Seemingly endless highways and dusty terrain is no reason to skip over Western Australia’s Coral Coast. This northward journey may do some damage to the odometer, but it more than makes up for it in kaleidoscopic landscapes, ocean fresh seafood and exhilarating underwater adventures.
As you weave through craggy coastlines and dusty red earth, you’ll make pit stops at beach towns including Cervantes, Kalbarri, Geraldton and Shark Bay. Along the way, you’ll snorkel through marine gardens, explore striking river canyons, sample fresh local produce and get close to some of the ocean’s most incredible creatures.
Image credit: Tourism Western Australia
Day 1: Perth to Cervantes
2hr 30min | 200km
As you hit the road, leaving the outskirts of Perth city in the dust, veer onto Indian Ocean Highway. Wind through the sand dunes of Lancelin before turning off towards the Nambung National Park in Cervantes. This arid landscape is home to the Pinnacles Desert, a collection of towering limestone pillars that date back millions of years. At sunset, they light up in an otherworldly scene straight out of Mad Max.
There’s plenty more to explore in this coastal plain, from secluded beaches to explosions of native wildflowers. But for a quintessentially Australian experience, make sure to swing past Kangaroo Point. It’s a tranquil beach where you can be lucky and find marsupials basking on the shore at dawn and dusk.
In town, sampling the local seafood is a must. Nosh on crayfish at the Sea Breeze Café and clear some time to visit Lobster Shack. There, you can hop aboard the fishing fleet to watch the fisherman in action before gobbling up their haul in the kitchen. Lake Thetis is also worth a visit to glimpse some of the oldest living fossils on the planet. The burbling grey blobs may not look like much, but they’re a portal to a prehistoric time.
Rest your head at Cervantes Pinnacles Motel which offers quality accommodation and value for money set in central Cervantes.
Day 2: Cervantes to Geraldton
3hr | 245km
As you leave Cervantes, take a short cruise up to Jurien Bay, a popular fishing town. There are several jetties for you to cast out a line – and, with a bit of luck, reel in a pink snapper or Spanish mackerel to cook for lunch. You can also sandboard the dunes at Sandy Cape or hire a Segway to zip around town. Adventure seeker? Skydiving is a must. Freefalling over the spectacular Turquoise Coast is the stuff lifelong memories are made of.
A bit further inland is Leseur National Park. In wildflower season – late winter and spring – it transforms into a botanical wonderland, with more than 900 plant species springing up from the heathland. And just 20 minutes further along the Indian Ocean Drive is Green Head, where a colony of excitable sea lions frolic.
It’s nearly two hours north to Geraldton – or “Gero” as the locals call it – where you’ll find humming nightlife and eateries. Salt Dish has the best food and coffee and The Provincial, despite its name, has rather cosmopolitan share plates and cocktails. The historic Freemasons Hotel is also worth a look in for fresh rock lobster and live music.
Mantra Geraldton has comfortable self contained apartments, each with a private balcony (some overlooking the marina). There’s also a pool and spa where you can lounge and recharge.
Day 3: Geraldton to Monkey Mia
7hr 30min | 569km
Get up bright and early for a big day of driving, starting with a two hour cruise north to Kalbarri. In the Kalbarri National Park you can walk along 400 million year old river gorge, and behold spectacular wind weathered rock formations (Nature’s Window makes for a great photo op). If you’re not content with admiring the craggy coastal canyons, go abseiling down them with a local guide.
Then hop back in the car and return to the North West Coastal Highway for a two and a half hour stretch north. Eventually, you’ll hit Shark Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage listed site. It’s almost a bit barren on first glance, but there are pockets of pure wonder. Instead of sand, Shell Beach’s shores are made up of billions of tiny cockleshells, making it one of just two beaches of this kind in the world. And under pristine lagoons, you’ll find marine species as varied as fluorescent sea snakes, dugongs, dolphins and tiger sharks.
A quick drive west takes you to Monkey Mia, famed for its pod of friendly bottlenose dolphins that greet tourists at the shore. At sunset, float in a catamaran past dorsal fins – and hear the dolphins’ entertaining squeaks through an underwater microphone.
RAC Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort has a suite of accommodation options, ranging from unpowered campsites to luxury beachfront cabins. But they all have the most important thing in common – close proximity to the region’s unspoiled shores.
Day 4: Monkey Mia to Exmouth
7hr 30min | 738km
After waving goodbye to the dolphins, wind back to the highway and journey up to Carnarvon, a tropical pit stop known as WA’s fruit bowl. You’ll find papaw plantations, strawberry fields and ripe mangoes fallen by the roadsides. Don’t leave without stopping by Bumbak’s for a frozen chocolate dipped banana.
A further two and a half hours north is Coral Bay, a coastal settlement so tiny that residents walk rather than drive, and often go barefoot. Have lunch at the chilled out Bill’s Tavern, which has had a recent facelift (the tasty seafood remains).
From here on, Ningaloo Reef sprawls along the coastline, a whopping 300km of teeming Technicolour reef to the tip of Exmouth. Known as Australia’s “other” great reef, it promises spellbinding snorkelling without the crowds, with tropical fish and rare creatures including dugongs and manta rays. Book in to swim with whale sharks for the experience of a lifetime.
Even in bed, you won’t want to be far from nature. Luckily, Ningaloo Reef Resort's self-contained studio rooms overlook tropical gardens and splices of turquoise coast.