery, right next door to the progressive (and equally raffish) Funk Cider.
Continuing south, the Margaret River region is a definite craft-beer hotspot, and a guided tour with Margaret River Brewery Tours will get you to the best of the breweries. Denmark's Boston Brewery and Pemberton's Jarrah Jacks are both worth visiting, and good beers and ciders are crafted at the Cidery in Bridgetown. Along Caves Rd west of the Margaret River township, you'll find a burgeoning number of brewers, including Cheeky Monkey, the rustic Bootleg Brewery and Beer Farm, and the excellent Caves Road Collective, which also does cider.
Up north, the only craft brewery you'll find is Matso's in Broome. EB and Swan are surprisingly difficult to find: east-coast beers such as Carlton, XXXX and Tooheys dominate the mainstream market.
Australian beer has a higher alcohol content than British or American beer. Standard beer is around 5% alcohol (midstrength is around 3.5%, light 2% to 3%).
Sidebar: Perth Wine Bars
In central Perth, Lalla Rookh is a classy wine bar with an excellent selection of Western Australian wines. Swallow in Maylands and nearby Must Winebar are also outstanding.
Sidebar: Wine Tours
Wine for Dudes has excellent Margaret River wine tours led by a winemaker. Around the Great Southern, hook up with Denmark Wine Lovers Tour. For the Swan Valley, try d'Vine Wine Tours, which also runs tours to the Perth Hills wineries.
Sidebar: Tasting Notes
For information and tasting notes about Western Australian wines, check out www.mrwines.com.
Mining & the Environment
If you fly into Perth, you’ll notice one thing straight away: despite the recent cooling of mining-sector activity, the fly-in, fly-out ‘FIFO’ lifestyle remains ubiquitous. Large clutches of workers nonchalantly board their flights to remote mines and oil and gas plants every few hours. Some will be wearing their fluorescent orange or yellow ‘high-vis’ vests, required attire on site and an understated badge of honour at Perth Airport (less understated are their rampant tattoos – Perth is a seriously inked city!).
A few years ago, many construction workers were also part of this airborne ebb and flow, but now that massive infrastructure projects are largely completed in WA's north, this movement mainly comprises mining workers. Contraction of the vital Chinese economy since 2014 has slowed Australia's exports of iron ore considerably, causing the Aussie dollar to devalue and the Australian economy to weaken – but mining is still the biggest game in town out west.
Against this backdrop of growth and opportunity, the boom’s effect on the environment remains a source of concern for many in Western Australia and across the country.
How It All Got Started
Really, mining is old news – this is a frontier land founded on mining money. Although in the 1800s Western Australia was quietly focused on acquiring more modest fortunes from wheat, meat and wool, in 1892 gold was discovered in Coolgardie, and in 1893 it was uncovered again in Kalgoorlie. And so the economic transformation began. Today, gold mining is still going strong, albeit with incrementally diminishing returns. In Kalgoorlie you can visit the Super Pit, an open-pit gold mine the size of 35 football fields sunk 600m into the ground. Copper, nickel, oil and gas are also steady sources of income for the state, with uranium mining (slated for Wiluna, in the midwest) a current aspiration.
But iron ore has been the recent multi-billion-dollar blockbuster industry. Karara mine in the midwest, for example, sits on just under $100 billion worth of iron ore. All this magnetite dug up out of the ground, later to become iron ore, is expected to generate around $3 billion per year in export revenue. Most of it goes to China, but the demand for it in recent years has slowed, sending a chill through the entire Australian economy.
Foreign investment remains big business. And while such major investment has now been criticised for exposing the state to the capricious fortunes of the Chinese economy, the boom would never have occurred without it. For an iron-ore mine, for example, about $1 billion must be available up front just to develop the extraction machinery. These biscuits are just too big for the Australian economy alone.
Life in the Mines
Mining life remains outside the field of vision for most travellers. The Pilbara gold-mining town of Telfer is a good example – considered the most remote town in Western Australia. Life here is altogether different to that in the leafy western suburbs of Perth. Telfer is less a traditional country town (main street, quiet pub, maybe a community town hall) and more a giant mine plus attendant camp, purpose-built for its hundreds of workers.
