Fremantle's laid-back artsy vibe makes it perfect for a chilled holiday

Street art and sculptures add to Freo's artsy vibe.
City of Fremantle

Street art and sculptures add to Freo's artsy vibe.

Barbie is naked and about to be butchered. A meat clever lands with a thwack, and laughter sounds as the leggy doll loses her head.

"We can eat all of baa-rr-bie," A woman in thick horned-rimmed glasses drawls. "Apart from her breasts – Si-lee-cone," she nods to the crowd.

Ms Bacul and her brother Frank are part of the deliciously macabre Boucherie Bacul, one of the 34 acts in the 2017 Fremantle International Street Arts Festival.

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In a line-up featuring some of the best street acts in the world, the mobile butchery from Belgium, that pedals cuts of old stuffed toys, is one of the event's off-the-wall gems. Even wide-eyed children lap it up.

Now in its 19th year, the four-day street festival, which runs well into the night, is a major attraction for the charming port city of Fremantle – known affectionately as Freo.

Every Easter, Freo's heritage-clad streets transform into open-air stages with stages at 13 sites around the city.

Performances range from roving bogan bikie cockatoos, fire-eating acrobats, old-fashioned clowns and other world-class acts.

The event draws an estimated 150,000 people, and its relaxed vibe is the perfect backdrop to my four-day visit.

Fremantle is an artsy port town south of Perth.
Supplied

Fremantle is an artsy port town south of Perth.

First impressions

There's something instantly welcoming about Fremantle. The stone buildings, Norfolk pines, and cafes with al fresco dining are the perfect antidote to the big-box feeling you get driving through the outskirts of Perth.

It's a friendly, warm kind of place, and one that makes you want to get out to explore.

The city is 19km south of Perth, or a 30-40 minute drive depending on traffic.

It's four hours behind New Zealand, and an easy seven-hour direct flight.

Autumn temperatures are in the early 20s, and the legendary Fremantle afternoon sea breeze, the famous Fremantle Doctor, means  it's a great time to visit.

Boucherie Bacul with its off the wall humour was a highlight of Fremantle's International Street Art Festival.
Elle Borgward

Boucherie Bacul with its off the wall humour was a highlight of Fremantle's International Street Art Festival.

Port City

Freo is home to a big port. The sea, and its blue-collar port city origins, forms a big part in the city's psyche.

Its fishing harbour, a short skip across the esplanade, is well worth an explore. It's still a working dock with a heady smell of seaweed and fish.

Breweries, including the popular Little Creatures in a cavernous converted boatshed, bars and restaurants, make it the perfect place to boat- and people-watch.

People fish at regular intervals along the rocky seawalls that encircle the harbour. A man who is fly fishing tells me he's angling for salmon (what Kiwis call kahawai). There's none around today, but apparently they were plentiful the weekend before.

"You are from New Zealand," he says admiringly. "There's a place called Collingwood where they cast for Kingies. We are going to go," he says.

Freo's council has embraced the cyclist, and a network of shared pathways along the waterfront make it an easy relaxed place to get around.

AC/DC frontman Bon Scott's statue at the Fremantle fishing harbour.
Sally Kidson

AC/DC frontman Bon Scott's statue at the Fremantle fishing harbour.

The surprisingly swift Swan River is a short ride or walk from the harbour. Its riverbank is dotted with cafes and parks. Large pleasure-craft make their way up and down the the river.

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I feel as if I've stumbled into one of the happiest places on Earth. "Everyone in Freo knows someone who owns a boat," an expat Kiwi later tells me.  With the seductive Indian Ocean nearby, and white  sandy beaches and islands along the coastline, it is easy to understand why.

America's Cup

Freo once had a reputation as being rough around the edges – and was a place only the street-wise inhabited after dark.

However, in the 1980s businessman Alan Bond and skipper John Bertrand bought the prized America's Cup to Freo, starting the city's gentrification.

"Essentially what happened in 1987, was the town got painted," Fremantle City's arts and culture manager Pete Stone says.

People partied until the small hours for weeks as the America's Cup yachts made use of Fremantle's reliable off-shore breeze.

Fremantle's streets were closed off for the four day International Street Arts Festival.
Sally Kidson

Fremantle's streets were closed off for the four day International Street Arts Festival.

