Fremantle – Perth’s Port City

Fremantle's Cappuccino strip

The Swan River is a magnificent ribbon of water which flows through Western Australia’s Capital, and largest city, Perth.  The mouth of Swan opens to the Indian Ocean at the Port City of Fremantle, a vibrant town that should be visited because of its historical and heritage significance, and because it is such a great place for eating, drinking and entertainment.

Freo, as the locals call it, is just 19 kilometres (12 miles) from Perth.  Although Fremantle has city status, it is also a suburb of Perth.  As far as European settlement is concerned, Fremantle is slightly older than Perth, being settled by Captain Fremantle and others from HMS Challenger who arrived in April, 1829 to make preparations for Captain Stirling and the main body of people who were destined to establish the Swan River Colony at the spot where Perth is now situated.

Fremantle boasts many heritage buildings, including the Round House, a former gaol that is Western Australia’s oldest building. This building has eight cells and a gaoler’s residence which all open onto a central courtyard, it is now a museum, and is rumoured to be haunted.

Incarceration is a bit of a theme in Fremantle as, apart from the Roundhouse, another popular tourist attraction if Fremantle Prison which was once known for its notoriety.  This prison was built by convicts in the 1850s and remained in operation until 1991.  It is now open for inspection and tours, part of which is to explore the underground channel by small rowboat. The nearby Fremantle Historic Museum is a former lunatic asylum, but it also served as headquarters for the U.S. Navy during World Way II when Fremantle was the major allied base on the Indian Ocean.

Although Fremantle was always considered to be Western Australia’s premier port, its ability to function effectively used to be adversely effected by a limestone bar and shoals at the entrance to the Swan River.  In 1897 a brilliant Irish-born engineer called C.Y. O’Connor managed to deepen Fremantle Harbour and make it more accessible to shipping so that it could finally become a major

Part of Fremantle's fishing fleet

shipping port.  Today it is still Western Australia’s busiest port in terms of consumer goods, but the major iron ore ports of the Pilbara have overtaken Fremantle in terms of total tonnage.  C.Y. O’Connor went on to build the water pipeline from Mundaring to Kalgoorlie, which opened up WA’s interior after gold was discovered there.  Sadly, C.Y. O’Connor had difficulty coping with criticism of his remarkable pipeline and rode into the waters just south of Fremantle where he committed suicide by shooting himself.

Not surprisingly, Fremantle has a long maritime history.  It was a West Australian syndicate, led by businessman Alan Bond that made history in 1983 when their yacht Australia II won the much-coveted America’s Cup after others had tried for 112 years, and brought the Cup back for the 1987 America’s Cup to be held in the waters off Fremantle.

Prior to this, Fremantle had become rundown, but the need to build new infrastructure that would allow Fremantle to host the Cup rejuvenated the city.  Heritage buildings were cleaned up and better maintained, a new marina was built, and Fremantle came alive as locals and tourists returned to enjoy the restaurants, pubs and nightclubs.  The Sail and Anchor Pub became the first in Australia to be turned into a micro brewery, turning out a number of great beers, which saw it become regularly crowded.  Other Fremantle pubs copied the idea, and provided better food and facilities to go with the improved beer.  Many more restaurants opened, and Fremantle became a food and entertainment hub, and remains so today.  Although the Sail and Anchor no longer brews its own beer another pub brewery, Little Creatures, has been winning many awards for its beer and food, and its great location on Fishing Boat Harbour ensures that Fremantle really rocks these days.

The Western Australian Maritime Museum is a must visit when in Fremantle as it pays tribute to Fremantle’s history and some of its maritime heroes.  Australia II, with its revolutionary winged keel is on display, as is Perie Banou II, the yacht in which Freo yachtsmen Jon Sanders completed an unaided triple circumnavigation of the globe, which was surely one of history’s great navigation feats.

Another attraction which deserves a visit is the Fremantle Markets, which have been in continuous operation since 1897.  Here, you’ll find fresh produce, many types of small goods, herbs, spices and fresh seafood, as well as clothing, artworks, and bric a brac.  Immediately outside the markets some of Australia’s best buskers perform to fascinated crowds of onlookers.

Fishing Boat Harbour at Fremantle, as the name suggests, is the base for many fishing boats.  Around the harbour is a boardwalk, upon which are a number of restaurants.  The two most popular are Kailis’s and Cicerello’s both of which specialise in fresh seafood.  One of the great experiences you can have in Freo is to visit one of these restaurants to indulge in plain old fish and chips as you sit back and watch the world go by.

Fremantle attracts people who prefer an alternative lifestyle, and many of these folk have opened boutiques, book stores and record stores that reflect their personalities.  It is a great place for shopping, or even just for browsing.

A number of great bands began in Fremantle, and two of them, Eskimo Joe and The John Butler Trio, have found international success.  However, the best known of Freo’s rock stars is undoubtedly the late Bon Scott, former lead singer of AC/DC.  Bon is buried in Fremantle Cemetery, where his grave has become a shrine and attracts fans from all over the world, and there is now a statue of Bon outside Fremantle railway station.

It is easy to reach Fremantle by public transport as it has a rail service and many bus services.  Fremantle also has a free CAT bus service which leaves from the railway station and does a circle of the city.  You can also reach Fremantle by private shuttle bus from the airport.

There are several good beaches very close to Fremantle.  The calmer beaches are just south of Fremantle, and easily accessible by bus, whilst north of Fremantle are Port and Leighton Beaches which both have reasonable surf.  Both beaches are patrolled in summer by surf life savers.  You also get many wind surfers and kite surfers on these beaches, particularly in the afternoon when the wind called the Fremantle Doctor comes in from the Indian Ocean.

If you wish to visit Rottnest Island you can catch the ferry from Fremantle and North Fremantle.

Fremantle is a great part of Western Australia.  It has a terrific atmosphere, good accommodation, excellent tourist facilities, interesting museums and fantastic restaurants and bars.  A trip to Perth is just not complete without a visit to Fremantle.

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