If a visit to the Land Down Under isn’t on your bucket list, perhaps it should be. Australia has a well-deserved reputation as a place of stunning natural beauty and a relaxed, easygoing lifestyle that makes it a popular destination for travelers from around the world. The fact that its seasons are inverted also makes it an attractive option for those who might have a case of seasonal affective disorder and need some warmth and sunshine during those long winter months.
We visited Australia just after Christmas and were met at the airport by relatives who had emigrated to the country decades ago. We were also greeted by the warm summer air and a cool breeze which immediately put us in the mood for a laid-back, stress-free Aussie vacation.
Visiting Australia around Christmastime is a bit of an experience in and of itself because it can be pleasantly puzzling to those of us from the northern hemisphere to see Yuletide decorations during the middle of summer. But of course it is worth remembering that Aussies deserve a Christmas too, even if Frosty the Snowman wouldn’t fare too well in their heat.
Our extended Australian family were excellent hosts, arranging activities for us nearly every day, taking us out on a boat, feeding us and putting us up in one of their homes, all of which was a big advantage – both on our wallets and to make sure we made the most of our time. They showed us good spots for fishing and golfing and attractions off the beaten path. We were also informed that Aussies would never say “throw another shrimp on the barbie,” because they call them prawns, not shrimps.
Starting our Australian vacation in the Perth area of Western Australia (WA, which locals claim stands for “wine anytime”) we spent our first day at Kings Park and the adjacent Botanic Garden, featuring regional plant life and a nice view of Perth from the World War I Memorial.
A hike through the Botanic Garden is good way to get acquainted with the natural beauty of WA, with a highlight being the Lotterywest Federation Walkway – a glass and steel bridge that passes through a canopy of eucalyptus trees.
The following day we visited Cohunu Park, which is a large petting zoo home to typical Aussie wildlife such as kangaroos, emus, koalas, and dingoes. (The dingoes are safely ensconced in caged area, so don’t worry about them taking your baby.)
It is a fun place to visit, especially if you are traveling with children, and a good opportunity to see some Aussie animals up close, but be advised that it might feel like a bit of a rip-off. On top of the $15 entrance fee ($5 for kids), they also charge $30 to take a photo with a koala (per person, using your own camera) and tickets for a train around the park are $4 each. There is also no food for sale, so you might want to pack a picnic basket. Despite these minor drawbacks, the park is definitely worth a visit to see some Australian fauna, with the kangaroos a particular fascination for our three-year-old, Lea.
One advantage of having relatives in Australia is that we had access to both fishing and golfing gear, and we made good use of both. On New Year’s Day, we went beach fishing on Preston Beach, and were pretty successful catching herring using chicken breast and squid as bait. We all caught at least one or two, including Lea.
It is a lot of fun to drive out on the beach but keep in mind that you might not want to attempt it unless you have a four-wheel drive vehicle and a driver who knows what he or she is doing, otherwise you might get stuck. It’s also a good idea to let some air out of your tires which makes the vehicle more maneuverable on loose sand.
The next day we visited Serpentine Falls and played nine holes at the Serpentine golf course. This course is an excellent option for those on a budget, only costing $10, but keep in mind that you need to bring your own golf clubs. (They don’t mind if you share though so all you need is one set, and the dress code is also fairly relaxed, only asking that you don’t go shirtless or shoeless.)
The golf course was not busy at all which is an advantage for those of us whose golf game is a bit rusty – no pressure from other groups behind you waiting for you to get the ball in the hole. A good time to go is late afternoon, when it is a bit cooler and has the added benefit of seeing kangaroos coming out to graze at dusk.
Serpentine Falls is also worth a visit, another opportunity to see kangaroos up close as they hang around the picnic area hoping for a handout. (Feeding them is prohibited however.) Be sure to bring your bathing suit for a swim at the falls.
While in the Perth area, you wouldn’t want to miss visiting Fremantle and Rottnest Island. Get to Fremantle (or Freo, as the locals call it) early to take a look around the town before catching the ferry to Rottnest (or Rotto). The ferry ride can be a bit choppy so keep that in mind if you are prone to seasickness.
Rotto is a charming little island renowned for its native inhabitants called quokkas – which are cute, docile creatures that vaguely resemble large rats. (This is how the island got its name, with a Dutch explorer calling the place “Ratnest,” or “Rottnest” in Dutch.)
You should give yourself plenty of time on Rotto if you want to explore the island and do any activities like snorkeling or swimming. We got there a bit late in the day and didn’t have much time before having to catch the ferry back to the mainland, so we didn’t venture too far from the port – playing a game of minigolf and taking a few pictures of quokkas before getting back on the boat.
Freo is also worth devoting a good amount of time to. We didn’t have much time there on our first visit but were so impressed that we decided to come back a couple days later. It’s a pleasant, relaxed beach town characterized by classic Victorian and Edwardian architecture that reminded me of places in the southern U.S. such as Charleston, South Carolina, or Savannah, Georgia. It has a bit of a Bohemian, Wild West feel to it as well, and has been called the “hippest place in Australia.” Good opportunities for nightlife and live music if that’s your thing.
We started our day in Freo at the Maritime Museum which is very much worth a visit to see an impressive collection of boats, including the Australia II sailboat that won the America’s Cup in 1983, breaking a 132-year winning streak by the New York Yacht Club – an achievement that Aussies still seem rather proud of. Outside of the museum is a display of panels commemorating the arrival of immigrants to Australia and the ships on which they arrived. Take a moment to find your family names on the panels but keep in mind that they are not very well organized and incomplete.
There are many excellent dining options along the Freo waterfront and other attractions worth seeing such as the Roundhouse – Fremantle’s first prison and its oldest building – and the Markets, which offer all sorts of local wares and souvenirs, as well as fresh fruit. If you want to really explore the town, you should give yourself two or three days.
Finally we visited Perth, which is also worth a visit particularly if you want to get a sense of daily Aussie life and do some shopping. It is a bustling city of 1.8 million and easy to navigate using the metro system. Although there are not a lot of sight-seeing opportunities in the city, its central pedestrian street is nice to stroll along.
After spending almost two weeks in the Perth area, our journey continues with a flight to Alice Springs.