Andven in the calm and impossibly turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, fishing is harder than it looks. It’s trickier still when you’re fueled by lychee cocktails and prosecco on a four-hour luxury seafood cruise around Rottnest Island, off Perth’s shores.
Pulling on a rope at the back of the boat, I’m grateful for the grip of the functional blue rubber gloves I’ve been given to wear – it takes all my might to yank up a mottled crate from the sea. Inside sits my reward: a coral-pink, furious-looking lobster. “Big enough to eat,” the captain says, and he’s not wrong. A few hours later all 30 passengers are feasting on our catches, grilled by Rottnest Cruise’s private chef: my haul is served with a Thai-style papaya salad, part of a seven-course menu featuring prawns, scallops and a mango-and-avocado ceviche.
Surf’s up: hitting the beach in Perth
KRISTINA LINDBERG / GETTY IMAGES
Compared to my childhood holidays here, this is a very different experience. A decade ago my family would visit Rottnest for the promise of a no-car rustic break in the company of quokkas, floofy cat-sized marsupials famed for their selfie-ready smiles. I spent my secondary school years in Perthand as an Australian passport holder I was able to return last year (via the 14 days of quarantine required at the time) to see out the UK’s winter months in Western Australia.
Sprawled around the Swan River, Perth is Australia’s often-forgotten city. Founded by Captain James Stirling in 1829 – on land that had been inhabited by indigenous Australians for at least 45,000 years – its population of two million makes it the fourth largest city in the country, but it maintains its small-town credentials.
The vineyards to the south and untrammeled beaches give it a relaxed, quirky vibe. It also has a fabulous music and arts scene; the comedian Tim Minchin and members of the psychedelic rock band Tame Impala grew up here. During my teens it was all beach bonfires and house parties; a quiet suburbia I wanted to escape. In the pandemic it was a haven, with easily enough nightlife and experiences to keep me entertained during a three-month stay.
Rottnest Island has always been one of Perth’s biggest draws, a sinewy slice of paradise seven miles long by three miles wide and a 30-minute ferry ride from Fremantle Harbor. The past two years have seen fun additions here, including the chance to tour the island by water bike – a contraption that looks like a gym bike mounted on a kayak-shaped inflatable (aquaplayrottnest.com.au; from £ 20). I started by going around in circles but eventually mastered the machine with the help of Haylee, our instructor, who patiently re-explained the mechanics so I could join two others in the group already speeding off ahead.
Approach Rottnest by ferry and you can’t miss the newly developed Hotel Rottnest, with its buzzing bar and pool hugging the coast. But I was relieved to find the island otherwise unchanged: families still cycle from beach to beach, self-catering is the norm and the quokkas are still willing to pose for selfies.
A quokka on Rottnest
On the mainland Perth has changed, though, and Boola Bardip, the extraordinary state museum, is particularly impressive (free; visit museum.wa.gov.au). Boola Bardip translates from the Noongar Aboriginal language as “many stories”, and the museum takes in the natural beauty of Western Australia in imaginative ways, including a film that merges information about the Milky Way and indigenous tales.
The city has also embraced wellness experiences such as “tree bathing” – an opportunity to meditate and relieve stress by observing nature (from £ 68; mindful forestbathing.com.au). I joined a three-hour walk at Kings Park and Botanic Garden, facing the Swan River; my guide, Belinda, was dressed in the Aussie version of a Stetson hat and gumboots. It wasn’t about aimlessly meandering through the greenery: I scrunched leaves for the smells as a form of aromatherapy and drank herbal tea in the shade. I admit I balked at being asked to introduce myself to a tree, but even this cynic found inner peace while resting a hand on a 100ft-tall lemon-scented eucalyptus, likely to have been planted in the 1940s. It was a grounding moment after two years of chaos.
I took sanctuary too at the uncrowded Olympic-length outdoor pool in Claremont, in the west of the city, but Perth’s beaches also beckoned. Cottesloe is always my top choice, not just for its buttermilk sands and teahouse café, but also for the reassurance of the beach’s shark net.
The QT Perth hotel, right by the State Theater Center and the nightlife of Northbridge, is a good central base. Even here you’re not far from the outdoors, with its red jarrah-wood floorboards and wallpaper featuring red-tailed black cockatoos bringing a local flavor. If you are not staying, the squid-ink risotto and the 18th-floor rooftop bar, with 360-degree views, are worth stopping for (B&B doubles from £ 175; qthotels.com).
The city skyline
ALLAN BAXTER / GETTY IMAGES
While the overground train can get you to Perth’s main spots, to see it all a car, or at least an Uber account, is a must. Each neighborhood has its highlights, but if you want to meet the locals, Leederville’s bowls club is the place for chatting over cheap beer and pop-up food stalls; buy a drink and play for free (leedervillesportingclub.com.au).
As I was preparing to leave Western Australia to return to the UK in February, venues were popping up and preparing for Fringe World, one of the largest fringe arts festivals. I watched a drag and burlesque show with a distinct feeling of being in the world’s bunker.
