In Quest Of: Perth-fect playgrounds great for Western Australia travel with kids

Cycling at Rottnest Island (left) and children feeding lambs at Caversham Wildlife Park. PHOTOS: LYDIA VASKO

PERTH - Coolest bars and hottest tables in Perth? I can't tell you. But ask me about playgrounds and I'll give you the mother lode. As a family destination - a five-hour flight! Same time zone! Nature galore! - Perth shines.

The last time my husband and I were in Perth, I was newly pregnant and the first Covid-19 cases were just appearing in Singapore.

Since then, our lives have been upended by the pandemic and the arrival of our daughter, so it is oddly refreshing to arrive in Perth in April 2022 - Covid-weary and with a toddler in tow - to find Western Australia relatively unchanged.

Western Australia (WA) reopened its borders on March 3 2022, and spending two restricted years in relative isolation - even from their own countrymen - mean that for the state's residents, life has continued pretty much the same.

In Perth, restaurants are full, weddings and birthday parties continue unabated, and people fill stadiums by the tens of thousands, unmasked.

It is a relief, in a way, to be around people with no Covid survival stories to share. Most Perthians I meet shrugand say: "We didn't really have that here."

It turns out that life in Perth is uniquely suited to the rhythms of life with a toddler. Up at 6am? No problem. This is a city of early risers, the off-for-a-run, surf, gym-before-6am kind of crowd.

By the time you are dressed and out the door, the neighbourhood cafe or bakery is likely already open, ready to serve you an oven-fresh pastry and a steaming cup of coffee, the lifeblood of parents everywhere.

I am no parenting expert, but I've found that in our Venn diagram of activities that keep both little one and parents happy, the intersection usually involves food and the outdoors.

Fortunately, Perth is full of exceptional playgrounds, often within a stone's throw of a good cafe, and we spend most mornings watching our daughter learn how to climb rope ladders, hop logs and hang from monkey bars. Her strength and coordination increase by the day as she plays and we sample the local baked goods.

Other family-friendly attractions add a new dimension to our appreciation of Perth. We have visited Perth almost a dozen times, but never delighted in Kings Park, for instance. Playing in the fields, flowers and native bush becomes an ideal way to spend an afternoon.

One day, we walk among kangaroos and wallabies at the fantastic Perth Zoo. Koalas wedge themselves peacefully in the eucalyptus, arm's length from the boardwalk where we stand. Spiky echidnas scurry in and out of burrows strategically dug on the opposite side of the viewing window so that we can see the life inside them.

Our toddler is enchanted by the sight of two elephants kicking a ball back and forth, and thrilled to see two lionesses stalk the scent of their dinner in the air, their large brown eyes level with hers, not even half a metre away on the other side of the window.

For the size and quality of the enclosures, and the breadth of wildlife on show, Perth Zoo is world-class.

We find more native fauna at Caversham Wildlife Park about 30 minutes' drive north-east of the Central Business District. There, we hand-feed wallabies and watch a farm show of true-blue Aussie activities, like sheep mustering, sheering and whip cracking.

A koala at Caversham Wildlife Park. PHOTO: LYDIA VASKO

Visitors can try billy-tea swinging, bottle-feeding lambs and milking cows, or petting the farm animals in the pens next door. We can also take pictures with wombats and koalas and other native life, but we are in a rush to make lunch at Old Young's Kitchen before nap time.

We sit under a trellis of grape vines next to a grassy lawn where children can safely play. For service, ambience, and fresh flavours, it is one of the best meals of our trip.

Dining under the vines at Old Young's Kitchen in Swan Valley. PHOTO: LYDIA VASKO

Plates of cured kingfish with kohlrabi, finger lime, and pepperberry; giant pillows of gnocchi with pumpkin, kelp, coconut, saltbush and grana padana; and market fish with lemon myrtle and housemade miso creme fraiche are polished off.

The restaurant was opened in December 2021 to complement Old Young's Distillery next door and the chef makes the most of local and regional produce, much of it grown right on the property or in Swan Valley.

One can sample the distillery's vodkas and gins during lunch, straight up or in a cocktail, but I am not one for liquor these days, so I opt for a refreshing, citrusy mocktail instead.

We visit its second outpost, funk 2.0, which opened in January 2021, to sample their offbeat selection of ciders and beers later in the afternoon. Unpasteurised, with no sulfites or preservatives, the crisp ciders and beers made by brothers Dustin and Martin Michael contain real crushed fruit. Instead of the cloying sweetness typical of most fruity beverages, theirs are packed with bold, refreshing, sun-ripened flavours. A grassy lawn, large wooden building blocks and paddle ball provide child-friendly entertainment, too.

Cider and beer tasting paddles at funk 2.0. PHOTO: LYDIA VASKO

Back in town, we admire fluorescent jellyfish, rainbows of reefs and tropical fish at the compact but well-conceptualised Aquarium of Western Australia.

