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.

Perth Australia

Americans do not include Western Australia normally on their itinerary, which is a shame since it has a lot to offer. It is a six hour plane ride from Sydney, which adds to your travel expense. This state is a destination on its own, and worthy of two or three weeks to explore what it has to offer. There are only 1,500,000 people in the state, which is one third the size of Australia. It is large enough to take Alaska, California and Oregon into its borders. Its coastline stretches 13,000 miles along the Indian Ocean. It has more millionaires than anywhere else in the world, because of the mining industry. It also has huge million acre ranches, a fantastic wine region, the best surfing in the country, and a great barrier reef the Ningaloo, which is better I think than the reef in Queensland because it is close to shore.

I once spent four weeks on a bus, on my own, taking a tour through the entire state, so I could see if it was worth sending anyone there. It was a great experience. I was one foreigner with 27 retired Aussies aged 72 to 94 who took a bus trip each year to take a break . I stayed in some tiny hamlets, in unique little hotels, and ate Barramundi (white fish) every night. It is certainly the path less traveled. On each of my visits I have covered a different region, and it is very different to the rest of the Australia.

Australia lost 25 percent of its men in World War II and was desperate for immigrants. In the 1950’s, I think half my class at graduate school emigrated to the land down under. Britain called it the brain drain due to so many young people leaving, and I think 99 percent of them ended up in Perth. For ten pounds, (U.S. $14 ) you got a six week cruise, with your belongings, and many people were also given land.

You will find lots of British people there on holiday, visiting relatives who emigrated after the war.

One in four people own a boat, so there are lots of expert sailors. Because of the tropical climate, they have many keen tennis players and golfers. With magnificent beaches, surfing is popular.

Perth, the state’s capital, is jumping. Hotels are usually full not with tourists, but with business people from around the world. There are some outstanding restaurants and good shopping. Thanks to the wave of development, Perth has risen to the top of Australia’s hot list. The New York Times ranked Perth as one of the world’s top cities to visit, and Chicago Tribune voted Perth one of the best cities for solo travelers. Freemantle, just 30 minutes from Perth, is the port city, and does a roaring trade in anything to do with boats. It has become a very popular port of call in the cruise industry. The Ritz Carlton Hotel chain has announced that it will build a luxury hotel in the city. Starwood and Hilton are also going to build new properties. There were very few five star luxury hotels at one time. This is changing.

South of Perth is the Margaret River region where the shoreline gives way to the vineyards of over 215 wine producers and more than 95 cellar doors.

This state is synonymous with wildlife, boasting an impressive diversity of native fauna. Swim up to frolicking wild dolphins in Rockingham, and see whales and penguins. The wild flowers are most spectacular, with over 12,000 different species with 100,000 flowers to view during the season, which is July through September, and some species which require more warmth bloom in the late spring, during the months of October and November. The Kings Park Botanical Gardens are very unique if you are interested in plants, with over 150 different species of orchids.

I recommend a few days in Perth, and then go explore one of the five distinct regions of the state, such as the Kimberley’s, take a cruise from Broome to Darwin, or take a camping safari, which is a wonderful experience. You’ll find wild rivers, lots of wildlife, and adventure opportunities galore.