As the boat’s captain declared he had spotted our first whale, we intently stared across the water to try and see what he was. It was evident none of us had.
“Come on! It’s that dark whaley-looking whale over there,” he quipped.
Suddenly, there were gasps as we saw the dark back appear above the waterline, followed by the graceful flow of the tail as she disappeared under the water again.
It was the start of our evening whale watching tour off the beautiful Western Australian town of Dunsborough. We were to see a number of cruising female humpbacks and their young calves, as well as the playful antics of a young calf alongside its mum and a breaching display by another adult.
It was not the best trip of the season (putting it in the context of 2013 being one of the best seasons in years), but it was still an exciting sight for those of us on board.
For the uninitiated, whale-watching, which stretches roughly from June – December, is an unexpected delight of this region, better known for its food and wine.
Indeed, when I visited there was great promotion for the upcoming Gourmet Escape, which this year featured the UK’s very own Rick Stein and Heston Blumenthal.
Big names for a small town – when it comes to food and wine, the world knows Margaret River bats above its weight. But, as I discovered, it is only part of the story.
Do not for a minute think this South-West region is just for couples, intent of eating, drinking, relaxing and romancing. With its array of scenery and activities, just a short drive from Perth (about 3 hours), this is a great place for families to visit and explore.
- The whales
Humpback and southern right whales are the most common species seen in this area, although the rare giant blue whale is also a visitor. The best way to get up and personal is to go on an organised whale watching tour. Ours provided life jackets for young children – a nice touch that certainly made the parents on our trip feel more secure.
Boat tours leave from Dunsborough and Busselton and there are also a number of land-based viewing areas you can try your luck at for no cost at all.
- The Busselton jetty.
At 1.8km in length, you won’t miss the Busselton Jetty – the longest timber-piled jetty in the Southern Hemisphere. Built in 1865 and servicing mainly the agriculture and timber industries until it ceased functioning as an official port in 1973, the jetty is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in the region.
Children love riding the train to the end of the jetty, where you can descend 8 metres to the ocean floor to view the sub-tropical corals and fish that call the jetty structure home. There are more than 300 marine species living below the jetty.
A family pass to the underwater observatory includes a return train journey, 40 minute guided tour and jetty day pass.
- Food, wine & beer
Of course, you cannot visit this area without trying some of the local food and wine, not to mention a locally crafted beer. Your hardest decision will be choosing where to stop.
With families in mind, the Geographe Bay Tourism Association has compiled a pamphlet that details the wineries and breweries with child friendly features – a perfect accompaniment to your day’s tastings. Pick one up at the local tourist information office.
3 Oceans, Cheeky Monkey Brewery, Wills Domain, Eagle Bay Brewery and Woody Nook are just a few that will keep your children occupied. Many places offer meals too.
- Bunbury dolphins
I have loved dolphins since I was a child, rushing home from school in time to watch Flipper. But your children can see them for real at Dolphin Discovery Centre in Bunbury.
Here dolphins come into the shallows in-front of the centre, with early morning the most common time. You can also learn more about these beautiful creatures in the centre, which includes a 360 degree ‘Digital Dolphinarium’ where you can experience a dolphin’s world.
The centre also runs a dolphin eco cruise to allow you to see local bottlenose dolphins in Koombana Bay. A ‘swim with the dolphins’ tour is also offered.
6. Cape Naturaliste
The Cape Naturalist lighthouse marks the start of the Cape to Cape Track (to Cape Leeuwin, further south).
Your children will love exploring the lighthouse and hearing about shipwrecks, life as a lighthouse keeper, not to mention the resident ghosts.
Purchase a family ticket for a fully guided tour or buy a combined ticket to visit the nearby Ngilgi Caves.
A visit to the underworld will be a feature of any family holiday in this area.
Located underneath the limestone ridge that is part of Cape Naturaliste, the Ngilgi Cave is a short drive from Yallingup. Rich in Aboriginal legend (and named after a good spirit, Ngilgi), the cave has beautiful stalactite, stalagmite, helicitite and shawl formations.
Further south, closer to Augusta, you will find an underground wonderland, with four caves to explore. They include Jewel Cave, home to one of the world’s longest straw stalactites; Lake Cave, with its stunning white formations and reflections; Mammoth Cave, which has 3 show-caves you explore at your own pace.
Between June to December, the more adventurous can visit Moondyne Cave. Not being partial to dark, small spaces, I went on this guided tour with some trepidation. The first to open up to tourism (with historic graffiti to prove it), it was closed to the public for many years, only re-opening in 2012.
There are only basic walkways and hand-holds and no lighting – you carry your own light on your helmet. But this makes for a unique, ‘soft adventure’ experience – with only one small tunnel that requires you to get on your hands and knees and crawl through. See package prices.
7. The beaches
The beauty of this area, particularly for families, is the diversity of experiences you can have in such a small area. And the beaches are no exception.
From the tranquil calm waters of Busselton and Dunsborough, through to the pure beauty of Bunker Bay, and the surf breaks of Yallingup and Prevelly (where Margaret River meets the sea), you will find a beach perfect for you and your children.
Between Busselton and Dunsborough, you will find a number of family friendly accommodation options right on the water, including Siesta Park and Cape View Apartments.
Whether it is water-based or land-based (bike paths and scenic walking trails) activities you are after, you will soon realise the beaches here are pretty damn perfect.
8. Farm stays
This region also has a growing reputation for farm experiences and farm stays.
For a day trip, visit Country Life Farm or Wonky Windmill Farm and Eco Park to see & feed farm animals, as well as some Australian natives, including kangaroos and emus.
There are also a number of farm accommodation options for those who would like to linger longer with the animals.
9. Kids fun
If food and nature still does not cut it, don’t despair. There are plenty of fun places to visit with your children.
Xscape at the Cape is a fun park just outside Dunsborough. With 10 trampolines, mini golf just some of the activities on offer – and a brand new water play park due to open this Australian summer – this is just the place to wear out your children.
For those who want to ‘lose’ their children for a short amount of time – or do what we do and set up mum vs dad teams and get competitive – choose from the timber maze at Yallingup or the beautiful hedge maze at Amaze’n Margaret River.
10. Surfing and paddle boarding
Older children might want to try their hand at surfing or paddle boarding.
There are plenty of options to get you out on the water, including hiring a kayak to explore the bays and inland river systems or even hire a small power boat – who knows you might be able to catch your own dinner.
The Yallingup Surf School offers a one hour ‘micro-grom’ session for under 10s .The Margaret River Surf School also offers group and private lessons, as well as stand up paddle boarding. Stand up paddle boarding lessons are offered through Stand Up Paddle Surfing.