Western Australia: A weekend in Perth

By Anthony Lambert

In the early 19th century, Captain James Stirling chose the site of Perth on the banks of the Swan River for its beauty, security and access to fresh water. Photo / Thinkstock
In the early 19th century, Captain James Stirling chose the site of Perth on the banks of the Swan River for its beauty, security and access to fresh water. Photo / Thinkstock

WHY GO NOW?

Cooler days and autumn colours make this a favourite time to experience the vibrant life of the state capital of Western Australia and one of the world's most isolated cities, currently booming on the back of the state's mineral wealth. Perth is also the international gateway to Western Australia's Kimberley and Pilbara regions, in peak season from May to November.

TOUCH DOWN

Air New Zealand, Virgin Australia and Qantas all offer regular flights between Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Perth.

Perth's airport is 17km south of the city centre. Connecting buses run to the city centre serving hotels on demand every 50 minutes from 6.20am until 1am.

A one-way ride costs A$18 (NZ$23). A taxi to the central business district will take about 35 minutes and cost A$55.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

In the early 19th century, Captain James Stirling chose the site of Perth on the banks of the Swan River for its beauty, security and access to fresh water. Today, the city of two million extends 90km from north to south, across a band 40km wide, but the centre is a compact letterbox shape of gridiron streets, hemmed by the Swan River as it widens towards Fremantle then empties into the Indian Ocean. The city is attractively landscaped with generous parks, some on land reclaimed from the river.

Three colour-coded free bus routes make it easy to get around the city centre, and there is a pedestrianised area along the central part of Murray and Hay streets linked by arcades.

The railway station, which has frequent trains to Fremantle and other suburbs, is north of Wellington Street, with a pedestrianised area known as the Perth Cultural Centre beyond it.

The tourist office is located at 55 William Street. It opens 9am-5.30pm from Monday to Friday, 9.30am-4.30pm Saturday and 11am-4.30pm Sunday.

CHECK IN

Sir Terry Farrell designed the Richardson Hotel at 32 Richardson Street, which has a quiet suburban location near bus stop 23 on the free red bus route. This exemplary hotel has 74 rooms and suites, a small pool, gym, and a restaurant with a French chef. Doubles cost from A$520, including breakfast.

The Melbourne at 942 Hay Street is a 33-room boutique hotel behind its 1897 facade, close to the city centre, also on the red bus route. Doubles from A$170, room only.

Given the ferocious strength of the Australian dollar, you might opt for the YMCA Jewell House which occupies a modern building at 180 Goderich Street and where doubles start at A$73; breakfast A$9. Its 180 rooms share bathrooms.

DAY ONE

Take a hike

Start at the Town Hall on Hay Street. Built on the highest point of the city from 1867-70 by convict labour, this looked to earlier models from continental Europe and came with an open-sided marketplace and clock tower.

Walk north to Murray Street and turn right, past some classic 19th-century houses with corrugated-iron-roofed verandas, to the Old Fire Station at No 25. This opened in 1900 and is now a museum displaying a Dennis fire engine; open 10am to 4pm Tuesday to Thursday, free.

Almost opposite is the oldest part of the Royal Perth Hospital, dating from 1855. In the centre of the square beyond is the Roman Catholic Cathedral, begun in 1865 and radically altered in 2006-09.

Leave the square to the south by Victoria Avenue and turn right along St George's Terrace to St George's Anglican Cathedral. Consecrated in 1888, it was built in Gothic Revival style with exposed brick walls and hammerbeam roof. The north transept is lined with memorial tablets for victims of the Boer and First World Wars, especially at Gallipoli.

Nearby Stirling Gardens were used by early settlers to test how different species grew from seed in the sandy soil. At the south-east corner is Perth's oldest building, the Old Court House Law Museum, built in 1836-37. Its opening hours are meagre: 10am-2.30pm, Wednesday to Friday, admission free.

Lunch on the run

At the southern end of Trinity Arcade, beside Trinity Church on St George's Terrace, is Tartine Cafe, where filled sourdough baguettes start at A$8.50, pastries and muffins cost from A$3.50 and coffee is A$3.30.

