Travel: Down Wonder; AUSTRALIA PAT NOLAN DISCOVERS GEMS IN THE WIDE OPEN SPACE OF WESTERN STATE G'DAY FROM OZ
ONE of the lines most regularly trotted out about Australia is that it is the world's most untouched land.
It is largely free from the metropolises that dominate most countries in the western world.
It has a modest population of just over 21 million, roughly five times that of Ireland - but the vastness of Australia means our island could slot into it 95 times.
Of its various states, Western Australia is by some distance the largest, accounting for roughly one-third of the land mass.
However, it is home to only about 10 per cent of the Australian population with the state capital, Perth, taking in some 1.5 million.
Even those who spend all their lives Down Under don't get to see the country in all its glory, as showcased in Baz Luhrman's recently released epic movie Australia, and the western state could be viewed as a project all on its own.
A week in Perth covering the exploits of the Irish International Rules team ahead of the first Test against the hosts at the Subiaco Oval meant my time was at a premium in terms of in-depth sightseeing.
But a day trip in the Swan Valley region included such spectacular views that I departed for Melbourne with a feeling of unfinished business.
From a tourist's perspective, perhaps the region is best suited to those who are middle-aged, though that should not preclude young backpackers from exploring it and in fact it doesn't.
The nightlife in Perth is relatively quiet, though to judge Western Australia on those terms would be shortsighted in the extreme.
The personalised day trip in the Swan Valley, just outside Perth, was a welcome departure from the typical fare of filing onto a bus with 50 strangers.
Instead, myself and a colleague were transported in a jeep with a lady named Sylvia, the managing director of Country Escapes in WA Tours, whose knowledge of the area is comprehensive.
The company offers a host of different tours, including overnight trips which can stretch to four days.
Our day trip in the Swan Valley included the Margaret River Chocolate Factory, the All Saints Church, an Aboriginal gallery and three different wineries.
The valley was first explored in 1827 by Captain James Stirling, who later became governor of the Swan River Colony. The notes he made in his diary at the time still ring true to this day.
He wrote: "The richness of the soil, the bright foliage of the shrubs, the majesty of the surrounding trees, the abrupt and red colour banks of the river occasionally seen, and the view of the blue mountains, from which we were not far distant, made the scenery of this spot as beautiful as anything of the kind I have ever witnessed."
It was shortly afterwards that the All Saints Church was built, making it the oldest in Western Australia.
A small but well-maintained building, it is a popular and intimate venue for weddings with the numerous wineries nearby capable of hosting large parties.
The Aboriginal gallery contained a host of beautifully made artifacts, showcasing all that is good about the country's indigenous people.
But the main thrust of the tour was tasting the wide selection of wines on offer.
The Australian wine industry commands respect around the globe and is now the world's fourth largest exporter.
It provides a significant boost to the economy while the Australians have quite a taste for their own wine as well, consuming some 400 million litres a year.
South Australia produces more than half the country's wine but there are plenty of gems in WA. …