The Great Escape

Last Updated: 25 Jun 2014
Renee Bergere

Discover how Bunbury has changed from a town you simply pass through to the perfect winter weekend getaway.

From wine and cheese to dolphins, helicopter flights and all the attractions of the Ferguson Valley, Bunbury has changed from a town you simply pass through to the perfect winter weekend getaway.

You've got a free weekend and itchy feet. It's too cold for the beach. You're not up for the long-haul drive to Margaret River or the Great Southern. Flying to some remote corner of the state is out of the question, but places like the Perth Hills or the Swan Valley feel a little too close.

I've got the answer to your problems, but you'll have to brace yourself. It's Bunbury.

OK, so it may not be the first weekend destination that springs to mind. Most West Australians know Bunbury as little more than a handy place to fill up the tank and grab a quick bite en route to someplace else. Surely a city with Macca's at one entrance and smokestacks at the other can't be worth spending a whole weekend in?

Oh, but it is.

This is the conclusion I reached after spending a weekend there in early winter. Truth be told, I had never been to Bunbury before this trip. I'd heard the nicknames (haven't we all?) and knew about its significance as WA's third largest city,
a town of 30,000 souls whose bustling port supports agriculture, mining and manufacturing in the southwest. I'd been assured its waterways teemed with dolphins.

Koombana Bay has some 200 identified dolphins in its waters.

The drive down from Perth on Friday after work was a breezy, two-hour affair. The first thing that struck me as I entered town was all the water. My arrival ritual – a quick reconnaissance drive before checking into the hotel – brought me past the mangrove-filled Leschenault Inlet to the calm beaches of Geographe Bay to the west and even calmer Koombana Bay to the north of town. No dolphin thought to pop up to wave a fin and wish me a happy stay. Odd.

My base camp for the next two nights was Mantra Hotel Bunbury, a luxury resort on the shores of Marlston Waterfront. From my balcony, I watched sunset sailboats skim across Koombana Bay in the dying light. Still, no dolphins.

That all changed the next morning. My Dolphin Eco Cruise had hardly cast off before we spotted our first pod, two adults and a baby. As we approached, underwater acrobatics began, the graceful animals spinning and jumping on either side of the boat, to a chorus of oohs and ahhs.

And so, my need for dolphin encounters sated, I happily returned to dry land in search of Bunbury's other offerings.

Victoria Street pizzeria Bianco.

I headed straight to Victoria Street, Bunbury's cappuccino strip and home to dozens of boutiques, cafes and restaurants. As I strolled, I saw evidence of Bunbury's emerging art scene. A recent project by Bunbury initiative Re.Discover commissioned six local street artists, including Stormie Mills and Anya Brock, to paint murals in the city's laneways and the interiors and shop fronts of boutiques.

"Time and again I am stopped by people of all ages commenting on the freshly painted walls," said Andrew Frazer, founder and creative director of the Re.Discover project, the success of which has ensured next year's exhibition will be bigger and better. "The street art has begun a transforming process in developing a sense of place in Bunbury."

An original mural by Perth artist Anya Brock, on the side of Bunbury boutique Shoe-Be-Doo.

But it's not just the streets getting spruced up. The Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre has recently undergone a multi-million dollar renovation, modernising its 800-seat theatre and adding a 240-seat stage to host more intimate, contemporary performances, like those at the Blue Room Theatre or Studio Underground in Perth.

"There's such a thriving arts community here, and we're so excited that the new, smaller space is one they can take ownership of and perform in," said general manager and artistic director Joel McGuinness. "There's this bubbling sense of self-confidence in Bunbury that's coming to the fore. We're not trying to be someplace else. It's about telling stories that are local and relevant. It doesn't have to be twee – it can be fresh and new."

The Ferguson Valley in verdant winter mode.

Once I'd had my cultural fill, I turned to Bunbury's biggest winter drawcard: the Ferguson Valley, a wine and agriculture region 10 minutes east of town. The drive alone was spectacular, the rolling hills lush from recent winter rainfall.

I followed the winding roads through cow-speckled farmland to visit the 500-year old King Jarrah tree, browse art galleries and sample wares at the local breweries, wineries and dairies. Camembert from Ferguson Falls winery followed by a taste of the incredible Willow Bridge Bookends Fumé SBS provided the perfect driving sustenance. Before I headed back to Bunbury, curiosity compelled me to visit Gnomesville, the forest home of 3000 garden gnome statues. It's too bizarre not to visit.

I decided to finish my trip in spectacular fashion, with a scenic helicopter flight. My pilot was Ben Talbot, a Bunbury local and the owner of Outback Aviation. From the air, I spied the rolling hills of the Ferguson Valley, the waterfront cafe called The Happy Wife, where I had breakfasted, and – if I squinted – even the breaks off Cape Naturaliste.

Before swinging back to the airport, Ben swooped us over the Leschenault Estuary. Right on cue, a small pod of dolphins appeared in view. Not a bad send-off for Bunbury's newest fan.

The Marlston Waterfront.

Getting there
Located 165km south of Perth, Bunbury is an easy two-hour drive on the Southwestern Highway.

When to go
While summer is the best season to take advantage of Bunbury's family-friendly, water-focused activities, visiting in winter has its fair share of perks: the city is quiet, there's plenty of accommodation available, and the rolling hills of the neighbouring Ferguson Valley are lush and green. You'll feel like you've got them all to yourself.

What to do

  • Cruise the waterways on an eco cruise with the award-winning Dolphin Discovery Centre.
  • Bushwalk through tuart forest, Big Swamp Reserve and the Leschenault Peninsula Conservation Park, or mountain bike the extensive trails at Mount Lennard.
  • Bring the kids to the Bunbury Wildlife Park, where they can pat kangaroos, wombats and emus.
  • Soar over the verdant landscape on a scenic helicopter tour with Outback Aviation.
  • Stroll along the beautiful Marlston Waterfront or Victoria Street, home to boutiques, cafes and street art.
  • Take in a show at the revamped Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre.
  • Drive through the lush green hills of the Ferguson Valley, tasting the local cheese and wine, and visiting the inimitable Gnomesville.

Where to eat
Breakfast is Bunbury's favourite meal – the city's brimming with great cafes including stylish espresso bar Benesse and popular brunch spots Cafe 140 and Corners on King. The Happy Wife, a cafe overlooking the Leschenault Inlet, is not only a great place for spotting dolphins, but also serves fantastic homemade crumpets. For lunch, grab a slice of pizza at Bianco, or a more virtuous meal at Natural Temptation. Come dinnertime, the best options are upscale tapas restaurant Casellas, or the swish Silos Bar and Restaurant in the Mantra Bunbury Hotel.

Must-visit: Ferguson Valley wineries
The Ferguson Valley is one of WA's up-and-coming wine regions. Standout vineyards are making wine from alternative, heat-tolerant varietals like tempranillo, malbec, petit verdot, and grenache. Many wineries in the region are open by appointment only, so be sure to call ahead. The region's best include Barton Jones, Bonking Frog Wines, Green Door, Hackersley Winery, St Aidan Wines and Willow Bridge Estate.

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