Carefree abandon in picture-perfect Perth
While there may not be 101 things to do in Perth, there are ample reasons JAMIE KHOO finds the Western Australia capital an ideal holiday destination for those with a lust for life and the great outdoors.
I MUST start by pointing out that the friends I have in Perth are all clamouring to get out. I’ve heard it being referred to as the Ipoh of Australia – i.e. sparsely populated and not much in the way of excitement. It is, rather, more of a haven for the retiring nouveau riche populations of Singapore and Malaysia, an East-meets-West spot where “tai-tais” arrive en masse and depart with crates of persimmons and boxes of cake.
It appears that most people in Perth under the age of 40 would prefer to be in the bigger cities of Melbourne and Sydney. Which begs the question of why I love being there so much. I do admit that Perth isn’t as much of a buzzing hotspot as its eastern counterparts, but it’s the most perfect place to indulge in doing absolutely nothing and yet, have a fabulous time at the same time. Once I was there, it was easy letting my hair down over a cup of brilliant mocha and putting my nerve system on standby for a very long while.
Perth’s population is only 1.3 million (the entire state of Western Australia, which is larger in land mass than Germany, Japan and Britain put together, has a mere population of under three million), which makes for plenty of space and very few people. Everything feels like there’s twice as much space – it feels like you always have the roads to yourself, the space to spread out your arms and spin circles wherever you happen to be, and plenty of fresh air all to yourself. Your lungs, your heart, your head and all those stressed nerve endings can finally let go of the tension and flop about in the expanse of all this space.
I must admit that I didn’t do much of the touristy stuff while there – it's very easy to just “be on holiday” in Perth without having to rush around all day trying to see everything in a guidebook. I also had the good fortune of having friends there, so it was much easier (and a lot cheaper!) getting around and doing things there.
A tip: It is quite useful to have a car while you’re in Perth (or find someone who does) as public transport is quite slow and, because Perth is spread out over so much space, it can take a very long time to get anywhere.
First things first, the weather: It has to be mentioned, because it is one of the main factors which really made this holiday what it was, and also because Perth claims to be the sunniest state capital of Australia (Julie Burchill, a columnist for The Guardian newspaper of the UK, once described Australia, rather aptly, as “a big, beautiful, sun-trap”).
I’ve spent the past four years in the UK living in bad weather and an obsession with finding good weather has become an integral part of my being. Having lived in the extremes of Northern England (too much rain, no sun) and KL (too hot, too much sun), Perth was, for me, like dying and going to weather heaven.
Secondly, the coffee, ahhhhh! Unlike KL, Perth isn’t just made up of the usual uniform conglomerate of coffee chains like Starbucks and Coffee Bean. All of Perth’s little nooks and crannies are crammed with independent cafes, each with its own quirky character – my entire week was spent scoffing cake and testing the foam atop cappuccinos. Coffee and cake is everywhere in Perth, I think they have even begun to grow roots into the city’s foundation. A definite must for getting you in the holiday mood and letting yourself melt into your chair.
As for the actual city, there isn’t really that much in Perth itself to write home about. The main shopping area is located in Hay Street and Murray Street (parallel to each other) but, apart from that, the central hub of the city is made up largely of office blocks and corporate centres.
And as for the shopping itself though, I have to say that high street shops in Australia are nothing particularly special, and feature most of what are in the shops anywhere else. The more glamorous fashions are to be found in the east, where Sydney is often regarded in the international fashion scene to be as happening and trendy as London or New York.
Within Perth, however, you’d just expect more of the popular high street names. The fact that their seasons are upside down doesn’t quite help either – it just makes for confusion and too many woolly jumpers at the wrong time of the year.
What is good, however, is that clothes there are made for normal people, not the anorexic dolly sizes found here. I can get into a size “small” and the sales assistants don’t stand around making snide comments about me needing an XL.
If you fancy stepping off the mainstream shopping track, then a trip to Freemantle is definitely in the cards. It’s a small quaint little town about half an hour outside Perth city, which has a market and lots of shops and cafes to hang out in. The town is a nice change from the city, and flea market lovers who thrive on collecting kitschy, colourful tack will be in their element – aromatherapy oils, candles, art prints, brightly printed hippie clothes abound.
There are also quite a number of independent shops and boutiques here, surrounding the market area, selling anything from off-beat, though expensive, branded clothes and fairy costumes to incense and colourful cushions. It’s fun just being there because it’s so alive. There are cafes all over the area too (more coffee! more cake!), which is an ideal resting place when you tire of the liveliness and want to just sit around people-watching the barefoot bohemian and art students who flock in droves to the town centre.
Even further outside of Perth, about four hours' drive south, is a little town called Pemberton, set right in the midst of the Karri forest. This, and the larger surrounding regions of Margaret River and Albany, are known for their lush scenery and great wineries, and while it sounds more like something retired parents might drag their reluctant sulky children to visit, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I thoroughly enjoyed it and that it was one of the most beautiful spots I’ve been to.
I stayed two nights at the Karri Valley Resort, a cosy, warm, log cabin-styled resort situated right next to a lake with a stunning view. It was slightly pricey at about A$150 (RM400) a night (for a triple room) but worth every cent.