Samphire Rottnest on Rottnest Island
“We are in the safest place on the planet right now,” the MC said, to cheers from the audience. Of course without international performers or visitors it was a different affair, but this celebration of art made me hopeful for the world beyond the pandemic. Perth is a window into my past and future, and being here was a reminder of what we’ve all been fighting for: getting our lives back so that we can enjoy simple pleasures. I’m pretty sure Rottnest’s grinning quokkas would agree.
Poppy Damon was a guest of Tourism Western Australia (westernaustralia. com). Fifteen nights’ room only from £ 4,570pp, including flights and transfers (audleytravel.com). Luxe Island Seafood Cruise from £ 185pp (rottnestcruises.com)
The Cape-to-Cape Track runs along 80 miles of WA coastline
Six other ways to see Western Australia
By Susan d’Arcy
1. Trek the Cape-to-Cape Track
The Cape-to-Cape Track is arguably Australia’s greatest long-distance trail. It slinks along 80 miles of WA coastline from Cape Naturaliste to Cape Leeuwin. This is where the Indian and Southern oceans bash heads, so expect spectacular surf breaks as well as rest breaks on deserted beaches. At other times soaring karri forests will provide some shade and vertiginous sea cliffs a welcome breeze. Spend four days hiking in a small guided group, a day canoeing down the minty perfection of Margaret River before a final two nights of five-star R&R at the award-winning Cape Lodge country-house hotel.
Details Seven nights’ from £ 5,675pp, including some meals, flights, car hire and tours (lightfoottravel.com)
Clownfish nestling on the Ningaloo reef
2. Dive on Australia’s best reef
Great Barrier Reef? Nah, mate, it’s all about Ningaloo for Aussies these days. This ribbon of reef runs for 186 miles along the pristine west coast, from Exmouth to Red Bluff, and is home to more than 300 types of coral and nearly 500 fish species. In fact it is so rich in wildlife, you’ll get blasé about bumping into turtles and manta rays. Split your time between Perth; Sal Salis, an eco-chic tented camp a few feet from a pristine Exmouth beach; and the Shore Thing, a catamaran with cabins, where the captain tracks the wildlife and you might even get to dive with humpback whales.
Details 10 nights from £ 4,995pp, including most meals, flights and car hire (turquoiseholidays.co.uk)
3. Wildlife and wine down south
You can’t miss out on the world-class wines of the Margaret River region, but it would be a shame not to explore further along the coast too. So drive first to Esperance, a remote seaside resort that punches well above its weight in wow factor – in a country where choosing the best beach is a bit of a Ronaldo or Messi argument, Esperance’s Lucky Bay usually comes out tops because here you sunbathe alongside kangaroos. There’s also time on this itinerary for a stop in Albany, a historic maritime town where you can visit old jails and taverns, whaling ships and the original settlers’ cottages.
Details 14 nights’ B&B from £ 3,590pp, including flights and car hire (audleytravel.com)
Take a cruise along the Kimberley coast
4. Cruise the Kimberley coast
The Kimberley is like a parallel universe, with blindingly white beaches, Tiffany blue oceans and wind-whipped Tango orange boulders. You’ll marvel at the ethereal rock art at Freshwater Cove, take a helicopter trip to Mitchell Falls and Zodiac expeditions into serene gorges and mangrove forests. And then there’s your cruise ship: both exo (Aussie slang for excellent) and exy (expensive), with 92 contemporary suites with private balconies as well as a communal infinity pool, a spa, two sophisticated restaurants and the Blue Eye, a multisensory underwater lounge with portholes looking out on the marine life and projections across its walls from three underwater cameras.
Details 12 nights’ full board from £ 12,499pp, including flights and excursions (abercrombiekent.co.uk)
Kangaroos in the Pinnacles Desert
5. Outback road trip up north
The open road and motorhome is a match made in heaven and the barbecue area of an Outback campground is a great place to swap tales. This road trip takes in the Pinnacles Desert, where you’ll feel like you landed on the moon, with its otherworldly limestone formations. Other stops include Kalbarri for spectacular cliff walks, Monkey Mia, where you can swim with wild dolphins, and Geraldton, the state’s wildflower capital that’s a kaleidoscope of color between July and October. By the time you sling your last rock lobster on the barbie, you’ll be talking like Crocodile Dundee.
Details 14 nights from £ 2,629pp, including some meals and flights (trailfinders.com)
6. Foodie heaven in Margaret River
Chefs such as René Redzepi of Noma fame and Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck rave about Western Australia’s foodie scene. It’s no surprise that restaurants serve fish so fresh it tastes like it was still swimming minutes before landing on your plate, but the state is also a noted producer of the ultimate foodie delicacy – the black Périgord truffle. Then there are the cellar-door tastings at wineries that range from international big hitters such as Vasse Felix to tiny, artisan hobbyists. An e-bike pootle fueled by chardonnay and cabernet will be one of the best-ever days you don’t quite remember.
Details Seven nights’ B&B from £ 4,345pp, including flights, car hire and some tours (abercrombiekent.co.uk)