If we had a rich friend who cracked it big in some brilliant, reckless enterprise in the Nineties, cashed up, dropped out and retired as a limousine-leftie in the “bush”, then Empire Retreat is exactly the sort of house we imagine he’d have.
Two milkshakes, one pie and three scenic hours from Perth, Mrs Smith and I drive excitedly into Margaret River, the gourmet capital of Western Australia.
Even Jane, our bossy GPS navigation voice, becomes suddenly sultry and breathless with anticipation as she teasingly whispers, ‘You have arrived at your destination.’ We look around, but see nothing… It’s dusk and we feel adrift amid a serene wilderness until a kamikaze kookaburra, surreally lit from below by the Retreat’s welcome sign, dive-bombs our car, then leads us helpfully in the direction of the house.
The beauty of Empire Retreat and Spa is that it blends into its surroundings seamlessly, like Tom Cruise at Willy Wonka’s factory. You could be anywhere among its 260 acres of bush and farmland, but you immediately feel secluded, relaxed and at home.
Our host shows us around the original farmhouse, now transformed into a hippy-chic hideaway. Local timbers and stone frame eclectic furnishings, creating a space that is designer but cosy, hip but homey. With a communal kitchen, library, lounge room and barbecue terrace, there are plenty of places to chill or schmooze as the mood takes you. The hotel is small enough to feel luxurious, but large enough so that you’re not bumping into other guests unless you want to. It all feels very residential.
Our Luxury Villa is a cleverly designed, split-level pad, with high cathedral ceilings that make it feel more like a studio loft than a bedroom. Panoramic glass doors open onto a spacious deck, which allows you to perve on the scenery without any of the neighbours returning the favour.
Smoldering incense and loungey music fill the air as we graze on a gourmet dinner platter (because it’s a B&B, Empire Retreat only fires up the stoves for breakfast). It’s delightfully locavore, featuring an imaginative spread of boutique provisions that go down a treat with Empire Vineyard’s very own chardonnay.
In front of the fire, atop the luxuriously woven L-shaped day-bed, Mrs Smith thrashes me at Scrabble and then fills the huge bath for a steamy victory soak. I read a dictionary, until, bored by the time I reach ‘aardvark’, I join her.
From the four-poster, we watch the full moon climb across the Van Gogh sky, casting shadows into Where the Wild Things Are characters. It’s our very own Opera in the Vineyards, without the crowds or the worry of what to wear, but with the commonality that I slept blissfully through both.
It’s dawn when our friend the kookaburra transforms into an alarm clock. We decide to take a bracing splash in the outdoor shower (significant shrinkage ensues, but only the kookaburra notices – I imagine he’s thinking he’s the early bird and I’m the early… well, you get the picture).
After enjoying a classic country breakfast in the atrium dining room, with views of the valley, we set out for the day. The hotel is the perfect base for exploring this unique slice of Australia, as beaches, underground caves, blue water bays, vineyards, artists, craftsmen and quaint forest towns are never more than 30 minutes away.
We drive to Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse and tackle a section of the spectacular Cape to Cape Track, taking a 10-kilometre jaunt south along the clifftops to the surfing town of Yallingup. Along the way we spot whales, incredible limestone gorges, elephantine beach boulders, delicate wildflowers and some of the whitest beaches ever – all washed down with enough fresh air to revive Janis Joplin.
As the local taxi driver has gone home for lunch, a surfer senses our plight and kindly gives us a lift back to our car because he’s heading that way, ‘To crack a monster left hander.’ While we’re not exactly sure what this means (is it surfing or does it get lonely in his VW Kombi?), we accept this perfect example of the region’s friendly, laid-back vibe.
Starving, it’s down to the legendary Vasse Felix Estate for a fabulous lunch overlooking the sculpture garden. The popular restaurant draws both tourists and locals – sensibly dressed grey nomads, hot honeymooners, and a group of very earthy guys and girls that look like they’ve just climbed off the tractor or out of a dam, but who are tucking into the marron (crayfish) and very best of reds with charm and gusto.
After lunch, we rush back to Empire in time for our Serenity Massage in the day spa, where a gentle breeze and native birds outside form the soundtrack to one of the great spa treatments of all time. This massage has a happy beginning – and a sleepy ending in the outdoor Jacuzzi, where we indulge in local cheese and port in the steamy mist as the sun sets.
For dinner, we cruise down the road to Cape Lodge restaurant for what turns out to be one of the most memorable meals of the year. Some really clever chefs and winemakers call Margaret River home, and this level of sophistication is a delightful contrast to the rough, prosaic beauty of the natural surroundings.
We leave the next morning, regretting we didn’t spend another night. Even GPS Jane seems to sigh audibly as we drive out the gate. We consider letting her stay one more night with the handsome iPod dock she seems to have taken a liking to, but we need her to steer us home, and the consolation is she’ll now be gagging to guide some other lucky couple back to this lovely home in the bush.