The Beedelup national park is located right across the lake from the resort, and a gentle walk through the forest is everything your head and heart need for a bit of rejuvenation in the morning, followed by a hearty meal back in the resort.
Pemberton itself is about 20km from the resort and is quite literally nothing more than a dinky little “high street” with a general store. However, a few minutes down the road takes you deep into the heart of the forest. A trail wide enough for cars to drive through means that the more lazy among us don’t even have to get out of our cars to ramble through leafy glades. Pemberton is known for having the second tallest trees in the world, and while I could never claim to be the greatest of tree enthusiasts (well, not many of us are), I really was taken away by this forest.
Ours was the only car for miles and we drove for hours with the windows down, hearing nothing but birdsong and seeing nothing but thousands of trees and pie slices of blue sky through nets of leaves. It was enough to make the city girl in me bounce up in glee at the thought that I was finally bonding with nature.
Another half an hour of aimless driving brought us to the Hidden River estate, a small winery and café right in the midst of the forest. Hours of walking and driving through forests had made us hungry, and the home-cooked fare here was just what we needed to satisfy our grumbling tummies. Wine tasting, rhubarb crumble, acres of lush greens around us, two lazy cows chewing the cud nearby, and not a soul in the world to bother us (mobile phones don’t even work down here) – it was true escapism.
Enough of being laidback. Back in Perth, I felt that I had to make the effort of doing something more active. On to the trendies.
Northbridge, boasting a large array of restaurants, bars and clubs is the central city hotspot for Perth’s night crowd. It is also known for its Asian restaurants and bubble tea cafes where young 20-something Asians can be seen to huddle in glamorous flocks – Chinese fare and dim sum here are, apparently, meant to rival anything in Malaysia or Singapore. There is a fairly large Malaysian population and lots of Malaysian students in Perth so the food here caters well for our local taste; there is even a mamak-type restaurant for those who are really missing home.
On weekend nights, however, most of Northbridge turns a bit sleazy – suddenly, you find far too many loud, drunken yobs on street corners and ugly women with their unsightly bits all hanging out, posing unattractively in front of equally repelling “adult” venues. Not quite Jalan Sultan Ismail, but worth a wander round anyway, if only for a good laugh at scuzzy, drunken Aussies on their night out at the pub.
If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then a few minutes' drive out of the city centre will bring you to other lively centres, brimming with young cosmopolitan spirit.
Leederville, just outside of Perth, is another notable place for good food and chilling out, usually frequented by the young and restless.
Subiaco, slightly north of the city, sports a good mix between businesses, good cafes and a happening nightlife; also, apparently a mecca for yuppies with their flash Audi A4s and retro suits. Both are remarkably less hyped up than Northbridge but are probably classier, boast impressive good fare and each wrapped up in their own personal charm.
In any case, the multiracial community of Perth comes hand-in-hand with a hugely varied and eclectic mix of cuisines – you are bound to find something that will tickle your fancy or satiate a raving appetite wherever you end up for the evening – Greek, Italian, Turkish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexican, Lebanese, to name only a few.
Those with more money and greater pretensions pose glamorously in South Perth, where everything is expensive but cake is divine in no comparable way. Before taking me to a café by the riverfront, the friend I stayed with looked disdainfully at my grubby trainers and insisted I wear “proper” shoes. The parts of South Perth that overlook the Swan River though are gorgeous – nothing quite like walking along the river in glorious sunshine while looking across at Perth’s skyline.
And a little further out will bring you to an equally brilliant horizon. It’s worth noting that Perth is right on the coast of Western Australia, and looks onto the Indian Ocean. The beach is an important part of Perth life and a drive down to the beach is obligatory, if only to breathe in some salty air and sit by the shore.
One of Perth’s most famous beaches is Cottesloe beach, south of the Swan River running through Perth, apparently famous for its gorgeous boys and beautiful girls and the trendiest beach to be seen at in the summer.
A little café right on the shorefront, Indiana’s, is a popular place for tourists, and though slightly overpriced for what it is, the views across the Indian Ocean are incomparable. It’s hard to describe, but consider it this way: you’d be looking at an ocean, not just a bit of spotty Port Dickson beach!
Other more active beaches, such as Scarborough and Trigg Island beaches in the north, are popular both among tourists and locals for surfing and the endless stretches of unspoilt beach.
However, it can be quite windy in Perth, and other than during the summer, being at the beach can end up a big sandy affair. If you’re not there during the summer but still fancy a bit of beachy fun, take a drive along West Cost Drive which runs right next to Scarborough Beach. It sounds understated and dull, but it captures the whole holiday experience of having the wind in your hair and that warm dozy feeling clouding up your head. Corny, but also riveting and guaranteed to keep you in holiday mode for at least the next six months.
West Coast Drive probably best captures the spirit of Perth for me: it’s the bottled experience I’d like to take away with me. So there aren’t 101 things to do there, like in most tourist hotspots, but don’t most of us usually spend most of the year wishing we had the chance to just bum around, to do sweet nothing except to indulge our senses and let our brain cells have a nap?
Go to Perth when you do get that chance. I’ve never had a better time just “doing nothing” as when I was there.