Ferociously independent, Fremantle has a spunk and a spirit as colourful as its characterful locals.
One of life’s great truths is that it’s impossible not to fall in love with Fremantle. Fiercely independent and undeniably proud of its distinct sense of place and personality, Perth’s little brother exists within its own bohemian bubble. The time-honoured port town has a spunk and a spirit as colourful, quirky and artsy as its characterful locals.
Like Perth, the long shadow of Covid hasn’t stopped regeneration which is all the rage in Fremantle, with an ever-expanding hospitality and arty scene spreading its tentacles and bolstering Freo’s bohemian cachet. First up, a caffeine-refuel on South Terrace’s famed “cappuccino strip”, which was primarily influenced by Italian migrants. As the heart of town, the strip beckons like the trunk of Freo’s tree. That legacy endures with a clutch of perky Italian cafes, where you’ll find older Italian men hunched around the counter each morning, kicking back espresso and catching up with the daily gossip. I was eager to scratch beneath the surface of Fremantle’s skin. Enter Michael Deller, a born and bred local who is the powerhouse behind Fremantle Tours. www.fremantletours.com.au
Whether it’s history, culture or the hottest foodie spots you’re after, Michael is the consummate insider, plugged into Freo’s eclectic pulse with commanding up-to-the-minute knowledge. With his easy and engaging patter, you’ll soon feel fully plugged into Fremantle’s inside skinny, too. Strolling the evocative streets of town, virtually every second passer-by greeted Michael, underscoring his intimate authority and passion for this place. Michael whisked me around the heritage trail’s premium draws, starting with the World Heritage-listed limestone fortress of Fremantle Prison, built by convicts in the 1850s. It remains the most intact convict establishment in the southern hemisphere. Remarkably, this austere facility remained operating as a maximum security prison until 1991.
As Freo’s answer to Alcatraz, a tour of Fremantle Prison is not for the faint of heart. Their torchlight tour will bring the prison’s sordid history to life with haunting tales of executions gone wrong and undue suffering. If you’re fascinated by the psychology of the criminal mind, check out the prison’s true crime tour for harrowing stories of the prison’s most notorious inmates and their attempts at escape. Down by the port, you can also peruse Western Australia’s first public building, the original gaol that was built in 1831, the uniquely shaped Round House.
Another legendary experience is a jaunt through the flavourful Fremantle Markets, that have been hustling with trading bustle since 1897. Covid slammed the brakes on the market bustle, but they roared back into life in July. Top stops? Try a crème brulee coffee from Coffee Connection, accompanied with a European-style doughnut from Levi’s. For lunch, head to Fluffy Lamb for mouth-watering Indonesian fare, and finish up with a waffle cone from Muffle. Trust me, it’s worth the calorie count.
Then it was on to the sublime preservation sweep of colonial architecture flanking High Street, Western Australia’s oldest street. It’s a movie-set-perfect streetscape of richly embellished heritage buildings now ornate iron railings, brimming with independent retailers, fashion designers, artists and inviting venues. Enjoy a thirst-quencher and the convivial post-work ambience of the National Hotel, a grand old watering hole ambitiously revived, at a cost of $7m ten years ago, after falling victim to multiple fires.
Karl Bullers, who is managing director of that iconic grand dame has turned his hand to rescuing another derelict heritage building – The Old Courthouse. After a century of service to laying down the law, the courtrooms have been reimagined as brand new dining rooms. Enjoy rotisserie chicken with a side of convict history. Taking pole position in each dining room is the original magistrate’s bench and prisoner dock.
A staggering trove of 150 buildings enjoy heritage protection. Throughout the city, the insatiable passion for heritage preservation is inescapable. Last time time I was in Freo, the age-old prison guard cottages were all bordered up waiting interminably for a new lease on life. On my recent return, I was awestruck by their impeccable transformation into boutique accommodation pockets of calm, as Warders Hotel.
Great eats? Mooch around to Moore & Moore Café, situated Henry St. Kitted out with whimsically-shaped chandeliers, vintage water fridges and cosy nooks, this place oozes urban cool. Exposed limestone walls through the laneway entrance lead you into a large and leafy open courtyard with communal tables. I sampled this fabulous café for brunch, noshing a divine serving of avocado and poached eggs on toast, with greens, tomato salsa and mushrooms. It’s feel-good food in a feel-good venue, regularly enlivened by local musicians.
One of Michael’s favourites is Bread in Common, with a menu inspired by locally sourced, seasonal produce based all around—you know it—bread. But it’s not just garden variety bread, but wood-fired, preservative-free bread. With long communal tables and an open kitchen, it’s a seductive venue. Michael confessed he often goes there just to nosh on their bread and sip coffee, while catching up on work emails.
