Extraordinary scenery is the ordinary backdrop in southwestern Australia

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The giant karri trees rise ramrod straight from the green underbelly of the forest floor, like skyscrapers in one of nature's largest cities. Towering more than 200 feet high, they have no branches for the first 100 feet, just the smooth marbled white and gray of their ghostly skin. Sunlight filters through the leafy boughs and reflects off the clinging mist, creating primeval shades and colors.

A pencil-thin road seems to fade away beyond the next hill. Walking among the trees -- part of Walpole-Nornalup National Park -- my wife and I are awed by the beauty and silenced by the scale.

This magical place, boasting the third tallest trees in the world, is just one of the wonders found on the southwestern tip of Australia's largest state, Western Australia. The state, which covers more than one third of the country's western side, is best known for its northwestern desert attractions. But for those wanting to see a softer, less harsh side of the state, a visit to the southwestern tip is a must.

Forming a roughly shaped triangle with the capital of Perth at the top, Cape Leeuwin at the bottom left and the seaside port of Albany at the bottom right, the southwestern tip offers pristine beaches, spectacular underground caves, rolling hills covered with wineries and, of course, the giant forests.

The exploration begins with Perth, the big city with the heart of a small town. The majestic Swan River runs beside the clean, open streets and numerous little parks. Free buses carry people everywhere, from the shopping mecca of the Hay Street Mall to the trendy restaurant area of Northbridge. The Museum of Western Australia has a respectable gallery of Aboriginal art, while the Art Gallery of Western Australia has a fine permanent exhibition of European, Australian and Asian-Pacific art.

Down the river, or 12 miles southwest of Perth, is the dynamic seaport town of Fremantle, made world famous when it was host to the 1986-'87 America's Cup races. Numerous stone buildings from the 1800s -- their sandy color counterpointing the royal blue sky -- give the town a historic feel. Must-sees include the Maritime Museum, which specializes in shipwrecks; the fascinating Fremantle Museum and Art Center in the picturesque 1860s cathedral-like stone building and courtyard; and the replica being built of Captain Cook's ship, Endeavour.

Besides the historical, Fremantle also offers great beaches, upscale shops, restaurants and a fun, crowded market every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Beach variations

Australia is famous for its wide, expansive stretches of deserted beaches, and the southern tip of Western Australia upholds that tradition with its own variations -- from fingernail slivers of white sand tucked away in cozy bays to surf-pounding stretches of golden sand.

Running along the coast for about 150 miles, from Perth to the little village of Yallingup, is a seemingly endless stretch of seaside resorts and attendant beaches washed by the Indian Ocean. All are best reached by taking Route 1 (the Old Coast Road), which goes through the popular seaside towns of Rockingham, Mandurah, Bunbury and Busselton. Along the way are good beaches at Preston, Myalup and Binningup.

Not far from Busselton is the village of Yallingup, just a blink in the road, but home to three points of interest: the beach, underground caves and Caves House Hotel.

Yallingup beach is the epitome of a golden stretch of sand, where the sand is truly golden. Reportedly, the waves are world famous to surfers. For everyone else, it's a great place to swim or sunbathe.

Nearby are the Yallingup caves, discovered in 1899 and estimated to be 1 million years old. Going to a depth in places of more than 125 feet, the full tour (guided or alone) takes more than two hours to complete. Sights along the way include the Amphitheater, Leaning Tower of Pisa column and a massive pillar of flowstone.

A cave's echo away is Caves House Hotel, built in 1903 and rebuilt in 1938 after a fire. It is decorated in a rich art deco style, with its downstairs dining, lounge and billiards rooms adorned with dark wood, large fireplaces and comfortable, leather chairs. The feeling is of cozy, antique charm. Upstairs, high-ceiling rooms open through French doors to a communal balcony that offers views of the ocean and setting sun. The hotel has 43 rooms (16 in the main house), some without bathrooms. The complex sits on nearly 6 acres of formal gardens and is only a 10-minute walk to the beach. (Rooms are $50 and up.)

Yallingup and Cape Leeuwin are the top and bottom of a 60-mile anvil-shaped stretch of land that juts out into the Indian Ocean from the rest of the state. Nice beaches along the coast include Hamelin Bay, Calgardup at Redgate, Gnarabup at Prevelly Park and Cowaramup Bay at Gracetown.

