Never been to Western Australia? You’re not alone, but this guide to WA for first time family visitors will show you some of the amazing things my home state has to offer. Distance may have kept you away, and the isolation made me leave for a few years too, but like many of my friends, I came back when I was ready to have kids: that alone should convince you that WA is a fantastic place for a family holiday.
City trip: Spending time in Perth
Honestly, two decades back, I’d have told you Perth was nothing to write home about. Things have changed, and Perth is rapidly becoming a properly cosmopolitan city, and it’s a great place to spend a week with your kids.
The city centre of Perth is constantly evolving, and is now full of colour and life. Laneway and public art has exploded in the last few years, and tiny cafes and lunch spots are flourishing. In late 2020, the WA Museum reopens after a massive rebuild, tripling the size and updating all the exhibitions to best practice standards. Locals like me are excited to see what they’ve done with the museum we all trekked through on excursions back in our school days.
With the Swan River snaking through the city, water-based activities abound: as simple as taking a ferry from Elizabeth Quay to Perth Zoo, or getting on the water with SUPs or water bikes. Don’t forget to visit Kings Park, an area of green space even larger than NYC’s Central Park, and just as fascinating – there are several unique playgrounds, vast lawns for picnics and games, and historical trails as well.
On Perth’s fringes: Fun north and south
Perth is a long, sprawling place, and the southern end lands you in Fremantle, our port city. With a tradition of alternative lifestyles and a focus on preserving heritage, wandering Freo’s streets is eye-opening. If you time your visit for the weekend, the Fremantle Markets and E Shed Markets offer food, fun and souvenirs – my son has a particular love for the cupcakes!
Fremantle’s Maritime Museum houses such treats as Australia II, the yacht notorious for its winged keel leading to victory in the America’s Cup – a great chance to catch your kids up on what happened when you were their age. Nearby, the Shipwrecks Museum houses impressive relics and timbers from ships wrecked along our coast hundreds of years ago.
Head up the northern coast of Perth to reach Hillarys Boat Harbour, a tourism centre of restaurants, playgrounds and several beaches – including the perfect toddler beach – and home to AQWA, the largest aquarium in the state, with a long underwater tunnel guiding visitors through our sea-life.
A couple of hours north of Perth, the Nambung National Park includes the Pinnacles desert, where the quirky limestone formations might provide your favourite WA photo opportunities. Nearby seaside towns Jurien Bay and Cervantes are perfect bases for a beach holiday with fishing, surfing and kitesurfing filling your days before fish-and-chips dinners.
Island time: Rottnest Island
Thanks to quokkas and their willingness to smile in selfies, Rottnest Island is now a famous destination, and is a perfect family holiday spot. A short ferry ride from Fremantle or Hillarys takes you to vehicle-free “Rotto”, best explored by renting bikes. There’s a variety of accommodation in the main settlement, from the traditional bungalows of my summer holidays childhood through to the newest glamping facilities in eco-tents on Pinky Beach.
Rottnest is a nostalgic step back in time and older kids can hop on their bikes in the morning and won’t reappear until they want money for a feed at the delicious Rottnest Bakery. Numerous activities can keep families occupied, especially in summer when snorkelling and swimming at the different bays is a great way to break up the traditional cycling circumnavigation of the island.
Down South: Margaret River and the wine region
A three-hour drive south of Perth is the Margaret River wine region, an area we sandgropers call “down south”. The pace is laidback but you can find gourmet meals and world-class wine-tasting, with many vineyards set up with child-friendly entertainment for long family lunches. Farmstays abound and you can also spend a day out exploring the local caves.
Busselton is often overlooked as a base but has what my son has determined as the best skate park, right next to the beach, making it the perfect spot for parents to sit and relax while the kids burn off some energy. Nearby Dunsborough is another great base for the wine region with easy access to beaches.
South coast WA: Natural wonders
Head all the way down to the WA south coast and it’s entirely different again, with nature reaching a mind-blowing level. The Tree Top Walk through the Valley of the Giants lets you look down over the enormous forest region near Walpole, and at ground level you can get close to the giant tingle trees, with hollowed out trunks large enough to park a van inside.
Close to Albany, the Torndirrup National Park includes rock formations like The Gap and the Natural Bridge, and kids will marvel at the Blow Holes – though as a child, I was always scared of the force of water exploding out the top. Further east along the coast, you can spoil any future beach experiences for your kids by taking them to Esperance. The beaches here are the purest white you’re ever likely to see; my parents took me there as a twelve-year-old and no beach in the world has measured up since.
Swimming with whale sharks on the Coral Coast
One of the most popular winter holiday spots for Perth families, Coral Bay and Exmouth are a twelve-hour drive – or more enticingly, a two-hour flight – north of Perth, and boast mid-20s temperatures in July. These towns give you access to the incredible Ningaloo Reef, even better than its more famous Queensland cousin: in Coral Bay, you can literally walk from the shore into shallow water and snorkel on the reef right then and there.
The Coral Coast abounds with adventure: you can take day trips to swim with humpback whales, whale sharks and manta rays, take to the sky in a microlight for incredible views over the Ningaloo Reef and Cape Range National Park, and encounter sea turtles and other marine life.
This story is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas