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How to have an epic road trip in Western Australia

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You could spend months exploring the beautifully diverse coastline of Western Australia, with its incredible wildlife and colourful scenery.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the annual leave allowance to splurge on that kind of trip, but there is good news, however, because as of this year it’s possible to hire a car one way from Exmouth to Perth for a fraction of the price.

Meaning a two-week road trip along the WA coast is now an achievable and affordable holiday – and one I can’t endorse enough.

If you’re not familiar with this stretch of coastline, you will be forgiven, as it’s much less known and visited than drives on the east coast. But this part of Australia can certainly match its eastern counterparts.

Not only does the WA coast contain two UNESCO World Heritage Sites and some of the most beautiful scenery you’re likely to come across in Australia (and further afield), it’s also one of the best places in the world to swim with whale sharks, as well as humpback whales, manta rays and plenty of other incredible marine life.

We flew into Perth, Western Australia’s largest city and the gateway to the rest of the state. The city has changed a lot in recent years with the development of Elizabeth Quay – a precinct on the banks of the Swan River, and there is a great selection of new hotels and plenty of bars and restaurants popping up.

We slept at QT Perth, a recent addition to the quirky QT portfolio of hotels. With a rooftop bar and beautifully designed rooms with enormous baths, it’s a great base for a stay in Perth.

A few minutes walk away is Elizabeth Quay where you can find a number a public artworks including First Contact, a cast aluminium sculpture by renowned indigenous artist, Laurel Nannup, depicting the arrival of the European settlers to Perth.

Following a day and night in Perth, it was back to the airport for our two-hour flight to Exmouth, the northern gateway to the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area. After picking up our hire car, we headed straight into the Cape Range National Park – home to stunning beaches, rugged limestone ranges and canyons and an abundance of wildlife.

As a protected national park, you won’t find big hotels lining the coast. If you want to stay here the options are camping, camper vans or glamping at Sal Salis. We were lucky enough to be staying at the third option, a luxury eco property made up of en-suite tents nestled amongst the sand dunes, moments from the Ningaloo Reef.

This is the place to come to really unwind – no phone reception or wifi means you can really disconnect and immerse yourself in the beautful surroundings. All meals and drinks are included in your stay, including a delicious three-course dinner each evening on the deck overlooking the ocean. Heaven!

If you’re not the laying on the beach type, there is plenty to do in the Cape Range National Park. Hike the Mandu Mandu Gorge or Yardie Creek and admire the park’s local residents which include kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, emus and over 100 species of birds.

Then, of course, there is the main attraction – the Ningaloo Reef. Snorkelling off the beach at Sal Salis or Turquoise Bay, a short drive north, you are likely to see reef sharks, colourful corals, turtles and more.

If you’re visiting between March and August, you can join a boat trip for the chance to swim with whale sharks, and between August and October with humpack whales. The latter is a relatively new opportunity and something that has been trialed since 2016, in order to ensure the interactions don’t cause any interference with the whales and their migratory patterns.

We were visiting in September and headed out with Live Ningaloo in search of humpback whales. The operators use a spotter plane in order to locate the whales, meaning the chances of seeing them are high. Once sighted, we sailed in their general direction before entering the water, continuing radio communication with the plane, who told us when the whales were approaching.

Sure enough, the whales swam underneath and then around us before continuing on their journey. It was a magical experience, and although I’ve been on whale watching boats in the past, I never truly appreciated how large and magnificent humpback whales are until having one swim past me and make eye contact.

Back on land we spent a night in Exmouth. This is the place to stay if you’re not into camping, with a number of hotels and lodges to suit different budgets.

Exmouth is a resort town with a holiday feel and a small but good selection of cafes, restaurants and bars. One of these is Whalebone Brewing Company. Located in a funky shed, with an enormous beer garden, the company makes their own brews as well as serving pizza and offering a great spot to unwind with a little live music.

After departing Exmouth we began our journey south. Coral Bay was the next stop, a tiny holiday resort at the southern end of the Ningaloo Reef. Companies at Coral Bay also offer whale shark and humpback swims, as well as manta ray and snorkelling tours. We sailed out into the lagoon with Ningaloo Marine Interactions for a day of fantastic snorkelling.

As with Exmouth, spotter planes are on the lookout for whales and manta rays, along with other marine animals, including, to my surprise, tiger sharks, or stripeys, as they are affectionately known.

Not only did we see these incredible animals from the boat, but we were also able to get in the water and see them from below the surface – an experience which sounds far scarier than it actually is.

We were soon back in the water again, this time with the manta rays. We were fortunate enough to witness a courtship dance between two males and a female, who elegantly circled around each other below us.

After a whirlwind few days of exciting marine interactions, it was time to continue the road trip south. After stopping in Carnarvon for lunch, we drove to Shell Beach, which is exactly as it sounds, a beach made up of tiny shells.

World Heritage listed Shark bay was the next stop and it was time for another national park: Francois Peron. You need a 4WD to explore the park, so if you don’t have one, the best way to see it is with a tour.

We spent the day with Garth from Shark Bay Coastal Tours, who told us about the traditional owners of the area; the Malgana Aboriginal people. He had an excellent eye for spotting wildlife and we saw thorny devils, goannas and dugongs during our day in Francois Peron.

The real highlight though is the scenery, with orange dunes and white sand contrasting with the stunning aquamarine ocean.

Continuing south our next stop was Kalbarri, home to the Kalbarri National Park. Chances are you may have seen a picture of ‘nature’s window’, the most photographed spot in the park, but there is plenty more to explore, 186,000 hectares in fact, including river gorges, rock formations and coastal cliffs.

Another exciting marine experience awaited us in the next town, Jurien Bay. We took a boat trip out with Turquoise Bay Safaris to see Australian sea lions playing in the surf. Known as the puppies of the ocean, the sea lions are curious and keen to interact. The water really was turquoise, and incredibly clear so you could get a really good look at the sea lions in the water.

Our final leg of the journey awaited us as we made our way back to Perth, where we checked into Crown Metropol. Crown Perth is a complex of hotels, a casino, a theatre, two ballrooms and 32 restaurants and bars. It’s the perfect place to unwind after a long road trip, with everything you need located in one place.

It’s also a great place for a culinary treat, as the impressive list of restaurants include Nobu and Rock Pool. We ended our trip with a delicious dinner at Silks, a stunning Cantonese restaurant with opulent décor and fantastic service.

Where to stay:

Stay in the funky QT Perth, one of the city’s coolest hotels, perfectly located for exploring Elizabeth Quay and the city centre. Rooms start at £117 ($220 AUD)

Crown Metropol, part of the Crown Perth complex has luxe rooms rooms from £162 ($304 AUD) per night.

Stay in the stunning Cape Range National Park at Sal Salis from £490 ($900 AUD)per person twin/double share or £610 ($1125 AUD) single occupancy. Prices include breakfast, lunch (except on check in/out days) and dinner, plus all inclusive bar.

How to get there:

Fly London to Perth in economy with Qatar Airways via Doha from £741 from Gatwick and £773 from Heathrow.

Qantas flies 12 times per week between Perth and Learmonth (Exmouth Airport). A one-way flight costs from £130 ($246 AUD).

Launched in April 2019, Avis Australia is now offering seasonal one-way car rentals between Perth and Exmouth from 1st April to 31st October in 2019 and 2020, starting from £132 ($250 AUD).

Hayley Lewis is a travel writer, blogger and producer. For more on the Perth to Exmouth road trip head to alovelyplanet.com or follow Hayley on Instagram, YouTube, Twitter or Facebook.

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