The Great Australian Weekend: Perth

Western Australia's capital is now better connected than ever with the United Kingdom. Simon Calder gives a warm welcome to the southern summer
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

To enjoy early summer in one of the most multi-cultural places on earth. Because Perth is so isolated (South-east Asia is nearer than Sydney), the city has absorbed a wide range of ethnic influences. With a superb setting above the Swan River and Perth's historic port of Fremantle close at hand, you can understand why four out of five Western Australians choose to live in Perth rather than elsewhere in their vast state.

DOWN PAYMENT

Qantas this month re-introduced the Heathrow-Perth route, via Singapore. In response, Singapore Airlines has cut down its transit time in Singapore so you can get from take-off in London Heathrow to touchdown in Australia in 18 hours. From other UK points, such as Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, Emirates has a one-stop connection via Dubai. Malaysia Airlines has low fares from Heathrow and Manchester via Kuala Lumpur, while longer journeys but even cheaper tickets are on offer from Royal Brunei. The lowest fares are likely to be available through discount agents.

Perth's international terminal is awkwardly located about 20km from the city centre, with no public transport. The Airport-City shuttle (00 61 8 9475 2999) has pick-up and drop-off points located near most of Perth's main accommodation areas; the fare from the international terminal is A$15 (£6). A taxi costs around A$30 (£12), which is the better option for two or more people travelling together.

INSTANT BRIEFING

The Swan River expands as it snakes inland from Fremantle, on the Indian Ocean; the centre of Perth is a grid of streets north of Perth Water. To the north of the crooked William Street Bridge is the area of Northbridge, the hub of most of the nightlife. Greater Perth extends for hundreds of square kilometres, but the crucial suburb is Fremantle - the port which was the first sight of Australia for millions of immigrants.

Perth's Visitor Centre is on the corner of Forrest Place and Wellington Street. It opens 8.30am-6pm from Monday to Friday, 8.30am-noon on Saturdays. The city is easily walkable, but if you feel like taking it easy all public transport within the "central business district" is free. This includes the three Cat midi-bus services, which run on circular routes to all parts of the downtown area, such as King's Park, the majestic open space on the city's doorstep.

REST ASSURED

Perth is a city built for backpackers - or, at least, most of its accommodation options are. The best combination of location (quiet but accessible), ambience (friendly and surprisingly refined) and price (low) is to be found at Governor Robinson's, an upmarket hostel at 7 Robinson Avenue, Northbridge (00 61 08 9328 3200; www.govrobinsons.com.au). This comprises a couple of workmen's cottages knocked together and expanded to form a cheery, airy hostel. The price of A$75 (£31) a night for a comfortable double room includes DIY breakfast. For something more upmarket, Rydges Hotel on the corner of Hay and King Streets (00 61 8 9263 1800; www.rydges.com) has sophisticated decor, postmodern furnishings and a double room rate of about A$250 (£100) including breakfast, depending on demand.

MUST SEE

The Perth Cultural Centre is the loose term for the area just north of the city's main station that is home to a number of artistic and historical enterprises. These include the excellent Western Australian Museum (00 61 8 9427 2700; www.museum.wa.gov.au), which traces the lineage of the Aboriginal inhabitants - the oldest continuous culture in the world - plus the more recent history of the state and its capital. It includes the original advertisements that sought migrants to Western Australia, with the slogan "land of golden opportunity". The museum opens 9.30am-5pm daily, with admission "by gold coin donation", ie. an Australian dollar or two.

Some of the colonists were remarkably forward-thinking. King's Park was created in 1872 and has been preserved ever since as a slab of (mostly) original bushland. One of the more recent additions is the Lottery Federation Walkway, a 620-metre elevated path made of steel, which slices through the treetops with lookouts and interpretive signs.

By now you will have appreciated how much Perth is an outdoor city - and the best way to see it is from the water, on a cruise down the Swan River to Fremantle. Oceanic Cruises (00 61 8 9325 1191; www.oceaniccruises.com.au) sails three times a day at 10am, noon and 2pm. The trip past rows of millionaires' riverside homes takes just under an hour, for a one-way fare of A$16 (£6.50). You can return in half-an-hour by rail for A$3 (£1.20).

MUST EAT

The yachting haven of Fremantle has been transformed into the coffee capital of Western Australia (though it is fair to say there were few other contenders). South Terrace is known as the cappuccino strip because of the large number of cafés along it. But Little Creatures, on the newly replenished waterfront, is a more intriguing option. It was one of the boatsheds used while Fremantle hosted the America's Cup, and has become a microbrewery where the tank-to-glass distance is less than three metres. The food is good, too.

Back in Perth, Northbridge is the place to aim for exotic, good-value food. The concept of Old Shanghai has been imported direct from Singapore (as close to fly from as Sydney). It is a hawker-style eating market on James Street, in which a dozen competing cuisines from Malaysian to Mexican compete on price and quality.

For a more sophisticated meal, try Viet Hoa at 349 William Street (00 61 8 9328 2127) which celebrates the simplicity and seduction of well-prepared Vietnamese food.

MUST BUY

For anyone arriving in Perth at the start of an Australian adventure, Perth is an excellent place to stock up on books and maps. For the best selection you should venture out to the Map and Chart Shop at 14 Collie St in Fremantle (00 61 8 9335 8665). While in Fremantle, explore the town's markets, which open 10am-5pm from Friday to Sunday. You can have your palm read or buy T-shirts reading "When I married Mr Right, I didn't realise his first name was Always".

INTO THE NIGHT

James Street in Northbridge is the entertainment hub of Western Australia, which means if you can't have a good time here, there's not another opportunity for 3,000km. On the corner of William Street stands the Brass Monkey, a century-old pub that will confirm your best hopes or worst suspicions about the rough-and-ready nature of Australian nightlife.

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