For cavers, the area offers more than 300 cave formations, with guided tours available at Mammoth Cave and Lake Cave near Bobs Hollow and Jewel Cave close to Augusta. Mammoth is known for its immense caverns and colossal formations; Lake is famous for the winding staircase that leads to a giant crater; and Jewel has grotesquely carved formations and a river.

Tree lovers will be astounded while driving near the coast on Caves Road (Route 250), especially if they take a small dirt road seven miles south of the Redgate turnoff. Marked only with a sign saying "scenic drive, 14 km" (8.5 miles), it wanders through Bornaup Karri Forest.Part of Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park, the forest is grand, silent and uncrowded.

At the end of Caves Road is Cape Leeuwin, complete with an 1896 lighthouse open to the public. Worth a climb, it marks where the Indian Ocean and Antarctica's Southern Ocean meet.

The inland alternative to Caves Road is the Bussell Highway (Route 10), which goes through dairy and cattle country. Along the way is the charming town of Margaret River and more than 30 wineries, most of which are open daily. These include Vasse Felix, Cape Mentelle, Redgate, Cullens and the Leeuwin Estate, which offers guided tours and tastings.

Most first-time visitors to Australia notice the trees, probably because the country boasts more than 500 varieties of eucalyptus tree.

Known as "gum" trees, the most spectacular varieties grow exclusively in the southwestern tip of Western Australia because of soil and climate conditions. The most famous of these is the karri, which can grow to nearly 300 feet and weigh more than 200 tons. Other gums nearly as spectacular include the jarrah (up to 130 feet), the marri (up to 295 feet) and the red tingle (nearly as tall as the karri).

While these trees can be found scattered throughout the southwestern tip, there are a few spots where their concentration makes for a wonderful experience. In addition to Bornaup Karri Forest, there are the Pemberton and Walpole areas.

Pemberton, inland and halfway between Yallingup and Albany, can be reached from Yallingup along Route 104 through Nannup to Route 10. These roads meander through numerous forests where just over the next rise is another incredible view of the giant trees and lush ground cover.

Less than two miles from Pemberton is the Gloucester Tree, the highest fire lookout in the world.

Southwest of Pemberton is the coastal town of Walpole. Small and friendly, it has a great visitors center and is the jumping off point of Walpole-Nornalup National Park, which covers both the rugged coastline and giant forests.

Only a mile or two outside of Walpole, on the South Western Highway heading toward Albany, is a one-way dirt road loop marked for Hilltop Lookout and the Tingle Tree. The 10-minute walking path to the nearly hollowed-out old Tingle is worth it, giving visitors a real sense of the forest's scale.

The final leg of the triangle, from Albany to Perth on the major Albany Highway (Route 30), takes about four hours to drive. During the ride, it was the area's graceful, soaring trees that we kept thinking about.

If you go . . .

Continental, Northwest, American, Qantas and United fly to Australia, but none service Perth directly. Connections from most cities to Perth can be made with Australian Airlines and Ansett Airlines. Try to make arrangements before getting to Australia to take advantage of any special fares or airline passes available only outside the country.

It's best to explore the southwestern tip by car, and all the major car rental agencies can be found in Perth. Remember to ask for an automatic transmission, so you can concentrate on left-side driving. If you plan to drive after dark, also ask for a car with a "roo" (kangaroo) bar on the front -- numerous animals become road hazards and some agencies have a hefty $500 (Aus) deductible for damages.

The seasons are reversed Down Under. On the southwestern tip, the summer (our winter) can get quite hot with temperatures in the 100s at times, but it is a dry heat. The winters are wet and mild, with nighttime lows in the upper 30s and daytime highs as pleasant as the low 60s. Because of these conditions, the land is usually dry and brown in the summer and lush and green in the winter. Overall, the best times to go are either in the spring or fall.

For more information, contact the Western Australia Tourism Commission, 2121 Avenue of the Stars, Suite 1210, Los Angeles, Calif. 90067, (310) 557-1987; or the Australia Tourist Commission (ATC) at (800) 333-0262.

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