Story and photos by Christopher Elliott
Want to get away from it all? You can't get much farther than Western Australia.
It's the year of the far-cation, and almost no place is farther from the United States than Western Australia.
Perth, Western Australia's capital, is halfway around the world from the East Coast. To get there from Washington, D.C., you'll spend a day on a plane and endure a mind-bending 13-hour time difference.
It's not easily accessible, but it's perfect for visitors like Darren Butts, who plans to fly to Australia's largest state in May with his wife, Pamela. They've been to Western Australia before, but this time they're headed to Broome and Kununurra, both in the northern part of the state.
"Western Australia is unique," says Butts, a retired facilities director from Green Valley, Ariz. "And it's deeply rewarding."
Long-distance international trips are "in" this year—and for adventurous travelers like Butts, the farther, the better. Flight searches to Perth during the region's autumn season, which runs from March to May, is nearly 180% ahead of the same period last year, according to Expedia.
That's quite a rebound from just a year ago, when Western Australia reopened its borders after the worst of the pandemic ended. Tourism Western Australia estimates that international flights into Western Australia from all global markets will return to 85% of pre-COVID levels between now and July.
But what can you do in Western Australia, an obscure destination that became even more so during the pandemic because the state sealed its borders? It turns out there's more than meets the eye, including options for visitors who are interested in culture, history, and cute mouse-like marsupials.
What to do in Western Australia
A glance at the map suggests there's not much happening in Western Australia, when it comes to tourism. It's vast and sparsely populated. But look closer and you'll find:
• Cool beaches. If you're looking for powdery white sand and turquoise water, there are plenty of beaches that check all the boxes. Popular spots in Perth include Cottesloe Beach, Scarborough Beach, and City Beach.
• Famous wineries. Margaret River, considered one of Australia's premium wine-growing regions, has more than 150 wineries. Cullen, Leeuwin Estate and Vasse Felix call Margaret River home. Best of all, they're just a quick three-hour drive from Perth.
• The great outdoors. Western Australia offers a selection of natural landscapes, from Eucalyptus forests to red-rock deserts to white sand coastline. There's hiking, camping, and wildlife watching in places like Nambung National Park, home of the famous Pinnacles rock formations.
But what sets Western Australia apart from other places is that the few things to do are remarkable, according to visitors. Margaret Ghielmetti, author of the book Brave(ish): A Memoir of a Recovering Perfectionist, says Western Australia's beaches are as close to perfect as she's seen. Her favorite, Yallingup, is a three-hour drive south of Perth.
"There's an espresso truck overlooking the crystalline turquoise water," she recalls. "I would fly back to Australia just for that view—and brew."
Western Australia is ready for international visitors
For the last three years, Western Australia has been cut off from international visitors—which has only made the state even more intriguing to outsiders. But tourism operators are anticipating an influx of visitors soon.
Paul Clark, general manager of the recently opened boutique Samphire Rottnest hotel on Rottnest Island, says he sees more arrivals from Singapore, the U.K., India and the United States every week.
"Rottnest used to be popular with locals, but we're seeing more interest from international visitors now," he says.
With good reason. Rottnest Island—or Rotto, as the locals call it—doesn't just have a new hotel. It also has miles of biking trails, postcard-perfect beaches, and quokkas, the friendly marsupials that look like giant rats (hence the name Rottnest). Quokkas are listless during the day, but if you spend the night, you can see them at dusk, and they are quite animated and completely unafraid of humans.
A short ferry ride away, there's another signature attraction: Fremantle. The port town escaped the developers' wrecking ball in the 20th century and now has one of the largest collections of restored colonial architecture. Plus, there are indoor markets, the famous Fremantle Prison, and Cappuccino Strip, where you can get some of the best coffee and Italian food in Western Australia. It attracts visitors by the boatload—literally.
"The cruise ships come in here, and three thousand passengers come ashore," says Michael Deller, owner of Fremantle Tours, a local tour operator. "It increases the town's population by 30% for one day."
Exploring Aboriginal Western Australia
Human civilization dates back 45,000 years in Western Australia, and there are many opportunities to explore that aspect of the state. At the Western Australian Museum's Boola Bardip campus in Perth, you'll find exhibits exploring the state's fascinating and often troubled relationship with the indigenous Nyunga people.
You can also tour Kings Park with Nyungar Tours and hear ancient stories about what Australia was like before colonization. The park, which overlooks Perth, was once a sacred site where women came to give birth. European settlement changed Western Australia permanently, but the memory of a quieter place that was in harmony with nature lives on in the stories told by the aboriginal guides.
In Nambung National Park, a two-hour drive north, there is another sacred site, also said to be used for "women's business" by the Nyunga. But in this place, where the desert meets the sea, you can also experience the surreal rock formations known as pinnacles. It's easily accessible as a day tour from Perth. One operator, Autopia Tours, also offers a stargazing tour in the park after sunset.
The limestone rocks, many of them as tall as a school bus, are thought to be the remains of an ancient forest. They stand in the reddish sand, casting long shadows on a hot summer afternoon. The Nyunga say young men wandered into this sacred palace and were turned to stone as punishment.
Is Western Australia worth a visit?
So should you plan a visit to Western Australia this year? If you love being outdoors and learning about ancient cultures, and you like getting out of town—way out of town—then it's worth considering. If you have young children who could tolerate such a long plane trip, it's better to wait until the younger ones are older. And a visit takes time, not just to get there, but also to adjust to the time zone.
But there's no question about it—Western Australia is worth adding to your bucket list.
"It's truly a special place," says Carolyn Turnbull, managing director of Tourism Western Australia.
Christopher Elliott is the chief advocacy officer for Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that helps consumers solve their problems. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or get help with any consumer problem by contacting him on his site.