Friday, 5 November 2010

Capel Secrets

The following article, written by me, was published in The West Australian newspaper in 2004; but why not spread the knowledge of this pleasant little town? Read on...

“Not just a one horse town”.

That’s what the local business directory says about Capel, in the southwest of Western Australia. But at first glance, you’d be doubtful.

The one horse is in fact Rogan Josh, winner of the 1999 Melbourne Cup. He lives in a paddock on the main street next to the local pub, with a big sign pointing out his identity.

It’s a generous space, and the thoroughbred seems quite comfortable in retirement, grazing contentedly with his pony companion. Capel may not have many famous locals, but it knows how to look after them.

The town started as nothing more than a 19th century rest stop on the stagecoach route between Bunbury and Busselton, which explains Capel’s position exactly halfway between the two busy regional cities.

It doesn’t look much more than a slumbering hamlet, and most traffic speeds by on the recently built bypass. Travel guides have little to say about it. But there are some interesting features to the area which make it worth a visit.

The first is wine. Capel sits at the northern edge of the wine-growing zone which stretches southward through Margaret River and beyond. From humble beginnings, viticulture has become a thriving industry. The local success story is Capel Vale, a winery situated two kilometres from the township on the other side of the highway.

It certainly impresses the visitor. A two-storey building hosts tastings, sales and an upmarket restaurant, with sweeping views of the vineyard below.

It’s easy to forget that the industry is relatively new to the southwest. Keith Warrick, Capel Vale’s sales manager, says its principal vineyard was a stonefruit farm 30 years ago. “The first vines were planted in 1974. They were a combination of merlot and chardonnay, which produce our two reserve wines today.”

However, Capel’s hidden jewel must be its beach coast. There are 29 kilometres of white sand beaches in the local shire, stretching along the Indian Ocean.

The best is Peppermint Grove Beach, eight kilometres from the town. Once a sleepy holiday village with fibro shacks, Peppermint Grove is fast evolving into a small coastal town. But don’t be put off. On a weekday, you can often be the only person on the sand.

Facilities are simple: toilets, a children’s playground and a few shelters on the sand. To the south is fast-growing Busselton and the curve of Cape Naturaliste, to the north is Bunbury and its busy port. But in the middle there’s nothing much to do except lie on the sand and relax.

If even this is too much like the big smoke, try Forrest Beach, Peppermint Grove’s sister beach a few kilometres south. It’s accessible by road, through flat, dry cattle pastures that reach right to the dunes. At the beach there’s nothing but some basic toilets, a bin and a couple of shelters. You can’t get more “away from it all” than this.

Capel may seem overlooked at present, but there’s a whiff of change in the air. Its proximity to rapidly gentrifying Bunbury and improvements in local infrastructure point to future development, and already land prices are rising. For the moment, however, it’s a sleepy town just off the tourist highway, with some interesting surprises on offer.

Note: As this article was researched some years ago, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within. Always check on the current wine/beach/retired horse situation before travelling to Capel.