My Favorite Experiences in Western Australia
What struck me first about Western Australia was just how sparsely populated it was. I would follow our route on Google Maps for hours and think, “Okay, we’re finally getting to a real town now.” And that town would be, essentially, a gas station.
You’d think I’d get used to it. But even after ten days in the region, I still overestimated everything. I called a taxi one afternoon in Broome, told the driver to take me to the part of Cable Beach “wherever all the cafes and stuff are,” thinking this popular tourist town would have a strip of shops and restaurants. The driver was confused. Turns out Cable Beach has one restaurant (“far too expensive,” he said) and one bar that didn’t open until 5:30 PM. That was it.
WA is the definition of an off the beaten path destination. The beaches and national parks have a fraction of the visitors of the East Coast. There isn’t a single stoplight between Geraldton in WA and Darwin in the Northern Territory — a driving distance of 3800 km (2300 miles)! East coast Australians will often travel all over the world before setting foot on the west coast. To a degree, it feels like you’re living in splendid isolation.
Perhaps as a result, WA locals are extraordinarily friendly, and that friendliness gets absorbed by the travelers as well. If you pass a car, you wave. If you walk past someone, you say hello. If you buy something, you have a conversation. It reminded me of the American South.
I last visited Australia in 2013 and had forgotten so many things that came rushing back. Country music is everywhere (that explains the existence of Keith Urban). Australians call surf and turf “reef and beef.” Baby emus are cared for by their fathers. Oh, and the coffee? It’s the best. From anywhere.
Long before I ever visited Australia, WA was where I wanted to visit the most. It didn’t work out on my first trip, but I was thrilled to get an opportunity to visit and create content for STA Travel and Tourism Western Australia. In fact, I had Western Australia listed in my sidebar as one of my top 10 most wanted destinations!
I’m so glad I came. Because while it was satisfying to finally visit WA, it was so different from how I imagined.
This isn’t a complete overview of the state — I haven’t been to popular tourist areas like Margaret River in the southwest, Esperance in the south, Kalgoorlie in the Outback, or anywhere in the Kimberley in the north beyond Broome. But these destinations are a great starting point for an unforgettable trip to Australia’s remote west.
First off, I had the pleasure of traveling with two wonderful people: Friederike Franz (Freedi) of Freise in Design, my German counterpart; and Scotty Connell of Kimberley Spirit, our guide and driver.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that they are now two of my favorite people on the planet.
As much as I love traveling solo, it’s magical when you click with two incredible, kind, generous, funny, intelligent, talented people. You two make me want to be a kinder person, a more generous individual, a better photographer.
And now: onto my favorite WA experiences!
Taking Quokka Selfies on Rottnest Island
I was so excited to take selfies with quokkas on Rottnest Island and it did not disappoint whatsoever! Quokkas are small marsupials endemic to a few regions in WA, including Rottnest (which means rat’s nest in Dutch — when they landed, they thought the quokkas were rats).
In the past few years, selfies with the adorable, friendly quokkas have become the ultimate WA souvenir. I was determined to get as many as possible. Freedi and I struck out a few times, but eventually we found the sweetest quokka between the settlement and an area called the Basin. He couldn’t get enough of us!
Look at our adorable buddy!
Nice to meet you!
Favorite comment from a reader: “Did he eat ya jeans?” LOL!
Freedi couldn’t contain her glee.
And THAT was my shot for Instagram. (Check out the #quokkaselfie tag for more quokka love!)
This mama and baby were curious but shy. (Note: never touch a baby quokka. Your human scent could cause its mother to abandon it.)
And there’s more to Rotto than just quokkas. Pretty beautiful, huh?
Swimming with Giant Manta Rays at Ningaloo Reef
Ningaloo Reef impressed the hell out of me. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the snorkeling was just as good or even a bit better than the outstanding Belize Barrier Reef, with the bonus of the reef being right off shore! We were literally there in less than five minutes.
By contrast, the Great Barrier Reef is a good 90 minutes from shore. Not to mention far more crowded and more environmentally damaged.
This is why more people need to come to WA.
Anyway, the main attraction is swimming with giant manta rays, which can measure up to three meters wide. I was a bit nervous beforehand (especially since we all had to sit on the edge and jump out simultaneously when a buzzer sounded), but it turned out to be not scary at all. These rays are incredibly gentle (no stinger) and we weren’t even that close to them.
Look at all those fish! They gather beneath the boat but they know how to swim out of your way.
We also made a cool turtle friend.
Fun fact: nobody looks glamorous with a snorkel in her mouth.
