Cowaramup is an eccentric town some 259km south of Perth. Although Cowaramup derives from the Noongar word cowara, the local name for the purple-crowned lorikeet, with 42 life-size fibreglass (occasionally quirkily dressed) Friesian cows and calves dotting the village and a history linked with dairy farming, its little wonder it has earned the nick-name Cow Town.
But beyond a sea of black and white, the town’s endearing mascot, ‘Rump On A Stump’, stands as an unusual Margaret River region skyscraper — a golden cow perched high atop a pole with spread-eagled arms, hovering over the leafy Pioneer Park. The town may have erected the comical cow as a tongue-in-cheek take on a similar sculpture elsewhere within the prestigious wine region, but I took it as a symbol for something else.
I took it as a signal that golden moments that lay ahead. Beyond the painted cow, Cowaramup proves to be a surprising, underrated boutique luxury destination. Think delectable wines, epicurean cheeses, lush perfumery classes, sustainable gourmet eats — all notable, prized experiences. It was time that I milked this town for what it’s worth. Or should I say, dabble with its liquid gold?
GLAMPING IN COWARAMUP
A few minutes’ drive from Cowaramup’s main drag lies Olio Bello, a sustainable olive grove and glamping retreat. It was the closest I felt I would be to the great European boot-shaped nation Italy for some time. 'Che Bello' it was to drive to its Australian alternative instead. Caravans can enter the property with ease along its red-dirt track, however, overnight stays are not permitted — so arrivederci to the caravan life and ciao to luxe lakeside living for a few days.
The West Australian owned Olio Bello is one of Australia’s most awarded boutique producers of certified organic olive oil. Upon first glance, the estate appears quaint with its welcoming patio cafe. Never mind, it being a weekday, the outdoor restaurant was buzzing with happy punters, soaking their freshly baked breads and drizzling their regional-famous homemade pastas with organic extra virgin olive oils sourced on-site. I was looking into my future with hungry eyes, salivating at the Mediterranean way of life right before me.
What started as 8,000 planted olive trees has turned into a ‘Tuscany with a twist’ hideaway, with the presence of Italian stone pines, olive groves, and citrus orchards across the farm’s 320 acres. The olive pioneers of the south pride themselves on connecting people with a fully operational, working farm, with 21 olive varieties grown, pressed and traditionally prepared. The ‘Tuscany with a twist’ experience is brought back down under with the presence of kangaroos on the property as well the usual farm culprits — sheep, goats and resident ram in place of the quintessential farm dog.
“Let Italy stare back at you,” our host Lisa told me as I accepted my glamping tent keys from the cafe. The word tent should be used loosely here. It was as spacious as a broad studio apartment and equipped with a private eco fireplace. Six safari-style bungalows fringe the estate’s dam with surrounding eucalypts giving the estate a secluded forest feel amongst the olive groves.
The horizon looks like rolling deep green hills from afar but is, in reality, wilderness-covered sand dunes. Life on the other side is also what the region is most famous for — its magnificent coastline. But who needed the beach anyway when life on the farm was far more appealing?
Relaxing on the lakeside hammock basking in untamed natural beauty, indulging in wines and cheeses purchased on the glamping terrace and watching towering eucalyptus trees sway vigorously during a rare storm from cosy comforts within canvas walls, were simple moments enjoyed in pristine isolation — and many more, I can assure you, were had.
RAISE A GLASS (OR FEW)
It would have been an absolute crime to leave a wine glass unpolished; I had to succumb to the south-west's guilty pleasures. Could you blame me with 95 cellar doors flung open within the Margaret River region?
First stop was Vasse Felix, an eight-minute drive from my glamping condo. Vasse Felix is Cowaramup's pride and joy, the founding winery within the award-winning region. Established in 1967, Vasse Felix is home to the region’s oldest vineyard and is best known for its perfect Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Nowadays, Vasse Felix is spread across 340 hectares in four locations, which allowed the estate to expand its wine varieties.
I took a private tour around the cellar vault which was formerly the estate’s cellar door. For wine connoisseurs taking part in this tour, you are in for a real treat with the estate's wine museum which houses a superb display of vintage wines dating back to 1972. After an insight into the rich history of the wine regions humble beginnings, it was time to put the concept into practice and take part in a tasting.
“Travel with your palate,” the manager, Evan, matter-of-factly told me as I made repetitive arm movements sampling eight wines. According to Evan’s biased opinion, I was having, “One of the best Cab Sav and Chardonnays on the planet.” It was hard to argue. I may not have been in France, but the decedent drops allowed me to travel there.
Upstairs, the cellar’s dining area offers modern Australian fine dining with nuances of Japan to South East Asia using locally sourced ingredients from ‘the food bowl of Western Australia’. As Evan put it, the acclaimed restaurant is, “somewhere to have champagne parties”, with both the location and cuisine a first class trip for the senses. Notably, the restaurant area was constructed with the use of original timbers from the mile-long plus Busselton Jetty, an iconic engineering marvel and famed tourist hotspot.
