You can’t understand Perth, the most isolated capital city in the world, without first getting to know its iconic River. Ron Crittal invites you on a guided cruise.
The grassy areas along the shoreline are full of families picnicking under tall gums. Fishermen idle the hours away on the edges of jetties as they feed bait to hidden, hoped-for meals. Cyclists, rollerbladers, joggers, dog owners and just plain walking types make their way along the adjacent pathways, and kites fly high as the breeze strengthens. This is summer along the Swan.
The river meanders its way through the city and suburbs of Perth, providing a setting, an inspiration and a playground. Upstream of the city itself, the Swan is just an ordinary waterway, but downstream it broadens out to form a wide expanse – a lake in all but name. One of Perth’s greatest attributes is the fact that most of the river frontage is public land. Broad strips of parkland line both sides, with BBQ facilities, artworks and a wonderful collection of dual-use paths.
Perth is no ordinary city, and it mimics no other. At the local level it’s defined and enhanced by the Swan. The river provides – in fact is – the stage on which the city parades its wares. Yes, there’s a magnificent coastline where the Indian Ocean curls up long golden beaches, but the Swan remains the soul of the city.
Perth has been called the world’s most remote capital city, with Adelaide a massive 2700km to the east. The nature of the city and its people reflects this isolation. There’s an openness, a friendliness, and a broader outlook – a bit like a sailor, seeking what’s beyond the horizon – and a sense of independence, almost bloody-mindedness, that we’re as good as (better than?) them Eastern Staters. A thousand mining and exploration companies digging the dirt in the vast outback of WA are based in Perth, generating a touch of the brash frontier town.
Because of that, and the summer-dry Mediterranean climate, Perth’s focus tends to be on the outdoors, making maximum use of the river and coastline, the parks and the weather. A recent referendum on extending Sunday retail trading was soundly defeated. And, while there’s been a 25-year wait for a modern drama theatre, there’s no shortage of open-air summer performances around the city.
A recent survey in the UK rated Perth as its favourite overseas city: “Perth is uncommercial, unspoilt and unhurried – characteristics that visitors are increasingly looking for in a time when life has become so hectic.”
The city itself
It’s a simple city to navigate. The main business and retail hub is an easy strolling size, and a series of Central Area Transit (CAT) buses offer regular free movement. Five long, largely east-west avenues are straitjacketed between river and railway, stretching from the foot of Kings Park at one end through to the hallowed WACA cricket ground at the other. Numerous shorter streets and arcades cut through at right angles.
St Georges Terrace (and its continuation of Adelaide Terrace) has always been Perth’s main street, right from the days of the Swan River Colony. Hay and Murray Streets have the majority of the retail outlets, especially along the pedestrian malls between Barrack and William. This area is the real heart of the city, and includes numerous arcades such as the Tudor-style London Court with its mechanical chiming clocks. There’s a constant buzz and bustle during shopping hours, with cafes and buskers taking up portions of the malls. An information kiosk, at the intersection of Murray Street Mall and Forrest Place, provides maps, advice and two free guided city walks on most days.
Interspersed between all the tower blocks are a few remnants of Perth’s early British heritage. The heritage precinct just east of Barrack Street includes the Town Hall with its undercroft recently restored, and nearby are St Georges Anglican Cathedral, the Old Courthouse (the oldest building, from 1837) and Government House. This is arguably Perth’s most attractive building, built with convict labour of local bricks and limestone, and its opening was sufficiently grand to be recorded in the London Illustrated News. The gardens are a haven of mid-city peace and quiet, open to the public every Tuesday at noon.
The West End around King Street is one of Perth’s finest and trendiest precincts – elegant two and three storey buildings have been rehabilitated and tizzied-up into cafes, boutiques and galleries. The wonderfully charming His Majesty’s Theatre is here in all its cream-coloured Edwardian splendour, with a grand marble staircase and sumptuously decorated auditorium.
Perth’s suburban railway system is limited but excellent, with many modern stations and clean electrified trains, but it’s all above ground and this has been a major barrier to the city’s development. Finally, after 125 years of discussion, there are concrete moves to sink the railway where it creates the city barrier, while at the same time the new Mandurah railway burrows under William Street to link with the existing system.
Northbridge is just beyond the railway, and totally different. This is the night-out area for restaurants, clubs, pubs and ethnically based shops – and a few other offerings. It’s a bit like London’s Soho, vibrant but with a slightly menacing undercurrent, especially late at night.
