Friday, 1 May 2009

Nearest, But Yet So Far – Welcome To Perth & Westralia

Some say that Perth, the closest major Australian city to the UK, is the most remote capital city in the World. There’s a bit of licence involved with that; it’s a state capital city, not a country capital.

Some say that Perth is closer to Singapore than it is to Sydney. That’s good for alliteration, but it’s not true either. There’s not a lot in it, but Sydney is a touch closer.

And some say that Perth (and, indeed Western Australia as a whole) has the climate that California thinks it has. Well, without a shadow of a doubt, they’re absolutely right about that.

This city is in what might best be described as a ‘most-favoured’ position. The Swan River shimmers as it sinuously weaves through the city to the Indian Ocean. The beaches which border the city are World Class, whether for fishing, surfing, sunbathing or just living. The wine region which extends just to the North and then for several hundred miles South of the city produces some of the most sought-after New World vintages.

The CBD skyline is a forest of shimmering towers, cheek by jowl with the gentrified and restored colonial splendour of West Perth and the café culture of Northbridge and Subiaco.

Nevertheless, some also say that Perth is soulless, a cultural desert and only good to earn money from and then move on. Myself, I just don’t see it and, with 10% of the population being British, it would appear that I’m not alone.

It’s a short and pleasant walk across Langley Park from the Sheraton to the Swan River and, from there, along the river bank to the restored Barrack Street jetty. There’s a small selection of cafés and bars and Perth’s diminutive answer to the Singapore Flyer.

- which is strikingly illuminated at night:

The most notable and slightly odd attraction is the ‘Swan Bells’ – a bell tower built for the Millennium celebrations to house the bells which formerly hung in London’s St Martin In The Fields church. The story of how these cast behemoths come to be in Perth is quite remarkable, and there’s a good view of the city and the river foreshore from the tower’s viewing platforms.

Barrack Street jetty also serves as the embarkation point for ferries to South Perth and to Fremantle and then on to Rottnest Island. Fremantle is a little under an hour away and Rottnest just 30 minutes beyond that.

The 20 kilometre cruise to ‘Freo’ is a pleasant way to pick up on some of the history of Perth and to understand why its founding fathers decided to build inland from the ocean. Oceanic offer a convenient schedule with an informative commentary as the boat passes the Old Swan Brewery, the marinas, yacht clubs and multi-million dollar real-estate that lines the river’s banks on the way to the coast.

As Fremantle is approached, some of the port’s ocean-going vessels are moored slightly upstream and the cruise boat passes up-close for a fisheye view of these leviathans of the sea.

Fremantle itself was, until relatively recently, something of a no-go area – derelict docks and wharves surrounding the modern port facilities and attracting some less than welcoming characters. Preparations for the America’s Cup in 1987 catalysed a massive regeneration of the city however, with many of its stunning colonial buildings emerging from the programme restored and elegant against the trademark cerulean Western Australian sky.

Today, there’s a well-developed arts scene, thriving nightlife and cafés galore along the so-called Cappuccino Strip and down to the harbour side. Markets have taken over empty wharf sheds and the Western Australian Maritime Museum guards the harbour mouth.

During WWII, Fremantle was the second largest Allied submarine base in the pacific, and the more modern exhibit of HMAS Ovens commemorates this.

The former prison is also a museum, as is the Round House - the oldest surviving building in Western Australia. Mostly though, Fremantle is good for a mooch around the shops, a relaxed coffee or a gaze at the restored buildings themselves, many of which are now occupied by the University of Notre Dame.

Whilst Freo can easily occupy a day of any trip, a visit to Rottnest demands that length of time at the very least. Long since the weekend escape of choice for city-dwellers on the mainland, Rottnest is a car-free playground named after the native marsupials found on the island. Likened to a rat, they’re actually Quokkas and are abundant to this day. Of course and as with all things Australian, the commutation ‘Rotto’ is most likely to be heard when locals refer to the 11km long island, which lies 18km offshore.

Hungry sharks notwithstanding, there’s an annual swimming race out to the island, but the boat from Perth and Freo is the more popular means of access. Most visitors use their own two feet to get around the island, although abundant bikes are available to hire and there is a bus shuttle service. The principal attraction is merely being on an island though, and Rotto is blessed with some superb beaches. Accommodation and services are limited, but lunch or supplies for a picnic from the island store are easy to find.

Back in the City, both the Western Australian Museum and The Perth Mint are interesting diversions for those of a Natural Sciences or History bent, respectively. The latter is also notable for a quite remarkable characteristic: the room containing its furnace for the casting of gold ingots is often cooler than the super heated air of the city outside.

Also in the city, cricket fans may be drawn to the WACA – the Western Australian Cricket Association’s ground but, for many, the principal city attraction is King’s Park. These thousand acres of native bushland, lawns and botanic gardens are a jewel in the city’s crown, but in high Summer some of their appeal is lost as the heat makes sauntering aimlessly around a park, not always abundant in its provision of shade, a bit of an ordeal. That’s supposing that it hasn’t been closed due to fire risk, of course, which is even less attractive.

Where King’s Park meets the Swan River, beneath a densely wooded river cliff and next to Mounts Bay Road, the Old Swan Brewery has been converted into a luxury apartment and restaurant complex. The 1879 main brewery building, considered by many to be the finest example of its genre remaining in Australia, was the scene of considerable protest and confrontation during the period leading up to its redevelopment in the 1990s. Today, the outdoor terrace in particular is a popular place to dine on speciality steaks and a wide variety of other WA cuisine, overlooking the water and, as the evening progresses, the illuminating skyline of Perth’s city centre.

Head West from the City towards the coast again, through prosperous locales awash with boutiques and art shops, coffee shops and galleries, and the seaside suburb of Cottesloe is one of the must-visits on any itinerary.

The immediate beachfront is a surfer’s paradise, with cafés, restaurants and fish and chip shops lining the inland side of the road, or occasionally resting on the beach-back dunes. A little inland, by Cottesloe railway station, is what might very well be the World’s best corner shop: The Boatshed. Split into three areas; meat, fish and ‘everything else’, the displays of bounteous provender are simply stunning. Whether it’s the freshest seafood, the crispest salads, the most exotic bakery and patisserie or just an apple, the place is stunning.

Some might say that if you’re in Perth you should make the effort to go and have a look at The Boatshed. I’d say that if you’re anywhere between North Korea and New Zealand, you should call in.

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