Hidden away from the outside world. Reachable only by crossing oceans, vast deserts or endless skies, Perth is a paradise far, far away
Sequestered in its fertile pocket at the far south-western corner of the Australian continent, you get the feeling that Perth is looking out to the Indian Ocean, rather than back towards the domesticated east coast.
The state of Western Australia (WA) is seen as the most independent of all the Aussie states, not least because of its vast wealth and inescapable size. If it were a country in its own right, it would still be the 9th largest on Earth. More astonishingly, it has a comparatively minuscule population of only 1.8 million people.
Perth's isolation is well known, and forms a big part of its identity. It gives the impression of being a raft of shops and skyscrapers afloat in a boundless, barren wilderness. As though the desert may one day be back to reclaim it. A railway line and a few highways are the fragile conduits that channel visitors between here and the distant outside world.
How it all started
This notion of loneliness was at its most profound in Perth's early days. Fearful of the French or Dutch gaining a foothold in this antipodean new world, the British colonists sent Captain James Stirling and his motley crew of hopefuls to set up the Swan River Colony at the current site of Perth's CBD. This new colony, after some debate, was eventually named Perth after the dignitary's home town in Scotland.
Isolation made these early years hard. Though the readily available fresh water, the pleasant climate, and the fertile land helped settlers find success. Convict labour wasn't drafted in until later, when public buildings and better infrastructure were needed. Many of these colonial buildings still stand today, and are in a beautifully kept condition.
Today, the people of Perth take enormous pride in their gritty self-made image. Indeed, when Australia was federated into a single nation back in 1901, WA was considering becoming a country of its own. Luckily, the promise of rail and road links to the east tempted its citizens to join the rest of the country.
The climate here is Mediterranean. Hot, dry summer days are tempered by the Fremantle doctor – a cool breeze that creeps in off the Indian Ocean of an evening. The short winters are cool and wet. Perth is recognised as having the best year round climate of all the Aussie cities and averages 8 hours of glorious sunshine every day.
Perth boasts over 80km of immaculate urban beaches right on its doorstep. The most famous is at Cottesloe, a calm family friendly beach with crisp white sand beside a beautiful promenade lined with pubs and cafés. Cottesloe has recently taken the crown from Mosman in Sydney as the most expensive place in Australia to buy property. Scarborough beach is famous for its savage surf if you fancy a go at that. So numerous are the beaches here, that there are even ones set aside for dog walkers!
We're on the sunset coast here, and the best place to see the action is Cottesloe. So why not take a seat on the sand, crack open a chilled bottle of WA's finest white, and marvel at one of the best sunsets you will ever see. Later on you can head to the Ocean Beach Hotel for a cold one (you must, for it's a Cottesloe institution).
Perth city centre is a masterpiece. As soon as you arrive you can't help but notice how clean, un-crowded and polished everything is. It's as though someone goes over every brick and flagstone daily with a scrubbing brush. No-one would dare drop any litter.
Old blends with new perfectly, and wherever there is a spare square metre or so, they make the most of it by slotting in a tiny patch of parkland (central park on Hay street is a perfect example – it's barely big enough for one person to sit down). A walk along the lush, palm lined river-front promenade is simply breathtaking, with the glittering towers of the CBD behind you and the sweeping river out in front. If only all cities were like this.
Kick back in Kings Park
Kings park is the single largest urban park in the world. It is perched on high overlooking the city and the graceful Swan river in one of the most idyllic settings imaginable. It is miraculously cheerful how somewhere this peaceful and serene is so close to the offices and malls of the city centre.
The park consists of two main parts. The first being a large, landscaped area of treetop walkways, pagoda's, statues, lawns and lakes so well tended you'd think it was a golf course. The second being a forest of natural bushland, made accessible by walkways with snippets of information dotted about.
There are free guided walks done daily at 10:00am and 2:00pm departing from the 'aspect of Kings Park' office. It's worth coming at dusk too when the city lights up, it's glow reflected off the glass sheet surface of the river.