Heritage city

Freo has an easy authentic feel, and a massive part of that is its heritage architecture.

When modernism was sweeping through Australia in the 1960s – Freo was, thankfully, still on the outer so its beautiful buildings escaped the wrecking ball.

Heritage buildings in Fremantle.
City of Fremantle

Heritage buildings in Fremantle.

The old shops, colonial houses, workers' cottages, and large brick buildings such as the neo-gothic Fremantle Arts Centre, and the colourful 1897 buildings that house the popular Fremantle Markets really are a massive part of the city's charm.

But one Freo experience that won't leave you with a skip in your step is a tour of the Fremantle prison. It was built by the first of almost 10,000 male convicts who arrived to build the Swan River colony in 1850, and was run as a maximum security prison from 1888 until 1991.

The tour I took – run, I suspect, by an ex-prison guard (he was too prickly to confirm, but did not deny) – offered a, at times uneasy, look at what life in an old-school maximum security prison was like. The 90-minute tour allowed you to see the harsh conditions prisoners lived, including the chilling execution room where prisoners were hung until the 1960s.

The Historic Fremantle markets are a good place to shop, eat, people watch or even get your tarot done.
Sally Kidson

The Historic Fremantle markets are a good place to shop, eat, people watch or even get your tarot done.

Arty town

A creative streak runs through Freo, which has long been a magnet for artistic types and hippies. Tucked amongst the more exclusive stores are stalls and shops selling tie-dye clothing, candles, crystals and incense. You can also get your tarot done if that's your thing.

There are public artworks – from lobster fishermen at the harbour to stories painted on the cycleways – dotted around the city. It has burgeoning reputation as a festival city

South Beach Fremantle is just one of the city's beaches that looks out to the Indian Ocean.
Sally Kidson

South Beach Fremantle is just one of the city's beaches that looks out to the Indian Ocean.

 with four quality  events a year including the street art festival at Easter, a music festival in winter, and the Fremantle Festival in November.

Saying goodbye

A couple of times on my trip I caught myself imagining a life in the city, swapping my mountainbike for a road bike, lapping up the beaches, and enjoying the progressive city and its easy living.

Fremantle Prison is well worth spending a few hours at.
Supplied

Fremantle Prison is well worth spending a few hours at.

It's a cool place with a liveable, relaxed, authentic and accessible feel.

Thanks for the shot in the arm, Freo. I'll be back.

Top tips for Fremantle 

The Fremantle International Street Arts Festival runs every Easter.
Elle Borgward

The Fremantle International Street Arts Festival runs every Easter.

1. Hire a bike

Fremantle's flat terrain, network of well-planned cycleways, and bike hire stations, make cycling the perfect way to get around. The cafes are filled with road cyclists at weekends.

2. Swim in the ocean

White sand and turquoise oceans – Western Australian beaches are legendary. There's a reason why locals reputedly prefer the Indian Ocean beaches to their pools. Beaches are an easy distance from the city – or further afield and offshore if you have access to transport.

3. Eat/drink

Head down to the fishing boat harbour for seafood or Cicerello's legendary fish and chips. The brewery, Little Creatures, is also worth a look. In the city, grab a cool beer and head for a terrace on the second floor of a historic pub. The less touristy backstreets are where you will find the locals.

4. Shop

Take a stroll around Fremantle's boutique shops or check out the popular Fremantle Markets.

5. Check out a festival

With four a year, Fremantle's festivals are intimate and high quality.

6. Wear out some shoe leather

Go for a walk and soak up heritage buildings on High St, or head towards the harbour and check out the pleasure boats. Take to the back roads to spy the parakeets in flowering gum trees and heritage homes with gorgeous frescoed verandas.

7. Do some time

Take a tour of the Fremantle Prison. Tours offer a gritty insight into the realities of prison.

8. Maritime history

If you were around in the 1980s, chances are Fremantle is synonymous with the America's Cup. A visit to the impressive Maritime Museum details Western Australia's rich links to the sea. You can also see Australia II with its revolutionary keel design.

More information: see  fremantlestory.com.au

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Perth from Auckland and Christchurch. Fremantle is a 40-minute drive from Perth.

The writer travelled to Fremantle courtesy of the City of Fremantle.

 - Stuff

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