This Outback town's fortunes are on the up once more - before, pearls made it rich, now, says Mark Ellwood, it's tourists, beaches and camels

Like any textbook Outback town, the heart of Broome is a dusty, weathered cluster of corrugated iron buildings. But behind the Day-Glo modern store signs, there are glimpses of blistered Chinese characters, hand-painted onto the metal decades ago; and the architecture of many of the buildings looks inspired by curly-roofed Buddhist temples. It's a nod to Broome's singular history, when a lone precious crop - pearls - turned it into one of the wealthiest outposts in the British Empire.

It wasn't any old pearl that turbo-charged Broome's economy, but a meaty mollusc called the Pinctada maxima that flourished in the waters off the coast here. The Pinctada Maxima was a cost-efficient crop, producing not only large, stunning pearls but also hefty steaks, both of which Victorian-era settlers ravenously devoured. Those weatherworn signs were aimed at the divers drawn here by the high wages paid to anyone prepared to harvest the pearls from the ocean floor: of course, there were some Aborigines press-ganged into working for expat Brits, but the majority of divers were Asian-Indonesian, Chinese or Japanese.

One hundred years later, the iron-clad heart of Broome is still known as Chinatown and there are a couple of killer restaurants - Son Ming on Carnarvon Street serves pearl meat steaks for just A$45, albeit farmed now - but thanks to a century of over-fishing, the dive industry is strictly recreational. Casual cafés, too, give occasional hints of Broome's Eastern-inflected past: Bloom's coffeehouse on the main street serves standard sandwiches, flat whites and long blacks - oh, and a range of home-made lassis.

But the reason to visit Broome now isn't the chance to chow on cheap pearl steaks, pick up bargain necklaces - or even practise your vintage Mandarin. Much as the brochures might tout shopping here, the jewellery's tacky but hardly cheap. The real draw is the town's edge-of-nowhere vibe, compounded like a colonial ghost by those lingering Indian and Chinese touches. No wonder this town's remained such a backwater - the shipping hub of Port Hedland is almost 400 miles away through desert scrubland.

Broome is shorthand down under for laidback, do-nothingness; elsewhere in the state, Western Australians talk about relaxing as "slipping into Broometime". Sure, Broometime may have its downsides - at hotels, check-in is torturously slow, service in cafés haphazard - but once toe-tapping townies can learn to accept that, Broome's bewitching. The closest parallel is 1970s Key West, with those Asian holdovers subbing for Cuba, cigars and stiff sweet coffee.

Like Key West, though, Broome's biggest drawback for anyone other than budget-watching backpackers was its lack of comfy accommodation. But just as the Florida Keys has spent the past 10 years gussying up its guesthouses and hiking up its rates, so Broome has finally come up with aggressive plans to expand the upscale accommodation here, and doubling its number of rooms.

The first luxury effort, Cable Beach Club, had collapsed into an ageing Eighties relic in the 20 years since it was built by Thatcher adviser Lord McAlpine. Now, thanks to a two-year, £4m upgrade, the resort has had a swanky, Christina Ong-style makeover. The Asian design scheme was updated with quirky touches (to find reception you follow the snout of the Chinese carved seahorses standing in the flowerbeds) while the rooms have been redone in cool, dark tones, a day spa added and the ocean-front restaurant upgraded.

Two other new boltholes will soon compete for Cable Beach Club's moneyed honeymooning couples: the Sanctuary Resort, also on Cable Beach, is already part open (completion is scheduled for the end of this year). It has standard luxury touches such as a swim-up bar and spa as well as a vast pool complex. Then there's the four star, £6m Frangipani resort, also on the beach with a mixture of private homes and condo-hotel apartments or villas.

Broome has one major advantage over Florida's anything-goes outpost. While Key West makes do with a few manmade strips of sand, Broome is rimmed by that glorious, 14-mile long Cable Beach. No wonder, then, that the hotels are carving up ocean-front access. The yawning white sand is pristine and the water - at least in season - surprisingly warm. There is a nudist stretch to the north; otherwise, most visitors hop on a camel for a hokey but relaxing sunset jaunt along its length.

But even as Broome upgrades - and prepares for an increase in tourist traffic - there are still remnants of its dusty past aside from that blistered Chinese graffiti. Nowhere sums up Broome's glorious backwater feel better than the local cinema. Built in 1916, it claims to be the world's oldest outdoor movie house. Still known as Sun Pictures cinema, it was saved by the wealthy, acquisitive McAlpine in the early 1980s and is barely changed. The entranceway is made from corrugated iron, the seating is deckchairs and the lavatories are marked "Humphreys" and "Viviens" as a nod to the golden age of cinema.

The fairy light signage twinkles against the neon banners elsewhere. The only reminder of the modern day? The crackling action explosions of the latest blockbuster on its garden screen, which waft across to the terraces of nearby restaurants.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE: GETTING THERE

There are no direct flights between the UK and Broome. The easiest access is via Perth, which is served by airlines such as Qantas (0845 774 7767; www.qantas.com.au) and Singapore Airlines (020 8563 6767; www.singaporeair.com) via Singapore and Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) via Dubai. From Perth, Qantas, Virgin Blue (00 61 73 295 22 96; www.virginblue.com.au) and Skywest (00 61 13 006 600 88; www.skywest.com.au) all fly to Broome. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Perth, in economy class, is £34.40.

STAYING THERE

Cable Beach Club Resort, Cable Beach (00 61 89 192 04 00; www.cablebeachclub.com). Doubles start at A$255 (£104), The Sanctuary Resort, Cable Beach (00 61 89 192 80 88; www.rendezvoushotels.com.au/broome). Doubles from A$590 (£241).

EATING & DRINKING

Son Ming Restaurant, 14 Carnarvon Street (00 61 89 192 21 92).

MORE INFORMATION

Broome Visitor Centre: 00 61 89 192 22 22; www.broomevisitorcentre.com.au; Sun Pictures Cinema: 00 61 8 9192 1077.

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