The fabled Aussie lifestyle
That great picture we hold in our minds eye of the laid back work-to-live Aussie pace of life is at its most conspicuous in Perth. Kicking back is the local pass-time here and every aspect of the place and the people is totally dedicated to taking it slow and enjoying life. The park, the river, the beaches, the city streets, everything just seems to be aiming for an almost Buddhist-like atmosphere of tranquillity.
Rottnest island is reachable by ferry, and reach it you must. It is a paradise all of its own, and comes complete with a unique piece of wildlife - the Quokka. These delightful little marsupials will gladly approach you looking for a titbit and they are impossibly cute. The island is very heavily protected. Cars are not permitted, so you must walk or cycle around, and regretfully visitors are denied the privilege of touching or feeding the Quokkas, no matter how much the poor little chaps beg (and they will).
Travelling around Rottnest island goes something like this: cycle through some forest to the best beach you've ever seen. Then cycle through some more forest to the new best beach you've ever seen, then cycle some more.... and so on. You can swim and snorkel here and lie on the beach as long as you like.
Drinking and Dining
Perth has more restaurants per head than any other city on earth. The CBD is awash with refreshing kerbside cafés without a Starbucks in sight. It all started with the swanky King's street café which is still going strong, but my favourite is Tiger Tiger. Hidden down a narrow alleyway off Murray street, it is cool in summer, warm in winter and has a modern feel, mixed with a breezy hippy vibe. Brilliant.
Seafood is something of a speciality here, and I'd heartily recommend a seafood basket at the Botanical café on Fraser avenue in Kings park - it's the best view you'll ever have whilst eating calamari. Oh, and if you get the ferry downriver to Fremantle, then after checking out the old markets and colonial architecture, why not pick up some fresh catch of the day at Kailis on the fishing boat harbour? You'll have to fend off the seagulls, but will be rewarded with what is claimed to be the best fish and chips in Australia.
There are some charmingly shabby Asian eateries in the edgy suburb of Northbridge, around a 15 minute walk from the CBD. My personal favourite is the Good Fortune Roast Duck house on William street. Their forte is barbecue pork which they sell by the kilo, and boy is it good.
Classy dining with a view to die for is found at Fraser's restaurant in Kings Park overlooking the city. It's not just a meal, but an unforgettable experience. The stylish modern Australian menu is pretty pricey at around $30 - $40 AUD for a main, but you definitely won't be disappointed.
Where to Stay?
Try to avoid Northbridge hostels as they can be unpredictable and rough. Hostel touts hang around train stations, bus terminals and the airport, but never book a hostel with them without looking around it first. I recommend playing it safe and staying at the Perth City YHA. It is clean, safe and is fully equipped with TV lounge, internet access, large kitchen and secure rooms with lockers. Prices start at $32 AUD for a multi-share dorm.
Aarons Hotel is a cheery 3 star hotel on the corner of Pier and Murray street in the CBD. It is fantastic value given its splendid location and has all the facilities you would expect including a restaurant and tour desk. Prices start from $125AUD for a double room.
The Duxton Hotel is centrally sited on St Georges Terrace. It has everything you could want from a 5 star hotel including fabulous views over the Swan River. Prices start from $279AUD for a double room.
Kings Park Guided walks: www.bgpa.wa.gov.au/kings-park/walks/free-guided-walks
Rottnest Island information: www.rottnestisland.com/en/pages/Home.aspx
Tiger Tiger Café: http://tigertigercoffeebar.com/o/
Fraser's Restaurant and Botanical Café, Kings Park: www.frasersrestaurant.com.au/
Kailis restaurant, Fishing Boat Harbour, Fremantle: www.kailis.com/
Ferries, Buses and Trains www.transperth.wa.gov.au/
The free CAT bus service www.lookatwa.com.au/Transport/cats.html