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Swept away by Down Under's West coast

Broome in the Kimberley, Western Australia, has few residents, much white sand and red cliffs, and a handful of hotels, spas and wilderness retreats for the adventurous visitor.

February 26, 2012|By Amanda Jones, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • On Cable Beach in Western Australia, visitors can take rides on camels, which were introduced to the area as pack animals.
On Cable Beach in Western Australia, visitors can take rides on camels,… (Sally Tagg )

This is for those who don't mind traveling to Earth's edge to get somewhere extraordinary.

Broome is in the Kimberley, a hunk of Western Australia the size of California but whose population is only 41,000 hide-skinned, Akubra-sporting (you know, the iconic hat) individuals. It also has some of the country's whitest sand, warmest waters, reddest cliffs and most outlandish geological formations.

And those hide-skinned people are almost bizarrely kind. Without fail, if you pull over to look at a map, take a photo or argue with your navigator, they stop their car to ask, "Youse alroight?" If you're not alroight, they seem to find joy in dropping whatever they are doing to help.

Of course, the Kimberley also has man-eating saltwater crocodiles and an unsettlingly large number of the Earth's most poisonous snakes, spiders and jellyfish. But in reality, a dangerous encounter is rare, unless you're like the recent Aussie visitor to Broome who had one too many at the pub, broke into the wildlife park and tried to ride Fatso, a 16-foot, 1,700-pound saltwater croc. The local TV newscaster reporting the mauling could barely contain his mirth, asking, "Did Fatso get any fatter?" and blaming the man's idiocy on the fact he was from "an Eastern city," meaning Sydney or Melbourne. Western Australians like to distance themselves from the other coast.

The founding of Broome, the largest town in the Kimberley, reads like California's Gold Rush but with mother of pearl instead of precious metal. Plastic eventually scuttled the mother of pearl industry so Broome learned how to farm pearls from the Japanese with their local, humongous pinctada oysters. Today the area produces some of the world's largest and priciest pearls. Despite the riches, the town never lost its frontier spirit.

I'd been to Broome 15 years ago, fallen under the spell of its tropical climate, excellent food, gorgeous landscape and, above all, the town's reverence for adventure. I had spent my time four-wheeling on crimson dirt roads to isolated beaches, visiting Aboriginal settlements, swimming in the warm sea, marveling at dinosaur footprints embedded in the ancient rocks and walking along Cable Beach, a 13-mile-long swath of white sand on which camels parade at sunset and shirtless men take their four-wheel vehicles with an "eskie" (cooler) of "stubbies" (beer) and a "stick" (fishing rod) after work.

I had sworn I would return.

In the interim, a handful of hotels, spas and wilderness retreats has opened. You can now have a world-class massage, then drive about 100 miles on an empty dirt road to Cape Leveque to swim on magazine-cover quality beaches "with no one within cooee," as the Aussies say, referring to a shrill shout. You can then return to a chilled sweet, dry Sémillon and a meal of king prawns or pearl meat (tastes like abalone).

The Paspaleys, a multi-generation pearling family, have ventured into the hospitality business, opening the top two hotels in Broome, McAlpine House and Pinctada Cable Beach, and singlehandedly raising the town's standards.

Pinctada Cable Beach Resort & Spa is the latest in their stable; it is a luxury property near Cable Beach. It is not right on the beach; Aboriginal land rights make it almost impossible to develop beachside. (The only hotel there today is the Cable Beach Club Resort & Spa, a large, family-style hotel built in the 1980s by Lord McAlpine, an eccentric Englishman who turned Broome from a "backabeyond" stop into a tourist-worthy town.)

Pinctada's design is contemporary sophistication, built with a modern take on the traditional corrugated metal used to withstand torrential rain, harsh sun and tropical cyclones. Other than the large, swanky rooms, two restaurants, a hip bar and some exceptional Aboriginal paintings, the fabulous thing about Pinctada is the spa.

For 40,000 years Australian Aborigines used active plant ingredients and minerals for healing and health. Finally, someone has thought this wisdom worth reviving. The spa at Pinctada uses products developed with an Aboriginal elder. I had a memorable treatment with fragrant leaves and pods burning under the table, an exfoliation with finely ground pearl shell, a body mask of red mud topped with 700-million-year-old hot rocks and a massage with oils infused with bush botanicals.

You can't go to Broome without doing two things: attending a movie at Sun Pictures, one of the world's oldest outdoor movie theaters, and going into pearl shops to gape at $250,000 necklaces, confident in the knowledge that if you can afford them, they're a steal.

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