48 hours in Perth

Can't face the Olympic circus? Then head for the happening capital of Western Australia where the living is stylish but easy
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The Independent Travel

ICING ON THE CAKEAlthough it's too chilly for swimming or sunbathing now, a visit to one of Perth's ocean beaches shouldn't be missed. Among the best are Cottesloe Beach (take the train to Cottesloe and walk for 10 minutes, or take bus 72) and Sorrento Beach (12 miles north of the city). Underwater World, the sealife centre at Sorrento, features touch pools containing the usual put-upon starfish. Deadly stonefish are permitted more privacy. You can swim with dolphins in the Dolphin Sanctuary, or, if you are a certified scuba-diver with your own equipment, dive with sharks and other sea creatures in the main enclosure.

ICING ON THE CAKEAlthough it's too chilly for swimming or sunbathing now, a visit to one of Perth's ocean beaches shouldn't be missed. Among the best are Cottesloe Beach (take the train to Cottesloe and walk for 10 minutes, or take bus 72) and Sorrento Beach (12 miles north of the city). Underwater World, the sealife centre at Sorrento, features touch pools containing the usual put-upon starfish. Deadly stonefish are permitted more privacy. You can swim with dolphins in the Dolphin Sanctuary, or, if you are a certified scuba-diver with your own equipment, dive with sharks and other sea creatures in the main enclosure.

A WALK IN THE PARKKings Park (18) is the obvious destination for a stroll and a ponder. It occupies a huge area between the city and Subiaco, in a commanding position overlooking the river and city. Aim for the Mount Eliza lookout tower; the views of the city are especially stunning after dark. Or, if you want a rest from urban life, plan a bushwalk in the Perth Hills, 30km east of the city. Kalamunda is the starting point of the 950km Bibbulmun Track to the south coast of the state.

WHY GO NOW?The exchange rate is fantastically favourable at the moment, with every pound sterling buying nearly A$2.50. While everyone else is flocking to the circus which is the Olympic Games in Sydney, Perth will be relatively neglected over the next few months and therefore even more welcoming than usual. And there's more chance of sun during a Perth winter than an English summer. The wettest month of the year has just ended and the city is gliding gently towards a bright and balmy spring.

BEAM DOWNThis is the first winter for a decade with no £500 charter flights from Gatwick and Manchester to Perth, but there are still some bargains on scheduled airlines. Through a discount agent such as Dial-a-Flight (0870 333 4488; www.dialaflight.com), you can expect to pay around £660-£700, including tax, on airlines such as Malaysia and Singapore. Tourists must arrange an "ETA" (electronic visa), obtainable through travel agents and visa agencies at a cost of £10-£25. An airport(1)-to-city shuttle (00 61 8 9479 4131; www.ft.com.au) meets all international flights, many of which arrive in the early hours of the morning.

GET YOUR BEARINGSThe city of Perth straddles the meandering Swan river, with the downtown's futuristic buildings clustered together on the north shore, behind the bobbing masts of moored yachts. A pedestrian walkway (2) leads from the northern edge of the city centre, past the railway station (3), to Northbridge, Perth's cultural and entertainment heart. But don't neglect the historic port town of Fremantle (4). Frequent trains and buses cover the 12-mile distance between Perth and "Freo", which buzzes with pleasure-seekers at the weekend.

CHECK INAn unlikely favourite near the heart of the city is Miss Maud Swedish Hotel (5), at 97 Murray Street (00 61 8 9325 3900), where the décor and menus are Scandinavian. Rates start at A$140 (£55) per double and include a smorgasbord breakfast. In Fremantle, the friendly Flying Angel Club, at 76 Queen Victoria Street (00 61 8 9335 5000; www.flyingangel.org.au), was originally a mission for seafarers but now offers clean, cheerful accommodation to land-lubbers, too. For A$85 (£35) per double, you'll be close to the Fremantle Arts Centre, and South Terrace, the cappuccino strip.

