Saturday, August 22, 2009

Exploring Perth Suspended in time

For visitors from tropical Indonesia, setting foot in Perth Airport to be welcomed by a freezing winter wind at 4:30 a.m. is a chilly but thrilling experience indeed, especially on realizing your jumper is still securely locked in the suitcase you would only find in the baggage claim area an hour later.

“We are in the middle of winter,” says the coach driver taking us to the hotel. Streets were dead quiet, and only at 7:30 did the sun begin to rise lazily, dispersing mist and warming up the air a little.

As the Mantra on Murray hotel allowed us to check in only at 10, meaning we had three hours of free time, we ventured out and took a stroll to warm up. A local acquaintence said Perth had more hours of sun than any other major city Down Under, giving it a Mediteranian climate that’s favorable most of the year.

As the city gradually awoke, the ubiquitous vibrant outdoor cafes, crowds of people from different racial backgrounds, polite people in the streets and open-air activities eminated an aura of friendliness.

The Mantra on Murray hotel is situated within the city’s CBD (Commercial and business district) and Perth’s compact size makes it less daunting for visitors to explore. And this is even easier for Jakartans, who consider fresh air and cool weather a luxury.

A plethora of upscale shopping archades, souvenir, jewelry and electronics shops, hotels, restaurants as well as budget roadside cafes line the traffic-free streets that visitors can access easily on foot.

Perth, as I learned from my friends and advertisements, has been stereotyped as an “isolated” city, rich in historical legacies and exotic places to go, but lacking worldly sophistication. My brief visit showed me Perth is just as modern as other big cities in Australia I know, like Sydney and Melbourne.

Nestled between the vast expanses of bush and arid plains to the east, and the indian Ocean to the west, and only three-and-half hours flight from Bali, Perth is a world-class tourist destination.

t is also a paradise for nature lovers. You will see people jogging or cycling along its clean streets and in numerous quiet parks, at any time of day. Beaches and rivers pulse with the flap of sails and birds of all kinds. With its vast area and low population — only 2 million people in the entire gargantuan state of Western Australia — the capital city boasts many parklands where people enjoy clean air and greenery.

We began exploring the best of Perth at the famed 400-hectare King’s Park, just a few minutes from the hotel. This public park on the city’s western fringe overlooking the famed Swan river is an excellent vantage point to see and photograph the Perth skyline with the great river in the background.

The park is home to the state war memorial and more than 12,000 species of wildflowers that grow within the Botanic Gardens, many of which bloom in Spring. Unfortunately we missed the main event because we came in the wrong season. During warmer months King’s Park is a popular destination for family picnics, outdoor movies, concerts and theater.

A few exotic Australian animals can be seen in the park, but the best place to go and cuddle a cute koala or strike a pose with a kangaroo is Caversham Wildlife Park in Swan Valley, about 40 minutes’ drive east of Perth.

Swan Valley is one of Western Australia’s oldest wine-making regions. During winter, the straight highway is lined with wilting vineyards. The area is also well known for its fine restaurants and winery cafes.

So we dropped by for lunch and wine tasting at the award-winning Sandalford Wines in Swan Valley.

Established in 1840, this is one of Western Australia’s oldest wineries and was one of the first in the state. From its vast vineyards, the winery offers a range of products including Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Semillon Blanc and Verdelho wines.

In the same general area, food lovers can spoil their tastebuds at Margaret River Chocolate. Here you not only can shop for a wide array of products, but can also watch the chef at work in the kitchen, blending fine European style chocolates. As you know, the art of blending and tempering is what distinguishes fine chocolate produced by chocolatiers around the world.

An hour-long cruise from Perth to the port of Fremantle, 20 kilometers to the southwest, was fabulous.

The main attraction was the landscape and historical places along the riverbanks.

Unlike places like Bali or Jakarta, where most land is privately owned, the wonderful thing about Perth is that the entire Swan river and the endless beaches are virtually all public spaces that anyone can enjoy — bicycling, walking, swimming or dining — and there are no satpams (private security guards) to growl at you.

There is a lot to see and do in Fremantle. We dropped in for lunch at Cicerello at the Fishing boat Harbour, a beachfront restaurant that claims to be the “best-known and best-loved” fish and chip shop in Australia.

While waiting for meals, patrons can have a closer look at various marine fish in the restaurant’s aquariums. While we were imagining how these fish would taste, a waiter came and served us a huge lunch wrapped in paper. The package, comprising freshly caught seafood, was excellent but the portions were simply too big for an average Indonesian stomach like mine.

When in Perth, don’t miss the chance to thrill yourself and venture into the infamous maximum-security Fremantle prison, one of the most historical buildings in Australia. The facility was built with locally quarried limestone in 1850, by inmates shipped from Britain, and remained in use until it was decommisioned in 1991. At that time, prisoners were transferred to a more modern facility and the old jail was turned into a unique museum.

Located just five minutes walk from Fremantle Markets, the prison gives visitors a glimpse of a grim life behind bars. Once inside, you can’t help but imagine how lives were wasted in dim cells. Standard facilities include wooden beds or hammocks, cans for prisoner to relieve themselves in, and a Bible.

The prison tour leads visitors from the reception room — the wardrobe where inmates had their plain clothes replaced with prison uniforms — to the solitary cells, gallows, a chapel and the exit door where prisoners was seen off after serving their time.

The most interesting aspect of the prison is its artworks created by inmates and execution chamber where a total of 44 hardcore criminals were hanged up until the 1960s. It’s rather chilling to realize that this spooky old-fashioned facility was still in use less than 20 years ago.

The museum also offers a 90-minute candle-light tour on Wednesday and Friday evenings and the humorous tour guide will lead you through tunnels built by prisoners 20 meters underground.

So, go for the Great Escape tour if you think you are brave enough. If you are faint-hearted and feel like seeing some hot stuff, go to Perth Mint on Hay Street where demonstrations of molten gold being poured are conducted at the original Melting House which first operated in 1899.

The Perth Mint is a curious place for locals and visitors for its unique function as a high-security gold and silver trading center, an upscale souvenir shop as well as a tourist destination.

Aside from its glittering gold exhibition showcasing the history of gold prospecting in the continent, and of course a vast product line, where else could you experience what it feels like to lift a 400-ounce gold bar the size of an adult’s palms pressed together, worth A$200,000. The real thing (!) sits securely in a glass box with an opening just big enough for your hands.

The highlight of the day was watching the eloquent Danny Martin demonstrating how to make a gold ingot. The man stood in fireproof gear next to a burning furnace with $200,000 worth of molten gold in it, which he says has never lost purity or weight since it was first used many, many years ago.

At the end of his story about the nature of gold, Danny lifted out the bowl containing the gold pudding, heated to 1,300 degrees Celcius, to be poured into a mould. “Would anyone like to lick the bowl?” he quipped. And within a matter of seconds, voila, he had produced a brick-sized gold bar.

Since July 17, getting to Perth from Indonesia has become easier with the budget carrier AirAsia providing Denpasar-Perth flights on a daily basis. A group of Indonesian journalists was among the travellers on board one such flight.


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