THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO WESTERN AUSTRALIA ; David Orkin Explores the Largest State Down Under

Article excerpt

WHY NOW?

Because it's spring south of the Equator - and because air fares are falling fast. Britain's late autumn and early winter comprise the optimum time to visit the largest of Australia's six states, which will soon be in full bloom.

Western Australia (WA) grew rich on its mineral wealth (especially gold, diamonds, opals and - around Broome - pearls), but it also claims over 10,000 species of wild flowers. In the north of the state, flowers can appear as soon as July, with early rains hastening their arrival. In November a blaze of colour will take over the south of the state when the warmer weather settles in. There are many places to view the full-colour natural carpets, such as the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park (00 61 8 9752 1677). Make sure you look but don't touch - picking wild flowers is illegal. (You can buy the dried variety at craft and souvenir shops.)

A GREEN AND PLEASANT LAND?

Hardly. The state is larger than Western Europe, yet the arid nature of most of it means it is home to fewer than two million people, the vast majority of whom live in Perth and its port, Fremantle. WA takes up almost a third of the Australian continent, and extends from the Indian Ocean in the north to the Southern Ocean and Timor Sea in the south. Away from the coast most of WA is Outback, arid scrubland used for little more than cattle farming and mining, with the Nullarbor Plain in the south, the Great Sandy Desert in the north and the Gibson and Great Victoria Deserts in between. Large tracts of land are protected as national parks; details of all can be found online at www.calm. wa.gov.au/ national_parks.

WHERE SHOULD I START?

Western Australia's vibrant capital, Perth. This is the most isolated city on earth, 4,400km from Sydney by road. The city claims to be the sunniest state capital in Australia, and life is lived on the streets - or in the park. Close to the downtown core is Kings Park, an extensive bushland area with spectacular city views, fine walking trails and a botanical garden. Stay nearby at the Outram (00 61 8 9322 4888; www.slh.com), a brand-new 18-room boutique hotel; prices from A$185 (pounds 77) per night.

The Perth Cultural Centre includes the fascinating Western Australia Museum (00 61 8 9427 2700; www.museum.wa.gov.au), which opens 9.30am-5pm daily (admission free) and the equally impressive (and free) Art Gallery of Western Australia (00 61 8 9492 6600; www.artgallery.wa.gov.au), open 10am-5pm daily.

The Swan River passes through the centre of Perth and there are many opportunities to take a cruise or hire a boat. It flows into the ocean at Fremantle, Perth's lively seaport. See the museums, markets, convict buildings and historic streets, and rest at an outdoor table on South Terrace, the so-called "cappuccino strip". One peculiarity of the weather in Perth is the "Fremantle Doctor", a wind that blows in from the sea every day in the late afternoon. This cooling breeze is one of the most consistent winds in the world.

CAN I GET OUT OF TOWN?

Perth makes a great base for several excellent excursions: one of the most popular day trips is the short boat ride to tiny Rottnest Island, which is just 11km long and 5km wide. A variety of boats leave for "Rotto" from both Perth and Fremantle: from the latter the trip takes less than half an hour and costs from A$48 (pounds 20) return with Rottnest Express (00 61 8 9335 6506; www.rottnestexpresscom.au). You can even charter a plane through Rottnest Air-taxi (00 61 8 9292 5027; www.rottnest.de) for A$150 (pounds 62) each way (this is the price for whole aircraft, which holds three passengers). The island offers good swimming and diving. Because it is virtually car free, explore by bike; these are available from Rottnest Bike Hire (00 61 8 9292 5105).

Back on dry land, explore the south-west - the prettiest part of WA, much greener than the rest of the state and with large tracts of forest intersected by rivers. …