TAKE A RIDEA 10-minute ferry ride across the Swan river from the Barrack Street Jetty (6) gives fine views of the Perth skyline. The ferry docks a five-minute walk from the city's zoo. Resist embarking on an expensive river cruise unless you fancy a non-stop commentary about the millionaire-cowboys whose ostentatious houses line the shores of the river. Much better for the soul to hire a bicycle from the Activity Booking Centre on the Barrack Street Jetty (00 61 8 9221 1828) and follow the riverside cycleway. If you keep on going, you'll get to Fremantle (and then, if you're tired out, you can bring your bike back on the train for free).

LUNCH ON THE RUNAt least a quarter of Perth's restaurants are Asian: Thai, Malaysian, Chinese or Vietnamese. All of these cuisines, and many others, can be sampled cheaply and tastily at one of Perth's food halls. Try the one below the Carillon and City Arcades (7), or head to the Old Shanghai Markets near Perth's tiny Chinatown (8).

SHOP TILL YOU DROP The trendy suburb of Subiaco, or "Subi" as it's fondly known, a couple of train stops from the city, hosts two adjacent weekend markets. The Pavilion Market (9), in a renovated warehouse, has a gourmet international food hall plus crafts, clothes and books. And at the nearby Station Street Markets, you can browse for souvenirs, bric-a-brac or sweets to the accompaniment of live music. Offbeat shops and trendy boutiques are interspersed with ethnic restaurants along Rokeby Road in Subiaco, and the work of around 200 Aboriginal artists can be viewed at Indigenart at 115 Hay Street (10).

CULTURAL AFTERNOONIt would take more than an afternoon to do justice to the Perth Cultural Centre (11), which incorporates both an Art Gallery and Museum (00 61 8 9492 6600). Aboriginal art and history are well-represented, and other exhibits include a blue-whale skeleton, vintage cars and fallen meteorites. The Centre is easily accessible from the city by crossing over the railway tracks to Northbridge. The Fremantle Arts Centre (1 Finnerty Street, 00 61 8 9430 6613) is in a former lunatic asylum, now stylishly converted. The museum wing has informative displays on whaling and pearling, as well as a gallery for contemporary Western Australian art.

AN APERITIFNothing can beat sitting on the latticed verandah of a Fremantle pub watching the sun set, over a glass of Matilda Bay ale or Margaret River semillon. The historic Sail and Anchor (64 South Terrace) brews a delicious range of its own cask-conditioned beers; Seven Seals is one of the best. Nearby, the Norfolk Hotel (47 South Terrace, 00 61 8 9335 5405) has a restful decor and a lovely spacious beer-garden. If you plan to eat in the restaurant district of Northbridge, make sure you leave enough time for a pre-dinner drink in one of the scores of lively pavement cafés and cappuccino bars to be found along William Street.

DEMURE DINNERMatilda Bay Restaurant (12) is not only a showcase for haute WA cuisine, with the emphasis on seafood, it is stunningly situated in a riverside nature reserve next to the Royal Perth Yacht Club in the suburb of Crawley (00 61 8 9423 5000; www.matbay.com.au). If you decide to pass on the crayfish or Mandurah whitebait, you could try ostrich schnitzel pan-fried with kangaroo coppa for A$28 (£11). Don't be alarmed if "witloof" is provided as an accompaniment; that's what Australians call chicory.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCHSunday morning sees a surprising number of young trendies in church... or rather, The Church (13), a club at 69 Lake Street, in Northbridge, which is often still heaving into the small hours of Sunday. At the more conventional time of worship, you might like to take a look at the Gothic- revival St Mary's Cathedral (14) in Victoria Square. It was originally designed by Pugin but has been much altered in the intervening 150 years. Mammon-worshippers can visit the Perth Mint (15) (310 Hay Street) to observe molten gold being turned into ingots worth around £80,000 each.

BRACING BRUNCHThe well-established brasserie-style Oriel Café (16) at 483 Hay St in Subiaco is open 24 hours a day and gets crowded on Sunday mornings. Delicious cinnamon brioche with ricotta and maple syrup, or a spinach-and-gruyÿre omelette can be enjoyed while reading the papers provided by the café. A more rollicking alternative is the Nedlands Park Hotel (17) (better known as "Steve's") at 171 Broadway in Nedlands (00 61 8 9386 3336). This is a popular university pub with an excellent riverside garden and barbecues.

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