Perth in Australia is one of the most isolated cities in the world, but this part of Australia is special in more ways than that. Despite the development brought by the recent mining boom in the north west of the state, the vast majority of visitors arrive either as tourists or to visit friends and relatives. With the largely Mediterranean climate with cool wet winters and hot dry summers, in much of the south west corner, the region is home to some of the best vineyards and agricultural producers in the country.
You’ll notice the air as soon as you step out of the airport (or bus or train). There is the subtle scent of gum leaves in the air, best described as a fresh smell, somewhat different to that you’d be used to if you’ve arrived from a steamy tropical city or anywhere in the northern hemisphere.
One of the best ways to enjoy the fresh air is to have a picnic. There’s an abundance of parks beaches, riversides where you can stop. Just bring the food. **TIP: Be smart, like these people. Magpies (and kookaburras) are always on the lookout for your lunch. So give them something to distract them while you focus on eating your food rather than keeping it away from the birds.
To get a good idea of the smell of Australia, the West in particular, take the No 37 bus up from the city. This huge park ( total area 4.06 km²) is a very popular part of Perth life, in the evenings people picnic on the grass while watching the sun set over the river, reflecting off the city windows. They hold weddings in the park, public performances, bring the kids for a run or come in stretched limos for end of school formal photos with friends. As two thirds of the park is bushland, with plentiful walking trails, it’s a popular place for stretching the legs, especially in the cool of the morning or early evening. A good place to sniff the air as you go!
Often visitors to the park are just brought up the Fraser Avenue entrance to the main carpark and lookouts. You’ll pass through the avenue of lemon scented gums each with a plaque recording the name of a member of the armed forces lost at war and probably, when you reach the grassy banks overlooking the Swan River and city, you’ll visit the various war memorials and the Information Centre.
But there’s much more to the park than this – you can visit the more than 700 year old giant boab tree, known as Gija Jumulu, carefully removed from the site of a road project ‘up north’ in the Kimberley with advice from local elders and transported by truck to the gardens. You can identify beautiful local plants, eucalypts, grevilleas or wildflowers for starters, some of which only grow in Western Australia. You can join a free guided walking tour or you can visit one of this writer’s favourite places – the elevated Walkway, where you can look down on the old Swan Brewery and through the tops of the trees. There’s a donation box at the entrance to the walkway, entrance is free, but if you’d like to drop in a gold coin ($1 or $2) it will go towards maintenance of the walkway.
Children growing up and going to school in Australia many years ago were taught, completely erroneously, that there were no indigenous fruits, vegetables of nuts in Australia! Yes. Really! Apparently only fish, kangaroo, witchetty grubs and birds were the staple food of the indigenous Australians. Thankfully, there has been a major realisation that this was patently not the case and now you can find restaurants all over Australia offering more and more Australian native produce.
One thing indigenous food and ‘regular’ food have in common, is that you’ll be spoilt for choice for great restaurants serving imaginative menus with dishes using fresh local produce. This writer and her companions enjoyed lunch at the family run Taylor’s Art & Coffee House in the Swan Valley, (try the beetroot and pumpkin tart, or a tasty salmon bagel) where you can also investigate the attached gallery and the dad’s collection of all sorts of ‘old stuff’.
Follow your nose to find the many coffee shops dotted around Perth city and in Fremantle as well, especially in the Cappuccino Strip. There are many different styles of cafe and if you’ve come from Brisbane you can even see the familiar Shingle Inn sign with their patty cakes and swiss rolls, along St Georges Terrace.
Overseas visitors from some Asian or Middle Eastern countries will be pleased to see the familiar Dôme Cafe, which actually started in the Perth suburb of Cottesloe in 1990.
But we really enjoyed visiting the Yahava Koffee Works which has outlets in both The Swan Valley and Margaret River. Learn the process of making great coffee at their Tastings Bench and watch the roasted beans come out of the roaster. They also have a full range of freshly roasted coffees and coffee (and tea) products for you to buy and take home as well as the useful ‘hardware’ to make it easy to enjoy your cuppa.
Chocolate and other delicious treats
We’ve already mentioned the fresh produce and there’s no shortage of imaginative people ready to make use of what’s available from the producers, to turn it into something even more delicious. as a result, there are quite a few places making and selling tasty chocolates, nougat, honey or mead as well as chutneys olives or dukkas.
Quite a few of these have outlets / factories in both the Swan Valley and Margaret River areas, and many of the products are available at stands in weekend markets in the city and Fremantle. The Margaret River Chocolate Company can satisfy the most serious chocaholic (try their Rocky Road) and they also have an outlet in Perth. Margaret River Providore, beside the Chocolate Company in both locations also have a Perth store. They have a wide range of innovative local products as well as wines and food related equipment.
If you’re down south, drop into the shops in Cowaramup on the way to Margaret River for all sorts of sweets and gourmet delights. You’ll know you’ve arrived because there are lots of cows, of all colours.
A winery is another good place to test your sense of smell. Take your pick of the many wineries dotted all around the Swan Valley to the east of Perth, or the other well known wine growing area around Margaret River to the south of the city. The wineries generally welcome visitors and you can taste what they have on offer as well as pick up your supplies from the ‘Cellar Door’ to take home. Remember, if you’re the driver, don’t be the wine taster, drink driving laws all over Australia are very strict and being a visitor to the country doesn’t make any difference if you’re caught.
Many wineries have a restaurant attached where you can enjoy a meal and their wine in a very pleasant location and you may even be lucky enough to see a wedding taking place, as the locations are picturesque as well as ideally suited to ceremony/celebration of such an event.
**If you were wondering… If you see rows of vines with large triangular shapes arched over them, that identifies them as ‘table grapes’ which have to be picked by hand. The triangles remind the auto harvester that he can’t get down those rows. In addition, if you notice rose bushes at the end of the rows, apparently these are an early warning of certain diseases that affect both grape vines and rose bushes. Of course, there are more scientific ways to check, but the rose bushes do look good.
Can I walk to all these places?
Perth city and the whole south-west are great for walking. There are plenty of pedestrian malls and wide footpaths in the city area and all buses (not just the dedicated free CAT buses) are free within the city area. Catching the No 37 bus up to Kings Park from the city will save your legs on the climb up the hill and leave you with ‘plenty of puff’ to enjoy the park itself.
You can’t walk to the Swan Valley or Margaret River or any of the other great places to see like The Pinnacles, it’s way too far. But once you get there, there are plenty of places to walk.
Serious walkers will love the lengthy Bibbulmun Track made up of nine sections between the Perth Hills and Albany. There are many other places in and around the city that are great for walkers, serious and recreational and cyclists are also aplenty.
Hire a Car, take a tour
Hiring a car in Australia is relatively inexpensive, although you need to factor in the fuel cost and it is always advisable to add insurance, which is not inexpensive. If you’re travelling with children, bring your car seats with you as the driver and all passengers must be appropriately restrained in vehicles in Australia. Many airlines will let you bring them in addition to your checked baggage allowance.
A day trip or even an extended overnight trip may be a good option if you prefer not to drive. There are lots of excellent Tour companies offering trips out of Perth, in all directions and one of the job descriptions of Aussie tour bus drivers is that they are chatty chaps with a great sense of humour.