YOUR GUIDE TO GERALDTON AND THE ABROLHOS ISLANDS
Often overlooked as little more than a pit stop on the way to somewhere more exotic, Geraldton is an attraction in its own right and a gateway to the amazing Abrolhos Islands.
Not all roads lead to Geraldton but there is more than one way to drive to the regional city from Perth, each with its own appeal.
Only have a few days up your sleeve? Hit the Brand Highway and you’ll cover the 420km in about four hours. It’s not the most scenic of routes but it is the quickest.
For a prettier and more leisurely road trip, take Indian Ocean Drive. As the name suggests, it hugs the coast so there is plenty of opportunity to get out, stretch the legs, have a dip at one of the pristine beaches or explore one of the attractions along the way. This route will add about half an hour to your journey, more if you head off the main drag to take in sights such as the spectacular Pinnacles, but it’s worth doing in one direction.
If you’re heading to Gero (as the locals call it) in late winter or early spring, consider taking an inland route. This is the time to stop and smell the wildflowers that transform the Mid West into a sea of brilliantly coloured carpets. The more eastern Wildflower Way takes you north from Perth, through Dalwallinu, Perenjori and Mullewa before looping around to Geraldton; while the newer Midlands Route weaves through Coorow, Three Springs and Mingenew. For suggested self-drive itineraries, check wildflowercountry.com.au.
In and around Geraldton
No matter how you choose to get there, Geraldton is worth the fuel. Its Mediterranean climate means the sun is shining more often than not, though the winters are cooler and the wind that whips in off the sea can take you by surprise – it’s a favourite with wind and kite surfers for good reason.
Often used as a base to explore the stunning Coral Coast, or as a pit stop heading north, Geraldton has much to offer those who linger. With a laidback country meets cosmopolitan vibe, you get all the charm of somewhere regional with the benefit of a vibrant nightlife, dining, shopping and arts scene.
Accommodation is as varied as your budget. For those who prefer a little luxe, the Gerald Apartment Hotel is a well-appointed four-star hotel that’s just a few steps from shops, restaurants and Geraldton’s fabulous foreshore. Or just enjoy a couple of drinks in the hotel’s rooftop bar overlooking the foreshore, before retiring to one of the more wallet-friendly holiday parks.
Wherever you choose to stay, swing by the visitor centre, in the Geraldton Regional Art Gallery (GRAG), to get tips on where to go and what to do.
There are bushwalking and biking trails to explore year-round, while in the summer, water sports are the go. Thrillseekers can jump on a jetski or jetfoil, kayak or standup paddleboard, while wind and kite surfers head to Point Moore or Separation Point, which is also a popular spot for surfing. Or you can simply relax in the shade by the foreshore, while the kids lap up the impressive water play zone.
There’s also plenty to do indoors. Aside from GRAG, where you can wander around an ever-changing array of exhibitions and pick up some local art, don’t leave town without visiting the Yamaji Art Centre. Named for the local Aboriginal people, it’s also 100 per cent Aboriginal owned and operated, providing support for artists in a range of mediums, including painting, textiles and weaving. The talent on display is breathtaking.
As the day ends, head up the hill to Mount Scott to pay your respects at the HMAS Sydney II Memorial. This stunning tribute to the 645 sailors who lost their lives off the WA coast in World War II – it’s domed Sanctuary sculpted with 645 seagulls – is a poignant place to watch the sunset, grateful for their sacrifice.
If you want to know more about the ill-fated voyage, visit the impressive Shipwrecks Gallery at the Museum of Geraldton. This treasure trove of history also gives insights into the region’s most infamous shipwreck, on the Houtman Abrolhos Islands.
The ‘Galapagos’ of the Indian Ocean
Ever heard of Frederick de Houtman? The Dutch navigator first laid eyes on the islands that bear his name more than 400 years ago, but you could be forgiven for not making the connection given almost everyone simply calls them ‘the Abrolhos’.