In an effort to accommodate a workforce that periodically grows and shrinks, Telfer has been dismantled and rebuilt a few times by mining companies over the years. But by the mid-1990s it was discovered that it was cheaper to simply fly the entire workforce in and out rather than continually build and reconstruct permanent accommodation. Under the new plan, those flown in would work for a sustained period of time (say four weeks), then have a week or two off back home – in Perth, on Australia's east coast, in New Zealand, or even in Bali. The company would then be able to draw from a broader, more skilled labour force, and workers would no longer need to contemplate the unattractive lifestyle of living permanently in the middle of nowhere. As this business model was adopted across the state, the fly-in, fly-out 'FIFO' work culture was born.
Setting up Camp
The fly-in, fly-out lifestyle is perhaps nowhere more prevalent than in Karratha, once a sleepy, nondescript town but today hoisting a large FIFO population, relatively expensive food and accommodation shortages. The recent slowing of WA's resources sector has now brought Karratha's accommodation prices to a more realistic level, and there's a better sense of community here as a few more families commit to the town long term.
Woodside, a major oil and gas producer, has set up camp here, exploring for gas off the north coast. The pace of expansion has been so speedy, that there wasn’t time to build brick-and-tile homes for the workers. And so today in Karratha, bolted onto the original small town centre, are a number of suburbs composed of ‘dongas’ – makeshift, moveable, one-man accommodation units. A typical donga in Gap Ridge, the main suburb, has a single bed, a TV, a shower and a toilet carved into a shipping container–like box home. Meals are taken in the 'wet mess', much like a mess hall.
Karratha locals have for some time been voicing concerns that an entire FIFO population parties in their town without regard for the community. Places like Gap Ridge are home to an almost entirely young, moneyed, male population, and this has created a pattern of influx and change in Karratha that is echoed in other mining towns across the state. Many labourers are away from home and family, and have considerable funds to sink into beer and good times. A Woodside proposal to build a more permanent 700-berth miners' camp on the edge of Karratha was rejected by the local council in 2018 – so it seems, for the moment at least, that the good-time donga life will continue.
Such social shifts have not gone unnoticed by politicians. One initiative rolled out since the peak of the boom is ‘Royalties for Regions’ – putting money back into regional areas such as Karratha, which had not been able to easily build much-needed infrastructure despite the boom. Mobile-phone coverage is now being expanded on the remote highways.
Work Hard, Play Hard
Drinking has long been a tenet of Australian culture, but clocked-off FIFO workers focus particularly keenly on playing hard. Throughout the global financial crisis (or ‘GFC’ in Australian parlance), letting off steam over a few beers simply continued apace for many. But as iron ore and nickel prices have fallen in recent years, it is perhaps those who hold the mantra ‘work hard, play hard’ most closely to their hearts who have been found to be the most vulnerable to economic wobbles. Many young workers have limited education and have been earning big sums from a young age. For some, the upkeep of their lifestyle (jet skis, cars, houses) has always been contingent on a mining salary that did not waver. Now that the economy has inevitably slowed, some workers are struggling to unearth a Plan B.
Aboriginal Workforce in Mining
Employment of Indigenous Australians within the mining industry is very low. Some argue that training programs for Indigenous Australians – attempts to settle Australia’s most disadvantaged into the Western working life – have not proved effective. In 2008 mining magnate Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, who the Financial Review named as one of Australia's 10 richest people in 2017, boldly promised support for 50,000 jobs for Indigenous Australians. This government-backed program, called GenerationOne, is also one of the most high-profile attempts by a key mining figure to not only change employment patterns but also speak frankly about the lack of opportunity afforded to Aboriginal communities across the state.
Uptake of GenerationOne opportunities was initially slow – just 10,000 positions by 2012 – but ever-committed to the cause, in 2014 Andrew Forrest also released Creating Parity, an Australian government-sponsored review of Indigenous jobs and training. Public submissions were invited on the report's recommendations, but some ideas – such as a cashless 'Healthy Welfare Card' promoted to aid family budgeting and minimise access to drugs and alcohol – came under criticism from Indigenous and welfare rights advocacy groups. Undaunted, and bolstered by the announcement of 5000 new GenerationOne jobs in 2017, Forrest announced a new initiative in 2018: a vocational training and employment centre at Perth’s Acacia Prison for Aboriginal men. WA has absurdly high incarceration rates for Aboriginal males – something approaching one in 12 Aboriginal men is in prison across the state.
