When I was last in Perth – more than ten years ago – it was well and truly shut. There was nobody around, nothing to see and nothing to do. I was bored to screams and couldn’t wait to leave.
Back then, Perth used to bang on proudly not only about its 19 beaches and extensive ocean and river fronts (which it still does of course), but also about its being the world’s most remote city. Locals took perverse glory in Perth’s isolation (it’s some 3,000km from Jakarta, its nearest non-Australian city, and some 2,000km from Adelaide, its nearest Australian one). And, boy, didn’t it just feel stuck in the middle of nowhere? I must have imagined it, but I’m sure I remember tumbleweed blowing down the deserted, arrow-straight main drag, St. George’s Terrace.
Ten years on, though, and the locals are far keener to point out that Perth is on the same time zone as a third of the world’s population and, thanks to modern technology, not in the slightest bit remote at all.
The proof, they say, is in the fact that the city’s population has grown by some 350,000, roughly 25 per cent, since my last visit (due in no small measure to the Western Australian mining boom) and is now a vibrant, crowded, cosmopolitan and trendy spot, thronged with visitors who can’t get enough of its new-found pizzazz. I could see that it was time to give Perth another go.
Well, it’s certainly a heck of a lot easier and pleasanter to get to than it was, thanks largely to Qantas’s swanky new A380 Airbus double-deckers, one of which whisked me to Perth via Singapore in extreme (and very quiet) comfort. And, what with some pretty fine grub on board, washed down by some excellent Margaret River wines (of which more later), I felt pretty chipper as we landed in Oz, despite the shock of it being 5am.
A quick taxi ride into town and I was deposited at the hushed and calm boutique Richardson Hotel & Spa in the well-to-do and very leafy suburb of West Perth. A quick energising swim in the hotel’s pool followed by a full cooked breakfast, and I was ready to stroll into the centre of town to give it a stare. And, blow me, I hardly recognised the place.
Perth is Australia’s fastest-growing city, in the state with the lowest unemployment rates. Average household income has risen 35 per cent in five years and Australians – and South Africans, New Zealanders, Brits and Americans – are flocking to work (and play) here.
A quick wander round town and I could see that it was boom-time and no mistake, with an astonishing amount of hugely ambitious building work and redevelopment going on. Perth Railway Station is being completely rebuilt; a major new hospital is under construction; the $440 million Perth Waterfront project is drawing the iconic Swan River right into the heart of town, connecting it with the central business district (CBD) via a new waterfront complete with restaurants, bars and an Indigenous Cultural Centre. The brand new Perth Arena, a 15,500-seater entertainment and sporting venue, opened the very day I arrived with a sell-out Elton John concert; Perth Airport is undergoing a $750 million refit; four major new hotels are all due to open in next few months and Perth City Link is reconnecting the city centre with the inner city suburb of Northbridge – Perth’s cultural centre – for the first time in 100 years.
It was all quite dizzy-making and I needed to take it all in. I made for Brookfield Place, another brand spanking new development which has opened up all manner of old heritage buildings into shops, offices, restaurants, bars and cafes.
Where once were the offices of the West Australian Newspaper is now Print Hall, a bustling new bar/restaurant complex. I made straight for it and grabbed myself an ice cold beer in the rooftop Bob’s Bar, named in honour of colourful former Aussie PM, Bob Hawke. It was Hawke who famously declared, after the Royal Perth Yacht Club’s Australia II won the America’s Cup in 1983 (breaking America’s 132-year hold on the trophy), that 'any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum.' Imagine a similarly-packed Blair or Thatcher Bar in London. No, I can’t either.
Another quick beer and it was off to the Trustee Bar and Bistro (in the majestic former WA Trustees Building) for lunch. And what a fine spot that was. With dishes such as grilled barramundi on pea puree and deep fried shallots or melt-in-the-mouth chateaubriand with broccoli, orange blossom yoghurt and flaked almonds and a wine list of over 500 wines there was plenty to enjoy, and it was no surprise that by 1pm folk were queuing noisily outside for a table.
