I was greeted with a mischievous grin by an unlikely city mascot. Albany's newish landmark is hardly one to miss — a 35m-tall leafy sea dragon mural named Ruby hovering in the skies of Western Australia's southernmost port city.
The rare critter's cartoonish striped body and fire-engine red trumpet-like nose is permanently swimming towards the town's centre.
This unique city welcome is splashed across four looming silos, breathing big, bold colours into Albany's concentrated mish-mash of industrial and heritage buildings and broader natural splendour. This larger-than-life paint job, forming part of the illustrious PUBLIC Silo Art Trail, is probably the most tell-tale sign of a city undergoing a metamorphosis. Albany — most famously known for its initial European settlement, wartime and whaling history, and possibly lesser-known as the State's initial earmarked capital — is headed in a new direction.
Walking around the well-preserved townscape and pure surrounds, I could sense this seaside city was evolving.
Albany's warfare past blended with art to shape its future. Its cuisine culture is coming-of-age too, with the south coast's largest town steadily plating up the best epicurean feeds within the region. All the more reason to toot Albany's horn.
A CULTURAL PILGRIMAGE
A journey to Albany, some 413km south-east of Perth, is also a journey into Australia's wartime past, making the pilgrimage even more significant. Albany was the last port of departure for 41,000 Australian citizens who bid farewell to the unruffled life they once knew to fight in World War I in 1914. The dramatic beauty of Albany's rugged coastline, rolling green hilltops, and the intersection of King George Sound and Princess Royal Harbour waterways would have left a lasting impression on these brave souls. For many, it was their last contact with home soil.
Albany's premier vantage point, Mount Clarence in Albany Heritage Park, is home to the National Anzac Centre. Unveiled in 2014, the state-of-the-art centre pays homage to the ANZAC legend with a modern-age storytelling twist. An intimate history lesson is provided with the personal stories of 32 civilians involved in battle relived through interactive experiences, multimedia displays and historical artefacts.
Upon entering, I received a baseball-type ‘playing card’ of one of the civilians whose life I was to follow throughout the centre's labyrinth exhibition of personally penned letters and recorded happenings.
A few hours later, I left the centre in a sullen state. It was a poignant confrontation, a hard pill to swallow, but one that every Australian must. Just be prepared for a wave of emotion to flood over and to dive deep into reflective retrospection post-visit.
Most fittingly is the centre's location within the heritage listed Princess Royal Fortress affording a symbolic sense of place. The fortress dates back to pre-federation times, one of the two first built to protect trading routes. Built in 1893, it was the country's first coastal defence and was used until 1956. It is now free to wander the now-harmless wartime playground with decommissioned artillery — cannons, missiles, tankers, and weaponry — all on display. These days, the only shots fired here are those from a tourist camera.
TASTE GREAT SOUTHERN
The uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach I had received from those emotionally rousing visits got a much-welcomed nurturing from Albany's booming food scene. And let me assure you, it's worth packing clothes with elasticity on the waistline and locating that extra stomach of yours.
I headed to Garrison, only a short stroll away from the National Anzac Centre and overlooking stunning vistas of King George Sound, Princess Harbour and beyond. Happiness is better shared, and this Albany institution brings the world together by the share plate with its moreish menu inspired by local influences and those further afield. As travelling abroad is not permitted due to pandemic restrictions, travelling by fork would have to suffice.
In one sitting, I ventured to Morocco (Marrakesh lamb meatballs), Spain (potato bravas), Mexico (pulled chicken tacos), and China (tempeh bao buns) by the mouthful. This much-loved institution is one of the many venues fuelling Albany's reputation as an unofficial foodie capital of the south-west.
Over the years, Albany's dining scene has morphed into something beyond traditional pub fare. I often think as Albany as a Little France, as it’s like a whirlwind visit to the gastronome nation with the amount of highly regarded eateries that have emerged around the city centre in recent times — particularly along its gorgeous heritage thoroughfares, Stirling Terrace and York Street.
New kid on the block, Majuba Bistro, is the latest to join Albany's French food revolution. The restaurant presents a sophisticated side to Albany with the two-storey bistro offering French-inspired cuisine with an extensive wine list to take you around the world by the pour. The splurge to ‘Little France’ was justified with a taste of the restaurant's signature seafood bouillabaisse using fresh, locally caught seafood. J'adore!
Another major player in Albany's time capsule to France is Liberte. Tucked away in the historic London Hotel, the restaurant is a whirlwind trip to bohemian Paris, with its red velvet curtains, old French furnishings and attention-grabbing wall decor (including renaissance art) setting the kitsch, boho scene. The late-night haunt has attracted an unashamedly indulgent following for its French-Vietnamese fusion share menu and cocktail list the crème de la crème of town — no wonder it is a recommended nightcap spot.
But to fully appreciate Albany's healthy appetite for good food is to experience it provincial style. There's no fresher start to the day than feeling the morning crisp air touch your skin and being surrounded by the heavenly smells and visuals of garden-fresh produce and edible works of local artisans at the Albany Farmers' Markets. It's a hive of activity every Saturday morning, with locals shoulder-to-shoulder at vendors to sense what's new to taste across the Great Southern Region. I was happy to do a DIY farm-to-table experience, purchasing baked goods from carb connoisseurs Bred Co and Denmark-grown mushrooms for a gourmet brunch soon after.
