With a freshly reinvented character, Fremantle has transformed itself from Perth’s port into a hipster destination in its own right.
Words Brian Johnston
Fremantle is a ponderous name for a raffish seaport with bracing ocean breezes and a youthful, counter-culture attitude. The locals invariably call this town ‘Freo’, which seems to better encapsulate its easy-going spirit, lively music scene, hopping bar life and often disreputable history.
This is more than just an important Western Australian port, lately sucked into the ever-growing embrace of Perth’s suburbs. Freo is a town with its own character, which has reinvented itself several times and is lately having another hip and happy renaissance.
Freo has a rather ﬁne pedigree, longer in fact (if only just) than that of Perth. Captain Charles Fremantle of the naval ship HMS Challenger established a settlement here in May 1829, claiming the western third of the Australian continent for Britain. The colony was proclaimed on June 17, 1829, as Western Australia, the ﬁrst time the word ‘Australia’ was used in any official capacity. It’s easy to see why the sea captain chose this spot, right where the Swan River meets the ocean. It was a location seemingly well sited for settlement and trade, though in fact a dearth of fresh water (the Swan River is tidal) soon caused the main settlement to move further upstream to what is now Perth.
Fremantle, however, became the gateway to Western Australia, particularly after the gold rush of the late 19th century, which brought more and more immigrants to the colony. You can see its early days of glory reﬂected in the grand 19th-century Town Hall, Esplanade Hotel and various restored warehouses in attractive limestone. Some of the best-preserved buildings lie around Kings Square, and between Marine Terrace and Phillimore Street. But even in Freo’s suburbs many streets retain their 19th-century look and European air. The European atmosphere was maintained long after construction of these streets thanks to waves of immigrants, particularly post-Second World War Italians, who were important in developing Freo as a ﬁshing port.
Two notable buildings are worth a look. The Round House supplies evidence that the arrival of the British was in reality more an invasion than a settlement. It was ﬁrst used to house Aboriginal prisoners; the Noongar people had lived across this region for thousands of years. Fremantle Arts Centre, meanwhile, inhabits an eye-catching, convict-built, neo-Gothic-style building that once served as a lunatic asylum and Second World War submarine base. It now has a year-round programme of arts events, and live concerts on Sunday afternoons.
Like many port cities, Fremantle fell into mid-20th-century doldrums from which it only emerged in the late 1980s when it hosted (and Australia won) the America’s Cup yachting race, an event that helped spur the restoration of its port area.
Head to the Western Australian Maritime Museum on the water’s edge and you’ll be able to inspect Australia II, the 1983 America’s Cup winner, and tour a Second World War submarine. You can also visit the museum’s separate Shipwreck Galleries, which include the wreck of the Dutch sailing ship Batavia that ran aground oﬀ the Western Australian coast in 1629 in a fascinating tale of early European contact with the continent.
The port town capitalised on the America’s Cup with subsequent projects, including the opening of a university, serious investment in arts programmes and the continuing restoration of the waterfront. What’s more, it achieved this while becoming part of Perth’s suburban sprawl, yet has managed to keep a distinct identity.
Fremantle is a good place to relax; there’s nothing better than walking along the windy promenade and watching the yachts tugging at their moorings, while overhead gulls twist in the turbulent air. Then browse through the Fremantle Markets, where you can pick up carved emu eggs, boomerangs or ﬁne-quality Aboriginal art. They’re the best markets in all Perth, and also a good place for informal eateries, with stalls tempting with everything from German sausages to Turkish pide and Vietnamese spring rolls.
You can also ﬁnd gold, diamonds and South Sea pearls in Freo, all of which are notable products of Western Australia. High Street has many souvenir shops, where alpaca-wool products, hand-blown glass and Aboriginal art make good buys. More eclectic are the boutiques and artists’ studios that make up MANY 6160 inside a former department store: expect bargain (and rather bohemian) browsing.
Freo is lively at any time of year with bars, craft-beer breweries, beaches, seafood shacks, restaurants and live-music venues all luring locals and residents of Perth, especially at weekends and in the evenings. There’s a freewheeling, student vibe and eclectic mix of people that belie Fremantle’s location on this remote rim of Australia. Outdoor cafés along South Terrace – aﬀectionately known as ‘The Cappuccino Strip’ – are buzzing at weekends as patrons get not just their caﬀeine ﬁx but ﬁne helpings of mostly Italian food.
At lunchtime, Fremantle is crowded with business people in suits doing lunch over chilli prawns. At night, the restaurants and bars ﬁll up with the chattering classes down from the city. The Fishing Boat Harbour (where the catch of the day is still unloaded) is the epicentre of seafood delights, and you’ll also ﬁnd breweries like Little Creatures tempting with both beer and good food.
It all seems a long way from the convicts and rough sailors of the early days, but once again – brilliantly casual, wittily subversive – Perth’s raw edge is never far away. As you tuck in to your fettuccine carbonara and Margaret River wine, you might just get a whiﬀ of wool as another container ship of sheep is loaded up just across the road, heading for the Middle Eastern market. Another reminder of vast outback Australia here in your trendy restaurant, as seagulls shriek and the breeze blows.
Jakarta to Perth
Flight Time 4 hours 10 minutes
Frequency 4 ﬂights per week
From Colours June 2016
5 Senses – Sight
This convict-built complex has a history almost as long as Western Australia, is the most intact convict establishment in the whole country, and is now World Heritage listed. It was used as the state’s maximum-security prison right up until 1999. It’s best visited on tours, as guides bring the prison’s fascinating history, daring escapes and tunnels to life, and explain its uses and unusual punishments. Torchlight evening tours will delight those with a penchant for goosebumps.