Forrest's ongoing philanthropy, for all its idealism, is at least a push in the right direction. The tension between income and cost of living in WA has eased – Perth's real estate prices fell by 5% in 2018 as the mining boom continued to cool – but it is now more widely acknowledged that the gap between the resource boom–driven ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is a problem that won't go away quickly.
Footprints & Flashpoints
James Price Point is an expanse of wilderness along the Kimberley coast 60km north of Broome. A multinational consortium and the WA state government was proposing a liquefied natural gas (LNG) station here – the biggest in the world. In 2013, eight years after first proposing the development, Woodside Petroleum Ltd announced that the refineries were not economically viable, which was a significant victory for environmental groups seeking to protect the largely pristine Kimberley coastline.
Aside from its dinosaur fossils, the proposed area is a playground for dolphins, dugongs and breeding bilbies. Humpback whales breed and calve along the coastline, and the rainforest backing the coast harbours a multitude of plant species. Not least, this is traditional Aboriginal land. Woodside negotiating a native title deed this size would have marked a historic achievement.
James Price Point became a leading symbol of tensions between the growing financial fortunes of the state and the less easily quantified value of an untouched landscape. Not only were business interests, traditional land owners, politicians and environmentalists in fierce disagreement with each other, but divisions within these groups ran deep, despite the amendment of the project to utilise floating offshore LNG rigs. For locals in nearby Broome, 'whose side you’re on’ became common knowledge, this lack of anonymity providing a further source of strain.
Following lobbying by the Wilderness Society and environmental-impact studies, the Supreme Court of Western Australia overruled the Western Australian Environment Minister and the Western Australian Environmental Protection Authority to block the proposed Browse LNG plant at James Price Point.
Validating this decision, a 2016 University of Queensland study of the region's Cretaceous footprints concluded that they are the world's largest dinosaur footprint collection, with 21 species represented, and contain the world's largest single dinosaur footprint. Further sauropod footprints were found here in 2017, measuring a massive 1.7m across – the record for 'world's biggest' was broken again.
Of course, local Aboriginal Jabirr Jabirr and Goolarabooloo people have always known about these footprints on the beach, representing the steps of Emu-man, their Dreaming ancestor who lives today in the land, the people and their stories. For the moment at least, it's this kind of liquid time, rather than liquid natural gas, that has won the day.
Other Environmental Issues
WA’s environmental flashpoints are by no means limited to the footprint-dappled James Price Point. Other controversial sites slated for mining include the Burrup Peninsula in the Dampier Archipelago, which is the location of many petroglyphs (rock art), archaeological wonders thought to date from the last ice age (more than a few of which depict the extinct thylacine, aka the Tasmanian Tiger). Although disruption to the works began in the 1960s, in 2007 Woodside Petroleum Ltd had several petroglyphs gingerly removed and fenced off in a separate area to better facilitate development. Some argue that the works are not discrete: that the disruption of one petroglyph compromises the entire site. Elsewhere in the state, uranium mines are under consideration, though to date, no uranium has been exported from WA
Meanwhile, ground water has been utilised freely for decades; alternative water sources, using desalination plants, have been in place for some time. Old-growth forests, with their 1000-year-old karri trees, were logged until the 1990s; today scientists cite lowered rainfall in the southwest as the result of deforestation.
And, much like other major cities in Australia, Perth is subject to suburban sprawl. Because the mining boom drove much property development, the city now tails out across 100km, new developments studded with affordable (read: cheaply built) housing. The environmental effects of the lifestyle out here are not immediately apparent, but may nevertheless prove significant. Many housing estates are divorced from public-transport routes, so people must always drive for their litre of milk, and Perth's roads are becoming increasingly congested. Many have long been calling for more high-density housing in and near central Perth.
