Swapping homes with a couple in Fremantle, Western Australia, gave us not just a stylish apartment to live in, but a chance to see Rottnest island with its marine park, reefs and exotic wildlife
A beautiful ground-floor apartment near the coast of Fremantle awaited us on our arrival in Perth, Western Australia. Why pay for hotels when you can swap homes abroad? Joining Homelink International at a cost of about £100 a year, we linked up with like-minded people in our preferred destinations. Homelink provided everything we needed to make the exchange a formal agreement, and car-swapping was also an option.
Our hosts, a couple of similar age to us, met us at the airport and drove us to their apartment. They stayed elsewhere during our 10-night holiday, but will visit the UK later this year and lodge at our place – not as spacious as theirs, but with a large garden. We did what is known as "non-simultaneous exchange", but some Homelink clients swap homes at the same time while others stay in each other's homes only as house guests.
For us, Fremantle was a great choice; with its spacious rooms and outdoor terraces, the apartment exceeded all our expectations. We also had the use of a tandem bicycle, which we rode along the coastal path nearby.
The highlight, though, was a day trip to Rottnest Island, arranged through the booking office close to the E-Shed Markets on Victoria Quay. We paid £62 for the day, including bike hire, and the crossing on the sleek red Eagle Express (www.rottnestexpress.com.au) took about 30 minutes. The beautiful island was inhabited by Aborigines more than 30,000 years ago, until rising sea levels separated it from the mainland. It was then uninhabited until European explorers discovered it in the 17th century and it was given the name Ratenest (meaning "Rat’s Nest") by the Dutch, who mistook the native Quokkas (small wallaby-like marsupials) for giant rats.
There are no private vehicles on Rottnest, though there are a few "hop on, hop off" buses for visitors, so a bike is a useful way of getting around. These can be hired at the same time as you book your crossing.
Once a penal colony, Rottnest today is an island paradise famed for its pretty bays, magnificent beaches, shallow coral reefs and protected wildlife. We cycled to The Basin, a sheltered bay where others were already snorkelling and exploring the shallow reefs, clearly visible from the beach.
Being a protected nature reserve, Rottnest Island is a haven for unusual animals and plants. We spotted a couple of black snakes which caused a stir with passers-by on the path. Left alone, they slithered away into the rocks. Rottnest Island Marine Reserve, too, has a far greater range of habitats, marine plants and animals than is found off the mainland. Around Rottnest, you can also spot migrating humpback whales, bottlenose dolphins and sea lions. For more on whale-watching during the winter months, see www.rottnestfastferries.com.au/whales.aspx.
Following a narrow track, we visited Catherine’s Bay. Here you can cool off again in the sparkling blue water, where a few small boats are moored across the bay. Apart from a few seagulls sitting on the white sand, we had the beach to ourselves in mid-summer.
If you're feeling energetic, you can cycle right round Rottnest Island – about 25km. The bike tracks are well signposted, and we followed a route via the salt lakes on our way back to Thomson Bay. Here we enjoyed a long iced drink and a slice of lemon and lime soufflé at Hotel Rottnest, where drinks and meals for visitors are served all year round with stunning views across the bay.
Where to eat (Fremantle)
The Mussel Bar (+61 8 9433 1800, www.musselbar.com.au) is a great seafood grill in Fishing Boat Harbour, Fremantle. Try the delicious chilli mussels.
Cicerellos (+61 8 9335 1911, www.cicerellos.com.au) on Fisherman’s Wharf claims to serve "the Best Fish & Chips in the World" – and at a reasonable price. We ordered the deluxe version with salad and sat outside overlooking the harbour, with a glass of beer.
Kailis Fish & Lobster Market Café (+61 8 9335 7755, www.kailis.com ), again on the Harbour, is also reputedly "Voted the Best for Fish & Chips". Funny, that. We dined outside on Australia Day, watching the fireworks with a bottle of refreshing white wine.
The View (+61 8 9430 5050, www.theviewfremantle.com.au), with its opportunities for watching amazing sunsets over the Indian Ocean, is great for a special occasion.
Where to eat (Perth)
Stuzzico (+61 8 9221 0199, www.stuzzico.com.au) is an Italian pizza restaurant just along the road from the Mantra hotel. As well as large pizzas, you can enjoy friendly service, great Italian desserts and good wine.
Where to stay
Before flying on to Ayers Rock, we stayed for a night at the Mantra on Hay in Perth, close to the WACA cricket ground. Underground parking made it easy for us to load up and deliver our hire car (picked up in Fremantle) to Perth airport next morning.