You already know the Great Southern region. This stretch of Western Australia's coastline is Summer Bay, Bonnie Doon and a collage of Australian childhood memories rolled into one. It's surfboard wax and sunburnt noses and family camping trips in station wagons – as much a state of nostalgia as a place of rugged beauty. The beaches are empty, the people unpretentious, the surf's up. It fairly screams "Australian summer" in long flattened vowels.
The Menang Noongar, the Great Southern's first people, believe Porongurup, a mountain range 50 kilometres inland and 1,200 million years in the making, is home to the Wagyl or Rainbow Serpent, so powerful it created the Swan and Canning rivers and a handful of other WA landmarks. The early European settlers weren't exaggerating when they called the area "great". Stretching from the town of Kojonup in the west to Ravensthorpe in the east and south to Hopetoun and Walpole, the region spans about 250 kilometres of coastline and some 39,000 square kilometres predominantly planted with wheat.
There's a handful of towns scattered throughout the Great Southern but much of the population and tourism is concentrated in the regional centres of Albany and Denmark. They're both about five hours' drive from Perth, but a Rex flight from the city to Albany takes just over an hour, and this is how my trip begins. I'm planning a scenic zigzag in a hire car between the towns, meeting a few of the region's dreamers and schemers along the way.
While Albany, population 37,000, has the kind of attractions found in similar-sized regional centres around the nation – an entertainment centre of incongruously angular design, an annual food festival, Tinder (though not yet Uber) – its calling cards are nostalgia and nature. I'm powerfully drawn to both. The gentle downhill descent of York Street, Albany's main street, has sightlines to Princess Royal Harbour and a direct dial into memories of Veenhuyzen family caravan trips. For a moment I'm back in the back seat with my brother, trying to ignore the saccharine ballads of Hong Kong pop star Francis Yip on my parents' favourite tape.
Cruising the leafy streets of Albany is a treat for lovers of classic Australiana. A stroll through Patrick Taylor Cottage, built in 1832 and Western Australia's oldest dwelling, and a drive-by of Federation gems along Grey Street are essential Albany moments, followed by a leisurely rummage through an Aladdin's cave of second-hand books, souvenir spoons and vintage bric-a-brac at Albany Drive-in Mart. A good many of the Renée Geyer 45s in my collection were unearthed in this gold mine.
I might have made a picnic of the local produce assembled in my room by Sally and Craig Pullin at Beach House at Bayside, their boutique B&B, arguably Albany's best lodgings. But I'm heading Due South, a cavernous pub with a 500-seat dining room dotted by TV screens and sleeve tattoos. The menu is pub-standard, yet, like much about Albany, first impressions are deceiving. Flour is milled in-house and used to make bread, burger buns and pizze. The steaks are aged in the restaurant's own beef-ageing facility; I had a 120-day dry-aged Angus rump with sides for less than $50. The quality of charcuterie by butcher Martin Morgan is remarkable to behold in a pub: a nutty 24-month jamón from chestnut-fed pigs, fatty discs of coppa, piquant chorizo. And the pub's bottle shop champions wines from the Great Southern's 70-plus producers.
Just as deceiving is the unremarkable building on the outskirts of town with a pyramid of barrels by the road to catch motorists' attention. Founded in 2004 by local lawyer-turned-distiller Cameron Syme, Limeburners has become a national standard-bearer for craft distilling, making some of the country's most exciting whisky. Syme's Darkest Winter single malt was awarded best international craft whisky by the American Distilling Institute in April last year and best whisky in the southern hemisphere in the 2018 edition of Whisky Bible. Syme pours a dram and lists the reasons he chose the site with views to Frenchman Bay for his venture: good water, peat bogs, access to grain and a climate not dissimilar to that of whisky's spiritual home. "If you think about some of the great Scottish distilleries in Speyside and Islay, they're right on the edge of the water, too," he says. "As the whisky sits there, it soaks up that influence and our spirit has this slightly salty component people with very refined palates pick up on. We've always wanted to create iconic brands. I think you can only do that in an iconic location."