Window shopping

The long, open arcade of London Court with its neo-Tudor entrances and ornate clock faces was opened in 1937, and its small shops offer a wide variety of goods: jewellery, souvenirs, shoes, clothes, china, chocolates, aboriginal art, leather bags and watches.

A standout choice is Aboriginal Art at shop 39, which sells posters, paintings, didgeridoos, pottery, boomerangs, postcards and clothing.

Cultural afternoon

The Art Gallery of Western Australia in the Perth Cultural Centre has an impressive collection of European and Australian works, including paintings by Stanley Spencer, Augustus John and Lucien Pissarro.

One of the gallery's most prized paintings is a celebrated work by Hans Heysen, Droving into the Light, depicting outback cattle being herded at sunset. Also on display is The Foundation of Perth, painted by George Pitt Morison in 1929 to commemorate the centenary of the ceremony. The artist took 18 months to research the subject before picking up a brush. Open 10am to 5pm daily except Tuesday, free.

A few more steps along Beaufort Street is the Western Australian Museum (9.30am-5pm daily, free). Don't miss Room 5, a magnificent three-storey, hall with galleries around the upper levels; it provides a perfect introduction to the history and development of Western Australia. Other sections of the museum are devoted to early life and dinosaurs, mammals, birds and aboriginal people.

An aperitif

Continue away from the central business district and you reach the Five Bar at 560 Beaufort Street, between the suburbs of Mount Lawley and Highgate. Try the 5.2 per cent pale ale called Little Creatures, brewed in Fremantle (A$8.50).

Dining with the locals

On the same street as the Five Bar, a block closer to town, is the stylish, award-winning Must at 519 Beaufort Street. Dishes such as Tasmanian salmon tartare for A$26 and herb- and macadamia-crusted lamb loin for A$42 are complemented by a list of 550 wines. Open noon to midnight daily.

DAY TWO

Sunday morning: Go to church...

... for some celebrated church bells, at least. Close to the ferry pier, the striking 83m-high Bell Tower houses 18 bells, 12 of them from St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, given to commemorate Australia's bicentenary in 1988.The glass-walled tower provides access to the bells and displays about clocks, bell-founding and ringing.

Among the movements is a turret clock from St Ethelburga's in London's Bishopsgate. The viewing platform at the top provides magnificent views over the city and the Swan River towards South Perth. The wind whips through the "sails", producing a sound like a fierce gale. Open 10am-4.15pm daily, A$14. Bell ringing from noon to 1pm daily except Wednesday.

Out to brunch

Near the Claisebrook Cove waterfront is Toast at Shop 21, 60 Royal Street, East Perth, where poached or fried eggs and toast is A$10.50 and an omelette with roast peppers, cherry tomatoes and spinach costs A$18.50. Open 7am to 7pm daily.

Take a ride

Pick up a bicycle at About Bike Hire at Point Fraser Reserve, open 9am to 5pm daily, from 8am at weekends); from A$36 daily, including lock and helmet.

A walk in the park

By far the largest green space in the city is Kings Park. If you don't want to cycle, you can get here on the free 37 bus route from the city centre. The sprawling park has a tree-top walkway, viewing tower, playground, arts and crafts shop, restaurant and cafe.

Western Australia has half of the nation's 25,000 plant species and most of those are found nowhere else on Earth. About 3000 of them can be seen in the Botanic Garden. Look out for the giant boab, a 750-year-old tree that was transplanted 3200km from Warmun in the Kimberley region in 2008.

Free guided walks of the park depart daily at 10am, noon and 2pm from Fraser Avenue outside Aspects of Kings Park, a shop featuring Australian craft and design.

The icing on the cake

The Perth Mint at 310 Hay Street opened in 1899, as one of only six branches of London's Royal Mint, to refine the output from Western Australia's goldfields.

During the hour-long tours - which depart hourly each day from 9.30am to 3.30pm, price A$15 - you can handle A$700,000 worth of pure gold bullion, watch the making of a bar from liquid gold and hear about the lives of the early prospectors.

There is also a shop selling gold and silver items, metal and glassware.

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