This article was first published in Escape Magazine. See the original
As the rest of the world opens and our phones are flooded with photos of European holidays, it’s hard not to feel a heady mix of nostalgia and envy. Yes, we may live in the Lucky Country, but there’s something about long summer days spent picnicking on fresh baguettes and rosé, followed by a stroll through grassy meadows with French chatter drifting on the breeze.
Ferguson Valley and the Geographe Wine Region, two hours south of my home town Perth, had been on my radar for the past few years, but the timing had never been right to visit. A last -minute trip to Greece, a well overdue flight back to London, and even just a city break to the other side of the country meant that this little gem of West Australian countryside has eluded me. Until now.
Ferguson Valley is a pocket of rolling hillsides flecked with orchards, wineries nestled among valleys and a hub of creative artisans and culinary enthusiasts. Only 20 minutes from the heart of Bunbury, it’s worthy of much more than a day trip “down south” from WA’s capital.
My adventure here was to last three days, but it would be easy to spend an entire week pottering country lanes, picnicking in fields of daisies, gathering handfuls of avocados and apples and of course, sampling award-winning wines – many which are made with lesser-known varietals such as Touriga Nacional, Tempranillo and Grenache.
There couldn’t be a better entry point to the valley than Green Door Wines, a boutique family producer with what has to be one of the most picturesque cellar doors in Australia. (You’ll have to book in advance, though that goes without saying for most wining, dining, and experiential offerings in this post-Covid world.)
It’s quickly apparent where the winery’s name comes from: an imported Moroccan green door reaches floor to ceiling and sets the tone for the Spanish wine varietals to come. Being a huge fan of the humble quiz night, I took up the black glass tasting challenge, where the wines are served “blind” so you must guess what is in front of you based on smell, taste and texture. There were certainly a few surprises, and it’s an ideal way to work up an appetite for one of the delectable grazing plates on the menu.
Thanks to the climate, the soils and the differentiation of aspects, some superb wines are being produced in the Geographe Wine Region. With 28 cellar doors, there is no shortage to choose from, but it’s a good idea to tee up a tasting with lunch at one that provides food. The eco-built straw bale cellar door at Coughlan Estate ticks all the boxes; its menu items are made on site – down to the crackers. As a bonus, if you are travelling with a dog, your furry friend will have their own menu to choose from.
There are plenty of gluten-free options on the human list, and while wine and cake isn’t a typical pairing (sweets can make the wine taste more bitter), I couldn’t go past the freshly baked plum and jam cake.
Nearby is the food bowl of Donnybrook, where the service station doubles as a fresh food grocer and has avocados in place of the usual lollies on the counter. Western Australia’s apple production is centred in the town, and if you time your trip well – from March to May – you can pick your own fruit.
Pop a little further down towards the coast if you’d like a more elaborate lunch at Capel Vale Winery. While the interiors are a little dated, you’ll dine right over the top of the vines and the food matching menu is well-crafted and generous. Could there be a better match for Malbec than a plate of pan-fried duck breast, served with wild fig and confit duck leg wrapped in brick pastry?
Luckily for those of us who have an insatiable curiosity to try as much local produce on holiday as possible, there is an abundance of ways to explore the natural beauty of the region and work up a sweat in the process. I’ll certainly go back with a mountain bike to test out the new multi-million dollar trails; in the meantime, the hiking shoes got a workout in Wellington National Park. A perfect starting point is the Wellington Park Dam, where the largest mural in the world, sitting at 8000sq m, was completed in February 2021 by Australian artist Guido Van Helten. The vast photorealistic artwork shares the stories of people who have called this region home and whose lives have been deeply linked with the Collie River and the area’s waterways.
Our lodging for the evening is one of the homeliest B&Bs I’ve had the joy of staying at. Peppermint Lane Lodge is tucked away along the river banks of the Ferguson River, and owners Kim and Simon Wesley are not only warm and welcoming hosts (taking us on a scenic drive of the best viewpoints), but they also love to cook. A restful and peaceful night in a self-contained cottage is followed by a home-cooked breakfast and a serenade of birdsong. Fresh eggs were collected from the chicken coop as we sipped coffee from family heirloom cups and ate poached fruit from the garden.
If you still have room in the belly after breakfast, pop down the road to the Dardanup Bakery where the bread, cakes, pastries and pies are so delicious that it’s not uncommon for them to sell out by lunchtime. Just around the corner is the Dardy Country Pub, where publican Anthony Smith isn’t afraid to dole out the banter with a fabulous sense of humour and country hospitality. The pub also stakes a claim for the best chicken parmi in the South West. A 20-minute drive from Dardanup, in Wellington Mill, is Gnomesville. More than 10,000 garden gnomes live here, with visitors adding new friends daily to the collection which is tucked under bushes, on logs and into the nooks and crannies of the tree-lined paths.
There’s always time for a few more winery visits and it’s hard to go past Talisman, a vineyard scooping up awards faster than it can make wine. It has a postcard-worthy view over the dam, and it’s hard to drag yourself away from the serenity of the deck. Willow Bridge is another picturesque winery, while St Aidan Wines is open seven days a week for tastings and a bite to eat. Many venues are only open for part of the week or by appointment, like at Mazza Wines which offers the wine-curious a fantastic educational experience on Spanish and Portuguese varietals. But time your trip with the region’s Lost and Found Festival, which was held for the first time last September, and you might see behind normally closed doors.
While a trip to the old-world delights of Europe might be off the cards for a little longer; after my visit here I feel that my wanderlust has been sated for a little longer. Part of the joy of travel is leaving the familiar behind, and with a glass of Mazza Wines Graciano in hand back on the comfort of my couch at home, I feel like I’ve been on an adventure far further afield.
The writer was a guest of Tourism WA.