There’s more to Perth than a place to get a tertiary education, as our writer finds out.
KIRA RIKERS, our guide from Two Feet and a Heartbeat, was equipped for walking in the cold. Wrapped in a dark green duffel coat and clad in big brown leather boots, her mission was simple – transform a pile of bricks into living, breathing history.
She’d chosen the right spot to begin. Our meeting point was Perth Town Hall, the only city town hall in Australia to be built by convicts. Unlike a lot of other well-known cities, Perth is unique for being founded on the sweat and blood of honest men.
“When they first arrived, the landscape was wild, and not particularly fertile,” Rikers tells us.
“There wasn’t even much to eat by way of animals.”
Despite this adversity, Captain James Stirling founded the Swan Valley colony in 1829. And like the strangely prophetic inscription floreat on its coat of arms said it would, the city has flourished.
By the end of our walking tour, I realised Perth has a lot more to offer than its reputation as Malaysia’s favourite student destination would suggest. Skyscrapers stand alongside heritage Federation-style buildings in the city’s Central Business District (CBD), and there are secrets at every turn. From the tunnels that run beneath the grounds of the Supreme Court Gardens – once used to discreetly ferry judges and criminals from Treasury to Court, to the myriad of hidden art works and bars along the city’s back alleys.
You may think of Perth as sleepy, and – as Rikers explains over dinner, beer and a birds eye view of the CBD skyline – until a few years ago, you’d have been right.
“We used to be known as Dullsville,” she says. “The CBD was for work, everything else happened in the suburbs.”
But things have changed. After the mayor loosened zoning regulations and reforms were made to the city’s alcohol licensing laws in 2007, there has been a proliferation of small bars throughout the city.
I wondered if the roof-top bar and restaurant we were sitting in – the Birdcage, a fusion-food affair with ambitiously arty decor – was an example of that. Brookfield place certainly is. Rikers had taken us there earlier.
A concentrated development that has become a nucleus of activity, especially after work hours, it has everything from a brasserie-style European fair at The Heritage, to old-fashioned burger-and-beer at Grill’d. If you are addicted to Board Walk Empire and gramophone music, there’s even a Prohibition Era-style bar called Bobeche, where cocktails are served in a teapot.
Some gems, however, are easy to miss. Walking into Wolf Lane, located off a nondescript and dark alleyway off Murray Street, makes you feel like you’ve discovered one of the city’s best kept secrets. Coated in quirky decor, complemented by a mish-mash of mirrors and animal trophy heads, the bar’s antiquated furniture and exposed brickwork makes it feel as if you’ve stumbled into some eccentric New York loft. Be assured, there is plenty to see and do in Perth.
If you don’t want to leave such discoveries to chance, Rikers suggests doing a small-bar tour with Two Feet and a Heartbeat. But book early, she warns. There’s also
urbanwalkabout.com, a website that lists the hippest happenings and places for fashion, food and lifestyle if you want those discoveries to extend beyond booze.
Of course, a trip to Perth isn’t complete without doing some sort of wine tour, so the next day I launched myself onto the Lady Devine. In the able and sober hands of Captain Cook Cruises, she plied the Swan Valley river, chugging and stopping at the sun-soaked vineyards of Sandalford and Waters Edge so we could sample a merry menu of white wines, red wines, roses and desert wines.
By the end of it, my tour group was humming along to the energetic tenor vocals of our young Australian host, Andre, as he delighted us with live renditions of New York New York and Fly Me To The Moon.
By late afternoon, I felt a rest was in order, and sank into the plush pillows of my trusty room at the Novotel Langley, just a short distance from our departure point at Barrack Square harbour. I would have kept on sleeping but a dinner reservation awaited at Bistro Guillaume, at the Crown Metropol.
After a fat steak, the profiteroles put me in seventh heaven and I retired to the best sleep I’d had in weeks.
and Margaret River
The next morning, I set off with another free-spirited host from Two Feet and a Heartbeat. Rusty Crighton grew up in the suburb of Greenwood, and knows his history like the back of his hand.
In a hired car, we set off towards the Sunshine coast, stopping off to marvel at huge sharks, manta rays, jellyfish and sea turtles within the safe confines of The Aquarium of Western Australia. Then we moseyed on down the boutique collection of shops and restaurants along Hillary’s Boat Harbour, where I bought my first pair of Broome Pearls at the Willie Creek Pearl shop.