Like Perth, liquor law changes a decade ago has powered the proliferation of the small bar scene; intimate, speak-easies now speckling Fremantle. Strange Company opened back in 2015 and quickly established itself as one of Fremantle’s best bars. The interior is an architectural dream—a glass-encased bamboo garden lines the bar area and the rest of the industrial space is studded with eye-catching design feature. Head here to sip on a Rum Side Car or familiarise yourself with their extensive wine list and tasty bites, including a lip-smacking tapas menu.
Jungle Bird in Fremantle has brought laid back, beachy vibes to the west end. They specialise in Caribbean delights like jerk chicken with Jamaican rice alongside boutique rums, whiskeys and dark spirits, as well as kick-ass cocktails, craft beers and a few wines. This High Street haunt is just what the Fremantle doctor ordered. Speaking of that fabled wind that delivers sanity-saving ocean breeze respite in the sticky heights of summer, Michael mentioned that many Indian visitors head to Fremantle to feel that sou’wester wind first-hand, from cricketing fame.
Freo.Social has taken over the old Drill Hall in Fremantle and brought some incredible bands, eats and brews to town. Otherside Brewing Co. is running the onsite brewery and there are four bars with over 50 taps chugging out the gold stuff. They’re very big into repurposing existing spaces in Freo. Tucked upstairs away from the streetside action on Market Street, La Sosta is a vibrant Italian joint serving up silky handmade pasta and super fresh seafood, with a fantastic balcony for aperitivo hour. Try the handmade pork ravioli, gnocchi coated in mushroom sauce or squid ink spaghetti served with crab and cherry tomatoes.
Down at Fishing Boat Harbour, head to Little Creatures, the craft beer king that led the micro-brewery charge over twenty five years ago. Set inside a massive converted boat shed, at the water’s edge, it’s a perennially popular haunt for hopheads staking out that super fresh pale ale hit. You’d be struggling to find a fresher brew, as the beer is poured straight from the conditioning tank.
Feeling peckish? Stroll over to Bathers Beach House, a fiendishly popular diner specialising in seafood and share plates. The wood fired pizzas are hard to pass up. If you can, tuck into a salivating platter, stacked with whole reef fish, mussels, marinated octopus, oysters and garlic prawns, and wash it down with an Eagle Bay ale. Grab a spot under an umbrella and watch the sun sink into the Indian Ocean, leaving in its wake a streaky crimson trail.
Down at the port, Gage Roads is giving Little Creatures a run for its money, opening up a massive portside venue in repurposed warehouse. They may have been brewing some of WA’s favourite beers since 2004, but Gage Roads have only just opened up a public-facing brewhouse for their faithful frothheads. While those fresh pints poured directly from tank to tap are a huge draw, the restaurant definitely holds its own.
Grab a pint or a tasting paddle and whistle up a Fremantle lobster roll. Hungrier? Larger plate options include Rottnest Island swordfish schnitzel with caviar bearnaise, Harvey beef striploin or Single Fin battered local fish and chips. Boasting a variety of seating areas, from the conventional table-service restaurant to the more laid-back lounge, it’s an effervescent new venue that is absolutely making a splash.
Next door, the Western Australian Maritime Museum looms as an entrance statement to the port, resembling the hull of a boat. One of its star exhibits is Australia II, the fabled boat that sailed to victory in the 1983 America’s Cup off Rhode Island. That famous suit jacket littered in Australian flags, that a beer-swilling Bob Hawke adorned in honour of the Cup victory, is also proudly on display.
The museum boasts a wealth of treasures within its galleries themed around the Indian Ocean, the Swan River, fishing, maritime trade and naval defence. It’s also home to HMAS Ovens, an Oberon class submarine that you can tour. It commemorates the World War II Fremantle allied submarine base, which was the largest submarine base in the southern hemisphere, with 170 submarines of the British, Dutch and US navies conducting patrols from here.
Staying overnight? Hougoumont Hotel is a boutique lifestyle property built from shipping containers, pitched at the new breed of mobile travellers. Very on-trend, the property has plumped for style and substance over needless space, so even though accommodations may strike you as compact, they are luxuriously equipped with a slew of creature comforts, including smart TV and free WiFi.
The informal reception desk, designed to blend in with the buzzy ground floor café and bar, is serviced by a dedicated and helpful crew – don’t hesitate to help yourself to the complimentary snacks, fruit and drinks on-hand. Right next door, Calamity’s Rod is a brand-new micro-brewery, where you can salute your day’s discoveries with a crafty brew. Located in Bannister Street, you’re perfectly positioned in the heart of Freo. www.hougoumonthotel.com.au
Air New Zealand has daily direct flights between Auckland and Perth. If you want to lie flat and get some rest in Economy, the Skycouch is the way to go, especially if you’re travelling with the family. Sit, spread out, or lie down and snooze. Share the space with a partner or children, or keep it all for yourself. Bag a fare and seat to suit at www.airnewzealand.co.nz
For more tips and insights on exploring the great temptations of Western Australia, head to the official tourism site. www.westernaustralia.com