Warning: I am making no attempt to keep the post to a reasonable length, so skim as you will and remember there are more pictures in the flickr sidebar if you're interested.
I know, I know. It looks like I apologized for not posting last week...and then I didn't post again. What the hey?! My excuse is this: we weren't here! When Markus returned from KL, we realized how badly we wanted some time away from Perth as a family. We hadn't gone anywhere since we arrived over 8 months ago, and if you've been following this blog for a while, you will know how unusual that amount of time in one spot really is for us! Frankly, we've been so happy not to get on a plane or pack a bag because everything we needed for the kids is right here at our doorsteps...but it was time for a change of scene. Perth is the most isolated capital city on the planet, and it was starting to feel that way. Markus took a day and a half off work to make our own long weekend, and we headed down south on Thursday afternoon for a weekend in Margaret River.
Margaret River is the famous wine region of Western Australia. Nearby Swan Valley (where the Cuddly Animal Farm is) also produces lots of wine, but Margaret River wines are held to be world class. The drive takes about 4 hours of non-highway driving. We hadn't been before now because it's the place EVERYONE from here seems to go when there is a holiday, and it's always packed at those times. We wanted our first visit to be off-season, and we managed it big style: our trip coincided with the first winter storm. Cold cold gale-force winds, driving rain in on-off showers...joy! Can we pick 'em or what? Oh well. To be honest, we didn't really mind. Our goal was to get away and see/do something new, and we did that. The weather was the same here as it was there, so at least we weren't trapped in the house. Despite the nasty weather, we did manage one big fun thing each day, and we all enjoyed ourselves the whole weekend! Hooray!
So...what did we do?
First off, we booked a self-catering villa at Clearwater Retreat in Dunsborough for the weekend. Being off-season, we got a great deal! It was clean, in great condition, and the place was perfect for our needs (if a little big). Three bedrooms, two baths (one of which had a big bathtub for our thrilled girls; we have no tub at home), kitchen, laundry room, huge living area with TV/DVD and lots of space to run around inside (which was very useful considering the weather). It is in walking distance to the beach, and we did take a stroll on day 3 when the rain eased. We arrived at dinnertime Thursday night, so we just made a trip to the grocery store and cooked dinner ourselves, watched a movie, and headed to bed.
Thursday's nasty cold gale-force winds and rain continued on Friday, so we decided to keep out of the weather by touring a cave (lots of them in the area). Ngili Cave was the closest to us, and it was a great choice! The tour is partially self-guided, which means a guide is inside to answer questions but there is no tour per se. The route was mildly challenging and some of the passages were a bit too narrow for my liking (I'm claustrophobic), but being the only people there made it great! We could go at our own pace and enjoy. The climate in the cave was a welcome retreat: 20 degrees Celsius (around 70 F) and humid, obviously no wind or rain. At first, Ellie was very nervous and wanted to be carried, but she soon eased into the fun of exploration and did the rest on her own (baby Stephanie was strapped snugly to my back). Ellie really enjoyed looking at the crystals the guide had on display, and she keeps talking about how much fun she had in the cave, telling everyone that the cave had "lots of pointy things" (stalactites, stalagmites).
By Saturday, the storm had eased a great deal, and though it was cold and windy, it wasn't nearly so rough outside. We made a visit to the Yallingup Shearing Shed, a working sheep farm with a demonstration of the sheep dogs as well as the shearing. The girls seemed stunned into silence by such busy, active dogs...and so many sheep! Of course, there was a Border Collie to bring the sheep in from the pasture, but then his work was done and the Australian Kelpie took over. The farmer simplified it for us: a black & white dog brings sheep to you, a brown on brown dog runs on sheep. That he did! He got those sheep where he wanted them to go by running on them. That was a new sight for us!
Ellie wasn't so sure about the shearing process. We constantly narrated the process, reminding her it was just a haircut for the sheep. It was pretty funny to watch the sheep be dragged limply out of the pen and passively accept his shearing. He didn't seem to mind one bit. The farmer sheared him in one piece and spread the wool out for us to see. All his sheep are merinos, and the wool was beautifully soft. He let the kids touch it and they each took home a little piece. Ellie's absolute favorite part was a surprise ending: the farmer opened a little gate and let in several lambs, and he handed out bottles for us to feed them. It was really sweet!
We stopped for lunch at Swings&Roundabouts Winery since they'd billed themselves as family-friendly and offered wood-fired pizzas at lunchtime. I did a wine tasting there with a rather testy pourer, and we didn't get a very friendly feeling. After the pizzas were gone, we skedaddled. Saturday afternoon, we took a drive down the length of the cape instead of returning to the villa for naptime. It made the evening a bit hairy, but the drive was nice. We went far enough south that the vegetation changed to more forest than field, which was beautiful to see. The Cape Leeuwin lighthouse is the tallest lighthouse in Australia, so we checked that site off the tourist list, though we weren't allowed up with kids under 4. We explored the beach area around it instead until the wind drove us back to the shelter of the car.
Sunday dawned bright and clear (of course, since it was our last day, and a half-day at that!). We drove to the playground at Yallingup Beach so the girls could run around outside.
Before heading home, we stopped in at Cullen Winery, the only stop that was key on my list. We had missed it the other days due to weather or timing, so we decided to make it our last Margaret River experience of this trip. What a great choice! Cullen Winery is completely organic and biodynamic, so their food is amazing and the wines are outstanding. I did a tasting there, and there wasn't a single wine I didn't like. I am no connoisseur, but those wines are beautiful. I don't know how easily you can find them outside of WA (their bottlings are small due to the high production standards), but I highly recommend you bring home a bottle if you find one! We bought three different wines and took home an order form for more. The vineyard itself is lovely. The setting couldn't have been nicer for our lunch, and the staff were incredibly friendly to us and the girls. Cullen has a homestead available for holiday rentals, so we hope to snag that on some future visit. It was definitely a high point on our trip and sold us on Margaret River for good!
All in all, we had a fantastic weekend, much-appreciated time away despite the crappy weather. We are so happy we visited during off-season and we already have plans to go back sometime this winter. Just not during another storm. Brrrrrr!