Down on the flat, wide, white expanse of Cable Beach, where quadrupeds of the dromedary persuasion are more common than horses, the annual Airnorth Cable Beach Polo tournament attracts ponies, partygoers, people-watchers and pearl-lovers for a winter weekend in the tropics.
In the marquee area, the mostly well-heeled crowd check their footwear (stilettos, boots, loafers or thongs, depending on apres-polo plans) at the door and proceed to imbibe, snack and watch the horsey action in bare feet. "Normal" beachgoers lean against the fence and watch, too sans freshly shucked oysters and Perrier-Jouet Champagne. A crocodile has been spotted hanging around a little way down the beach, prompting laconic warning signs on the sand. Straya!
Glam frocks, perfect hair and jewellery, pearls of course, are on display in the marquee, as well as lots of air kisses to the sound of "darling!" Between hooters signalling the beginning and end of each chukka, the horses race up and down the playing field and the players swing their mallets against a backdrop of bright sunshine shimmering off the Indian Ocean and a cloudless sky, both competing for best blue in show. For excitability, even when very little seems to be happening, the commentator rivals Bruce McAvaney in the last quarter of a close grand final.
Polo ponies give way to show ponies at the 180-guest, long-table dinner in the evening on the same stretch of Cable Beach. Not to be confused with the better-known Shinju Matsuri Sunset Long Table Dinner in September, this long-table dinner is a feast of share plates created by Sydney Chef Hamish Ingham of Banksii Vermouth Bar & Bistro at Barangaroo, washed down with more Perrier-Jouet and wines from the pearl-royalty Paspaley family's Bunnamagoo Estate in Mudgee. The classy affair is dripping with celebs and a considerable amount of money is raised for Royal Flying Doctor Service.
One of the VIPs is the Western Australian Minister for Tourism, Paul Papalia, who announces to great applause that affordable flights (a rarity for Sandgropers) to Broome are set to continue after a 12-month trial and that dredging will increase cruise ship visits from 18 to 30 a year. Broome is set to boom.
Many of the guests are staying at Cable Beach Club Resort & Spa, a short stroll from the festivities. Lord Alistair McAlpine built the resort in May 1988, just 12 years after the town got electricity and a water supply. Expansive and plush, it features original artworks by Sidney Nolan, Elizabeth Durack, Humphrey Price-Jones and others, as well as a stunning glass collection and sculptures. It often hosts an artist-in-residence between May and September.
Other facilities include a well-equipped gym, excellent tennis courts, a water park and mini golf as well as a lagoon-style adults-only pool retreat with alfresco dining, sun lounges
My large and comfortable room in the Acacia Wing is finished with corrugated iron walls, jarrah floors and panelling, and a propeller ceiling fan. The bathroom is spacious and the balcony has a day bed and overlooks a lily pond and a tall frangipani tree, which, every minute or so, liberates a blossom, which spins lazily through the air. A little waterfall burbles away nearby. Early one morning a wallaby and joey take their breakfast here to complete the idyll.
Cable Beach Club's accommodation includes one- and two-bedroom bungalows, villas with courtyards and gazebos and self-contained Club Apartments for families. There are also studio rooms, some of which are wheelchair accessible. Comfy cane chairs and a wooden deck greet guests at the appropriately-named Sunset Bar & Grill, along with a sign advising diners not to leave meals unattended unless they want to share them with seagulls. Other creatures you're likely to spot include possums, ta ta lizards and metre-long goannas, one of which startles me on the way to dinner one night.
Cable Beach Club offers fabulous fare at four restaurants, with plenty of Western Australian seafood and Margaret River beef on the menus. Executive Chef Sooveer Baichoo and his 34 sous-chefs prepare everything from fine-dining to fish'n'chips. Cichetti Club restaurant and bar, with its eclectic decor of vintage birdcages and subcontinental bric-a-brac, is ideal for a quiet drink and an awesome club sandwich or Italian-themed tapas. In the evenings, the casual Kichi Kichi Asian-fusion (try to the whole deep-fried crispy crimson snapper) and top-end Zensai fine dining Japanese are favoured options.
