IT’S deceptively quiet in the wetlands. Just the birds and the sound of our oars slipping in and out of the shallow, muddy water. Ghostly trees – swamp paperbarks I later discover – guard the sides of the narrow channel. A pelican loiters on one bony branch as we pass by. A white-faced heron flickers overhead. We glide on.
It feels as if we’re kayaking deep in the outback. But no, these wetlands are in the heart of metropolitan Perth – on the Canning tributary of the Swan River estuary to be exact. We round a bend and suddenly the modern city reasserts itself in the shape of Kent Street Weir. There’s parkland and a place to buy coffee, and we get out of the kayaks and fuel up. Our guide explains that the weir was first built a century ago to stop the saline waters of the estuary encroaching further inland. And that’s not mud down here in the wetlands, she corrects me, the water is stained with tannin from the trees.
Once the wetlands covered a great swath of the coastal plain. After 1829, they were gradually eaten up by the expanding British colony’s hunger for land, a process that also stripped the Noongar Aborigines of their territories (a £730m native title compensation deal looks close to being settled). Today Perth is an expanding conglomeration of close to two million people, boomtown capital of giant, mineral-rich Western Australia. Yet for the most part it doesn’t feel like that. Verdant, low-rise and laid back, it remains a city of almost languid natural beauty.
From the wetlands I head to the coast, where the fine, white-sand beaches, the best urban beaches I’ve ever set foot on, go on for miles. It’s the beginning of summer – which runs from December to March with an often blisteringly hot January and February – and the sand is warm, the Indian Ocean clear and cool. In the north, at the popular surf beach of Trigg, I lose half an hour watching the boards and their riders bobbing in the swell; there are no decent waves this afternoon.
With the exception of Rendezvous Observation City, a swanky hotel tower south of Trigg on Scarborough beach, you’ll find no sign of Gold Coast-style hyper-development along this coastline. The main reason for this is Perth’s isolation; the “Eastern States”, those that still attract most of the tourism, are a long way off. But you also pick up on a deep current of public opinion that’s fiercely protective of the city’s environmental assets – something loudly attested to by the protests this year over the state government’s controversial shark cull.
For the record, shark attacks are rare and there’s no consensus among experts that the cull will make them any less frequent. Still, nobody will tell you that swimming in Australia’s oceans is entirely free of risk. When I stop for a dip further down the coast, I have to swerve a stingray that’s lurking a metre off the beach. Then I go all Attenborough and watch this fascinating creature until it turns around and vanishes into deeper waters.
Here, at Cottesloe beach, Perth’s chilled out west coast ideal can be savoured with a lazy beer – probably best had at the old, now smartly refurbished, Cottesloe Beach Hotel – while watching the sun sink behind Rottnest Island. Formerly a Devil’s Island for Aborigines, then an internment camp for “enemy aliens” during both world wars, Rottnest, 18km off the coast, is now a popular summer holiday spot. If your visit to Perth is brief, it’s still worth the boat ride if you’re keen to see the quokkas, the rare little marsupials (rats if you’re a 17th-century Dutch explorer) that scamper freely around the island.
Keep heading down the coast and you hit the old port of Fremantle. It’s easy to walk around, which is welcome in a city in thrall to the car and the freeway, and so easy to soak up the “Cappuccino Strip”, the colourful Fremantle Markets, where you can load up with produce and pat a joey in the Wildlife Zoo, and the harbour. If you get there in the evening, Little Creatures microbrewery is a good place to start the night. Freo people have a tendency to think of their patch as the funky alternative to Perth proper. However, there’s no shortage of nightlife back in the city, mainly around Northbridge. I liked the Hyde Park Hotel for live music and food, and the Ellington Club is the place if jazz floats your boat. Visit during the Perth Festival that runs for most of February and the cultural smorgasbord is tremendous.
All of which is to say that, after a day in the sun, there’s plenty going on in one of the world’s most isolated cities.
On this trip, though, it’s the Swan that keeps beckoning. The next day it’s a short stroll from the excellently located Pan Pacific Hotel to the great basin of water that lies on the doorstep of Perth’s city centre, an arresting juxtaposition of office towers and the 1,000 bushland acres of Kings Park. The kite-surfing looks good, but I’m here to learn to sail a one-person catamaran. Under the easygoing tutelage of Andrew Partington, who runs cat hire from the South Perth side, I go from boating illiterate to overexcited beginner in under an hour, confident enough to lean out over the side and let the wind pick up the sail until the tiny craft is skipping across the water. If you head up to Kings Park for the postcard views, this part of the Swan is dotted with sails all summer long.
My last day takes me on a cruise upriver. This isn’t so much another brush with nature – although we’re told to keep an eye out for one of the 30-odd dolphins that live in the Swan – but rather an introduction to Western Australia’s wine scene. On board the samples keep coming, followed by lunch and more wine at the Sandalford Estate. On the way back to the city’s Barack Street Jetty, things get a little surreal. The people we believed were the crew suddenly pick up mics, the music cranks up and the boat reinvents itself as a karaoke barge. It’s as if David Lynch is channelling Simon Cowell, but the clientele, softened up by Sandalford’s best, seem happy to go along with it.
It’s a long haul to Western Australia (though the emollient of business class eased my journey from Glasgow), yet visitor numbers are climbing and it’s easy to see why: karaoke cruises notwithstanding, Perth has a touch of the X factor.
Emirates: Glasgow-Dubai-Perth, Economy flights start from £754 return, business from £3,332 (www.emirates.com). Pan Pacific Hotel Perth, 207 Adelaide Terrace, rooms start at A$220 (£122), but check for offers (www2.panpacific.com/en/Perth/Overview.html). Swan River catamaran and kayak hire, Funcats, Coode Street Jetty, South Perth: catamaran hire starts at A$40/hr (£22) (www.funcats.com.au). Wetlands kayaking, Rivergods, 8 Scythe St Willeton (www.rivergods.com.au). The half-day Canning River guided tour: A$55 (£31).
Captain Cook Cruises, Perth’s Famous Wine Cruise: full day, A$165 (£92), (www.captaincookcruises.com.au). Perth is also gateway to the spectacular south-west.