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AUGUST 7, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 5

Illustration for TIME by Norm Bendell.

Pleasant Perth is Just a Kangaroo Hop Away

Perth, the pristine seat of government for all of Western Australia, is affectionately known Down Under as the world's most remote capital. And so it must seem to residents of far-off Sydney and Melbourne, which are separated from the nation's not-so-wild West by 3,000 km of arid outback. But from an Asian perspective, Perth can hardly be considered remote—or uninviting. Board a nonstop flight in Singapore, and you're there in less than five hours. That's two hours shorter than a flight to Sydney, and about the same distance as a domestic flight between Sydney and Perth. Additional nonstop services from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Denpasar make Perth's sunny Mediterranean climate, fantastic beaches and laid-back lifestyle a fair dinkum (as Aussies would say) holiday bargain for travelers from tropical Asia.

The city itself is pleasant enough—a tidy town of 1.3 million souls on the placid green banks of the Swan River, with some well-preserved 19th-century architecture, fine hotels and restaurants and a pedestrian-friendly downtown shopping district. But to make the most of your visit, it's best to hire a car or book a tour to explore the nearby coastline and countryside.

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First stop: Fremantle, or "Freo" as the contraction-prone locals like to call it. This historic seaport 20 km downriver from Perth retains much of its antique British-colonial character. The highlights are atmospheric old houses containing shops and taverns, a fascinating nautical history museum and a Victorian-era market hall reincarnated as a touristy but fun food-and-crafts bazaar.

Oh, and make sure to go to jail. As in Perth and elsewhere in Australia, much of Fremantle's original infrastructure was built by labor imported from Britain's overflowing penal system. When shiploads of convicts began arriving here in the 1850s, their first assignment was to erect their own less-than-cozy accommodations near the harbor. The massive limestone cellblocks they built remained in use as a state penitentiary until 1991. Now the dank buildings are open to the public as an Alcatraz-like tourist attraction, where guides spin yarns about some of the institution's more notorious inmates, and show astonishing artwork left on the walls by former convicts.

On a lighter note, the thorough facelift Fremantle received in preparation for the 1987 America's Cup races ushered in a new era of cute boutiques and Aboriginal art galleries in the old port district, along with lively bars and restaurants. As Perth proper largely shuts down in the evening, Freo's the place to go for after-hours entertainment; efficient rail service provides an easy 25-minute link to the capital.

Wine lovers will find plenty to celebrate in these parts, since some of Australia's finest vintages are produced in the Margaret River region 280 km to the south—an area also famous for extreme surfing on breaks with ominous names like Guillotine, Suicides and Bone Yards. Bear in mind that retail prices in the tasting rooms are often higher than airport duty-free, so it might pay to save your shopping for the trip home.

Closer to Perth, Swan Valley wineries typically don't earn the enological accolades heaped on the Margaret River labels, but the region has been turning out some eminently drinkable and reasonably priced bottles that can be sampled on a simple day trip from Perth. As you drive through the neatly manicured vineyards between bouts of sipping-and-spitting in tastefully decorated tasting rooms, you can almost imagine yourself in Napa or Sonoma—until you spot a herd of kangaroos grazing on a golf course.

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