Perth, Australia

Kookaburras laugh at me from downtown gum trees as I slip off the little black stilettos that saw me through a five-star, local-wine-paired tasting luncheon of aboriginal-influenced cuisine at Perth’s uber-chic rooftop Wildflower Restaurant.

I trade them for sneakers in my handbag.

Less than 15 minutes later, I’m trekking across a glass-floored treetop walkway in Kings Park among the lofty upper reaches of a eucalyptus and karri forest amid flitting cockatoos and shrieking lorikeets.

Perched at the edge of the Outback and surrounded by nature, Western Australia’s state capital of Perth has long been considered a laid-back provincial backwater (W.A. jokingly meant “Wait Awhile”). For me and countless others over the years, the city was merely an international airport stop en route to the fine-wine Margaret River region to the south or snorkeling with whale sharks in Ningaloo Marine Park to the north.

However, I recently began noticing Perth topping lists of the world’s most livable cities. They listed an upgraded river waterfront, 19 white-sand Indian Ocean surfing beaches within the metro region, vast green spaces, spotless urban trains, free downtown buses and a newly flourishing “hip” scene.

Perth also boasts the most sunshine of any Australian capital, an average of nine hours a day.

Was this far-flung city of 1.7 million finally worth enduring an extra five-hour flight west from Sydney for jet-lagged international travelers? In March I decided to find out, booking five days in Perth en route to visiting nearby Margaret River.


Even before I reach my hotel, it’s clear massive renovations have changed Perth’s face. A disfiguring rail line splitting the city in two had just been buried and replaced by parkland. The downtown core was now extended toward the Swan River bank — where black swans glided — with the new Elizabeth Quay, an open-air entertainment and leisure space with fantastic public art and architecture, bike paths, waterfront bars and restaurants.

Even the once-abandoned 1878 Treasury Building — one of a complex of three historic state buildings in Perth’s Central Business District — had been elaborately revamped and was now home to a heritage cluster of cool bistros and boutiques, a wine bar, craft beer magnet and luxury hotel.

Born amid the 1880s gold rushes, Perth’s skyline is dominated by the glittering skyscrapers of this boom-and-bust city’s oil, gas and mining industries, but at their feet is a charming collection of people-size colonial architecture including a maze of pedestrian-only streets, cafe- and shop-lined laneways, and charming arcades including the Art Nouveau Trinity and Tudor-styled 1937 London Court.

That evening I join a bar and foodie walking tour through the once-seedy Northbridge neighborhood, literally on the wrong side of the former railway tracks. It has morphed delightfully over the past five years into a bustling, quirky hive of artsy murals, small creative restaurants like the popular Hummus Club (started as a falafel stand in the farmers’ market), funky gin or rum bars and 1920s speakeasy-style hideaways with names like Sneaky Tony’s. The Perth Cultural Centre complex is also here, complete with the state’s art gallery, Institute of Contemporary Art and two theaters.

There is regular open-air music at Elizabeth Quay and at Kings Park, where I stare up at the stars during a classical evening concert in one of the world’s biggest urban parks, a 1,000-acre oasis of grassy parkland and botanical gardens with two-thirds of the total space conserved as native bushland including rarely seen Outback wildflowers. Eighty indigenous species attract bird-watchers from around the globe.

Just a 30-minute drive downriver, Perth’s history-rich port suburb of Fremantle on the Indian Ocean is a rare gem of 19th century streetscapes now packed with organic restaurants and coffee shops, the best-loved area being nicknamed “Cappuccino Strip.” Its collection of heritage buildings dates back to the 1830s and includes the 1852 Fremantle Prison, which convicts had to build for themselves, with tiny 7-by-4-foot cells. Shockingly, it was in maximum-security operation until 1991. It’s now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


From Fremantle it’s a 35-minute ferry hop to Rottnest Island, an idyllic 7-square-mile nature reserve. Howling winds don’t seem to bother either the ferry captain or the dozens of sailboats whizzing and bouncing across whitecaps — Perth is the world’s third windiest city and has the country’s highest rate of boat ownership.

“This is nothing,” the captain chuckles, spinning the wheel to keep the bucking boat on track. “There’s a reason we snatched the Cup from the Yanks — we call this a light breeze.”

Main street in the historic downtown of Fremantle. Photo: James Hutchison, Special To The Chronicle

Photo: James Hutchison, Special To The Chronicle

Main street in the historic downtown of Fremantle.
Main street in the historic downtown of Fremantle.

It was in 1983 that Perth first hit North America’s radar when, for the first time in 132 years, the United States lost the America’s Cup to the Royal Perth Yacht Club’s Australia II before the Stars and Stripes won it back again off Fremantle in 1987.

Rottnest Island was named in 1696 by a Dutch captain. He had spotted what he thought were cat-sized rats and called it “Rotte nest,” meaning “rat nest” in 17th century Dutch. Actually, they were quokkas, a small indigenous wallaby-like marsupial.

Before I even have time to grab my rental bike in the island’s original hub of Thomson Bay, I meet my first quokka, a cute critter with a funny “smile” that made quokka selfies go viral on the Internet a few years ago. One guide tells me that quokkas and their quirky selfies alone attract tourists all the way from Japan.

I spend the day cycling along white beaches, past lighthouses and trying not to run over very tame quokkas ambling across the country roads. I finish with a cold local Little Creatures beer and an Aussie meat pie overlooking a turquoise bay at the end of the day.


Before I’m really done with Perth, it’s time to head south 168 miles to the Margaret River, my favorite Australian premium wine-growing region. It’s a rural farming, cheese-making, craft beer and wine mecca known for its tender local Arkady lamb, truffles that conveniently ripen during the Northern Hemisphere’s dormant season and seafood, including the delicious local freshwater crayfish called “marron.” The epicenter of all things edible and artisanal is the weekend Margaret River Farmers’ Market.

I settle into a farm cottage 3 miles from the sea and sip morning coffee watching kangaroos and parrots graze alongside the neighbors’ sheep in my eucalyptus-scented backyard field. Then I head off to winery-hop — Vasse Felix for a tasting and lunch overlooking the vineyards; Cape Mentelle to lie on the lawn watching an outdoor evening movie with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend in my hand. At some vineyards I can even hear the world-class competition surf breaking on nearby beaches.

Every day I put in some time walking sections of the Cape to Cape Trail that spans 84 miles between the lighthouses at the tips of Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin. A low-key bush trail that blends into the environment, it meanders through Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park’s coastal forest and along headlands and pristine beaches where charming cliff-top cafes like the White Elephant serve some of the planet’s best fish and chips.

When I reach the Trail’s southern terminus, I treat myself to a three-hour, six-course gastronomic marathon at Voyager Estate Winery.

Though still more conservative than other Aussie cities, Perth has become more sophisticated, funky, creative and intriguing while remaining outdoorsy and relaxed. I’m hooked, already planning my next trip back — stilettos, sneakers and all.

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