My morning starts with breakfast in the Beach House's canary-yellow dining room – good smoked salmon and eggs, local asparagus, toasted homemade bread and cumquat marmalade. On the way through town I take the scenic route via Mount Clarence. From here Albany is a patchwork of pitched corrugated-iron roofs and sandstone buildings unfurled to the ocean. And what a coastline: wild and empty, shimmering in summer and shivering in winter. Other stretches are best admired from afar to catch the sense of wide-angle drama of, for instance, Atatürk Channel from the lookout at the National Anzac Centre at the summit of Mount Clarence. An Anzac fleet of 38 ships left Australia from this point in 1914. Most never returned. The need for distance at The Gap, a dramatic rock formation at Torndirrup National Park in which the ocean roils, is a simple matter of safety. It gets the Instagram attention, but fewer travellers are aware of nearby Sharp Point lookout and its dizzying panorama of the Southern Ocean. Gull Rock Beach, the crowning glory of the recently established national park of the same name, is another locals-only gem.
Paul "Yoda" Iskov is local enough to know the region's best spots. A chef now based in Busselton, he runs a roving native-food pop-up called Fervor – and he's my road-trip buddy for a couple of days. Iskov and his partner, Stephne Pronk, stage dinners in remote Western Australian locations: shearing sheds, caves, unnamed islands accessible only by helicopter. As a teenager Iskov spent summer holidays in Albany, and in his 20s he'd regularly finish Saturday service at Perth's restaurant Amuse and drive all night to spend two days surfing breaks near the Albany Wind Farm in Sand Patch, just outside Torndirrup National Park.
"Mates would ask me why I was driving down to Albany all the time," he recalls. "There's nothing down there,' they'd say, and I'd go, yep, nothing down there." He grins, "As surfers, you always wanted to keep your spots secret."
These days Iskov spends his time cooking rather than surfing in the Great Southern. The region is a rich source of produce for Fervor, much of it from the Albany-based Bushfood Factory: local macadamia nuts, lemon, anise and cinnamon myrtles, meen, a chilli-like root that's also used by local gin distillers. He says the chance to spend time with Indigenous communities in the region is a critical part of his venture. "You go down here and you explore – that's how everyone finds their own little spot."
If Albany is the commercial heart of the Great Southern, then Denmark is its soul. The town is a 40-minute drive west of Albany on the South Coast Highway, but the more scenic Lower Denmark Road is full of diversions. It's punctuated by turn-offs to lush pastures, karri forests and white-sand beaches, such as Bornholm. The region and its legendary surf breaks star in the screen adaptation of Tim Winton's 2008 novel Breath.
Timber and dairy sustained the town for a long time; these days it's tourism and sea change. Among the newcomers is Jason Jujnovich, an alumnus of London's River Café and the former owner of Divido in Perth, a GT one-star restaurant known for its seasonal, wood-fired Italian cooking. Jujnovich moved south a few years ago with his wife, Elena, and young sons, Brando and Renn. "It's the best thing I've ever done," he says. As the executive chef of Boston Brewing, a huge brew-pub on the outskirts of town, he has streamlined and spruced up the menu. The wood-fired pizza is crisp, the fish and chips a cut above, and the wood-roasted asparagus a pleasing reminder of his Divido days.
Our lodging for the night is Aiyana, a four-villa retreat on the southern fringe of Denmark. The town's space and tranquillity prompted Lalita and Gadi Barak – a Swiss artist and massage therapist, and a windsurfer from Israel, respectively – to settle here. It's the little things – freshly picked wildflowers, a single pomelo-grapefruit hybrid grown in their orchard placed on a table – that appeal as much as open-air showers connected to bathrooms and the bushland setting.
Space to experiment encouraged renegade winemaking. The first commercial vines were planted in the Great Southern in 1965, and its cool-climate pinot noir, riesling and chardonnay are well established. A growing band of maverick winemakers however, is throwing caution to the wind. "We might not have as many producers, but the quality is right up there," says Yoko Luscher-Mostert of Brave New Wine, the label she runs with her husband, Andries Mostert.