After lunch I strolled along King Street, William Street, Murray Street and James Street – all packed with people enjoying the shops, bars and cafes – before taking in the Picasso to Warhol exhibition at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. The idea of an exhibition of this quality coming to Perth a few years ago would have been unthinkable, and the fact that some of these pictures (by the likes of Rothko, Mondrian, Miro, Matisse, Pollock and Brancusi) had never left the US before was a sign of the city’s new-found cultural clout. This was not the Perth I remembered.
That evening I fell in with a couple of lovely Aussie girls, one on each arm ('Typical bloody Pom, so damn greedy,' muttered the barman to his mate), and we enjoyed something of a pub crawl courtesy of the excellent Two Feet & A Heartbeat Walking Tours. We started at the town hall and took in most of the city’s major sights as well as a fair few of its pubs and bars, ending up in the sublime Helvetica in Howard Lane.
The next few days passed in a similarly happy blur and included a day trip along the Swan River and across the sea to charming, car-free Rottnest Island; a morning on sandy Cottesloe beach and an afternoon in bohemian Fremantle (the ‘Doing Time’ tour of Fremantle Prison and lunch at the Little Creatures brewery are absolute musts); dinner outside at Fraser’s in Kings Park (where both the Queen and Hillary Clinton dined when in town recently), watching the fireworks explode over the darkening city and a morning pottering around the bookshops and boutiques of Subiaco.
I even managed to fit in a couple of days in Margaret River, some 3 hours south of Perth. Here, where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet, is wine and surf country and although Margaret River might only contribute a paltry 3 per cent of Australia’s annual wine production, it accounts for more than 20 per cent of the country’s premium vino and producers such as Vasse Felix, Leeuwin Estate, Cullen and Fraser Gallop are making some absolute belters.
I surfed, snorkelled and drank buckets of wine and then it was back to Perth and – very reluctantly – home. What a difference a decade makes. Last time I couldn’t wait to leave. This time I would have killed to stay.
Places to Eat and Drink in Perth and WA
The view alone makes Fraser’s worth the visit, with the city of Perth laid before you in all its night-time neon glory, but the food is equally memorable. Dishes such as kingfish ceviche, roast rack and braised shoulder of lamb with sweet potato purée are spot on.
In the heart of the town of Margaret River, where winemakers and surfer dudes come to rub shoulders and tuck into exquisite tapas (my fave: crispy globe artichokes alongside master stock pork belly with Thai caramel and micro coriander) and knock back first local wines, craft beers and cracking cocktails.
Oooh, I love bars like this. Tucked away down a quiet, non-descript lane (or ‘laneway’ in Australian) in central Perth, Helvetica is a heavenly spot. With exceptional cocktails (try their signature ‘Fish House Punch’), complementary canapés and a whisky/whiskey list to die for, with almost 100 different expressions.
Places to Stay
The Richardson Hotel & Spa
In the leafy surrounds of West Perth, the boutique-sized Richardson is a joy and, being discretion personified, is beloved of celebs such as J Lo, Beyoncé and Sting as a result. The in-house Opus Restaurant might be a tad formal, but the food’s terrific and wine list impeccable.
Brand-spanking new and as central as can be in the heart of Perth, this five-suite hotel is a sweet spot with terraces front and back from which to sip at something ice cold and watch the world go by. Great restaurant too.
5 star luxury in the heart of Margaret River, Cape Lodge is an exquisite country retreat that gets booked up months in advance. There are beautiful gardens to wander around and a lakeside restaurant where culinary genius Tony Howell creates food that’s the stuff of legend.
Wineries to Visit
Leeuwin’s ‘Art Series’ Chardonnay has some claim to be the finest in Australia. Come and see for yourself by tasting it and the rest of the range before gorging on their shirt-popping five course degustation menu with wines to match. Sit outside and watch the kookaburras in the karri trees.
The winery that started the Margaret River revolution in the late Sixties goes from strength to strength with current winemaker, the very glamorous Virginia Willcock, hoovering up the awards and accolades. There are fantastic wines to taste here in what is probably the finest cellar door restaurant in the region.
Proudly biodynamic, carbon neutral and naturally powered, Cullen Wines is a true pioneer. And, thanks to exemplary winemaking, the wines are first rate too. Taste them overlooking the original vineyard before enjoying the freshest of fresh fare from the vast kitchen garden, cooked to perfection in the winery’s award-winning restaurant.