The Save Ningaloo Campaign
Some locals still sport 'Save Ningaloo' bumper stickers on their cars. No one seems to pay much attention to the faded stickers these days, but they're a reminder of one of the most high-profile and fiercely contested environmental campaigns WA has seen. 'Save Ningaloo', with its thousands of protesters, successfully blocked development of a massive marina resort (slated for 2003) on a loggerhead-turtle nesting ground. Comprising 280km of coral reef, and visited by species such as manta rays, whale sharks, dugongs, humpback whales and turtles, Ningaloo is one of the last healthy major reef systems in the world.
The area did nevertheless remain a site of interest for property developers and the resources sector, and in late 2012 BHP Billiton submitted a proposal to the state government to explore for liquefied natural gas some 5km from Ningaloo's perimeter.
This proposal was rejected and now BHP Billiton have joined with Australia's CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) in a five-year marine research partnership.
Going ahead, the balancing act between the economy and environmental issues remains at the very heart of Western Australian society and politics, and the stakes have never been higher. Now that the Chinese economy's appetite for iron ore has eased, developers and the Western Australian government will be even more focused on tapping other rich veins of WA's resources sector. Inevitably, there will be more conflict between industrial interests and environmental advocates.
The boom has spawned a breed of mega-rich mining magnates whose influence extends well beyond resources into politics and the media, and they are eyeing further wilderness areas as sites for the development of new mines and gas plants, with all the costs and benefits they entail.
The Western Australian – and therefore Australian – resources boom may have slowed, but the ongoing tension between economic growth and environmental protection will continue to define Australia's most sprawling state for the foreseeable future.
Sidebar: WA Environmental Battles Timeline
Environmentalists take on and defeat the Albany whaling industry.
Clashes with loggers over the old-growth jarrah, karri and wandoo forests in the southwest.
Development of a $200-million marina resort at Ningaloo Reef is prevented.
Development of a massive LNG hub around James Price Point was halted after successful lobbying by the Wilderness Society.
The WA government's policy of culling sharks, which ran from 2014–17 in response to several fatal shark attacks, is abandoned after public protest.
Sidebar: Divorce Roster
The ‘four weeks on, one week off’ fly-in, fly-out schedule on the mines is referred to as the ‘Divorce Roster’. Lighthearted, yes, but a real problem: with broken families increasingly commonplace, the social toll of the WA mining boom will play out for many decades to come.
Sidebar: Field Guide to the Birds of Australia
Graham Pizzey and Frank Knight's Field Guide to the Birds of Australia is the definitive tome on WA's birds – full colour, splendidly detailed, accessible and portable.
Sidebar: Boomtown 2050
Boomtown 2050, by landscape architect Richard Weller, is a nicely packaged book about how a rapidly growing town like Perth could be developed – sustainably.
Sidebar: Mt Augustus
Mt Augustus (1106m), on the central west coast, is the largest rock in the world, twice the size and three times as old as the more famous Uluru in the Northern Territory.
Sidebar: Ningaloo's Whale Sharks
From around April to June, the World Heritage–listed Ningaloo Reef hosts whales sharks that can grow up to 12m long. They're remarkably docile, but keep your distance: humanity owes them a little peace and quiet.
Sidebar: The Numbat
Keep your eyes peeled for the banded anteater, aka the numbat, a critically endangered native marsupial. There are only around 1500 of these tiny, light-footed and incredibly shy creatures left in the wild, almost all of them in WA. Numbats are solitary creatures who only venture outside of their neatly delineated territories to mate. Singular dietary requirement: termites.
Sidebar: The Future Eaters
Tim Flannery's The Future Eaters (1994) is a highly readable overview of evolution in Australia's ecology. Covering the last 120 million years of history, Flannery offers insightful thoughts on how the environment has shaped Australia's human cultures.
Sidebar: The Weather Makers
In The Weather Makers (2005), Australian environmentalist Tim Flannery argues lucidly and passionately for the immediate need to address climate change. His follow-up Atmosphere of Hope (2016) offers further thoughts and solutions.
Sidebar: WA Wildflowers
For detailed directions on where to surround yourself with WA's amazing wildflowers – you'll find more than 12,000 species here, more than 60% of which are endemic – see the Wildflower Society of Western Australia's website (www.wildflowersocietywa.org.au).