The Southern Forests, located three hours south of Perth, is often referred to as the “food bowl” of WA due to its fertile soils. The region is home to an emerging cool-climate wine region – producing some top tier pinot noir and chardonnay – and contains more than 90 per cent of the southern hemisphere’s Perigord truffles.

Despite this, it has long lived in the shadow of neighbouring Margaret River. But change is stirring in the crisp, clean air of the Karri-tree valleys and once-sleepy streets, with celebrity chefs headlining its food festivals; whiskey bars and breweries popping up in old timber towns, and the introduction of boutique cafes and roasteries. Now’s the time to pack the car and head southwest.

EAT

Jaspers, Pemberton

With cosy, rustic decor like chesterfields by the fire, this new whiskey bar and restaurant opened in 2020, with chef Adrian Spacey making the most of cracking local produce. From starters such as garlic-butter marron to mains like Jaspers Baa – herb-crusted lamb rack served with Royal Blue truffle mash, baby carrots and red wine jus – to dessert such as a s’mores riff of skillet-baked dark chocolate and marshmallow with berry coulis and granita crackers, the food here is hearty and deeply comforting.

Drinks wise, there’s local wine by Below & Above Wines and Picardy, plus a good selection of local gins, ciders and craft beers – but don’t forget this is a whiskey bar. Expect good peaty Scottish single malts like Bruichladdich, Laphroaig, and Talisker, plus a whopping global range – from local distillers Limeburners (based in Albany) and Sullivans Cove (Tasmania), to Canada’s Crown Royal, Japan’s Yamazaki and Israel’s Milk and Honey. Enhance your experience with a whiskey flight or combine luxury chocolate from Sue Lewis Chocolatier with suggestions from the chocolate and whiskey pairing menu.

Hidden River Estate, Pemberton

With picturesque views over Karri forest, undulating hills and avocado farms, Hidden River Estate is a prime stop for lunch. Seven years ago, owner-chef Ardal Nigg and wife Sue opted for a tree change, moving from Perth’s Mount Lawley with their three children. Nigg didn’t know a thing about viticulture at the time, but he’s now producing some of the area’s favourite wines. Sample some at Hidden River’s cellar door before tucking into locally sourced, cuisine-crossing mains such as pulled beef cheek with gnocchi or grilled baharat lamb cutlets with hummus, red onion, sumac and zhug.

Park Manjimup, Manjimup

The owners of one of WA’s favourite coffee roasters, Southern Roasting Co, opened their second venue last year (on the same street as the first). Park Manjimup, Ian and April Pianta’s cafe-restaurant, rivals many of its urban counterparts.

Among the Insta-friendly aesthetic – including pastel-peach walls, olive-green velvet seating, potted plants and handmade ceramics by Robert Gordon – tables offer serene views of Manjimup Heritage Park. Sip Central American coffee blends from the roasting company or sample the cocktails, G&Ts and WA craft beers. To eat, there’s dishes celebrating local produce such as a mushroom medley with lemony greens; poached pear waffles with candied nuts, and whiskey-glazed smoky bacon beef burgers.

The Piantas’ third venue, Park Donnybrook, is scheduled to open in late August. Chef Ricky Mandozzi (of Rickles Pickles) – and former head chef of Fremantle’s Strange Company and Margaret River’s paddock-to-plate restaurant, Glenarty Road – is set to join them.

Wild at Heart, Pemberton

Located on the main street in Pemberton’s old General Store, Wild at Heart is a cosy cafe and restaurant with sofas by the fire and a menu that changes with the seasons. Breakfast might be matcha chia bowls, wood-fired breads with local preserves or smoked trout croquettes with poached egg, chimichurri and hollandaise. For lunch? Ploughman’s plates or freshly made goat’s cheese tortellini, while the afternoon is reserved for homemade cakes and gelato.

There’s also coffee by Southern Roasting Co, a selection of loose leaf teas, and an in-store pantry and shop stocking locally made condiments, health food and homewares.

DRINK

Lost Lake Wines, Eastbrook Valley

With more than 20 years in the game, Ashley Lewkowski is an award-winning winemaker and vice president of the Southern Forests Wine Regions Association. He has worked at some of Australia’s best wineries and vineyards including Houghtons and Smithbrook, and in a role for Lion Nathan as Petaluma Wines.

Lewkowski moved to the Southern Forests seven years ago with his wife and children to establish this family-run boutique winery on the outskirts of Pemberton. Lost Lake is recognised for producing wine that’s made from 100 per cent estate fruit. It was also a venue for this year’s Pinot Picnic, when it teamed up with renowned chef and truffle grower, David Coomer to host a lunch featuring Lewkowski’s estate raised pork and marron (from the winery’s lake).

Pop by the cellar door for a chat with the winemaker himself, while sampling Lost Lake’s range including honey merlot, which you can take to-go in a can.

Tall Timbers, Manjimup

On the site of an old Stihl chainsaw shop, Tall Timbers starts the day as a cafe and ends as a pub. Stay there long enough and you might move from waffles with maple roasted pumpkin, smoked bacon and mascarpone to a classic pub parmi or steak sandwich. Doubling as the Manjimup Tasting Centre, the venue is a showcase for local produce. Sample fresh macadamias, truffle and mushroom tapenade and truffle-infused honey from WA’s first truffiere, Truffle Hill, before sampling wine from among 40 of the area’s boutique wineries – from the vibrant rosé of award-winning newcomers Chateau June-Jerome through to the pinots of more established Picardy or Chestnut Grove, the latter of which has Buckingham Palace on its customer list.

