Walking the streets of Perth, Sue Baxalle hears the stories that shaped the historic city on the banks of the Swan River.

I was due to meet up with my guide at 10.30 but decided to explore Perth on my own first. Armed with a guidebook I set off into Northbridge, the neighbourhood around my hotel, looking for the promised points of interest and architecture.

I quickly managed to head in the wrong direction but, after traipsing past unexciting offices, soon got back on track. By night, Northbridge's cafes and bars are alive but by day it's calm, especially, I discovered, on a Sunday morning.

Highlights of my outing included the peaceful and green Russell Square, apparently once called the "Park of Sighs" (Parco dei Sospire) as it was a favoured meeting place when Northbridge was known as Little Italy. The park was upgraded in the mid-90s and is now home to 30 sculptures by artists Greg James and Drago Dadich. Someone appears to have left a scarf, hat and sunglasses in a mound to one side of the central bandstand - but no, this is one of James' bronze creations.

Aberdeen St takes me into the heritage precinct, featuring homes of wealthy merchants from the late 1800s and the newly rich of the 1890s' gold boom. Apparently Aberdeen St was the place to be for the eminent. It also includes commercial outlets - the blue-painted Braddock's Dispensary dates from the 1890s, and at No176, Art Deco leadlight windows grace a cottage, fronted by iron gates decorated with planes, cars and flowers.


At the corner of Newcastle St and William St nearby is another remnant of the Art Deco era, a vertical clock that graced popular 1930s dance venue, the Blue Room Cabaret.

Interesting street names in the area depict the city's cosmopolitan heritage - such as Kakulas Crescent and Hoy Poy St, a link to an early Chinese immigrant.

But time is marching on and it's back to the hotel to meet Ryan Mossny, my guide for the day. One of the founders of walking tour company Two Feet and a Heartbeat, Ryan is a Canadian but adopted Perth as his home seven-and-a-half years ago, entranced by this changing city.

He explains that Perth is a rapidly evolving city, into which the Western Australian Government has invested a lot of money to improve infrastructure and improve public spaces. The walking tours showcase the benefits of the changes.

He says Perth is a mystery to a lot of people, due to its relative isolation on the west coast, but it is a city with an interesting story.

First stop - by car rather than foot - is Kings Park, the world's largest inner city park, spread over 400ha and overlooking the city and the Swan River. Pride of place in the park is the war memorial with its eternal flame and the surrounding whisper wall. The park is home to the botanical gardens and hosts a variety of concerts and outdoor festivals. The Visitors' Information Centre is worth a look and Ryan says a percentage of sales from the gift shop go to supporting the gardens. Free guided tours of the park are available, along with paid tours by an Aboriginal guide explaining bush tucker.

Ryan says there's no bad time to come to Kings Park. It appears popular with fitness addicts, and Ryan recommends coming towards sunset with a picnic - "the aspect towards the city is beautiful".

Looking out over the Perth panorama is the perfect spot for putting the city's history into perspective.

Captain James Stirling founded Perth in 1829 as the administrative centre of the Swan River Colony, but Dutch captain Willem de Vlamingh first spotted the area in 1697 and dismissed it as a base for traders from Indonesia as being inhospitable. However, de Vlamingh gave the Swan River its name, after sighting the black swans.

The French began to show interest in the area in the early 1800s, which spurred on the ever-competitive English, then based in Sydney and Port Arthur, to move west.

Captain Stirling was sent to survey the area in 1827 and apparently thought it the most beautiful place he'd ever seen. England, however, was less impressed with the prospect of a new colony, seeing the land as unfit for agriculture. But hardy settlers with an entrepreneurial spirit did take on the challenge, Ryan says.

From our vantage point we see an area between the CBD and the river under construction. Known as Elizabeth Quay, honouring the Queen's diamond jubilee, the aim is to reconnect the city to the river, Ryan explains. Plans include connecting Kings Park to the quay by cable car, but this is still subject to approval.

Work to take the public transport system underground is also creating more land space for Perth. Railway lines previously cut the city in half and made crossing difficult and moving them underground has created 13.5ha. Completion of the project is due in another 18 months.

As we drive on from the park we pass the Perth Arena, built last year and the flagship of this new development.

Heading towards Fremantle is a pleasant drive along the banks of the Swan and through some of the top real estate in Australia - suburbs such as Mosman where property is worth tens of millions of dollars, Ryan says. Mining billionaire Gina Rinehart lives here.

Before heading to Freo, as locals call the port city best known to Kiwis as where America's Cup involvement began for us, we divert to Cottesloe Beach. Ryan points out the Indiana restaurant, a Western Australian icon and one of late local boy Heath Ledger's favourites. Cottesloe is a hub of water-based activity offering windsurfing, kitesurfing and kayaks and paddleboards for hire. From the beach you can see Rottnest Island - to which there is an annual 19.7km swim.

With the state averaging 300 eight-hour days of sun a year, it is a mecca for outdoor activities.

Whereas Perth is a thriving and developing modern city, Fremantle is a working port, home to a mixture of dock workers and bohemian lifestylers. In fact the artisan community is strong, with an arts centre housed in what was once the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum.

