My earliest memory of visiting Albany was as a young reporter working on the long-gone Sunday
Independent newspaper covering the final days of the whaling industry.
It was not pretty.
These days my wife and I get down to the Great Southern pretty regularly, working on public relations for the food and wine festival, Taste Great Southern. We get to see a very different side of this spectacular southern corner of our State.
The whaling station is still there, now providing an intriguing interactive insight into the history of whaling, which ended there in 1978.
These days the whales are returning in increasing numbers with the whale watching season running until early October.
But whales aren’t the only thing this diverse region, around the same size as Switzerland, has to offer people looking to get a little off the beaten track.
The region is a hop, step, and a jump further south than Margaret River, around a four-and-a-half hour drive from Perth, but the vibe is very different.
It’s cooler. I remember driving south a few year ago when Perth was sweltering through a 40°C plus day and glancing at the temperature on the car which had dropped by more than 10 degrees by the time we hit Denmark.
Laid back, friendly, different, maybe less sophisticated than Margaret River, but extraordinary with its scenic beauty, so different to the rest of Western Australia. Its lush forests and granite outcrops, even set in the front gardens of Albany homes, create a very different feel to the flatlands of Perth.
While the drive does make it a little long for a weekend getaway, the Great Southern has plenty to offer for visitors who have a few days to spare.
While the big tourism experiences are well known, watching the waves crash in at The Gap, towering karri and tingle trees in the Valley Of The Giants, Green Pool and Elephant Rocks and the remarkable National Anzac Centre on Mt Clarence, there’s a lot to discover in food and wine, wildflowers, fishing, heritage buildings and Aboriginal culture.
A 30-minute drive from Albany, the spectacular Porongurup range also provide a fabulous backdrop for several wineries where wine lovers will find some of Australia’s best Rieslings and Pinots from Duke’s Vineyard, Castle Rock Estate, Abbey Creek Vineyard and Zarephath Wines.
The Porongurups are part of the rich and varied Great Southern wine region which produces outstanding Shiraz and Cabernet wines.
While it’s a three-hour drive east to the Fitzgerald River National Park from Albany, the huge range of wildflowers at this time of year are spectacular.
A little closer to Albany the rugged peaks of the Stirling Range, occasionally covered with snow, also provide a home for beautiful flora with many of the 1500 species not found anywhere else. It is especially noted for the more than 100 species of orchids which grow there.
For those with an interest in maritime history the replica of the Brig Amity on the outskirts of Albany follows the intriguing story of the sailing ship which carried the first settlers to Albany from Sydney in 1826.
There are also plenty of historic buildings from the region’s colonial days.
Among them is the 1872 St Werburgh’s Chapel with its adjoining cemetery containing the graves of early settlers, just to the south of Mt Barker; WA’s oldest home, Old Farm Strawberry Hill in Albany, built in 1831; the restored Princess Royal Fortress in Albany; the Old Gaol Museum in Albany, Elverds Cottage in Kojonup, built in the 1850s and decorated with implements of the era; the Old Gaol at Mt Barker; and the Residency Museum in Albany.
Kodja Place in Kojonup is a splendid architect-designed building that incorporates a café, visitor centre, gift shop and a wonderful museum incorporating European and Aboriginal history.
It’s well worth booking into yarn with the Aboriginal elders about the history of their people. When I was last there it was a delight to hear Noongar elder Jack Cox telling some very funny and heart-warming stories. It’s also an ideal spot to take a break on the drive to Albany.
Or for those wanting a little luxury head to the boutique Premier Mill Hotel around half-an-hour’s drive east of the town.
Until the 108 room Hilton Garden Inn is completed at the end of the year there isn’t any large hotel style accommodation in Albany, but the Great Southern does offer a raft of accommodation options from caravan and camping to large motel style developments and a host of bed and breakfast options.
And for those looking for a glorious food and wine experience put 18 to 28 March in your diary and keep an eye on www.tastegreatsouthern.com.au as a host of talent and events are rolled out.