Extraordinary scenery is the ordinary backdrop in southwestern Australia

October 25, 1992|By Jeff Miller | Jeff Miller,Contributing Writer

The giant karri trees rise ramrod straight from the green underbelly of the forest floor, like skyscrapers in one of nature's largest cities. Towering more than 200 feet high, they have no branches for the first 100 feet, just the smooth marbled white and gray of their ghostly skin. Sunlight filters through the leafy boughs and reflects off the clinging mist, creating primeval shades and colors.

A pencil-thin road seems to fade away beyond the next hill. Walking among the trees -- part of Walpole-Nornalup National Park -- my wife and I are awed by the beauty and silenced by the scale.

This magical place, boasting the third tallest trees in the world, is just one of the wonders found on the southwestern tip of Australia's largest state, Western Australia. The state, which covers more than one third of the country's western side, is best known for its northwestern desert attractions. But for those wanting to see a softer, less harsh side of the state, a visit to the southwestern tip is a must.

Forming a roughly shaped triangle with the capital of Perth at the top, Cape Leeuwin at the bottom left and the seaside port of Albany at the bottom right, the southwestern tip offers pristine beaches, spectacular underground caves, rolling hills covered with wineries and, of course, the giant forests.

The exploration begins with Perth, the big city with the heart of a small town. The majestic Swan River runs beside the clean, open streets and numerous little parks. Free buses carry people everywhere, from the shopping mecca of the Hay Street Mall to the trendy restaurant area of Northbridge. The Museum of Western Australia has a respectable gallery of Aboriginal art, while the Art Gallery of Western Australia has a fine permanent exhibition of European, Australian and Asian-Pacific art.

Down the river, or 12 miles southwest of Perth, is the dynamic seaport town of Fremantle, made world famous when it was host to the 1986-'87 America's Cup races. Numerous stone buildings from the 1800s -- their sandy color counterpointing the royal blue sky -- give the town a historic feel. Must-sees include the Maritime Museum, which specializes in shipwrecks; the fascinating Fremantle Museum and Art Center in the picturesque 1860s cathedral-like stone building and courtyard; and the replica being built of Captain Cook's ship, Endeavour.

Besides the historical, Fremantle also offers great beaches, upscale shops, restaurants and a fun, crowded market every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Beach variations

Australia is famous for its wide, expansive stretches of deserted beaches, and the southern tip of Western Australia upholds that tradition with its own variations -- from fingernail slivers of white sand tucked away in cozy bays to surf-pounding stretches of golden sand.

Running along the coast for about 150 miles, from Perth to the little village of Yallingup, is a seemingly endless stretch of seaside resorts and attendant beaches washed by the Indian Ocean. All are best reached by taking Route 1 (the Old Coast Road), which goes through the popular seaside towns of Rockingham, Mandurah, Bunbury and Busselton. Along the way are good beaches at Preston, Myalup and Binningup.

Not far from Busselton is the village of Yallingup, just a blink in the road, but home to three points of interest: the beach, underground caves and Caves House Hotel.

Yallingup beach is the epitome of a golden stretch of sand, where the sand is truly golden. Reportedly, the waves are world famous to surfers. For everyone else, it's a great place to swim or sunbathe.

Nearby are the Yallingup caves, discovered in 1899 and estimated to be 1 million years old. Going to a depth in places of more than 125 feet, the full tour (guided or alone) takes more than two hours to complete. Sights along the way include the Amphitheater, Leaning Tower of Pisa column and a massive pillar of flowstone.

A cave's echo away is Caves House Hotel, built in 1903 and rebuilt in 1938 after a fire. It is decorated in a rich art deco style, with its downstairs dining, lounge and billiards rooms adorned with dark wood, large fireplaces and comfortable, leather chairs. The feeling is of cozy, antique charm. Upstairs, high-ceiling rooms open through French doors to a communal balcony that offers views of the ocean and setting sun. The hotel has 43 rooms (16 in the main house), some without bathrooms. The complex sits on nearly 6 acres of formal gardens and is only a 10-minute walk to the beach. (Rooms are $50 and up.)

Yallingup and Cape Leeuwin are the top and bottom of a 60-mile anvil-shaped stretch of land that juts out into the Indian Ocean from the rest of the state. Nice beaches along the coast include Hamelin Bay, Calgardup at Redgate, Gnarabup at Prevelly Park and Cowaramup Bay at Gracetown.

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