‘Are we progressive? My oath we are!’ A local’s guide to Albany, Western Australia

·5 min read

Perched on Western Australia’s southern tip, Albany clings to the shores of King George Sound and the sheltered bays of Princess Royal and Oyster harbours. Granite peaks are surrounded by bushland, rich with wildflowers.

It’s the home town of sisters Vikki Thorn and Donna Simpson, two-thirds of folk-rock trio the Waifs.

Thorn describes her childhood as idyllic. “That was because of the topography of the place,” she says. “It’s very accessible to a lot of beautiful places.” Thorn married an American and usually lives in the US, but during the pandemic she chose to bunker down in her hometown.

Albany has changed a lot since Thorn left at 18. “It was a small town based on primary industries and a lot of those don’t exist any more,” she says. “The positive changes are that it’s a little more cosmopolitan now – the cafes are better, the food’s better, and there’s more arts programs and festivals going on.”

But some things have stayed the same. “I really appreciate that on any given day you can find a deserted beach to have all to yourself – not only one or two, but dozens, and you’ll be the only person there. I like the feeling of isolation if you want it.”

The same geography Thorn loves has sheltered the Menang Noongar people for up to 80,000 years, says Menang elder Vernice Gillies. “It’s a safe place. It’s protected, and we’ve got our natural harbour and rivers for fishing in the shallows, and gathering shellfish like oysters,” she says. These days, Gillies’ company, Kurrah Mia Cultural Tours, guides visitors through ancient sites such as stone fish traps estimated to be between 6,500 and 10,000 years old.

The Albany community values its Indigenous heritage. “Are we progressive? My oath we are!” says Gillies. In 2003, the city of Albany council established the Albany Aboriginal Accord, and during 2020 Albany began a dual naming project, restoring Menang names to many key sites. “Our project will result in a legal process to formalise that dual and restored naming,” Gillies says.

The Menang name for Albany was Kinjarling, meaning “place of plenty”, often attributed to plenty of rain. The rain percolated into limestone aquifers and, with the Mediterranean climate, allows award-winning whisky to be produced on the shores of Princess Royal harbour.

“Our water comes from underneath our distillery, and it’s the mineralisation that creates the phenomenal whisky,” says Cameron Syme, founder of Great Southern Distillery Company. The required peat bogs are sourced near the Valley of the Giants in Walpole. “The peat’s unique, and the whisky is beautiful and soft and subtle, so people in Albany are proud of us now, which is a lovely thing,” he says.

Early Europeans also valued Albany’s geography. With its deep-water harbour, it became the first European settlement in WA in 1826, a strategic location for shipping and national defence. Many heritage buildings still line the main streets, today bustling with visitors.

The clean environment and temperate climate mean the great southern region produces excellent fruit and vegetables, and also fine wines. Don’t miss the cherries in summer, and the cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay all year.

This natural bounty extends to the sea. Historically this didn’t augur well for Albany’s abundant whales, with the whaling station here being Australia’s last – operating until 1978. These days livelihoods are still made at sea, but today it’s whale watching, fishing and aquaculture.

Don’t miss

In 1914, Albany’s safe anchorage was the rendezvous point for the first and second conveys of ships bound for the first world war, transporting 41,000 Anzacs. Today the town that farewelled them commemorates their sacrifice in the National Anzac Centre, overlooking King George Sound. Here you can follow a service man or woman on their journey through the war.

Visit Torndirrup national park for the Gap and Natural Bridge, where a steel lookout platform suspends you 40 metres above the tempestuous Southern Ocean. Albany’s historic whaling station documents the history industry. Join a craft whisky tour and tasting at Great Southern Distillery Company.

Culture fix

To understand the Indigenous connections of the region, join Kurrah Mia for a tour, and drop in to its arts and crafts store. For local contemporary artworks, try Blush Retail Gallery. Discover Albany’s colonial history at the Albany Convict Gaol and Museum, or Patrick Taylor Cottage, WA’s oldest surviving dwelling.

Where to eat and drink

Try Alkaline Cafe for gluten-free vegan fare. For Parisian-inspired Vietnamese, pop into Liberté in a historic building and order Albany’s own Akoya oysters. Right opposite Middleton beach, Hybla Tavern has modern pub food with gorgeous views. Taste the planet-friendly wines and organic fruit at Oranje Tractor Wine. Near the town of Denmark, sample the stellar beers at family-friendly Boston Brewing Company.

Where to stay

The Big 4 Middleton Beach Holiday Park is popular with families, right beside Middleton beach. Private rentals are available through Airbnb, or for something upmarket Private Properties Holiday Homes. Try camping at the sheltered bay at Waychinicup national park, or free camping in a beachside reserve, such as Normans beach.

Get out of town

Elephant Rocks, near Denmark, in William Bay National Park, Western Australia.
Elephant Rocks, near Denmark, in William Bay national park. Photograph: Iain Dainty/Alamy

In the Porongorup national park, the Castle Rock granite skywalk is as photogenic as it sounds. Nearby, Bluff Knoll in the Stirling Range national park is southern WA’s highest peak, and a wildflower hot spot in spring. The incredible Valley of the Giants treetop walk takes you into the soaring canopy of endemic tingle trees. In summer, cool off in the turquoise waters of Greens Pool or adjacent Elephant Rocks in William Bay national park.

Getting there

Albany is five hours’ drive south-east of Perth. Flights take one hour. It’s easiest to explore with a car, although there are also a limited public bus service and bikes for hire.

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