There was an astounding array of jewellery – from quirky bracelets with pearls suspended in translucent resin, to classic drop pearl earrings. I was in danger of getting carried away and never leaving, so Crighton decided it was time to head to Fremantle, the port of Perth, about 45 minutes away.
As we drove, we passed the shore where in 1902, the legendary Irish engineer C. Y. O’Connor rode his horse into the sea, and shot himself. He was responsible for that, Crighton said, as we pulled up alongside a colourful assembly of huge container ships along the Fremantle boat harbour – possibly one of O’Connor’s greatest triumphs.
Crighton went on to explain how O’Connor masterminded the construction of the Western Australia railway line, and a fresh water pipeline that stretch over 500km all the way from Perth to Kalgoorlie. “He was a legend, he treated his work men well, and all his projects were delivered on budget, and on time.”
Unfortunately, prolonged slandering by the Australian press – later proved to be unfounded – took its toll. But even as he planned to end his life, O’Connor left behind a letter giving explicit instructions on how to complete the unfinished portions of his projects.
Hearing Crighton relay O’Connors inspiring but sad story, sent a chill down my spine, and it coloured Fremantle with an exciting sense of history. With over 3,000 heritage properties listed, the town still captures that sense of early pioneer life, of colonists trying to tame the rugged coastline with Victorian buildings, erected in freestyle interpretations of classical architecture. And today, those buildings are still there; you will find second-hand book shops, bars, coffee houses and art stores housed in original sandstone, façades decorated in Corinthian pilasters and moulded architraves.
Along High Street, we stumble upon the Japingka Indigenous Fine Art Gallery, full of stunning aboriginal paintings, and well worth a visit, even just to browse. A couple of doors away was a shop that specialised in making furniture out of local, recycled Jarrah wood. Each table, chair and chopping board carries with it a piece of history.
The owner of Port Jarrah Furniture told us he salvages the wood from old railway lines and buildings, and I wished I’d brought more money with me to buy some coasters. We also visited the Shipwreck museum, where remnants of the legendary Batavia, the Dutch East India Company ship that was wrecked at Beacon Island and famously plagued by a series of mutinous massacres, stands. Then we had just enough time for the Fremantle market, where I bought myself a jar of local honey and a bag of freshly ground caramel coffee.
If only we’d had more time, we could have visited one of the local pubs. Fremantle is apparently a breeding ground for musicians – you may have heard of the John Butler Trio, who made their debut here. I was also sad for missing the Little Creatures brewery, being a huge fan of this boutique beer. However, it was getting dark, so we got in the car and headed back to the CBD instead.
Upon returning to Perth, we snuck in a drive up to Kings Park, for a view of the city at night. It was well worth the diversion, and I still had time to spare before my dinner reservation at the Novotel’s Five Senses Restaurant.
The next day, it was time to explore Margaret River. After an early morning start and three hours of driving, however, the Pinnacles tour bus seemed to be teasing us. Half an hour at the Mammoth caves, half an hour at the Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse, and a 15-minute stop at a pullover to absorb the majestic beauty of the Boranup Forests seemed more like a photo-experience than anything. However, the commentary was good and it’s a greedy gulp of the area if you’ve only got one day to spare.
Instead of heading back to Perth with the rest of the tour, I stayed, enjoying a bubble bath in my room at the Abbey Beach Resort, after some inventive fusion cuisine at a themed restaurant called the Laundry Cafe on Prince Street – an experience I highly recommend. The next morning, Cheers Scenic and Winery Tours offered a more leisurely acquaintance with Australia’s top wine-producing region.
It’s strange to think there was a time when Margaret River could have become known for its potatoes, rather than its wine. However a government proposal to diversify the agricultural landscape into tuberous vegetables was dropped when a research in the 1960s revealed the area’s rich soil and Mediterranean climate was perfect for the cultivation of grapes.
We visited a series of vineyards – the Watershed Premium Wines stood out – and one brewery in the area, stopping for cheese, chocolate and venison (a rare thing in Western Australia) for good measure.
All in all, I’d had six days to soak it all up. In the business class lounge waiting to get on my connecting flight to Singapore, I found myself fantasising about a future walking tour to the Borunap forests, more time exploring Fremantle’s vibrant music scene, and maybe some whale-watching in Busselton. Oh, well, until next time ....
This trip was courtesy of Singapore Airlines (and co-sponsored by Tourism Western Australia). Silk Air (the regional arm of Singapore Airlines) departs from KLIA for Singapore 64 times weekly. Flights from Singapore depart for Perth four times daily, via Singapore Airlines. For more information, visit http://www.singaporeair.com.