What is widely recognised is the importance of the 122 islands about 60km off the Geraldton coast. Such is the biodiversity of the Abrolhos, which stretch some 100km, they have been described as ‘the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean’.
The State Government declared the pristine environment a marine national park in 2019, with funding devoted to managing sustainable tourism to the Abrolhos.
Houtman marked them as ‘Abrolhos’ on his charts, in what is believed to be a contraction of the Portuguese ‘abre os olhos’ or ‘open your eyes’, after almost colliding with the archipelago. Something the crew of the Batavia should have heeded a decade later, when the Dutch ship ran aground in June 1629 carrying 322 people and untold riches.
The story of the shipwreck and its bloody aftermath has been retold many times since, but it is by no means the only vessel to run afoul of the islands. More than 60 have officially met their end in the archipelago, including the Zeewijk almost 100 years after the Batavia.
Today, it’s one of the many reasons to visit the Abrolhos. Experienced divers can explore the Batavia shipwreck site, depending on the weather (the islands are replete with glorious diving and snorkelling spots) while history buffs can visit Wiebbe Hayes Stone Fort, Australia’s oldest surviving European building, and learn more about the brutal mutiny that claimed the lives of more than 100 men, women and children.
It is hard to believe something so heinous could happen somewhere so beautiful.
Getting out to the Abrolhos
Divided into three main clusters, the Wallabi, the Southern or Pelsaert (after the Batavia’s captain) and Easter, the Abrolhos is best visited when the wind drops in autumn or during the milder spring, though all tours are weather dependent.
There are air and sea charter tours from Geraldton to the islands, though much of the land is off-limits to protect its biodiversity. If you need some guidance, check in at the Geraldton Visitors Centre and book ahead to ensure a berth.
Abrolhos Adventures do just about everything, from a day of fishing to whale watching, diving and more. Its luxury ‘fast ferry’ catamaran will take you from Geraldton Fisherman’s Wharf to the Southern islands in 90 minutes for an all-day adventure that includes a glass-bottom boat ride over the coral, snorkelling, dolphin spotting and a guided tour of Long Island.
As there is no accommodation on the Abrolhos, the best way to get the most out of this magnificent corner of Western Australia is to book a cabin on a boat and hang around for a few days with someone else doing the navigating.
Eco Abrolhos offers a five-day tour aboard a luxurious 32-passenger catamaran (each cabin has its own suite), where you’ll be spoilt onboard while exploring the islands. Run by Jay and Sonia Cox, former crayfish operators who lived on the Abrolhos for decades, they know the marine wonderland inside out and will take you to fish, walk, swim, snorkel and explore shipwrecks. Starting from $2700pp twin share, this books up quickly for private charters, too.
Abrolhos Adventures’ more rustic Sea Shack charter boat, which sleeps 10, offers a four-day tour for about $3000. You can sightsee on one of the tenders, take off on a jetski or standup paddleboard, fish and pull up cray pots, as well as explore the beauty of the islands.
If you don’t have the time – or the sea legs – for a boat, take to the skies. Geraldton Air Charter offers a full or half day ‘Shipwreck Special’ that takes you out over the islands for a bird’s eye view before landing near Turtle Bay to enjoy snorkelling or a guided walk.
Shine Aviation also runs a similar tour, for about $420 per adult, that provides stunning aerial views as well as time in Turtle Bay. Or pay a bit extra to fly over the famous Pink Lake, north of Geraldton, before heading out to the Abrolhos.
For about $300, you can enjoy a 90-minute scenic trip, enough time to snap hundreds of impressive shots of the watery wonders below.
Back on the mainland, if you want something a little more tangible to remember your island adventure, treat yourself to an Abrolhos pearl. While pearling is a relative newcomer to the Abrolhos, the rich corals and pristine waters work their magic on the black lip oysters, creating gems with a natural lustre in a stunning array of colours. Not unlike the islands themselves.
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