And finally — sharks. DO NOT WORRY. These sharks are not dangerous. They’re harmless reef sharks. Lots of sharks are safe to swim with and I’ve swum with lots of them around the world. We wouldn’t have been near them if there were any danger.
Underwater Ningaloo photos courtesy of Tom Cannon of Migration Media.
Spider Walking in Karijini National Park
Karijini has a lot to see, but my favorite part was the spider walk. Yep, that’s it’s name — it’s in Hancock Gorge, just past the amphitheater and before Kermit’s Pool. You wedge your body between the sides, legs and arms sticking straight out, and climb that way to avoid the rushing water, then reward yourself with a swim. It’s amazing for photos.
Beyond that, there’s plenty more to do in Karijini!
Swimming in Fern Pool, near Fortescue Falls, was a peaceful and refreshing experience. (But I’m not going to lie — my favorite part was when a park ranger called out a group of backpackers for being disrespectful to this sacred Aboriginal site and doing the three things the signs asked people not to do: jumping into the water, climbing the walls, and yelling. Sweet justice.)
The fig trees are HUGE in WA. This was the granddaddy of them all, a short distance from Fern Pool.
Sleeping in a luxury tent at Karijini Eco Retreat was a lot of fun! It even had its own solar-powered shower.
I loved spying on swimmers from the top of Joffre Gorge.
Soaring Above Shark Bay in a Scenic Flight
I love scenic flights — either by plane or helicopter. Most of the time, they take less than fifteen minutes, because that’s all you need. But this scenic flight with Shark Bay Air Charters was an hour and fifteen minutes! We got to see so much!
Shark Bay is great to see from the air because the landscape varies so widely within a small region. That and you can occasionally see whales in the ocean!
On one edge of Dirk Hartog Island, you’d see a series of cliffs. It reminded me of the Faroe Islands.
On the other side, you could spot a pink lake!
My favorite view, though, was of François Peron National Park. Look at those orange beaches!
Getting Sandy in the Pinnacles Desert
Nambung National Park, not too far north of Perth, is home to the Pinnacles Desert — probably the most otherworldly atmosphere I saw in WA. These pinnacles were actually once trees, and over time, layers of rock and sand pressed them into their current form.
Yep, Freedi and I had a LOT of fun posing in the pinnacles!
I feel like the Pinnacles Desert could stand in for a movie set on another planet! What do you think?
Eating All Of The Australian Breakfasts
I think Australia is the best breakfast country in the world. In cities and popular tourist towns, there are often several creative, innovative dishes on the menu — dishes you would only see at more upscale or hipstery spots in the US. Australians just do it.
Above are poached eggs with pea and kale croquettes with edamame and Romesco sauce at Isle of Voyage in Perth.
Here are poached eggs over burnt butter and sage pumpkin mash with arugula and walnuts on Turkish toast at Moore & Moore Cafe in Fremantle (a quirky suburb of Perth).
I loved this coconut rice pudding with mango coulis, candied coconut, pomegranate seeds, and starfruit from Matso’s Brewery in Broome.
And here we have the dukkah eggs from Babooshka in Perth: poached eggs with baba ghanoush, halloumi, spinach, spicy chickpeas, and mushrooms on toast.
Taking a Sunset Catamaran Cruise in Shark Bay
Catamarans will always remind me of my sailing trip in Belize. This trip was much shorter — only an hour and a half — but we saw several dolphins, lay in the net, and sipped on our BYOB Coronas.
And unlike our other activities, once we had snapped a few photos, we could relax and just enjoy it without worrying about spending the whole ride documenting it in every way. That was nice.
I love this photo of these young girls.
These dudes look like pirates, but they’re actually guests who were invited to help hoist the sail.
Kayaking Through Kalbarri National Park
Kalbarri National Park is just starting to emerge as a major Australian destination in a nice, well-developed coastal town. Even so, it’s hardly crowded, making it all the better for enjoying the quiet.
We climbed down into a gorge for a group kayaking expedition down the river.
I loved how laid-back this tour was. We could kayak a little or a lot, just doing whatever felt right for us. And because Freedi and I were there for photography reasons, we spent most of the time taking photos! (Also, ladies, if you take a photo of yourself in a kayak, be sure to put your legs together. That is why there are no photos of me in a kayak…)
Nature’s Window is probably the most famous spot in Kalbarri National Park. This natural arch is a great place for photos, and the views from above are spellbinding.
This part of WA reminded me of the American Southwest! (And the country music that blasted everywhere only added to the ambiance!)
Spending Sunset at Hutt Lagoon
Oh, Hutt Lagoon. I already wrote about this in depth — but it was one of my favorite stops on the entire trip. It’s not the pinkest lake in WA, but it was pink enough for me at sunset!