Northbridge has been the starting point for various waves of migration and all have left their imprint: Italian, Greek, Chinese and Vietnamese. There’s a small Chinatown, the Greek Cathedral in full Byzantine glory, and Kakulas Brothers – an exotically scented wonderland of wooden floors, counters and boxes. The Brass Monkey is one of Perth’s iconic hotels with its domed tower and iron lace balconies. The first floor balcony is a great spot for a drink while watching the passing parade.
Swan Lake dress circle
Kings Park is Perth’s other jewel (after the Swan). It’s in prime position, dominating city and river. WA’s first Surveyor General made the early decision that the prominence called Mt Eliza, and its surrounds, would be protected and preserved; 400 magnificent hectares are there for public enjoyment, a jumbled mix of botanic gardens, rolling lawns and fountains, national monuments, viewing points and natural bushland. Paths and tracks wind past wildflowers and tall jarrahs, with the calls of parrots, cockatoos, kookaburras and wattle birds seemingly miles from civilisation.
Kings Park is one of two vantage points from which to take in Perth. Both city and river are laid out below, with the spaghetti tendrils of the Narrows Interchange in the foreground and the Darling Range hazily lining the horizon. The other is the stalls position: the South Perth foreshore. A broad strip of open parkland provides the perfect view across Perth water. Dusk on a quiet evening is best, with the city reflected in shimmering patterns, which develop rainbow tints as the city lights take over from the setting sun. The watery outlines are broken up by hired catamarans shifting across the water, and the sedate arrowed passage of the South Perth ferry.
The ferry chugs to and fro on its simple journey between the South Perth Jetty and its much grander counterpart, Perth’s river port, the Barrack Street Jetty. This juts out into the river, a broad rectangle of jetties, cafes and monuments. This is the terminus for river cruises, both upriver to the Swan Valley vineyards and downstream to Fremantle, and for some of the Rottnest Island ferries. The nearby Swan Bell Tower, a tall steepled glass and iron structure with copper sail-like wings, was built to house the bells of St Martin-in-the-Fields, given to Perth as part of London’s contribution to Australia’s Bicentenary. Dual-use riverside paths loop off in either direction, towards Kings Park or East Perth. The eastward route swings round under the Causeway and past the WACA to the East Perth Redevelopment area. This had been a rundown, polluted and obsolete industrial area but has been revitalised with winding waterways, public artworks, galleries, cafes and attractive modern housing. It’s best appreciated on foot or bike.
Directly across the river lies Burswood. For more than 40 years the Rivervale dump was a rubbish tip and eyesore, which no-one today would imagine when looking at Burswood Casino, Hotel and Convention Centre, all gleaming white and prosperous. Most of the area is the Burswood Park, funded by a fixed proportion of casino revenue, so always looks superb. A significant feature is the Heritage Trail, with bronze statues reflecting WA’s history – Paddy Hannan marching off to Kalgoorlie with his wheelbarrow, and Willem de Vlamingh (who named the Swan River) meeting his first black swan. Perth’s finest sculpture, the Swan Fountain, is here. There’s also an excellent public golf course.
Downstream from Kings Park lies the main sailing area, with the first bay housing the Royal Perth Yacht Club, home to the Americas Cup for one shining moment. Just behind it, Matilda Bay is one of the fine restaurants that have built-in water views as part of their appeal, and beyond is the magnificent wooded campus of the University of WA, with numerous theatres and performance spaces including the open air Somerville Auditorium, which is laid out with towering Norfolk Pines following the ground plan of a Gothic cathedral. One of the truly great spots on a summer evening for the Festival’s four-month film season.
Port and coffee
The last stretch of the Swan River journey sees the river constrained between low limestone cliffs before merging into Fremantle Harbour. The final kilometre is lined with wharves for container ships, sheep carriers, occasional warships and cruise liners. The best looking ship is the sail training ship Leeuwin, a three-masted barquentine which offers “Adventure Voyages” around WA.
Just beyond the Leeuwin’s mooring point is the last structure along the river, with an imaginative angular design based on a boat stranded on a sandy promontory: the new Maritime Museum. Inside, just beyond Australia II and Parry Endeavour (in which Jon Saunders sailed three times around the world), a complete wall of picture windows frame where Swan River becomes Indian Ocean. The museum’s Shipwreck Galleries, with a magnificent display from Dutch ship Batavia, are close to the Fishing Boat Harbour.
The harbour is where every November the Blessing of the Fleet occurs, as much as anything a celebration of Freo’s cultural background. Migrants from Greece, Italy and Portugal have had great influence on the character, trades and traditions of the city. The harbour surrounds are also home to Little Creatures boutique brewery and Perth’s best fish and chips, with outlets like Cicirello’s and Kailis Fish Market.
