Visit Fremantle and you are surrounded by maritime history – it’s absorbed into the very culture of the small seaside village on the edge of the Indian Ocean, just 30 minutes south of Perth, Western Australia. And it makes you keen to get out on the water.
But, like any good visit to a seaside village, the best tours start with lunch in a café on the beach, or in our case, beside the port. It’s easy to get your bearings at Gage Roads Brewery Co, as we watch the Rottnest Island ferry boats motor back and forth.
This is a brewery café that specialises in pizzas and pastas, and brings each diner a wooden paddle of four beers to taste. The place is huge, with a long counter and a hip vibe – we sit inside next to the giant steel vats and enjoy the buzz (pun intended). But it’s equally cool outside at the tables on the wharf where an authentic sailing boat is moored.
Fremantle first came to my attention seriously way back in 1987 when we watched American Dennis Connor in Stars & Stripes wrestle the America’s Cup off the Aussie team and the Perth Royal Yacht Club. That’s when I first learned about the Fremantle Doctor that filled their sails – and it’s still a popular reference to the cooling sea breeze that arrives in the afternoon.
A visit to the Western Australia Maritime Museum (next to Gage Roads), is a great way to recall this amazing history – Australia’s winning America’s Cup Australia II is there, along with life-size models of the crew. And stories that go way back when sailing was all about discovery and navigating by the stars. I just love this stuff. And there’s more – a Shipwreck Museum, which I have had to save for my next visit.
There’s a music festival running in Esplanade Park the weekend we are in town – we enjoy the music every time we stroll to and from the beach and port to the village. It adds to the laidback, welcoming feel of the town.
And no-one visiting Fremantle can afford to miss Fremantle Markets, in one of the town’s oldest buildings in Market Street. Packed with all the things you would normally find in a market, this one excels at its food stalls and drink stands. It’s reminiscent of early Kiwi markets (Cook Street, Victoria Park).
There’s another, much larger building dominating the landscape on a slight rise, just a couple of hundred metres from the town, and that’s the limestone edifice that is Fremantle Prison, which closed in 1991.
Built by convict labour in the 1850s, the prison remains a record of a tough era of colonisation. There are tours, which are thoroughly recommended. I found it eye-opening, and came away with a better understanding of the hardships endured by people of all cultures.
Perth is also a naturalist’s paradise – in the space of two days in the seaside town I managed to see breaching whales, nesting osprey, quokkas, long-nosed fur seals and pelicans nesting. And that was just one day on a visit to picturesque Wadjemup Rottnest Island.
It only takes 25 minutes to get there (19km) by a fast SeaLink Rottnest Island ferry or Rottnest Express, and it costs NZ$98 return for an adult, which includes the entry fee to the island.
It’s a predator-free paradise, a Class-A Reserve with a massive 63 beaches to explore and 20 small bays with some of the clearest water you will ever see. It’s glorious and unpopulated and the perfect place for a laze on the beach and a swim.
We have an island introduction on the beach by Whadjuk elder Neville Collard, who holds a cleansing smoke ceremony for us, and we feel privileged to be here.
A variety of tour options are available, with many holidaymakers choosing to hire bicycles – cycle tours seem to be the most popular option the day we arrive. But time constraints mean we hop on a small bus and enjoy the elevated view.
An absolute highlight is stopping at a small beach to look out towards a large rock in the sea, dominated by the enormous nest of a pair of osprey – there’s even a large chick on the nest. You need the zoom lens on your camera to capture the scene, but it will stay with you forever.
There are a couple of wild quokkas nearby in the scrub – the small marsupials only found on the island. There are many more around the small lunch bars and coffee shops near the wharf, and they are very tame and cute, but not to be fed.
And then the highlight, and I cannot think why anyone would miss this – a Rottnest Express Adventure Boat Tour out to sea and around the island. It’s fast and thrilling, and you need that seatbelt tightened when the skipper winds it up.
Way in the distance, the crew spot whale spouts, and before we know it, we are up close. A pod of humpbacks is migrating, and one puts on a spectacular show, breaching three times in a row. Some who braved their phones amid the sea spray managed to capture the last breach. We see the three whales diving and coming up for air simultaneously as they head off.
We cruise closer to shore to view pelicans nesting on top of rocks, and long-nosed fur seals draping themselves all over bright green-seaweed rocks closer to the sea, and slide in and out of the water.
There are numerous places to buy lunch on Rottnest, but none as special as the waterfront Isola Bar e Cibo, which provides beautiful, simple Italian food, cocktails and wine, with dishes built on quality local produce. It’s a quiet location, a little removed along a wooden walkway from the hot bustling square.
Then it’s back to Fremantle, pleasantly tired, but we’re all still up for a Peddle Perth rickshaw ride around the waterfront. What a great way to learn even more about the local history, with lots of laughs along the way. The drivers deposit us at Fremantle Markets, just a block from our hotel.
Bathers as the sun sets
One of the other special things about Fremantle is the beach and promenade that faces due west, so every night a crowd gathers to watch the sun dip down below the ocean. We are booked into Bathers Beach House, which offers this exact view, but we choose to sit outside on the concrete promenade and watch the day (and our media tour) end so perfectly with the ocean lapping at our feet.
Bathers is so special, I find myself back here at noon the following day for a last meal before heading to the airport. This time it’s an outside table for one under the umbrella with a glass of local white, and a pasta dish. Just heaven.
Staying there: Warders Hotel, a boutique two-storey hotel built within the former limestone warders’ quarters, with the Emily Taylor Asian-inspired kitchen and bar built into the courtyard. From A$324 (NZ$348) per night. See: wardershotel.com.au
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily non-stop flights to Perth. See: airnewzealand.co.nz
Carbon footprint: Flying generates carbon emissions. To reduce your impact, consider other ways of travelling, amalgamate your trips, and when you need to fly, consider offsetting emissions.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Western Australia