If you’re driving from Perth to Kalbarri, try to time your drive so you’ll hit the lagoon just before sunset. That’s when the colors became much pinker.
A new friend!
Hand-Feeding Dolphins at Monkey Mia
Monkey Mia is most famous for its dolphins, which come to feed just off shore each morning. The Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort has a sustainable, strictly regulated feeding system (and literally everything is strictly regulated here due to Shark Bay’s UNESCO World Heritage designation): certain healthy females are fed no more than one third of their daily intake of fish, and they vary the feedings enough so that they don’t become dependent.
A few volunteers are chosen to help feed, and Freedi and I were both chosen!
I fed this mama dolphin a single fish.
It’s quite a crowd each morning — and this wasn’t even peak season.
Thanks for stopping by, guys!
Quad Biking at Sunset in Coral Bay
Truth? If I had to judge quad biking based on my first 15 minutes, I would have hated it. I’ve never quad biked before — I blame an episode of Rescue 911 I saw as a kid when a ten-year-old flipped an ATV and crushed his skull. Those things stay with you.
Scotty wiggled his bike around and showed me how stable it was. And as time went on, I grew more and more comfortable. Soon I was flying through the sand dunes and loving it. I even asked Freedi later, “I went down the hill faster than everyone else, right?” HA.
We stopped about every fifteen minutes to take in the views.
Some of the coastline on this route is inaccessible by normal vehicles, like here: the Turtle Cliffs.
How amazing is that light?! I was drinking it all in!
The Road Trip Experience
When I saw that there were lots of eight-hour drives on our itinerary, I downloaded a ton of Kindle books in preparation. In actuality, I only read for about an hour in total! We spent our time talking about our lives, listening to music, occasionally getting out of the car to take photos and have a dance party. Scotty would tell stories and I would take notes on his phrasing and cadence, hoping that someday I would be able to convincingly write a character who talked like him.
I loved it. It was everything a road trip should be.
Keep an eye out for “road trains” — huge, long trucks filled with cargo, often animals.
The road is particularly desolate once you go inland. This highway actually doubles as a runway for the Royal Flying Doctors, the medical service that serves rural areas in Australia.
Quick, grab some photos! We couldn’t stop taking pictures of wildflowers and caves and mountains.
Everyone who goes to Western Australia needs to pose with one of these signs!
Chilling out at the Mangrove Hotel in Broome
After the end of the trip, I stayed on a few extra days to go to Broome, the gateway to the Kimberley in the northwest. I knew that at the end of a trip like this, with lots of early mornings, long days, and physical challenges, I would be exhausted.
So yes, I wanted to experience Broome, but more than that, I wanted to lounge in a really nice hotel. Like everywhere else in WA, I was shocked at how sleepy Broome was, making me all the happier that I chose the Mangrove Hotel, which is one of my new favorite boutique hotels in the world. After an introduction through a college, the hotel offered me a complimentary three-night stay for my time in Broome.
This pic doesn’t do the room justice — it was full of modern, tropical touches and such a nice oasis during the hottest part of the day.
There were two natural pools, both built into the landscape.
Be sure to try a Little Creatures IPA — they’re based in Perth! And though I don’t have a photo of it, Matso’s Ginger Beer is DELICIOUS. It’s brewed in Broome and sold throughout WA.
Sunsets on Cable Beach may get all the hype, but I actually preferred the sunsets at the hotel! The Mangrove overlooks Roebuck Bay, facing east. If you’re visiting during a full moon, the Staircase to the Moon (a visual phenomenon where reflections make it look like a staircase is leading to the moon) is best viewed from here. And the hotel was happening at night — huge crowds, great music, fabulous food.
I couldn’t think of a better place to end my time in WA.
There were so many moments, I could go on forever.
The best sunset was this one in Coral Bay.
One of the boldest rainbows I’ve ever seen appeared in Karijini one afternoon.
This pose, on top of Hamelin Pool (filled with stromatolites, among the world’s oldest living beings) was far less breezy and comfortable than it looks!
Kalbarri is more than just a national park — the cliffs were great during golden hour.
The feet on the right belong to a reader of mine, a fellow guest on the snorkeling trip who freaked out when he realized who I was!
You know I actually didn’t see a single kangaroo on my first trip to Australia? I more than made up for it this time.
Shell Beach, a blindingly white beach in the Shark Bay region, is one of only two beaches in the world comprised entirely of shells.
Sitting on top of Mount Nameless, the tallest mountain in WA, appreciating the beauty and feeling sad at the last moments of traveling as a trio with Freedi and Scotty.
