When the sun shines, the Southern Ocean can appear beautifully blue and so smooth that seagulls can see their wing-spanned selves reflected against a cloudless sky in the water below. On other days, this awesome ocean, one of the planets big five, where the freezing waters of the Antarctic mix with the warmer subantarctic flow from the north, can be as vengeful as a character in a Shakespearean tragedy. Brutish clouds hang above its white peaks like angry eyebrows, menacing waves pummel the shore and its unrelenting fury blurs sea and sky in a gun-metal grey horizon.
Torndirrup National Park on the south-west corner of Western Australia is well worth a visit to for this wild weather alone. On days like this, the wind whips your face like a cat 'o' nine tails, rain comes at you sideways and the full force of nature makes you want to sound your barbaric yawp all the way from Bald Head along the coastline to West Cape. Key to the experience is The Gap, a treacherous rock chasm that sucks the ocean swell in and spits it back out with the temper of a megalomaniac. It is accessed via a raised boardwalk and ogled from a purpose-built platform jutting out 40 metres above the ocean on five cantilevered beams. Up here, you can grip the guardrails like a storm-wrecked sailor as the wind lashes from every direction and the swell does its best to soak your shoes.
A second platform, five minutes' walk away on a raised pathway, brings the Natural Bridge into view. This behemoth span of immovable granite gets mocked by pounding swell that sends up buckets of ocean spray. In the past, sturdy feet have slipped on these sheer cliffs and granite outcrops, great swimmers have been lost in greater waves, and lives have been lost to the ocean. But a 2016 renovation costing $1.6 million saw the facilities upgraded. Now, with guardrails, handholds, non-slip boardwalks and demarcation signs in place, it's a worthy destination in all kinds of weather.
With approximately 250,000 visitors each year, the most to any national park in Western Australia, Torndirrup is one of the big drawcards for visitors to the nearby coastal city of Albany. Albany is remote – it's more than 400 kilometres south of Perth – or a five-hour drive, and a similar distance from Margaret River, but the city's quaint settler houses and sea-vista shops, its Anzac history, and the spectacular Southern Ocean coastline make it a destination for nature boffins, culture vultures and foodies alike.
Visitors can tap into the city's poignant Anzac heritage at the incredibly moving and contemporary National Anzac Centre, which overlooks the actual harbour from which 41,265 Anzacs, in the first and second convoys, departed Australia for the Great War.
A standout feature of the centre has visitors assuming the identity of one of 32 Anzacs and tracing their lives – and deaths. My Anzac is Sergeant Colin Charles Blumer who fought in the third battalion on Gallipoli's western front. Zeroing in on newspaper clippings, old photographs and personal artefacts, I follow his journey learning that he was wounded on four occasions, including gunshot wounds to both the thumb and the back, and that a shrapnel wound saw him finally evacuated to Egypt. He survived the war "having been sent back to Australia as a medical evacuee in July 1917" to resume post war life. Others weren't so fortunate, and the exhibition often sees visitors shedding a tear or two.
Like Margaret River, Albany has a food and drink scene that belies its population of 34,000. On the waterfront of Princes Royal Harbour, Great Southern Distilling Company is the home of Limeburners, known for producing top-notch craft gin and premium single malt whiskey in traditional small-batch copper pot stills. You can sit at the wood-lined American-style bar and sip on a Ginversity botanical gin or a Darkest Winter, a drop that was named best whiskey in the Southern Hemisphere in 2018. A short 30-minute tour out back reveals a one-shed distillery where I'm told distiller Cameron Syme is adamant about the benefits of using pristine Albany water and malt barley from the nearby wheat belt. The peat is sourced from a local farmer "who doesn't mind getting paid in whiskey".
Another venue winning accolades from afar is gorgeous Liberte at the London Hotel. The bones of the two-storey Victorian building are that of a typical Aussie pub, but that's where the similarities end. The old dining room has been transformed into a colourful bohemian space with Chesterfield couches and mismatched Fauteuil chairs sitting on Persian rugs. Red velvet curtains hang alongside oversized gilt-edged mirrors reflecting a crowd of both hip locals and holidaying interlopers.
Owner and chef Amy Hamilton's casual share menu draws inspiration from Asian cuisine, paying particular attention to Vietnamese and Korean ingredients with dishes such as crispy chicken bao with kimchi slaw and sriracha mayo. She's also fond of tapping on-trend Aussie produce in dishes such as black-salt and pepper squid with samphire tartare and fingerlime.
The cocktail bar, with bentwood chairs, a lovely pressed-metal counter and glass chandelier, sits snuggly on a streetfront corner of the hotel. It beat big city counterparts to win Gourmet Traveller's Bar of the Year 2019, for its success in blending community spirit (you can catch Irish music here on Thursday nights and live gigs every Friday) with modern spirit-fuelled concoctions such as a spritzy Sassy Plum made from Umeshu (plum wine), green tea, plum bitters and soda. My Pink Galah has an element of nostalgia. It's a musk-stick infused vodka with bitters, fresh lemon and soda.
Forty minutes away by car, the relatively nearby town of Denmark is often twinned with Albany in terms of tourism, and you'd do well to check out both. Denmark has a population of fewer than 3000, but that number can triple in high season with visitors making a beeline for William Bay National Park, another Southern Ocean-fronted nature spot further west along the coast.
Attractions here include Elephant Rocks - huge granite boulders that resemble a herd of elephants lumbering out to sea - and Greens Pool. Unlike the tempestuous waves of Torndirrup, this area of coastline has rocks that extend one kilometre out to sea, forming a reef that fends off those formidable ocean waves. The white sandy-bottomed Greens Pool glistens preternaturally turquoise and is so well protected from the ocean, locals use it as a lap pool. Visitors meanwhile are facemask-down, snorkel-up, looking for stingrays and schools of buffalo bream and zebra fish, happily impervious to the Southern Ocean's wild and wilful ways.
Qantas operates multiple daily flights between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Perth. See qantas.com. It's a five-hour drive from Perth to Albany, or regional carrier Rex operate daily flights between Perth and Albany. See rex.com.au.
Accommodation in Albany includes Dog Rock Motel, which costs $AUS162 a night based on a double occupancy. See dogrockmotel.com.au. Near Denmark, new luxury Parry Beach Breaks has two- and three- bedrooms villa accommodation, which costs from $230 a night for up to six guests. See parrybeachbreaks.com.au
The National Anzac Centre interpretive experience is open daily from 9am to 5pm with last entry at 4pm (allow two hours). It costs $25 for adults, $21 for concession, $11 for the first child (aged 5-11) and $6 for each child thereafter (aged 5-11). See nationalanzaccentre.com.au
Torndirrup National Park is open daily. See parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/torndirrup
Great Southern Distilling Company is open daily from 10am to 5pm. Thirty-minute distillery tours cost $25 for adults and include three whiskey tastings. See distillery.com.au/great-southern
Liberte at the London Hotel is open Monday to Saturday 12pm 'til late. See liberteatthelondon.com.au.
Williams Bay National Park is open daily. See parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/william-bay
Penny Watson travelled as a guest of Tourism Western Australia.