I join a mass of children and reach my hand into the touch pool, jewelled with starfish and stingrays, to stroke the soft but sandpapery skin of a passing bamboo shark.

There are more than 40 unique exhibits and the Shipwreck Coast tunnel takes visitors through Australia's largest single aquarium to gape at fish, massive stingrays, sharks and even a turtle.

Sharks at the Aquarium of Western Australia. PHOTO: LYDIA VASKO

Located at Hillarys Boat Harbour, about 30 minutes north of the CBD, it is worth planning to spend the day there if the weather is good. The complex is loaded with shops, restaurants and cafes. During weekends, there are carnival games and kiddie rides to entertain all ages.

The harbour's shallow, fully accessible beach is a perfect, protected swimming spot for babies and young children.

Hillarys is also a launching point for fast ferries to Rottnest Island, 45 minutes off the coast. Home to the quokka, a chubby-cheeked round-eyed marsupial, Rottnest is a top holiday destination for many Perthians. If you are hoping to spend the night during the school holidays, you need to book most accommodation a year in advance.

Fortunately, the March 2019 opening of Discovery Rottnest Island luxury eco-tents overlooking the white sand and lighthouse at Pinky's Beach, and the Samphire Rottnest modern resort which opened in the island's main centre of Thompson Bay in October 2020, have provided much-needed luxury inventory to match the beauty of the surroundings.

Luxury eco-tent at Discovery Rottnest Island (left) and Bathurst Lighthouse at Pinky's Beach. PHOTOS: LYDIA VASKO

On clear days, one can see the city skyline from Rottnest, but it is a bit like gazing through a magic portal. The island feels worlds away.

Aside from shuttle buses, the island is closed to motor vehicles and most visitors get around by boat, on bike or on foot to its 25 bays.

The pace is slower, quieter, connected to the earth, sea and sky. Here, the only task is to admire the Indian Ocean as it laps at alabaster beaches in its purest turquoise hue, and jump in. It is cold for those of us used to tropical waters, but revitalising.

Though our visit is just for the day, I can feel my nervous system relaxing, the restorative energy of the island working its way through my bones as I ride or sit beneath the pines and breathe in the fresh ocean air.

The island is just 20km from the mainland and day trips are a popular way to explore it, as is the 90-minute Bayseeker tour by Rottnest Fast Ferries, which takes visitors to key beaches, habitats and historical sites aboard an air-conditioned bus.

I understand why people return again and again for the island's beauty and restorative calm. It is close, accessible wilderness - no car required.

Most visitors get around by boat, on bike or on foot to Rottnest's 25 bays. PHOTO: LYDIA VASKO

Ferries to Rottnest are more frequent from Fremantle. Had we not bunked with friends and family, Fremantle is where we would have stayed. Less dense and urban than the Perth CBD, yet easily walkable with great shops, art galleries, cafes and restaurants, it also has a number of parks, playgrounds and beaches for a family-friendly vibe.

Open on weekends, Fremantle market is an institution, as is Little Creatures Brewery and the giant, cherry-red Ferris wheel along the waterfront.

The area is also known for second-hand bookstores, but I fall in love with Paper Bird for children's books and art. The cosy space is chock full of inspiring reads for babies to young adults, with a special eye towards colourful and unique Australian literature.

It holds regular story time, book clubs and writing workshops, and the gallery upstairs showcases some beautiful artwork by children's illustrators, too.

Head towards the inner harbour and next to the WA Maritime Museum, and you'll find Gage Roads Freo Brewery serving up their own year-round and limited selection of beers alongside a coastal pub menu of lobster rolls, fish tacos and surprisingly good pizza. It is set in a giant warehouse with a marine-themed playground in the back.

But we have the most outstanding meal of the trip at Nieuw Ruin, an intimate bar-restaurant in a 150-year-old Fremantle building where the cocktails highlight local botanicals: Geraldton wax, lemon myrtle, strawberry gum and rainforest plum.

Wines are sourced mostly from small, independent producers and the food is so fresh, elegantly crafted and delicious, I wish we could order everything on the menu twice. It is not a family-focused restaurant, but we have brought our own high chair and our daughter devours the Abrolhos island fish rillette atop freshly baked sourdough bread. The confit dhufish with charred fennel and brown butter, the Shark Bay cuttlefish with burnt tomatoes, capers and lardo, and the vanilla rice pudding with caramelised figs are simply incomparable. Between the three of us, every morsel is relished.


Perth playgrounds

Often themed and designed with a variety of stimulating materials, Perth has hundreds of thoughtfully constructed playgrounds across its CBD and suburbs.

Sun shades and fine, white non-sticky sand are standout features of many play areas, as is a decent cafe or restaurant nearby.

