The east coast of Australia makes a point of hogging the spotlight Down Under but, as LYNETTE EYB reports, the west coast more than holds its own.
Those of us from the two most populous states of Australia spend much time bickering the age-old Sydney v Melbourne debate. Harbour city v cultural capital – to be honest, I’m not particularly fussed. I’m as fond of Melbourne as I am of her northern cousin, and I love both cities despite their respective faults and failings; two stubborn snobs who know they are far and away superior to any other cities in the land. Yet people I’d met on the road had always guaranteed me there was life west of the Blue Mountains, and better places to watch cricket than at the MCG. I had my doubts, but I took them at their word. When last home, I flew into Perth to find out what all the fuss was about.
I really tried to get along with Perth. The small-city feel was nice, kind of quaint and endearing, having just flown in from Heathrow. And nowhere was it more apparent than when we made our way to the Waca – out of season – to see where the Fremantle Doctor, the seabreeze that comes in every afternoon like clockwork, makes her way in. Now if this was the MCG or the SCG, the gates would have been locked and security on high alert. Not at the Waca. Here, we walked right in, the man on the gate barely blinking an eye as we wondered past. I liked that.
And I liked Northbridge, where we found a suburb making its own way in the world, a blend of youth and café culture; a place where I dared to make comparisons with Melbourne, albeit on a smaller scale. From here we ventured out to the relaxed beachside suburbs of Scarborough and Cottesloe, where we indulged in an obligatory Sunday session at the Cottesloe Beach Hotel, and left under no illusions that the locals thought they had it as good as it would ever get.
Anywhere dubbed ‘Rotto’ by locals is, in my book, worth a trip. Lying in the Indian Ocean some 19km off the coast of Perth, Rottnest is famous for its quokka, the rodent-like animal from which the island takes its name (rott is Dutch for rat). With Rottnest established in the 1830s as a prison for Aborigines, the place doesn’t come without a disturbing mix of history and beauty; the bleak and brutal years now somehow comfortably offset by holidaymakers escaping Perth to indulge in the island’s watersports. Head to the excellent Rottnest Museum for a reality check on the former before indulging in the latter.
There are only three things an east coaster thinks when Fremantle pops up in conversation: the Dockers Aussie rules club, Australia’s America’s Cup glory, and Terry Alderman bowling into the Fremantle Doctor at the WACA. This is a shame because there is so much more to like about Fremantle, a city which, despite being some 19km from Perth, is slowly being gobbled up by the capital. Life here centres on the harbour, which is dominated by a bar- and restaurant-laden marina. Here, you can easily while away an afternoon stuffing yourself senseless with local seafood and supping on a sun-drenched beer. Take in the Western Australian Maritime Museum, the Shipwreck Museum and the Old Fremantle Prison before you get too comfortable – or too pissed – on the pier.
The road south
South of Perth, small-town Australia appeared to remind me what I’d been missing. It was the first Tuesday in November and my first Melbourne Cup on Australian shores for five years; I’d been away too long. Now I’m not that sure the coastal town of Rockingham, on an average day, is a particularly exciting place to be, but I can tell you that the only sign of life on the first Tuesday in November was at the local pub-come-TAB. We watched the race unfold on the small screen above the bar in the corner, bets in hands and surrounded by new friends. Just like it ought to be. We bought a snorkel with our winnings, and headed off in search of the dolphins which so famously swim these shores. Life wasn’t meant to be much better. From Rockingham on to Mandurah and Yalgorup National Park, where the beaches got more beautiful and more deserted – at Preston beach we walked for what seemed a mile of white sand and found no other signs of life.
On to Margaret River
Bunbury was disappointing – just another big country town – Busselton was interesting for its 2km-long jetty (the longest wooden jetty Down Under) and the 45-minute walk it entails, while Quindalup and Dunsborough were nice enough but not worthy of a stop-over. The drive took on an air of expectation as we headed farther south to Margaret River, famous the world over for its waves and wine. Having been born and bred in the Hunter Valley, I’d listened for years to my Western Australian mates as they banged on about their wine. I was determined to investigate.
At Green Valley Vineyard (www.greenvalleyvineyard.com.au) we found a small, family-run vineyard producing some very fine wine. This was the antithesis of a wine industry which is increasingly being bought out and dominated by a few big players. Here, as in much of Margaret River, we found small producers who were eager to please, eager to turn people on to their love of a perfect drop. While the countryside around here was more rugged – some would say less beautiful, drier, harsher – than that of the Hunter Valley, it was made all the more palatable by the odd emu darting across a paddock and the fields and fields of roos which reminded me I was home again. Here, almost 4000km from the east coast, I was closer to the heart of Australia than I’d ever been.
GREAT PLACES TO STAY
Nomads Underground Backpackers (www.nomadsworld.com)
Dorm beds from A$20 a night close to Northbridge’s pubs and cafés.
Yalgorup Eco Park (www.ecopark.com.au) A caravan and camping park which is miles from everywhere except the beach. Tent pitches from £10 a night; chalets sleeping up to six people priced from $115 a night.
Riverglen Chalets (www.riverglen chalets.com.au) A five-minute walk from town, chalets sleep up to eight people. Wake up to the sounds of the bush, and fall asleep after a barbie on the verandah. Priced from $135 per chalet, depending on numbers.
• Lynette Eyb flew to Australia with Global Village (0870-442 7770; www.globalvillage-travel.com). Flights to Perth start from £509.