Cappuccino Strip is the name given to South Terrace - a bit like the Ponsonby of Western Australia, lined with cafes, bars and restaurants and al fresco dining. Ryan says although it is busy all week, weekends are particularly vibrant. We eat at Benny's, a strip fixture and an ideal spot for soaking up the Freo atmosphere. Motorcycle riders and people in souped-up cars flaunt their motors up and down the strip as we eat - definitely the place to show off.

After lunch we head to the Fremantle Prison, now a World Heritage site. En route the streets show a mix of colonial and new architecture.

Ryan explains there wasn't much focus on Freo until 1987 and the America's Cup, when the older buildings were tidied up. The Fremantle Markets are housed in a historic building built in 1897 and now boast about 150 stalls of bric-a-brac, clothing and food. Croc or roo burgers, anyone?

Nearby are the prison wardens' cottages which, although more recently were used as public housing, are now being renovated using State Heritage funding.

The prison, of course, is a story in itself, and although we just had a quick look around the public areas and the displays detailing its 14 decades of use, tours are available with the themes of doing time (life as a prisoner); great escapes; and tunnels (provision of fresh water).

It is not Fremantle's only prison, however.

Built in 1830, the Round House was the first permanent building in the Swan River Colony, built by the prisoners it was designed to house. The Round House held those convicted of a crime in the settlement rather than convicts transported from England. It was used until 1886.

Under the Round House is a tunnel linking Bathers Beach with High St for whalers to bring their blubber, meat and oil to the town.

So if Northbridge's homes had provided something of a trip into history this morning, to say nothing of the evolution of Perth as seen from Kings Park, Fremantle is a step back in time.

Although Fremantle's colonial facades are well preserved and a focus of the town, work continues to reinvigorate the city's centre in a bid to fight for the retail dollar and investment that has been going Perth's way, says Ryan.

The city centre has free wi-fi and the visitors' centre offers free bicycles for tourists. There's even an outdoor ping-pong table - with a hireage fee for bats and balls.

Ocker's quokkas

I've heard that Perth locals have a special love of Rottnest Island, so it comes as little surprise when my old friend Sue suggests we head to the isle, west of Fremantle.

Rottnest's main claim to fame is its population of quokkas - marsupials that are like mini kangaroos, only far cuter.

We catch the ferry from Northport, near Fremantle, and about a half-hour later disembark on "Rotto".

I'm primed to go quokka-spotting and don't have to wait long; these little creatures are friendly and well used to human visitors. Signs around the "village" area of cafes, souvenir shops, a mini supermarket and a bakery warn us not to feed the wildlife, and the "no entry" signs on the shop doors are intended for overly inquisitive quokkas.

Rottnest is a lot bigger than I expected - 11km long and 4km at its widest point. The only vehicles on the island are service trucks, police and a tour bus, so visitors can cycle and walk in safety along the well-kept roads and tracks.

No one is allowed to own property on the island, but there is a substantial group of holiday cottages to rent at Thomson Bay if you don't wish to stay in the more upmarket hotel or lodge.

Originally named Wadjemup (place across the water) by the indigenous Noongar people, the island gained its present identity when Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh thought the quokkas looked like rats, and dubbed the island "Rottenest" or "Rat's Nest" in 1696.

Although nowadays it's a destination for holidaymakers and day-trippers, Rottnest has a darker past. In 1883 10 Aboriginal prisoners were taken to the island and it remained a penal colony for the next 100 years. Some of the old prison buildings are now used by Rottnest Lodge. About 3700 men and boys were imprisoned on Rottnest Island when it was a penal colony, and 369 of them died. Convicts built many of the older buildings on the island, including the heritage buildings, lighthouse and sea walls.

Back to the quokka hunt. Keen to see the creatures in a more natural environment, we set off on foot on one of the many walking trails. It is some time before the quokkas came out to play - in the meantime, out of the corner of my eye I catch sight of something slithering past: a snake. I've no desire to get further acquainted with this local.

Heading past the pink lakes, coloured by bacteria living in the salt crust, we decide against trekking up to the Oliver Hill World War II gun battery or the 1896 Wadjemup lighthouse, instead carrying on around towards the coastline. Our progress on the 10km circuit of the island is slowed considerably by encounters with the stars of the show, quokkas, many eager to see if we have any juicy leaves or grass for them. Our walk also takes us to Rottnest's second lighthouse, Bathurst, established in 1900.

Other Rottnest attractions are snorkelling and diving, with abundant fish and coral species, along with shipwrecks to explore. The day of our visit, however, is very windswept and the chill keeps us out of the water.

We head back to Thomson Bay's park-like square for a well-earned hot chocolate and more chatting with the quokkas until it is time to head back to the jetty. As we wait to reboard the Rottnest Flyer, a pelican lands on a lamp-post and puts on a display of preening, a final surprise for this Kiwi.



Qantas flies direct between Perth and Auckland twice weekly April 24, with return Economy Class return flights starting at $1031. qantas.co.nz

Two Feet and a Heartbeat