One Port at a Time: The Astonishing Personality of Australia’s Perth
Perth, the only capital city on Australia’s west coast, is not only beautiful but it’s also fun, friendly and typically Aussie. In fact, you could say it has a great personality.
As someone who grew up in Sydney and has lived in other amazing cities including New York, Portland, Ore., London and Taipei, Taiwan, I was surprised to find myself moving to this much place on the other side of Australia. This was not my intended plan, but when the pandemic closed our international borders, I decided to travel as far away as I could legally go. Western Australia — four times the size of Texas and 20 times bigger than England — was the next best thing to exploring a new country.
The capital, Perth, is one of the most isolated in the world. its population exceeds 2 million people; there’s no city of similar size that’s as remote. Sydney is more than 2,000 miles away. It’s closer, quicker and cheaper to fly to Bali than to Australia’s east coast. Even the nearest Australian city of at least 100,000 people (Adelaide) is 1,300 miles away.
Once you get here, it looks and feels like a normal place with normal things to do. Just with less traffic, less noise, less pollution, smaller crowds. The people are welcoming, relaxed, easygoing. Friends of friends, industry colleagues and guests I met on a Kimberley cruise offered me spare bedrooms and entire houses when they went on vacation. They told me to stop thinking about going home. “You’re a West Australian now.”
After a while, I agreed. I had to let go of my life as an “east coaster,” so I settled into a seaside studio in Fremantle, near the cruise port. Perhaps I chose this location as a reminder of all the cruising I was missing.
If you’re lucky enough to be cruising on an itinerary that visits Perth, take note of some of my favorite pastimes here.
Start with the Port of Fremantle
‘Freo’, 13 miles south of Perth’s city center, is a laid-back community of cafes, small bars, pubs, markets and independent, locally owned stores with a bit of a hippie vibe. It was established around the Round House Prison, opened in 1831, an essential stop of any itinerary.
The larger, convict-built Fremantle Prison, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, now houses a YHA and a gallery of art by incarcerated prisoners, with jail-themed movies screened outdoors in summer (imagine watching Shawshank Redemption next to old, spooky cells). Tours of the underground tunnels are available, and a night tour by torchlight reveals ghastly stories of executions gone wrong.
Bars and bites
Personally, I’d rather get my kicks from a cocktail. Some of my favorite bars are within walking distance including the Republic of Fremantle, where they make the gin from scratch using verdelho grapes from the neighboring Swan Valley wine region. The gin is created in an on-site copper still, which looks like a contraption out of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
Suiting the warm climate that is perfectly paired with a cold beer, several microbreweries have opened since 2020: Running With Thieves, Calamity’s Rod, Kahuna Brewing Co., and on the waterfront, Gage Roads brewpub at Victoria Quay, near the Maritime Museum.
To drink and dine beachside, Bathers Beach House is three steps from the sand. Deck chairs and lounges can be reserved online, with food and drinks delivered by waiters.
In Perth city, Ritz-Carlton’s award-winning Songbird has a cocktail menu inspired by Australian birds such as the Laughing Kookaburra (made with native wattleseed-infused whiskey, Lagavulin 16, Flor de Caña Spresso, Pedro Ximénez sherry and cacao) or the non-alcoholic Red-browed Finch with native lemon myrtle and strawberry gum. Boasting views of Elizabeth Quay, this is a lovely spot to enjoy grazing plates of regional produce or a glass of Veuve Clicquot.
For a big Aussie pub with old-school ambiance, go to The Royal, built in 1882 at William and Wellington streets. In the downstairs dining room, Fleur, you can try local seafood and kangaroo or indulge in a caviar bump (Polanco Siberian Grand Cru).
Australia’s west coast: The most beautiful beaches
The west coast’s crystal clear sea is unmissable, so make sure you take the chance to swim, dip or wade in the Indian Ocean of the Southern Hemisphere. My pick is Cottesloe for a coastal stroll with an ice-cream, or a sunset drink at the Cottesloe Beach Hotel.
Best for people-watching is Scarborough, flanked by high-rise buildings, lively bars, eateries and weekly sunset markets with live music. A grassed area on the foreshore has free Wi-Fi, free barbecue facilities and picnic tables, overlooking a safe, patrolled swimming section.
The most central is City Beach, easily reached by public transport or taxi, which has a nice boardwalk, protected swimming area, and the waterfront Hamptons bar and grill.
If you really want to be spoilt for scenery, catch the ferry to Rottnest Island, covered in stunning beaches. Snap a selfie with a cute quokka, which looks like a short, pudgy wallaby about the size of a cat, with a natural smile on its face.
If You’re Feeling Active….
It might sound corny but waterbiking is fun, easy for all fitness levels, and a delightful way to spend time on the serene Swan River. Suitable for people who can’t swim or dislike getting wet, Perth Waterbike Co. offers guided tours to see the sights by cycling on water. Choose the sunset ride to witness the changing colors of the sky, or the Pedal & Picnic, where a rug, low table and gourmet snacks are elegantly set up on the riverbank.
Two Feet & A Heartbeat also run excellent tours. Exploring more than cheese, the Fromage Walking Tour includes visits to a great family-run deli, a chocolatier, a former flour mill, hidden laneways and COMO The Treasury, which is a grand complex of dining, bars and five-star hotel in the former post office and government buildings.
To admire the view from above, head to the top of the Matagarup Bridge. Wearing a harness, climb up the stairs to reach the platform 240 feet over the river, and be entertained with local facts from the enthusiastic guides. For a faster way down, a zip-line open.
A fabulous discovery: Kings Park
Kings Park, one of the world’s largest inner-city parks, has breathtaking views of Swan River, the city skyline and the Darling Ranges. Two-thirds of the 400-hectare park is native bushland, so you can escape on a walking trail, or see 3,000 species of the state’s flora in the Western Australian Botanic Garden.
Kings Park has 40,000 years of Aboriginal history, which can be explored along the Boodja Gnarning Walk, where signs display information and indigenous artworks. Group tours and other cultural experiences are also run by the local Noongar people.
More Aboriginal culture
Of all the cities in Australia, Perth has the most visible respect for its Aboriginal culture, which is evident in many venues and the names of streets and suburbs. The major museum doesn’t shove it into a separate indigenous section; it’s woven through all the exhibitions. Entry to WA Museum Boola Bardip is free. To sample an indigenous menu in a fine dining setting, book dinner at Wildflower, a glass-enclosed restaurant on the rooftop of COMO The Treasury.
Silversea offers itineraries that call at Perth in 2022 and 2023, on both classic and expedition voyages.