Just as Albany's food scene is upping the stakes, so too are its vineyards. Orange is the colour of choice with Oranje Tractor Wine (pronounced orange) one of Albany's most celebrated wineries. Located 10 minutes outside Albany, the boutique cellar door has been on the receiving end of industry accolades particularly for its ‘Wine Flight’ ($28 per head). The innovative wine-tasting pairs five organic wines with delicious morsels made of local cheeses and other oeuvres sourced from the onsite farm.
The vineyard has even received the royal seal approval from Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, who enjoyed a trickle among the vines on their 2015 Australian tour. I didn't expect to have such a royal encounter with wine, but if it was good enough for them, it would most certainly be good enough for my chalice.
Top travel tip: The region’s premier food and wine festival, Taste Great Southern, is held in March over 11 days and offers a range of unique culinary experiences for visitors as well as appearances by highly regarded local WA chefs.
A NATURAL BEAUTY
I realised soon enough the perfect balance in life can be achieved in Albany. The city is blessed with a natural smorgasbord of spectacular places to visit with and without the exertion.
A perfect excuse to work off the gluttonous part of my tour of Albany was hiking the scenic Point Possession Heritage Trail. Its beauty is doubled walking the lengths of both Vancouver Peninsula's beaches along the 5km Tombolo Loop Trail. Albany Port and King George Sound's stunning panoramic vistas would be a bonus to this easy-moderate hike.
As I met the tail end of my walk nearby the main carpark, I spotted Whalers Cove, a tucked-away so-called ‘free beach’ where hand-drawn signage specified that clothing was but a choice. Cheeky.
I decided to continue my so-called lazy wanderer streak by visiting a famous duo. The Gap and Natural Bridge are two of Albany's most iconic natural landmarks, located in Torndirrup National Park.
In every sense, the scene is breathtaking at The Gap. The Gap's platform sits 40m above and extends directly over one of the most exposed parts of the Australian coastline. It's not one for the faint-hearted and, if you are scared of heights, maybe second guess your visit to the platform itself. It gives off the same thrills as an amusement park ride with its long drop and birds-eye view of the relentless pounding of waves crashing against the granite cliffs. You can also feel it with the amount of wind and ocean spray sea expelled, so bring a waterproof jacket.
Living so close to danger was awesome, but only in small doses, and I soon retreated to safer ground. The site's other starlet, Natural Bridge is not one to cross but rather admire from afar. There is an easy walkway to follow to see this remarkable window of the coast.
For something more physically gruelling, there is also Bald Head Walk Trail that awards with frame-worthy nature shots. The 12.5km trail located in Norndirrup National Park, crosses Flinders Peninsula to be rewarded with views of the Southern Ocean and King George Sound — and possibly even a whale. (Bring the binoculars!)
Albany attracts a healthy whale population along its coast. To catch a glimpse of Albany's biggest residents living freely out in the wild, hop on board a whale watching tour between June until August each year.
However, Albany’s history with whales wasn't always pleasant viewing. Rewind to more than 40 years ago, and the city was home to the last whaling station in Australia until its closure. Today, Albany's Historic Whaling Station at Discovery Bay provides an education into the city's bloody past. There is a whale skeleton on display, a big reminder of the need to protect these ocean giants.
AN ARTFUL CITY
In recent years, the township of Albany has also become a canvas. Its grand masterpiece, of course, is its new skyscraper sea dragon Ruby, painted by internationally renowned visual artist duo The Yok and Sheyro, splashed across four working silos.
It is one of six massive murals forming part of WA's PUBLIC Silo Trail by non-profit cultural organisation FORM. The 2018 artwork piece was not without controversy, with the public divided over the mural depicting Albany's rarely spotted sea dweller rather than harnessing its ANZAC heritage.
But the unusual selection was to bring awareness and show another side to Albany which many locals have now, thankfully, come to embrace.
The epic gallery viewing does not stop there with Albany's streetscape an urban chameleon. Street art has ramped up its presence here over the last five years with the Albany City Public Art Trail now stretching to seven public spaces around the city. The trail includes sculptures and artworks by renowned street artists adding colour to previous blank walled canvases.
Food, wine, and now art — I was turning into a critic across all fields, doing a walking tour around the city and reviewing my finds. What complemented the walk was juxtaposing well-preserved heritage buildings around town with contemporary artworks: a yin and yang of both kinds of beautiful.
There is also a quirky side to Albany. Just seek and you shall find offbeat artworks along Chainsaw Sculpture Drive. This imaginative outdoor nature exhibit in a bush setting circuit displays wooden sculptures creatively carved out by chainsaw blades. Seeing Ned Kelly, an octopus, cuckoo clock and other brilliantly crafted timbers made me think that I should have gone harder with my high school woodwork lessons. If only.
There is a lot to grasp with Albany's visual displays of history, food, nature and its art, and appreciation for this exciting port city will undoubtedly continue to thrive. And this admirer here cannot wait to smile back at Ruby again.
TASTE GREAT SOUTHERN
11 days, 30+ culinary experiences,
18–28 March 2021
ALBANY FARMERS' MARKETS
Every Saturday from 8am until noon
Collie Street, Albany
P: (08) 9842 5175
ALBANY’S HISTORIc WHALING STATION
P: (08) 9844 4021
PUBLIC SILO ART TRAIL
CHAINSAW SCULPTURE DRIVE
BIG4 MIDDLETON BEACH HOLIDAY PARK
P: (08) 9841 3593
ALBANY GARDENS TOURIST PARK
P: (08) 9841 4616