Take the inland route south this winter and you’ll find so much more than just tall timbers to soothe the soul and warm the heart.
If you ditch the time-honoured convoy of city slickers escaping Perth for a weekend down south by the ocean and instead opt for a journey inland, you can almost see the traffic disappear.
While our love for the stunning South West coastline knows no bounds, Western Australians can be less inclined to take the road – or roads – less travelled.
What they’re missing is vibrant, rolling green hills, historic buildings, arts and crafts, and fabulous fresh produce.
There’s also plenty to keep the adventurous at heart happy, whether it’s hiking or biking through the forests, kayaking down the river or climbing tall trees.
The adventure starts in Balingup, about 240km and two and a half hours from Perth via the Kwinana Freeway and Forest Highway. But part of the joy of this trip is taking your time. For a slightly longer but leisurely drive, take the South West Highway from Armadale and wind your way through the agricultural towns of Waroona, Yarloop, Harvey, and Donnybrook.
From Donnybrook, Balingup is just another 20 minutes down the road. It really comes into its own in winter and the best way to experience the magic of this region is to stay in one of the myriad cottages scattered around the lovely landscape.
Balingup Heights Hilltop Forest Cottages are perched, as the name suggests, on a hilltop surrounded by majestic marri and karri trees. The early morning mist coats the spectacular valley the six private cottages overlook, while a glass of local wine tastes even better at night by a cosy log fire.
Nature lovers can spend their days taking bush walks along the Bibbulmun Track, cycling the Munda Biddi Trail or kayaking down the tranquil Blackwood River; while those who like to take it easier will lose themselves in boutique shops such as Tinderbox for aromatherapy, and The Village Pedlars, stocked to the brim with local arts, crafts, homemade preserves and fresh produce.
But everyone should visit Golden Valley Tree Park. Open all year round, this 60ha heritage-listed site, the largest arboretum in Western Australia, is stunning at any time but the World Collection and Australian Collection of trees are best seen in the cooler months. Boasting some of the state’s rarest trees, the park really is a natural treasure.
Like its more serene sister 26km to the north, Bridgetown is nestled by the Blackwood River and offers all the same outdoor adventures. Swing by the Visitor Centre for advice about the best biking and hiking trails.
Known for its popular blues festival, the town is also a haven for artists and artisans. Spend some time wandering around at The Rabbit Hole, a delightful space bringing eight studios together to create and sell art and showcase the work of Blackwood Valley artists with ever-changing exhibitions.
There’s also the quirky Bridgetown Jigsaw Gallery – one of only two jigsaw galleries in the world. Named for Jessie Brierley, who settled in Bridgetown in 1940 and donated her collection of completed jigsaws in the late 1970s, the gallery at the back of the Visitor Centre features a dazzling array of jigsaws ranging from 99 pieces to 40,000+. The Ravensburger Memorable Moments Jigsaw, one of the world’s largest at more than 40,000 pieces and featuring 10 Disney movies, is also on loan to the gallery.
While the town itself boasts several historic buildings, including the Railway Station (1898) and St Paul’s Anglican Church (1911), history buffs will enjoy the 53km drive along the Geegelup Heritage Trail, retracing the agricultural, mining and timber history of the Bridgetown- Greenbushes area.
The warm interior of The Cidery and Blackwood Valley Brewing Company also pays homage to the past, its walls lined with photographs of pioneering families of the apple industry. The Pink Lady apple features in The Cidery’s range of ciders and apple juices, while Blackwood Brewing Co’s unfiltered beers change with the season. They are also home to Blackwood Valley Distillery that make a rather fine gin, and zesty apple liqueur.
There is no shortage of places to rest your weary head after a long day of exploring, from budget-friendly caravan parks to farm stays such as Sunnyhurst Chalets and the rather romantic Bridgetown Valley Lodge. Just don’t leave town without treating yourself to something from Hansen’s Hot Bread Shop.
This pretty town, 46km west of Bridgetown along the Brockman Highway, is affectionately known as the Garden Village for good reason. Surrounded by karri and jarrah forests, the historic buildings and gorgeous cottage gardens lining the streets give Nannup a warm and cosy feeling even in the coldest months.
From the Noongar word for “stopping place”, you’ll be very pleased if you do just that. While summer is likely to feature a dip in Barrabup Pool, a natural swimming hole set amid a cathedral of tall trees, hikers, bikers and even horse riders can hit one of the trails that wind through karri and jarrah trees and along the Blackwood River any time of year. It’s best to check with the Visitor Centre for maps and the level of fitness required, as some trails are more challenging than others.
Planted in 1926, the Nannup Arboretum may not be as big as Balingup’s, but the collection is just as sure to delight. The famous Nannup Flower and Garden Festival draws gardeners and nature lovers from late winter into spring, when the wildflowers are at their best, but Nannup is a biodiversity hotspot, so the local flora is stunning at any time of year. The crisp, wintry air and morning mists add a certain magic to a walk through the forest, too.
The town also punches well above its weight for delightful places to eat and shop. A Taste of Nannup lives up to its name, stocking an interesting array of local arts, crafts and produce, while the Tiny Tea Shop, housed in a heritage stone cottage, has a large range of bespoke tea blends.
Like its Blackwood River sisters, Nannup boasts some lovely places to stay for a few days, too, from camping grounds and caravan parks to farm stays and historic hotels. For a little luxury in the bush, the self-contained chalets at Beyonderup Falls Country Escape are located in a great spot to take in the winter waterfalls, just off the Balingup-Nannup Road.
This winding, scenic route that takes you back to Balingup, is yet another chance to marvel at the region’s lush forests.
As you draw closer to town, stop and pay your respects along the Avenue of Honour, a stretch of 54 oak trees planted in the 1930s for the locals who lost their lives in World War I.
Then it’s up to you whether you take the most direct route or the roads less travelled back to the big smoke and enjoy the magic of the inland South West for a little longer.
A little extra: detour
If time permits, head deeper into the Southern Forests & Valleys region. Manjimup, just 36km south and half an hour’s drive from Bridgetown, is well worth the detour. Time your visit for the Saturday farmers’ market to sample the fresh produce the Southern Forests & Valleys is renowned for, before trying a few of the local craft beers at Tall Timbers Brewing Co. Manjimup Heritage Park is a great family picnic spot, not least for the 17-metre-high slide that delights kids big and small.
Pemberton is another 32km or 25 minutes further down the road. If you do nothing else, visit the famous Gloucester Tree — a few minutes out of town but a world away from the rat race. While there is safety netting, the 58-metre climb is not for the feint-hearted, so those afraid of heights should simply admire the former fire lookout from the ground before heading further into the forest around it.
Foodies might like to plan their trip around brunch at Wild at Heart (you won’t be able to resist the homemade bread). And if you’re staying in or near Pemberton, bag a table at the tiny but terrific Treehouse Tapas and Wine Bar for dinner.