Freo for all

The Swan River
The Swan River
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Richard Sutcliffe takes a trip around the port of Fremantle as it gears up for the arrival of the British Lions this summer

‘FREMANTLE, without a doubt.”

Matt Hodgson, the captain of the Western Force rugby union team, has just been asked by the Yorkshire Post where supporters of the British Lions should prioritise a visit to ahead of the opening match on this summer’s tour of Australia.

The game is scheduled for June 5 at Perth’s Patersons Stadium and an estimated 30,000 Lions supporters are expected to head Down Under across the five-week duration of the tour. A fair number of those are expected to be there for the full duration, hence the enquiry to the captain of the Lions’ first opponents as to what represents the jewel in Perth’s tourist crown.

“I don’t think there is a place in the world quite like Freo,” continued the 31-year-old back-rower after initially pointing any potential visitors towards the town that guards the mouth of the Swan River that then sweeps on towards the centre of Perth. “That’s why I think the Lions fans would love to experience it.

“Personally, I love how it has a bit of everything – the cafes, the bars, the markets. And that when you go to Freo, it feels like you are walking into a bit of a timewarp.”

With Matt, Western Force’s longest-serving player as well as captain, being an imposing 6ft 1ins and 16st of pure muscle, I made a quick decision. The next port of call on my tour of Western Australia’s main city is going to be Fremantle.

Which is how, after a short train ride from the centre of Perth, I found myself – as was promised back at the Force’s training HQ – transported back to another age. Fremantle is, indeed, a joy with its fully preserved 19th-century port streets and heritage buildings making it quite unbelievable to think that just half-an-hour ago I was standing amid a city of gleaming skycrapers.

The contrast is wonderful and one made all the more remarkable by the suburban sprawl of Perth having long since merged “Freo” into the wider metropolitan area of the city. Despite that, just a few minutes of meandering around the streets of this thriving port reveal a character altogether different from the city centre.

From what the locals call “Cappuccino Strip”– the cafe-lined South Terrace – through to Fishing Boat Harbour, the turning of each corner on foot brings a fresh delight with a pint or two in the Little Creatures brewery and the sampling of fresh fish and chips on the quayside definitely recommended.

So, too, is a visit to the Maritime Museum, which charts Fremantle’s growth as a port through to its sprucing up for the staging of the 1987 America’s Cup yacht race – the winning boat from four years earlier is housed here – and the anticipated tourist boom.

It duly arrived and almost three decades on from that famous win for Australia II, tourism continues to be a big part of the Western Australia economy with 6.8m visitors spending £3.7bn in the year to March, 2012.

Of the international market, the United Kingdom accounts for twice as many visitors as any other country during the same period with 136,700 visitors spending an average 27 days in WA last year. It is easy to see why Perth, in particular, is so appealing with English ex-pats estimated to make up around 10 per cent of the city’s population.

Shopaholics are well catered for, too, with pedestrianised precincts on Hay Street and Murray Street, while Perth is such a compact city that delights such as the WACA cricket ground and the splendid Mint – where gold sovereigns for Britain’s colonies were once produced – are all within easy walking distance. This also made “Eat, Drink, Walk” tour – basically, an informative jaunt round a number of the city’s hostelries I joined one evening – particularly enjoyable.

Any Lions fans venturing to Western Australia this summer would also be well advised to take a trip south to the Margaret River area, home to more than 220 wineries and a handful of breweries.

Dennis Mifsud, part-owner of Road Less Travelled, was my guide for a couple of days and what he doesn’t know about the region’s cellar doors isn’t worth knowing. I’ve been on wine tours before but none were as much fun or as informative as this one with a visit to try the wares of the Saracen and Leeuwin Estates a must.

After that, something special was needed to round off such a great trip so, again heeding the advice of my newfound rugby-playing travel guide, I headed back to Fremantle for what turned out to be a fantastic evening that included witnessing the most majestic sunset over the Indian Ocean. A perfect end to a quite wonderful stay in Australia’s largest state.

Getting there

Richard Sutcliffe travelled to Australia with Qantas, who fly daily to Perth from London Heathrow. Economy fares start from £992 for travel dates between June 6 to 20. Flights are subject to availability. Visit Qantas.com for the latest travel deals.

He stayed at the Novotel Perth Langley Hotel on Adelaide Terrace, Perth. Rates begin at approximately £78 per night.www.accorhotels.com/gb/hotel-1764-novotel-perth-langley/index.shtml

In Margaret River, Richard stayed in one of the four self-contained suites at Must Margaret River. Rates from approximately £121 per night.www.must.com.au

Among the tours Richard enjoyed, ‘Two Feet and a Heartbeat’ provide a number of urban adventure walking tours in Perth. ‘Eat/Drink/Walk’ visits the city’s newest small bars and restaurants and prices range from £15 to £35 per person. www.twofeet.com.au

The Cave and Canoe Bushtucker Tour runs daily from Margaret River at 10am and 2pm. The cost of approximately £60 includes a lunch of wild bush foods and local produce. www.bushtuckertours.com

Details of the wide variety of toues offered by ‘Road Less Travelled’ can be found at www.mronline.com.au/roadlesstravelled/

For all other information, visit www.australia.com