Pe h really isn’t what folks here remember it to be, as our writer discovers
Explore the treasure down under in Perth from the city life, to small bars in the urban villages to the historic port town of Fremantle
YOU ARE WALKING alone on the fine white sand, looking out at the vast Indian
Ocean from the western Australian coast. Somewhere at the back of your throat is a trace of jospered tiger prawns and the stronger taste of a dry Margaret River chardonnay. As the ocean breaks softly against your ankles, you become aware of a speck approaching from the east. You watch him from the corner of your eye. He is naked, sandy blonde fur on his arms and chest, and all naked and blonde southwards, comfortably browned by the sun.
Hello, you say, not wanting to be rude. It transpires that you have stumbled on Swanbourne, one of the clothing optional beaches in Perth. It is a weekday, so the scores of bodies are absent today, except for your new friend.
You wonder if he will say you have to be naked to fit in, but the only item of clothing he points at are your shoes. Take them off, he says. Going on the sand in sneakers? Don’t be a tourist.
Isolation is a defining trait of Western Australians. From the Perth coast, the Indian Ocean stretches all the way to Madagascar, and South Africa beyond.
Even in its own country, Perth sits nearly 4,000 kilometres away from the capital, Canberra ‒ practically the same distance as it is from Singapore.
The day you arrive, the concierge at the Intercontinental Hotel greets you by name and takes you up to your room at the top of the building, where a stunning view of Perth greets you at your window. Australia’s constant exploration of its own essence is a fascinating journey to experience, nowhere more so than in Perth.
Though geographically closer to Asia, Australia’s Anglophone society sets it apart from the rest of its neighbours. Speak with a British accent Down Unda, however, and you’ll find yourself affectionately labelled a pommy ‒ a Prisoner-of-Mother-England.
This quest to forge a unique identity has manifested itself as a world-class gastronomy scene, from exceptional cuisine, to wines, to artisanal coffees. In Western Australia, however, gin has emerged as an unexpected area of creative expression.
As part of its effort to curate bespoke experiences, the hotel has learnt your favourite alcohol and arranged a custom itinerary for you. You make your way along Queen Street in the city and enter a gin bar called the Flour Factory. There, the bar manager, Jack, explains to you that gin is one of the broadest categories of spirits. Since it is defined only by the inclusion of the juniper berry, gin allows for a range of flavour profiles and distillation methods, allowing gin distillers to essentially treat the spirit as an expressive art form.
In keeping with the breezy, laidback culture of the country, most Australian gins tend to be fruit-based, with lemons being a popular choice for their citrus flavours.
“Try this one neat,” Jack says, pouring you a chilled shot. It tastes heady and spiced, and somehow reminds you of the desert.
More imaginative distillers, Jack explains, have taken advantage of gin’s flexibility to convey a sense of place through flavour ‒ such as this gin, the West Winds Cutlass, which uses elements such as Australian bush tomatoes and cinnamon myrtle to give you a picture of the desert through your palate.
That’s the nature of Perth. Even in the busy city downtown, the hardy nature of the bush still lurks underneath the concrete.
After dinner that evening, you retire to the bar of the Intercontinental, where a balcony looks out over the city skyline. You order a gin and tonic when a voice tells you that you are seated the wrong way; the city is more beautiful from her perspective. You turn and surely enough it is, for you find some friendly faces at the next table. Join us, they say. You pull up a chair.
Earlier that day, as you explored the shopping district with the hotel concierge Brad, you learnt how Perth exploded during the Gold Boom, when droves of dreamers came seeing fortune as a mirage in the desert. Perth became the base from which these gold-eyed dreamers would stock up before setting out to seek new identities as wealthy men. The grit and the gold are the forces that have shaped this city.
The afternoon is warm as you pass a line of luxury brands. The posh names soon give way to hip homegrown ones that combine street appeal with aspirational glamour.
Brad guides you into a menswear boutique decked out in decadent neoclassical fabrics and colours. Inside, a woman in a blazer dress introduces herself as Nilofar, and offers to pour you and Brad a whisky, but you ask for a coffee instead.
With a royal air and hair as black as a crow’s wing, cut to frame a bronzed face and bold eyebrows, Nilofar is a striking woman. She has made it her mission to dress the men of Perth better. The sole founder of Khirzad, the store bears Nilofar’s last name in a nod to her Afghan heritage.
Twice a year, she heads to Florence in Italy, where she brings home brands like Tagliatore, Gabriele Pasini, Tombolini; the names roll off her tongue as she saunters around her domain.
Aussie men cite the heat when dressing down but that’s no excuse: even in the
Italian summer, when temperatures regularly exceed 30°C, the dandies in Florence deck themselves in three-piece suits and stand out on the paved stones in the warm noon light.
After hours, Nilofar is relaxed but still regal, laughing often, running her fingers through her hair as she speaks. Nilofar starts a story, gesturing theatrically, about getting kicked out of an Arab club in Northbridge with her friend AK, so named because he has tattoos all over his body and looks just as threatening as his eponym. On hindsight, this particular club must have thought they were dealers because in that neighbourhood you’d get your fix off men in hoodies with bum bags ‒ Aussie for fanny packs, and it just so happened that on that particular night she had one on, the fact that it was a Gucci notwithstanding.
When you find yourself drifting north later in the night, you notice the buildings change: from Edwardian period buildings to
an eclectic mix of modernist apartments and Gold Boom era hotels. The bars and cafes around you pulse with a electronic throb. You enter one called the Brass Monkey.
Inside, you sit with a local beer to watch the young folk dancing and kissing to the subterranean hip-hop bleeding through the brick walls. Someone approaches you. He has dark hair and a rakish olive face. He offers you a fist bump and his name, Marco, and sits at your table without your asking.
Quite abruptly, without warning, he launches into a treatise on race relations. Marco is mixed, he tells you, mixed to the point where he is confused some days himself: at last count, he has a little bit of Irish, Portuguese, Columbian, Sri Lankan,
“PERTH EXPLODED DURING THE GOLD BOOM WHEN DROVES OF DREAMERS CAME SEEING FORTUNES AS A MIRAGE ON THE DESERT, USING THE CITY AS A BASE”
German and Greek heritage in him.
Marco says, “Mixed people. We don’t fit anywhere.” Marco’s home is a village up in the mountains of Western Australia, but when he speaks of his hometown around these parts, people still ask him which part of the Middle East he is from.
You tell him your theory: that eventually, globalisation will render nations and cultures irrelevant, and the whole world will fall into bed together as the same shade of brown. Marco frowns at this. That’s horrid, he says. Culture is beautiful. He likes having multiple strands of history to tug upon and feel at home with. Marco thinks that diversity and variety depend on preserving cultures, and that the world is too politically correct these days.
A break in the conversation. You pause to drain your beer.You notice two Chinese girls talking to a brunette man. The staccato music of their accent is familiar, and you lean in. Across the room Marco spots two Japanese girls. He smiles and claps you on the shoulder before leaving.
The brunette man and one of the Chinese girls have left for the loo together, leaving just the one behind. You ask her name, tell her you noticed her accent. “Singaporean?”
“No, East Malaysian. From the city of Kuching, Sarawak.”
And how long has she been in Perth? Just a few weeks, she giggles. She’ll be here for years yet, but she’s only been a while.
And how does she like it? How does Perth make her feel? Pulling your arm in towards her body, she presses her flank into it so her cheek rests on your shoulder.
“Free,” she breathes, “I feel free.” AM