Port of plenty

Photo of Leyanne Baillie

A mini-break with the kids in historic Fremantle proves a family friendly option that pleases everyone. 

It’s great to grab a couple of days away from it all, and a trip down south can be relaxing. However, as a mum (or dad) is it really away from it all if you spend the days before packing everything but the kitchen sink, driving for hours to get there, cooking, cleaning and making beds while you’re there and two days unpacking, washing and putting away on your return?

Wouldn’t it be nice to take a two-day trip, throw a small suitcase into the boot, be in the car for less than an hour, have all your whims catered for and two thoroughly entertained kids as well?

Well, after our latest mini- break, I can tell you that yes, it is. Very nice indeed. 

We leave our northern suburbs home at 1pm and after a drive down our beautiful coastline, we are checked in and unpacked by 2pm. Our home for the next two nights is the Esplanade Hotel in Fremantle.

Our usual trip to Freo consists of lunch and a quick walk at the beach so we are looking forward to a couple of days getting to know this historic city.

However, our daughters, Nina and Anya, have different ideas. They want to check out the two pools and the spa, a stone’s throw from our very comfortable superior twin room. Not so bad, as my husband, Andrew, and I get to lie poolside and read for the next two hours.

The only exploring to be done tonight is through the cocktail menu for our pre-dinner drink at the hotel bar and along the Cappuccino Strip to choose from one of the street’s many dining options.

We plump for Monk Brewery, a small-batch brewery with banging beers and great grub to match.

The following morning, we hit the hotel buffet. As a family, we love a breakfast buffet and we are tough critics. We give this one a seven out of 10. The selection is good, possibly a little unadventurous, but the staff are attentive and I don’t have to do the dishes, so maybe I’ll bump it up to an eight. Anya declares the hash browns “the best ever” and Nina (our resident pancake expert) is very happy with today’s offerings.

Fuelled up for a day of sightseeing, we walk back up to the “Strip”. Our first port of call is Fremantle Markets. Sir John Forrest laid the markets’ foundation stone in 1897, the buildings were completely restored in 1975 and today house more than 150 stalls, offering arts and crafts, clothing, jewellery, toys, beauty products, homewares, fresh produce and an amazing array of food stalls from around the world. We are beginning to regret pigging out at breakfast. 

We treat ourselves to some mini-cupcakes and decide to work up an appetite (or at least a little bit of stomach space) taking a walk past Bather’s Beach and up to Fremantle’s oldest building, the Round House.

The Swan River Colony was established in 1829 for free settlers but the first permanent building was a jail which was designed by Henry Reveley in 1830. The first convicts arrived in 1850 to boost the colony’s labour force. The eight-cell Round House wasn’t big enough to accommodate the convicts, so one of their first duties was to build a new prison. 

The complex was completed in 1859, was used as Fremantle Prison until 1991 and is now open to the public. It would have been top on our list of attractions to visit but our scaredy-cat youngest daughter Anya is still traumatised from a trip to Albany prison at Easter so is refusing to set foot inside jail today. Our compromise sees Andrew eating cupcakes and watching Anya turn cartwheels on the large grassy area in front on the Round House while Nina and I delve into the building’s past.

No sooner are we through the door than a volunteer guide has 13-year-old Nina in the stocks (which is where I’d like to put her each time I see the mess of her bedroom). He tells her she has been convicted of “larceny of one brooch of Jesse Manning at Fremantle and is sentenced to three calendar months imprisonment with hard labour”. Nina doesn’t seem too perturbed by this and smiles happily as I capture the moment on camera.

We may have enjoyed a hearty breakfast this morning but there was no such luxury for the prisoners, with rations of 1 1/2lb (0.68kg) of bread each day. A monotonous menu, unless you were on hard labour, for which you had the added treat of half a pound of salt meat to tempt your tastebuds. Maybe the threat of that diet could make Nina keep her room tidy.

At 12.55pm, our helpful guide tells us that the time gun will be fired in five minutes if we want to go outside to watch. I didn’t know they had a one o’clock gun. Coming from Edinburgh, where Mons Meg is fired from the castle to mark one o’clock each day, I’m very excited by this news.

Before we leave, he tells us to look up at the second floor. There, a six-pane window has five panes covered in cobwebs. The bottom-right pane is as clean as a whistle. He tells us the stairway up to the room is sealed and nobody has been up there for years. And yet, one pane remains free from cobwebs. I am glad Anya is outside; if she’d heard that ghost story, she wouldn’t sleep for weeks.

In 1900 a time ball was erected near the lighthouse at Arthur Head Reserve and was released at 1pm each day, along with a shot from a cannon, to give mariners and residents a time check. These checks were a valuable way of rating ships’ chronometers to aid accurate navigation at sea.

There are several time guns still fired around the world but Fremantle is the only place where members of the public can push the button. We are beaten to it today but once it’s fired, the guide invites Anya to clean out the barrel.

Just before sunset we climb aboard the 40m-tall Fremantle Wheel. The big wheel contains 24 fully enclosed gondolas and a $40 family pass buys us an eight-minute, four-revolution ride with stunning views over the majestic Norfolk pines of Esplanade Park, fabulous Federation architecture, the fishing harbour and across the aquamarine seas to Garden Island. The girls enjoy the experience so much that they insist on another ride before our short drive home in the morning.

Fremantle has more than enough sights to make a two-day “city break” worthwhile. What could make it more enjoyable? An extra day to explore more.