Travel: Perth and the Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia Picture: Lisa Young
Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia Picture: Lisa Young
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From city to reef, WA has so much to offer

Perth is one of the most beautiful, yet isolated, cities in the world and a great place to start a trip exploring the contrasts of Western Australia, from city streets to coral reefs. Cosmopolitan and laid-back, it offers a relaxed lifestyle, has great weather and boasts a multitude of restaurants, bars and activities.

We began on the streets, where we took a walking tour to discover local street art being promoted by non-profit cultural organisation FORM. Following the Urban Art Map, which led us through the avenues and alleys of Perth, we saw unique work by Stormie Mills, Fudge and Brett Chan, just a few of the internationally acclaimed local street artists who have created huge murals across the town as part of a group called PUBLIC Urban Art Walks. Vibrant and colourful, they showcase the city’s talents on billboards, buildings and street signs and make a great introduction to Perth.

Our accommodation for the visit was COMO The Treasury, the best address in town: a 48-room luxury hotel in Perth’s newly revitalised historic heart. Inside the former government building the exquisite rooms and suites are vast, and, although expensive, it’s worth splashing the cash to experience a night in style. The Alex Hotel in Northbridge is a cheaper option, yet it still offers a high standard of modern accommodation.

Getting back to nature we walked to Kings Park and Botanic Garden, a 400-hectare park, which is a short walk or a free Red CAT bus ride from central Perth. It’s a feast of local Western Australian flora, with over 3,000 species of plants on display. Grab a map at the visitor centre or ask for a free guided tour, then head for a fun eating experience at Lucky Chan’s Laundry & Noodlebar, a three-level venue behind a Chinese laundry shopfront which specialises in ramen noodles.

At Go Cultural Aboriginal Tours, which takes you into Perth’s ancient past, we met Walter McGuire, a Nyungar man and descendent of several aboriginal tribal clans who will guide you around iconic city locations. McGuire gave us a traditional welcome to the land of the Whadjuk, people who have called this area home for an estimated 70,000 years, and showed us his city before lunch at Cottesloe Beach, a 15-minute drive from central Perth, en route to Fremantle. On the beachfront we watched kite surfers ride the waves while we tucked into beautiful, crisp battered fish at the Indiana Restaurant overlooking a long stretch of pristine white sand that leads down to the Indian Ocean.

Other great places to eat in Fremantle include Strange Company on Nairn Street and The Mantle on James Street (an activity hub in the new east end where people come together to eat, drink, work and play). Along the colourful Fremantle esplanade we dropped into Little Creatures, an Australian microbrewery built inside a converted boat shed, for a tour and beer sampling, and we loved the India pale ale, full of rugged hop flavours.

Fremantle Prison, close to the town centre, gives an eye-opening insight 
into the lives and crimes of former inmates. Close to the town centre, it was built by convicts in the 1850s and closed in 1991 after 136 years of hard use. A popular attraction; booking is recommended.

There’s so much to see and do in Perth and nearby Fremantle that a fast and informative way to ensure you don’t miss anything is with Two Feet and Heartbeat Walking Tours, who share the hidden gems that often get overlooked.

A 25-minute drive from central Perth is the Swan Valley, which boasts a fusion of award-winning wineries, fine food, history and art galleries. Following the Swan Valley Food and Wine Trail, a scenic loop that takes in some of the region’s top wineries, restaurants and craft centres, we sampled wine at Mandoon Estate, soaked up historical art at Maalinup Aboriginal Gallery, swilled beer at Mash Brewing, chomped on cheese at The Cheese Barrel and got high on sugar at the oldest confectionery company in Western Australia: Whistler’s Chocolate Co.

An hour’s flight northwest of cosmopolitan Perth’s bustling streets, and in complete contrast to the hustle and bustle, is a desert-like landscape, with sand as far as the eye can see, and on the horizon like a mirage shimmering in the heat, sits the small town of Exmouth. There I had come to experience a new sea-based activity: swimming with humpback whales in open water along the World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef which stretches 300 kilometres from Red Bluff to Bundegi Reef near Exmouth.

With crystalline waters, breathtaking marine life and year-round glorious weather, Ningaloo is a remarkable natural aquarium and one of the longest fringing reefs in the world – in other words one of those found so close to the shore so you can walk, swim, dive or kayak straight to them.

I stayed at the exquisite Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef – a model ecotourism development camp, with a commitment to maintaining and protecting the environment, nestling among the dunes of Cape Range National Park, just 500 metres from the wave-lapped shore.

Consisting of 16 eco-luxe wilderness tents, this hidden gem was one of Australia’s best-kept secrets until it made number four on Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel list for 2017.

After a wake-up call of wallabies slowly thumping along the boardwalk leading to my tent as the sun’s first rays cast a reddish glow across the water, I submerged myself in the sea with turtles and fish for company. A few hours later I was on my way across choppy water in search of humpback whales with the Live Ningaloo expedition company. This new venture operates between 1 August and 31 October and enables guests (no more than five at a time for safety reasons) to swim with humpback whales while accompanied by marine experts.

A spotter plane circled above the boat, then radioed the humpbacks’ coordinates to our skipper and we jumped in. Floundering about with our heads submerged we looked for humpbacks until suddenly a high-pitched whale song vibrated through the water, getting louder. The elegant animal swam beneath us, and as I lifted my head out of the water, surfaced in front of me, its huge, wet hump glistening in the sun, before it flipped its tail in the air and dived.

The following day was spent paddling kayaks along the reef just a short distance from Sal Salis – you can go it alone or join a guided tour.

We carried snorkelling gear in the kayaks (all provided, including wetsuits), then slipped into the clear water where neon damselfish swam past, and boldly coloured parrotfish nibbled away at living coral.

There’s no shortage of fish in Exmouth’s restaurants and at the popular Whalers Restaurant, a short walk from the Ningaloo Novotel, we devoured Shark Bay crab, tiger prawn cakes and Coffin Bay oysters.

Other things to do include a boat trip up Yardie Creek Gorge, where the shy, black-footed rock wallabies live, and a visit to the Mandu Mandu Gorge with its magnificent fossils. But mostly you’ll want to slip into the sea, immersing yourself in the underwater world, to round off an Aussie experience with the best of both city and reef.

Package: Austravel (0800 988 4834 www.austravel.com) has an eight night trip to Perth and the Coral Coast in Western Australia with prices from £2,479 per person. This includes a three-night stay at the Alex Hotel in Perth, two nights at the Sal Salis Wilderness Tent, two nights at the Novotel Ningaloo Resort, a day tour to swim with humpback whales, internal flights with Qantas and international flights with Emirates from London.

Individual costs: fares with Emirates begin at £935 for economy class from London Gatwick to Perth or £3,905 for business class emirates.com.

Novotel Ningaloo offers standard rooms from £140 per night, room only. COMO The Treasury rooms start from $495 (£284) per night plus breakfast and in-room private bar. The Alex costs from $210 (£120) per night, including breakfast.