Freo itself is almost as it was 100 years ago. Time and developments had passed her by until 1987, when the defence of the Americas Cup led to a refurbishment of virtually the entire city. Perhaps another major event is needed to lift the place again. Nearby South Terrace has the Cappuccino Strip, with cafes and restaurants spread across the pavements in a bravura display of alfresco dining. Several old hotels have been transformed, including the Sail and Anchor, next to Perth’s best weekend market. Freo Markets are housed in an award-winning (1897!) building, and are full of colour, life and entertainment.
A short distance back from the sea are two special buildings, both convict-built. Fremantle Prison, now a major attraction, was mostly completed in the 1850s and remained the state’s maximum security gaol right up to 1991. The Fremantle Arts Centre is another lovely limestone structure, built originally as a lunatic asylum (Perth wouldn’t have it, but it was okay for Fremantle!), and is now part museum, complete with padded cell.
The coast with its almost endless beaches stretches north and south from Fremantle. Some beaches are protected by offshore reefs and islands, making them ideal for swimming, while others have rolling surf built up over a few thousand kilometres of open Indian Ocean. Cottesloe is one of Perth’s favourite seaside suburbs, with lines of tall Norfolk pines, two famous hotels (the iconic OBH and Cott Hotel) and the beachside Indiana Tearooms. Port, City and Floreat Beaches are good for swimming, Scarborough has long been the main surfing beach and outlet for youthful exuberance, while Trigg Island Beach also has good surfing but dangerous rips.
Fremantle is connected to Perth City by rail, with the line passing through three important shopping areas: Cottesloe (10min walk from the beach), Claremont and Subiaco. “Subi” is an inner-city repository of Federation-era houses and home to WA’s major footy and rugby games (at Subiaco Oval), with an impressive array of shops and restaurants.
Perth has been called Australia’s best-kept secret. It’s also been tagged as Dullsville, largely because of its distinct lack of non-stop shopping and its limited nightlife – and more recently as Boom Town, with the WA economy going gangbusters. None of that worries the locals. They like the place as it is – friendly, unhurried and laidback. This is a capital city that has it better than most, and is supremely comfortable in that knowledge.
Try a holiday in Perth. But don’t be surprised if you wake up five years later and find you’ve actually settled down to stay.
Perth: the details
Best months to go // April/May with fine warm days and little wind. Idyllic.
Most underrated aspect // Perth’s Regional Parks, providing bush, bird life, picnic areas, peace and tranquillity.
Most overrated // Fremantle. The city is getting somewhat seedy, and has lost vitality with Notre Dame Uni taking over many parts.
Be prepared for // Early-closing central city area.
Watch out for // Friendly taxi drivers. They speak English and know where they’re going.
Best value // D.I.Y tour of the river – just hire a bike and pedal (or walk) the shoreline.
Where to eat and drink
Loose Box // In Perth Hills, classic French cuisine, awards include Best in Australia, (08) 9295 1787, www.loosebox.com.au
Jackson’s of Highgate // Multi-award winner with degustation menu, (08) 9328 1177, www.jacksonsrestaurant.com.au
Matilda Bay // Fine dining by the river’s edge, (08) 9423 5000, www.matbay.com.au
Witch’s Cauldron // Australia’s best garlic prawns, (08) 9381 2508, www.witchs.com.au
Fraser’s Restaurant // Views from Kings Park, (08) 9481 7100, www.frasersrestaurant.com.au
Sail & Anchor // Fremantle pub, (08) 9335 8433, www.sailandanchor.com.au
Brass Monkey // Northbridge pub, (08) 9227 9596, www.thebrassmonkey.com.au
Must Wine Bar // Highgate bar and bistro,(08) 9328 8255, www.must.com.au
Things to Do
Surfcat hire // South Perth foreshore, 0408 926 003, www.funcats.com.au
Burswood Heritage Trail // People-friendly sculptures, Burswood Park
Bike hire // At the Causeway, (08) 9221 2665, www.aboutbikehire.com.au
River cruises // From Barrack Square, (08) 9325 3341, www.captaincookcruises.com.au
PIAF film festival // Somerville Auditorium, December through March, (08) 6488 2000, www.perthfestival.com.au
Museums // State and Maritime, (08) 9427 2700 & (08) 9431 8444, www.museum.wa.gov.au
Perth Mint // Gold pours and Devonshire Teas, (08) 9421 7277, www.perthmint.com.au
Fremantle Prison // (08) 9336 9200, www.fremantleprison.com.au
Art Gallery of WA // (08) 9492 6600, www.artgallery.wa.gov.au
His Majesty’s Theatre // (08) 9265 0900, www.hismajestystheatrecom.au