As a schoolboy in Perth in the mid-1970s, my year 7 class went to Albany to see the whaling station in action. Still etched in my mind is the sight of whales being hauled up out of the water to be butchered by men wielding razor-sharp hockey stick-like implements. I remember the smell and the sluicing blood. I remember the girl next to me vomiting on my shoe.
This is my first trip back since that disturbing visit and these days whale watching has replaced whale slaughter. Albany is whale-watching nirvana and from July to October you can see them frolicking in the bays and surrounding ocean and tours will take you out to "humpback highway" just offshore for a closer encounter.
The whaling station was decommissioned in 1978 and is now Whale World, a tourism award-winning interactive museum and education centre. You can still see the old processing plant and a whale-chasing ship along with a skeleton display, including the "lucky" last sperm whale taken.
Three movie theatres tell the stories of whales and whaling and further redemption is achieved with day and night Walk on the Wild Side tours, which emphasise the plight of rare, vulnerable and endangered local fauna.
You can get a nice feed at Whalers Galley Cafe and pick up a gift at the grammatically dubious Mobie's Souvenirs, which is all very nice but it will take more than fish and chips and a cetacean snow globe to shake my childhood trauma.
Albany - 400 kilometres south of Perth on WA's rugged south coast - is a very pretty town and the fresh ocean air is palpable. The high annual rainfall here - the area is sometimes called the rainbow coast - stands the Great Southern region apart from much of the rest of drought-stricken WA and enables the local farmers to produce some of the finest vegies (try the purple carrots), beef, cheese and wine in the country. Organic options abound, especially at the 471-stall farmers' market every Saturday.
Some say Albany is like a big English village - quiet, folksy, damp and cold with nice scones and tea.
While this attitude is reinforced by the architecture and the famous Pie and Pint counter lunch at the Earl of Spencer hotel, Albany is an intensely proud Aussie town boasting striking natural beauty, country hospitality (as long as you don't call it ALL-bany), excellent food and the superb Great Southern wines.
One particularly non-English-village-instalment is the magnificent new Albany Entertainment Centre, a 620-seat state-of-the-art mini opera house overlooking Princess Royal Harbour. From certain angles it looks a bit like the love-child of Utzon's Sydney masterpiece and a robot grasshopper (just one of the derisory jokes) but it is nonetheless very impressive and is treating Albany and the surrounding districts to a cornucopia of performing arts.
Another major attraction here is the scuba diving. You may need an extra-thick wetsuit in winter but the venues are as good as they come, many in protected waters with good visibility. HMAS Perth and the ex-whaler Cheynes III were scuttled in King George Sound and sit just 36 metres and 22 metres below the surface respectively. Night dives and caves are on offer and seals and even sea lions are regular companions for divers.
It seems more effort was made in the explorer era to visit Albany than is made today. Baudin, Freycinet, D'entrecasteaux, Flinders and Darwin all raved about it. It may be remote but Albany is a unique and remarkable place, a town on the outskirts of the country that sits, quite beautifully, betwixt and between eras and cultures.
The writer was a guest of Classic International Cruises, WA Tourism and Tourism Albany.
Albany is a 4.5-hour drive from Perth or a scenic 2.5-hour drive from Margaret River through towering old-growth forest. Albany is also a port of call for cruise ships, including the MV Athena out of Fremantle. classicintcruises.com.
Albany is not yet blessed (or ruined, according to local NIMBYs) with a top-end hotel but there are 1500 rooms in town and 3000 within the district. Many of these are intimate and rustic B&Bs, for which the town is renowned. amazingalbany.com.au.
Nearby Denmark is the Nimbin of the south-west with a bohemian lifestyle and plenty of arts and crafts.
Positioned among natural harbours and bays providing shelter from the Southern Ocean, Albany was built on strategic significance and whaling. Founded in 1827 as a military outpost to keep the French out and fortified in 1892 to keep the Russians out, Albany was the last young soldiers saw of Australia as they headed off to Gallipoli and other horrors. The town's military significance is keenly observed at the Princess Royal Fortress, with several military displays and the symbolic firing of a six-inch canon. Two gun batteries were dug into the hillside and stored enough cordite and ammunition to keep firing for days but no shot was ever fired in anger.
The magic of pedal power
Cycling around Albany is a treat. Purpose-built trails take in stunning views of the Stirling Ranges, King George Sound, Middleton Beach, Princess Royal Harbour and Frenchman Bay. The "Go Cycle Albany" map offers four themed rides ranging from 30 kilometres to 60 kilometres. Check out the 12-turbine windfarm, take in the harbour views on the way to Whale World, pedal to the petals along the wildflower trail or burn calories on the mainly inland Go Taste Albany trail. Bike hire is available at Middleton Beach, Emu Point and at youth hostels. Go to amazingalbany.com.au and follow the links to download the map. The super-intrepid cyclist can ride down from Mundaring (just east of Perth) along the Munda Biddi (path through the forest) adventure trail — details at mundabiddi.org.au.