Pelicans terrify me, but damn if they’re not photogenic.
And every. Perfect. Glorious. Flat white.
I love this region so much.
Essential Info: There are only two ways to travel this route through Western Australia: either on your own with a rental car, or as part of an organized tour. There is no public transportation in this region. Because the roads are so empty, I urge you to learn basic car maintenance (like changing a tire) before embarking on a WA road trip.
In Perth: I stayed in two places: first the Rendezvous Hotel Perth Central, which was a simple midrange hotel in a pretty good location. Rates from 118 AUD ($88 USD). I also stayed the uber-trendy Alex Hotel in the awesome neighborhood of Northbridge, and I loved the style and location, but they overcharged my card and I’m still trying to get my money back a month later. Rates from 143 AUD ($107 USD). We also stayed at the Fremantle YHA, the former women’s prison, which was a really cool place to stay but had poorly insulated rooms and we shivered all night — I’d stay there in warmer weather. Privates from 67 AUD ($50 USD), dorms from 23 AUD ($17 USD).
On Rottnest Island: Round-trip Rottnest Express ferry tickets cost 99 AUD ($74) from Perth and 79 AUD ($59 USD) from Fremantle. You can add a bike rental for an extra 30 AUD ($22 USD).
I didn’t stay overnight on Rottnest Island, but you can check out hotels here.
In Kalbarri: My half day kayak trip was through Kalbarri Adventure Tours and cost 75 AUD ($56 USD). They also have full-day tours.
I stayed at the Best Western Kalbarri Edge Resort, and I loved the suite setup and that I had my own personal washing machine! Rates from 144 AUD ($108 USD). Drop by Finlay’s for a fun outdoor barbecue restaurant. They have pink snapper cheeks and “big ass oysters” on the menu.
In Monkey Mia/Shark Bay: My scenic flight was through Shark Bay Air Charter. My 75-minute Capes & Parks of Shark Bay tour cost 330 AUD ($247 USD) per person; flights start at 59 AUD ($44 USD) per person for 15 minutes. The flights can sometimes be rough for people who get motion sickness (like me!); I was a bit queasy at times but fine as long as I closed my eyes for a bit. I recommend taking a non-drowsy motion sickness pill beforehand.
My Monkey Mia Magic Sailing Cruise cost 49 AUD ($37 USD), lasted 90 minutes, and was BYOB.
I stayed at Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort, which is more or less the only place to stay in Monkey Mia and includes free admission to the dolphin feeding. Rates from $123 AUD (90 USD).
In Coral Bay: My manta ray snorkeling trip was with Ningaloo Marine Interactions and cost 170 AUD per person ($127). It’s technically a half day trip but includes lunch. Photos cost extra and I encourage you to purchase them because they are outstanding and the company uses the most badass underwater camera i’ve ever seen. (Underwater photographers around the world often work solely on commission.)
My quad bike tour was with Coastal Adventure Tours. My Sunset Trek (South) tour lasted two hours and cost 110 AUD ($82 USD). Extra riders (not driving) cost 55 AUD ($41 USD). Note: this is a very bumpy ride. Ladies, you’ll want to wear a good sports bra, and if you have a nice camera, wear it in your backpack because if not, it will be slamming back and forth in the container.
I stayed at the Bayview Coral Bay, a simple hotel without wifi in the heart of the (tiny) town. Rates from 195 AUD ($146 USD).
In Karijini National Park: Our two-day tour was a private custom tour through The Flying Sandgroper (multi-day tours) and West Oz Active (day tours), but both companies offer a variety of tours anyone can join. Freedi and I kept it simple and focused on photography; other tours are more active.
I stayed one night outside the park at the Tom Price Hotel, which was crawling with ants, served terrible food, and I do not recommend it for those reasons. Rooms from 185 AUD ($138 USD). In the park I stayed in a deluxe eco tent at Karijini Eco Retreat, which was unique, comfortable, and had fabulous food — I loved it. Deluxe tents from 189 AUD ($141 USD).
In Broome: Low-season rates at the Mangrove Hotel, which I adored, start at 142 AUD ($106 USD). Broome is hard to get around without a car, but there is a 4 AUD ($3 USD) bus to Cable Beach that stops in front of the hotel. The last one runs right after sunset.
Don’t visit Western Australia without travel insurance. I use and recommend World Nomads.
I visited Western Australia as a campaign for STA Travel and Tourism Western Australia. Most of the trip was covered by them; I paid for my trip extension in Broome and Perth, including a media rate one night at the Alex Hotel. Many thanks to the Mangrove Hotel for providing me with a complimentary three-night stay. All opinions, as always, are my own.