New brewpub Tall Timbers Brewing Co is located opposite. Hop over to taste the range by ex-Swan Brewery brewer Florian von Guttenberg, including an IPA, pale ale, lager and dark and session ales (with cider and sours to come).

Tiny Tea Shop, Nannup

Patsie Smith moved to Nannup (home of the Nannup Music Festival) with little more than her van and dog. Initially looking for a tiny house to live in, she also bought a tiny tea shop. Beginning from her van and selling at festivals and markets as well as online, the passionate tea merchant moved into the cute heritage cottage in 2018 and has since built up a solid fan base including Gardening Australia’s Costa Georgiadis, Sydney rockers Kallidad, and luxury lodge El Questro in the Kimberley, which serves Smith’s premium loose leaf teas at its restaurant.

Alongside a menu of fresh brews, Smith stocks more than 100 types of carefully sourced teas from around the world including a large range of Australian certified organics, high-grade senchas and ceremonial matchas from Japan, rooibos from South Africa, and white teas from Sri Lanka.

Treehouse Tapas Wine Bar, Pemberton

This intimate, homey space feels more like your lounge room – if your loungeroom offered live, local music and small plates of zucchini carpaccio, Spanish stew with slow cooked beef and chorizo, and duck with strawberry pepper sauce. Wash it all down with wine from a line-up of local producers such as Pemberley of Pemberton, Woodgate Wines and Peos Estate (and a finish off with a chocolate truffle.

STAY

RAC Karri Valley Resort, near Pemberton

Having undergone a $5.7 million makeover mid-2019, RAC Karri Valley Resort is a stunner. While two- and three-bedroom timber chalets offer either forest or lake views, the resort’s modern lakeside rooms rest on stilts overlooking Beedelup Lake – offering an experience so close to nature you can just about dangle your toes in it.

The site is nestled in a valley of Karri trees in a pocket of the Greater Beedelup National Park, so there are plenty of nature-based activities for guests including kayaking, boating, bike-riding or walking the trails to Beedalup Falls or a section of the Bibbulmun track.

On-site restaurant and bar Lakeside has full-length windows bringing the outdoors in. Enjoy elegantly plated starters such as oven-baked marron, and basil and smoked trout crostinis; mains such as four-mushroom risotto and black Angus sirloin, matched with Australian wines. The warm mid-century interior has a centrepiece fireplace at one end of the room, creating the perfect place for pre- or post-dinner drinks.

Jaspers, Pemberton

One of the best things about dining and imbibing at Jaspers is being able to roll home to bed. The restaurant and whiskey bar on Pemberton’s main drag also offers modern luxury cabins, each equipped with a king-size bed and luxury linen, Smeg appliances, rain shower with Biology skincare products, black-out curtains and a private deck. Architecturally designed to complement the town’s heritage, exteriors are timber-cladded while cabin interiors are fitted with 300-year-old recycled jarrah floorboards.

DO

Southern Forests food festivals

Renowned for its produce – including more 50 different types of fruit and vegetables, as well as nuts, marron, lamb and beef – food from the Southern Forests is recognised by some of the world’s best chefs, such as Heston Blumenthal who imported truffles for his restaurant Fat Duck. So, naturally its food festivals are some of the best in the country. Just passing its 10-year anniversary, the hugely popular winter event Truffle Kerfuffle – dedicated to the gourmet fungus that can fetch up to $2000 per kilo – is the cream of the crop.

With internationally renowned chefs and local hospitality greats, past line-ups have included Shane Osborn, Paul West, Jack Stein, Marianne Lumb and Guillaume Brahimi (who attended via video link due to Covid travel restrictions). Events over the course of the long weekend include intimate Chefs Cabin masterclasses, cooking demonstrations and wine shed sessions, plus satellite events including long-table lunches and truffle dog hunts with Australian Truffle Traders.

Other food festivals in the area include the Manjimup Cherry Harmony Festival in summer and newcomer Pinot Picnic in autumn.

Wine trail or local produce experience

If you can’t make it to a festival you can still sample the area’s produce from numerous farm gates, wineries and cellar doors on the Southern Forests Wine Trail. The self-drive tour takes in 10 of the area’s best including Truffle Hill, Lost Lake, Woodgate Wines, Mountford Wines and Tangletoe Cider. Visit Trails WA for a copy of the trail, which also has accommodation, tourist attractions (like the climbable 58-metre Gloucester Tree), arts and craft.

For groups of 10 or more, Southern Forests Food Council can organise bespoke food and farm tours. Alternatively, contact producers directly for experiences like truffle hunts by Australian Truffle Traders (in season) or classes with winemakers such as Lost Lake’s 60-minute wine appreciation class.

Walk or bike some of the world’s longest trails

While you may not want to do the entire length of the world-famous Bibbulmun Track – stretching 1000km from Kalamunda in Perth’s hills to Albany on WA’s southern coast – sections of the ancient track are accessible in the Southern Forests area.

Named after the Bibbulmun Noongar people of WA, the track has trail markers along the way that depict the Waugal, the serpent-like creature from the Dreamtime that created life as it slithered over the land. Running a similar course, the Munda Biddi Trail is a mountain bike-only trail, one of the longest of its kind in the world.

Try the Beedalup Falls Loop Walk, which is right on the doorstep of Karri Valley Resort, the Big Brook Dam Walk or Gloucester Tree Walk Trail near Pemberton.You can also opt for a track transfer service provided by Pemberton Discovery tours.