Don't bypass Bunbury

When visibility is good, expect amazing sights on a dolphin tour. Picture: Troy Mayne

Swimming with dolphins is on many people's list of "things to do". I'm in Bunbury to do just that. What's that, you say? Dolphins in Bunbury? Yes, that's right - but before I go on I'll address the elephant in the room. You see, Bunbury gets a bad rep and that's not on. Labelled as the gateway to the South West, you get the feeling even the city might see itself as merely a means of reaching somewhere else. But this pleasant port city has a lot to offer.

An easy 175km drive south of Perth, near the mouth of the Collie River at the southern end of the Leschenault Inlet, Bunbury has a delightful natural setting. The city centre is compact and walkable and the beaches are as good as Perth's but without the crowds. It may not quite be the tropical paradise where one imagines frolicking with a playful pod of dolphins but it's where the Dolphin Discovery Centre is based, on Koombana Drive.

For 20 years, this non-profit organisation has been a leading light in dolphin conservation and a major tourist attraction in Bunbury. I've opted for the enticingly named Swim on the Wild Side tour.

I meet marine biologist Phil, who kits me out with a wetsuit, fins, snorkel and mask. He's a bit of a joker. When I join the rest of the group I realise I'm the only one wearing a bright blue wetsuit, with everyone else is in black. "Maybe this will camouflage me in the water against sharks," I joke self-consciously, and immediately regret saying so when a little girl starts to cry.

I cower at the back of the boat and listen to Phil, who explains how they have a 90 per cent success rate when it comes to interacting with dolphins at some times of year. Sure enough, we get lucky at the first stop, next to a breakwater only 10 minutes from shore. Half a dozen dolphins are relaxing by a sea wall and we plop into the water like penguins.

We continue to the mouth of Leschenault Inlet, another popular dolphin hangout. There is another group in the shallow waters, but it's a little rough, so we watch from the boat.

We return to our original spot and enter the water again. This time the dolphins come closer, encircling us, weaving in and out of the group. It is still murky and I can't see much underwater but it doesn't matter as I'm enjoying seeing them swim towards me and diving underneath. Does it live up to my expectations? Definitely. If you want to see dolphins jump through hoops, go to Sea World. If you want to see them in their natural environment, come to the Dolphin Discovery Centre. It's as simple as that.

We return to shore and I venture out of town to the Ferguson Valley, a verdant sliver of country with a dozen or so wineries and craft breweries. Because it's less well known than Margaret River or the Swan Valley, it isn't besieged by tourists and feels like I have it all to myself. I meet my brother-in-law Alex for a beer at Moody Cow Brewery. I choose a nice hoppy pale ale and Alex goes for a lovely bitter pils with a thick white head.

We drive through the rolling valley and lengthening shadows of trees and rolls of hay in the late afternoon. Before long we reach Gnomesville, which must be one of the weirdest places I've ever been to. Thousands of gnomes have been placed in the woods next to a babbling brook. There are gnomes donated by families and faded specimens left by various groups. It has a slightly eerie quality.

Bunbury is a surprising place. It's still got bags of country charm, but look around and you soon find a growing number of sophisticated restaurants and colourful public art. Who knows, in 10 years hipsters might have turned it into a little Fremantle.

After spending a short amount of time in Bunbury, I can tell you it is much more than just a gateway to somewhere else. It's a destination in its own right.