One of our favourite spots is Freshwaters, a sleek cafe with views across a bright green lawn to sailboats moored in a peaceful suburban bend of the Swan River. Open daily from 6am to 8pm, it serves a delicious breakfast and a small selection of baked goods which we savour as our toddler rolls in the grass.

Or we grab our food to go and eat while she splashes along the bay's thin stretch of calm, child-friendly beach - a win for water babies, for whom the cold and often turbulent surf makes most of Perth's coastal beaches inaccessible.

Alternatively, we head for the large, shaded playground just behind the cafe, with two separate play areas of slides, rope bridges and swings for kids of all ages.

In the CBD, Elizabeth Quay's Island Playground has a marine theme, with multi-tiered wood and steel crow's nests accessible by rope bridges and ladders suited for older kids.Balancing logs and water-play areas provide entertainment for toddlers.

On the opposite side of the quay, at the BHP Billiton Water Park, dozens of fountains and water features are a child's delight on a hot day.

In addition to 400ha of fields, flowers and native bushland, Kings Park has four adventure playgrounds which highlight their natural surroundings. Climb up towers, squirm through tunnels, walk across a web of rope and into a maze at Variety Place.

At the Rio Tinto Naturescape Kings Park - less playground and more nature-exploration zone - children can touch and smell the local flora, climb rocks and splash through watering holes in well-maintained native bush.

At May Drive Parkland on the western side of Kings Park, a 75m-long elevated walkway, large climbable statues of extinct Australian dinosaurs and megafauna, an island fort, and vast stretches of green lawn provide ample space to play, particularly for children six and up. The nearby Zamia Cafe offers sustenance for all.

The Ivy Watson Playground to the north is perfect for children under five, with a sandpit, pirate ship, maze, fire truck and an obstacle course all designed for littles.

At one of Perth's best city beaches, Whale Playground in Scarborough features slides, balancing logs, rope courses, swings and a wooden fort built in and around structures designed to look like giant, sun-bleached whale bones.

A 30-minute drive up the coast from the CBD, Mullaloo beach, with its sparkling, soft white sands, is a favourite for swimming, and walking, riding or running along the foreshore paths. There are two playgrounds: the smaller one is shaded with a rope swing, a large sand pit and a wooden boat-shaped climbing structure, while the larger playground has two play areas, a wooden fort for older children and a blue whale-themed structure for toddlers.

Make a reservation for a meal at Swell Mullaloo Beach for unbeatable Indian Ocean and sunset views. Secure a table next to the wall of windows if you can.

The toasted banana bread and Fisherman's Breakfast of potato cake and smoked salmon with poached eggs, capers, dill creme fraiche, and fennel and rocket salad, enjoyed next to views of the bright blue sea, are what Perth dreams are made of.

From there, walk an hour or drive 10 minutes north towards Burns Beach, where a large shaded playground provides hours of entertainment for dozens of children a day.

Pop into Sistas Cafe for refreshment before heading out to soak in the salt-sprayed and windswept beauty of the coastal path. A walk to Iluka foreshore, the closest beach south, takes about 40 minutes' return. Or continue back to Mullaloo, an hour and 15 minutes away. Keep your eyes peeled for migrating humpback whales from August to November.


Parent travel hacks

Bring vegetables

For reasons no one can explain to me, items on children's menus in Western Australia do not include vegetables. This is not an exaggeration - we do not see a floret of broccoli or a carrot stick on a single kids' meal we order in the entire month we are in WA. Not one vegetable. There is always a pile of fries, though, and sometimes juice or dessert - because more sugar is what every parent dreams of. No substitutions, and vegetable side orders are rare. The only solution is to bring your own.

BYO high chair

Invest in a portable high chair like the Mountain Buggy Pod, which can be clipped to a table. It is handy for feeding your child at your hotel or Airbnb, or if you want to enjoy a nice meal at a non-family-centric restaurant that does not have high chairs. Holding a child on your lap for an entire meal dampens the experience.

Consider off-site car rental

When renting a car for more than a week, take a look at rental companies with branches near, not at, the airport, such as No Birds.

Car rental can be expensive, particularly during school holidays, but off-site rental companies often charge half the price for larger and nicer cars than the big-brand names at the airport. They also provide pick-up and drop-off shuttle services to and from the airport, often free of charge.

So, while you can expect to spend a little more time at pick-ups and returns, the additional hassle of using an off-site rental company is minimal.

  • A former Straits Times travel correspondent turned freelancer, Lydia Vasko is a city girl in practice but a country girl at heart, whose favourite destinations satiate her love for good food, wine, culture and the great outdoors.
  • This trip was partially hosted by Tourism Western Australia.
  • In Quest Of is a new series on the joy of niche exploration amid the resurgence of international travel.

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