If you need somewhere to chill out between eating, drinking and relaxing, you can unwind at Chahoya spa. From the lavender, bergamot, sweet orange, mandarin and geranium-infused chilled face towel to the rosemary, mint and pine scented foot bath, to the L'Occitane spritz at the end, Sophie's effleurage really hits the spot.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN BROOME
SUNSET CAMEL RIDE
You've seen the pictures, now ride the camels. This archetypal Broome sunset outing on Cable Beach sets off right across the road from Cable Beach Club and creates thoroughly 'gramable silhouettes on the one-hour trek through the shallows. Come early to make sure you don't get an ugly one.
STAIRCASE TO THE MOON
You'll have to get your timing right for this one. Nature conspires to create the perfect conditions just two or three days a month between March and October when a full moon rises over the exposed tidal flats of Roebuck Bay. As the moment approaches, here in the beer garden at the Mangrove Hotel, the lights dim and a sole, ethereal didgeridoo hums into action. It's 10-deep at the railings that separate the hotel from the mud flats and cameras are held high. Bright red at first, the moon climbs, yellowing by degree. Eventually the moonlight hits the corrugations of the mud flats and the staircase emerges, bordered by laser-straight parallel lines the width of the moon. Town Beach is another popular venue to view the phenomenon, where food and market stalls keep the local economy churning.
WILLIE CREEK PEARL FARM
Willie Creek Pearl Farm is a 45-minute drive from Broome sometimes on corrugated dirt roads. It's a bumpy ride they call a "Kimberley massage". This show farm runs through the pearling process from shell to showroom. Pinctada maxima can grow to the size of a dinner plate here and we learn about the labour-intensive breeding, growing, harvesting and grading. A tender takes us out to the creek, where a big spring tide rushes in at 30 km/h. In a mangrove-lined side-channel (that will be dry later today at low tide) we see rainbow bee-eaters, kites, sea eagles, egrets, and a rare sighting of a snake necked darter, to the delight of the twitchers on board. We finish at the showroom where you can pick up mother-of-pearl cutlery for $15 or an Opera Strand pearl necklace for just $150,000. See williecreekpearls.com.au
Willie Creek Pearls also operates Pearl Luggers, a museum that tells the fascinating – and deadly – history of the industry in Broome. The 90-minute tour (adults $30; children $15) presents memorabilia, tools, diving helmets and boots (20 kilograms each), as well as an actual lugger. The Dive Room features rare and valuable items, such as the full 180 kilograms of extra weight carried by divers and the hand-driven air compressor that kept them alive. Or tried to. In 1913 alone 30 divers perished. See williecreekpearls.com.au/pages/visit-pearl-luggers
WALK OR CYCLE TO GANTHEAUME POINT
The Kimberley colours turn it on with a white sandy beach and red rock cliff overlooking the impossibly blue ocean, just an hour's walk or a 15-minute ride on a fat-tyre beach bike from Cable Beach Resort. Interpretive signs describe the history, dating back to when a sauropod made footprints in the reef rock that can be seen at low tide.
Qantas flies direct to Broome from Sydney (twice a week), Melbourne (three times a week) and Brisbane (once a week) during high season (May to October). See qantas.com.au
Garden View Studio from $469 a night (high season), $199 a night (low season from 1 November 2019 to 31 March 2020); Pearlers Bungalow (two bedrooms and two bathrooms) and Spa Superior Bungalows both from $799 a night; family Club Apartments from $999 a night. See cablebeachclub.com
Prices for 2020's event are not determined but as a guide, the 2019 Gold Package, including Dinner Under The Stars and a day in the VIP marquee for the polo, including food, wine, cocktails, beer and champagne, was $940 a person. See cablebeachpolo.com.au
Mal Chenu was a guest of Cable Beach Club Resort & Spa.