With similarly freewheeling producers such as Andrew Hoadley of La Violetta, and Express Winemakers' Ryan O'Meara, Brave New Wine is challenging accepted wisdom about Western Australian wine. In a former wildflower-sorting shed in Denmark's industrial estate, the couple ferments riesling grapes with native botanicals to produce a subtly spiced Australian version of vermouth. They're working on pétillants naturels, and a full-bodied rosé made with pinot noir and chardonnay.
"The experience down here is a bit more authentic, I think," says Luscher-Mostert. "One of the recurring comments I hear from people is how untouched the Great Southern is."
The beaches in William Bay National Park are case studies in the untouched. From the lookout near the Greens Pool car park, the Southern Ocean looks like Neptune's own Jacuzzi, the wind whipping furious white peaks. We descend the wooden staircase to Greens Pool, however, and find a sheltered beach of pale sand framed by smooth boulders. Around the corner are the idyllic Madfish Bay and Waterfall Beach, the latter cleaved by a waterfall spilling onto the sand.
We arrive at Cape Howe Cottages near the rugged West Cape Howe National Park as the sun begins to gild Lowlands Beach, visible beyond the forest surrounding the six cabins. Later that evening, we enjoy excellent lamb Madras cooked and delivered by owners David and Gaynor Clarke. They're just back from a road trip, much longer than mine. "It took six months travelling around the country to make us realise how good life is here in Denmark," Gaynor says.
For a town of 6,000, Denmark eats well. We head to a cheery café called Mrs Jones for shakshuka and good coffee; at lunch the menu segues to marron and kelp noodle salad, and beef noodle soup. Next door is the Butter Factory Studios, a gallery showing pottery, paintings and sculpture by local artists. On the main street is Massimo's Place, a pizza joint run by Roman pizzaiolo Massimo Rinaldi. He ferments his dough for at least 24 hours, and his oblong pizze are offered rosse (with tomato), bianche (without), and Australian (meat-lovers' and Hawaiian).
Denmark's best table is Pepper & Salt, an airy restaurant run by Silas and Angela Masih at Forest Hill vineyard, about 10 minutes' drive out of town. The richness of Silas's marron and crab kedgeree teams well with the acidity of Forest Hill's Block 1 riesling, one of the highlights on the all-local wine list. Nicely pink Denmark quail is paired with cross-hatched pommes gaufrette and dainty spears of local asparagus, while slow-cooked duck curry is a permanent fixture on the menu.
The return trip to Albany is full of temptation, the roadside dotted with signs for farm-gate sales. Savvy locals head to Nicklup Orchard near Kalgan River for heirloom stone fruit in summer. Otherwise, there's Handasyde Strawberries, a farm-gate operation selling trays of certified-organic fruit and eggs.
All roads, though, lead to Liberté, a lively bar and Parisian-louche restaurant in the London Hotel in Albany, one of the state's first licensed buildings. If you've always wanted to dine on a daybed in a Belle Époque-style room and pass a wall-sized Delacroix print on the way to the bathroom, here's your chance. Or take a seat in the bistro, surrounded by mismatched furniture and posters for vintage booze, and have bar manager Keryn Giles mix a textbook Martini or a Roger Ramjet, an earthy mix of mezcal, rum, Cynar and grilled-pear syrup.
After 10 years, chef-owner Amy Hamilton regards Albany as her home and its farmers part of her extended family. "I'm emotionally invested in this region," she says. We chat in the kitchen as she dices fennel and baby carrots plucked from her backyard. "I don't feel like a fraud when I talk about the Great Southern. In Albany, you're forced to have a very direct relationship with producers. Sometimes they're hard relationships to maintain – it's a lot easier to sit in an office and fax an order form – but that's part of the charm."
Much of Liberté's charm lies with Hamilton's interpretation of French and Vietnamese flavours using Great Southern ingredients. She makes a sort of bottarga using roe from Australian salmon fished at nearby Parry Beach and uses it to add punch to crisp-fried akoya oysters; she dries the fish's flesh into a ham-like "sa-mon" and serves it crudo style. Shards of rice paper add crunch to beef tartare. I think of her flaky salted egg-yolk custard millefeuille as an Indochine vanilla slice. Then there's her whitebait, caught locally, fried and swiped through a pot of tamarind mayo. It's the taste of Australian summers to come.