Domaine Naturaliste Estate was the next on the DIY winery tour of the region. It was voted Best Value Winery of The Year at the 2020 Halliday Wine Companion Awards, a great feat for the young vineyard having only opened its cellar doors in 2018 with wine specialist Bruce Dukes at the helm. The table seated tastings are $12 a pop with six wines to sample — a bargain considering a sommelier personally guides you through each tasting.
Sommelier Jeff described the estate’s standout Discovery Chardonnay as a “fish and chips on the beach type of wine”. In line with the estate’s excellent value standing, the estate’s cheeseboard proved to be a winner, and paired perfectly with the wine tastings, which is impressive considering the epicurean cheeses came from the Netherlands and Spain and were drizzled with Manjimup’s delicious truffle honey.
MIXING DESSERTS WITH DROPS
It sounded unusual at first, mixing nougat with wine but Bettenays Wines and Margaret River Nougat made life that bit sweeter. The adult sweet treat haven is an unexpected architectural delight with its modern industrial appearance a striking change in a greenlit countryside. Its inside was enough to make you giddy with varieties of the chewy, decadent French-inspired nougat on offer.
Owner Greg Bettenay walked me through the tastings and filled the gaps with entertaining stories. Some pairings seemed odd at first but worked. The chewy, wildberry and local macadamia nougat was a flavour to savour paired perfectly with a Shiraz-based Rosé.
The tasting was capped off with a ‘nougat in a bottle variety’ which Greg described as “decadent, desirable and fun” for its hints of vanilla, honey and coconut oil. The liquid dessert was well received.
Life continued to get sweeter with a stop at Southern Forests Honey's ‘The Colony Concept’. Second generation beekeepers run the beehive-esque venue, hosting an immersive experience with honey and bee education. The almost walk-in beehive offers a vast selection of pure, unpasteurised honey available for tastings. The shop also sells honey-based products ranging from beauty to wine. Honey wine may not seem like the wine of choice, but it works for those with a penchant for sweetened, beautiful drops.
TIME TO SMELL LIKE THE ROSES
The last few days I had been using my nose to guide me through the tastings, so it was now time take home fragrances to ensure the aromas were everlasting.
Vasse Virgin is the region’s premier perfumery as well as masters of olive oil soaps, skincare, and gourmet food and workshops. It’s an all-rounder pleasure-seeking paradise.
I had enrolled in its hour-long natural perfumery workshop, an experience a bit different from the norm of the region. Perfumer Edwina led the class by revealing the art of natural perfumery and what was involved in mastering a blissful-smelling fragrance. The highlight was creating a signature fragrance for yours truly. The hard part was collating a selection of essential oils neatly presented with their heavenly scents. Tough choice but otherwise easy on the nose.
A SLOW FOOD MOVEMENT
It was time to go off the grid to Arimia, purveyors of the sustainable food movement in the Margaret River region.
Self-described as a ‘celebration of place,’ one Chef Hat fine dining restaurant Arimia are regional ambassadors of the slow food movement and adopting sustainability practices. Being its own sustainable supermarket, the estate has embraced organic farming methods to produce pork, olives, olive oil, eggs, trout, marron, honey and garden-fresh fruits and vegetables to create its superb modern Australian cuisine.
What originally started as a secret garden-type cafe has morphed into a contemporary rustic farmhouse filled with abstract artworks and a sleek décor. I was seated by the window wall, looking out towards the gum trees and birdbath. It was an excellent place to be seated to enjoy a four-course degustation while watching the sun slowly illuminate the garden en-route to retire for the day.
The eating affair kicked off with complimentary canapes. It will be forever embedded in my taste buds just how lip-smacking the lone salt and pepper rabbit bite was. It was such a tease! The menu changes seasonally according to what is available for head chef Evan Hayter to utilise for his masterpieces. (Hot tip: do not go past any of the pork-based risotto dishes if on the menu.) After the indulgent marathon session, I went with Evan to check out the paddock and visit the pigs and piglets. At the same time, I received a passionate overview of the importance of producing honest food that is in harmony with the local environment, local makers and farmers and community. Guests are invited to walk the restaurant grounds to connect with the source of their meal and have an all-round understanding of where it came from.
The trip had come full circle with me staring down into a bowl of pasta that was put before me at Olio Bello for my last hurrah before heading back to Perth. The locals had it right when they said the pasta was that good. I twisted my thick homemade pork shoulder ragu fettuccine on my fork and again and again until it was finished. I was hungry for more. It wasn't like there wasn't enough to begin with — there was plenty! Thankfully, my cow instincts kicked in, and I discovered my second stomach and ordered another round.
Here, a fourth colour observed in Cowaramup came to light. No, it wasn't red for ragu, but red with sweet admiration towards this unsung lavish town I milked many good times from.
P: (08) 9755 9771
P: (08) 9756 5000
DOMAINE NATURALISTE ESTATE
P: (08) 9755 6776
BETTENAYS WINES & MARGARET RIVER NOUGAT
P: (08) 9755 5539
SOUTHERN FORESTS HONEY
P: (08) 9 7560900
P: (08) 9755 61111
P: (08) 9755 2528