I rarely buy anything from the various coupon deal mailing lists that I subscribe to, but this offer caught my eye: a discounted getaway with two nights accommodation (Friday and Saturday night) at El Caballo Resort in Wooroloo, with a bottle of sparkling wine on arrival, daily “wholesome traditional country breakfast buffet” for two, and a $40 dinner voucher to use in the onsite restaurant.
I’ve called this post ‘The resort that Perth forgot’, but perhaps that isn’t strictly true. Perth people will probably remember the famous El Caballo Blanco dancing stallion show from the 1970s and 80s. My family came to Western Australia in 1986 and I remember the El Caballo Blanco advertisements on television. Ours was a working-class migrant family with five children, so going to see the show was out of the question – but still, whenever I hear the words “El Caballo” it is always a blast from the past, a reminder of the mid-80s, when my favourite treats at the school tuckshop were eucalyptus lollies (3 for 10 cents), a Peter’s Bucket vanilla ice cream eaten with a wooden paddle, and my regular lunch order of a crumbed sausage in a buttered roll with tomato sauce.
Curiosity, nostalgia and an excuse for an inexpensive short getaway compelled me to click to ‘Buy’ button. We made a booking for the Queen’s birthday weekend, which in Western Australia is the last weekend of September, coinciding with the AFL Grand Final (for my non-Australian readers, the Queen’s birthday public holiday is on different dates in different states). We’re big fans of ‘local’ holidays – Wooroloo’s about a hour’s drive from home – not such a long drive we needed to plan our toilet stops, but good enough for a weekend away.
The original El Caballo Resort was established in 1974 by a Perth businessman named Ray Williams (now passed away), who brought Andalusian stallions to this sprawling property in Wooroloo, Western Australia. The El Caballo Blanco dancing stallion shows were held in a special arena here at the resort. Williams also opened an El Caballo Blanco theme park in Sydney which featured dancing stallions as well as other attractions – water slides, train rides, and even a small zoo. The Sydney theme park has closed down, and there are no more horses at El Caballo Resort in Wooroloo – though remnants from its former magnificence remain.
I found this ad for El Caballo Blanco Sydney on YouTube – I remember very similar ads for El Caballo Blanco in Perth. Do you have any memories of El Caballo Blanco?
We went for a walk around the grounds after breakfast on Saturday morning to check out the El Caballo Blanco Dancing Horse Spectacular arena, no longer in use. The emptiness of the stables was especially stark as we noted how many stalls there were, imagining them once filled with proud stallions.
We hoped we’d be able to find somewhere to watch the footy grand final, and on Saturday afternoon, we joined other resort guests in one of the function rooms to watch the game on a big screen, buying snacks and drinks from the bar. At most, there were around a dozen footy fans in the room.
The staff were friendly and pleasant to deal with, from the lovely lady at reception who made us feel very welcome, to the softly spoken shy waiter who looked after us for all meals at the restaurant.
Our room, while generally clean and tidy, featured stained carpets and was crying out for refurbishment. The resort isn’t just dated; it’s run-down and showing the dreary signs of neglect: the dried-up swampy state of the ponds near the front door; walls, ceilings and sculptures in need of a thorough cobwebbing; the windows in need of a high-pressure hosing; the dying plants by the stairs; the smell of damp near the guests’ entrance.
While I wouldn’t add El Caballo to my list of recommended restaurants, the food was better than expected.
The Moroccan harira soup (AU$8) was well spiced and hearty, possibly too substantial as an entree.
The crisp oven baked herb garlic bread (AU$3.50) was made using the bake-at-home rolls you can buy at the supermarket.
The El Caballo Caesar salad (AU$12) was an enormous serving for the price. It consisted of herb grilled chicken, cos lettuce, shaved parmesan, cherry tomatoes, a poached egg and anchovy dressing. You may notice I didn’t mention bacon – that’s because there wasn’t any! Incredibly, and despite not sticking to the traditional list of ingredients – tomato really does not belong in a Caesar salad – we still found it delicious and couldn’t stop eating it.
For main course, Jac chose the pancetta-wrapped hake filet, sauteed spinach with creamy baby leek and crab sauce (AU$29), and I had the creamy chicken fricassee served with forester of wild mushroom (AU$29). Both came with oven-roasted potatoes (slightly overdone) and a cup of baked vegetables – broccoli, cauliflower and peas.
We had the buffet breakfast on Saturday. The scrambled eggs and mushrooms were good, but the bacon needed a decent frying. When a breakfast fry-up leaves me still craving bacon, you know it wasn’t quite right.
For dinner on Saturday night, we skipped entree and went straight to main courses. Jac chose a salad: goat cheese and walnut parcels with marinated cherry tomato, pickled cucumber, roasted walnuts, seasonal leaves in old age balsamic dressing (AU$13). Again, another generous portion and a nicely made salad. The goat cheese and walnut parcels were lovely, shaped like mini wantans.
I didn’t expect to find one of the best risottos I’ve eaten this year in a neglected resort somewhere on the road to the Western Australian wheatbelt, but here it was: wild mushroom risotto (AU$26) – creamy, flavoursome and loaded with mushrooms.
We didn’t have a ‘bad’ weekend (which also included a visit to the Manager’s Tearooms and Restaurant in Bakers Hill) but ‘resort’ implies a certain standard of accommodation and I think most people would expect better, even for a ‘budget’ resort in a town these days best known by Perth people for its minimum-security prison. As part of the Cudo deal, we paid $199 for two nights (instead of $432).
It is clear El Caballo Resort has grown very old and no longer attracts the crowds it was built to cater for. We didn’t go looking for dust, cobwebs, cracks and stains – they were plain to see, disappointingly, all around us.
In the lobby there is a display promoting El Caballo Lifestyle Village for over-45s – an ambitious 5-stage project currently at stage 1, with just a small number of homes sold out of the 180 that are planned. As part of the package, village residents will have access to all the resort facilities. Will this provide impetus to drag El Caballo Resort out of the doldrums?
The old posters, paintings and horse carriage in the lobby are reminders of El Caballo’s character and history, but no business can live forever on the memories from its glory days nor the promise of better times to come. El Caballo doesn’t need 5 stars to become the oasis of Wooroloo. What’s missing now is not the magic of dancing white stallions; it’s a serious spring-clean and makeover. Even if its days of grand spectacle are beyond resurrection and its principal punters look set to be lifestyle villagers, I’d love to see El Caballo proud and full of life again.
El Caballo Resort
Great Eastern Highway
Wooroloo WA 6558
Telephone: (08) 9573 3777
Friday to Sunday: breakfast, lunch and dinner
You have very limited dining options all other days
Since 2007 there’s been a new, independent dancing stallion show called ‘El Caballo Blanco‘ which has travelled around Australia.