Travel-O-Meter – 4.5/5
A trip to Western Australia wouldn’t be complete without a taste of its history. The port city of Fremantle, a half-hour drive from Perth, is an ideal place to get not just a taste, but a big bite of Western Australia’s history and culture. Freo, as it is called by the locals, boasts of a few attractions, the most notable being the Fremantle Prison.
Fremantle Prison has a brutal, fascinating history. This high security gaol was used as a place of incarceration for almost 140 years. It was built by the convicts and housed 350,000 prisoners from 1855 to when it was decommissioned in 1991. During the convict era, punishments included hard labour in leg irons, solitary confinement, floggings and restricted diets. Apart from leg irons, these punishments continued well into the 1900s. Between 1888 and 1984, Fremantle Prison became the only place of legal execution in Western Australia. During that time, 43 men and 1 woman were hanged there.
In 1992, the prison was opened to the public and since then it has been a top tourist attraction. It is the only World Heritage listed building in Western Australia, and has also been ranked as one of the Top 10 Landmarks in Australia by TripAdvisor 2016 Travellers’ Choice.
Entry to the gatehouse is free of charge but for a full experience, you should without doubt, opt for one of the various tours that they offer. Doing Time Tour is the only one that can be done with toddlers, so we opted for that.
My husband and I were fascinated by the prison tour. Our guide, Steve knew his stuff and had the entire group enthralled by his narrative, and entertained by his many stories, as he took us around the tiny cells, the massive kitchen and the courtyard where the prisoners spent 8 hours every single day. We also saw the whipping post, the gallows and the solitary cells, which gave us an insight into a system of punishment that is uncomfortably recent. Many of the tour-guides are ex-wardens, ex-guards and even ex-convicts; so each of them should have their own perspective and experiences to share, just like Steve.
Another popular tour is the Great Escapes Tour, where you can join the guides to see where many daring escapes were attempted by prisoners, and be entertained by the many stories and folklore about successful and unsuccessful escape attempts – these despite the shackles, the high walls, the gun towers and the razor wire. For a prison adventure, opt for the Tunnels Tour, to descend 20 metres into the depths below and explore the labyrinth of tunnels on foot and boat. If you’re feeling particularly brave, then explore the darker side of the prison at night, via an eerie Torchlight Tour.
The Fremantle Prison also conducts a special Art Tour every first Saturday of the month, which showcases a variety of prisoner and convict artwork including Aboriginal and European Landscapes, Dot Paintings, Graffiti and Tattoo Art, as well as ‘hidden’ art from the convict era. Yes, amidst the lashings and the prison riots, some of the convicts spent their time honing their artistic skills by painting the walls of their cells and exercise yards.
Whichever tour you opt for, you can be sure you won’t be disappointed.
Other Attractions in and Around Fremantle
After Freemantle prison, head down to Cappuccino Strip which is renowned for its many outdoor restaurants and cafes, and wash down the heavy dose of history with some Western Australian wine or an icy craft beer. Also pop by the Freemantle Fishing Boat Harbour to indulge your taste buds or simply to soak up the atmosphere. The Fishing Boat Harbour is a unique attraction, home to hundreds of fishing boats and surrounded by boardwalks, cafés and restaurants, some of which serve fish straight off the boats.
If you’re one of them beer-lovers, check out Little Creatures Brewery while you’re exploring the town. With plenty of indoor and outdoor spaces and brewery tours, Little Creatures is a destination in itself. Unfortunately, we missed this, but from what I hear, it’s a must-visit!
Other Fremantle attractions include Fremantle Arts Centre, The Round House, Fremantle Markets and the Maritime Museum.
A popular attraction just a 25-minute ferry ride from Fremantle Harbour is Rottnest Island. Rotto, as the locals call it is a popular destination for Western Aussies and visitors alike. Go swimming or snorkeling in the azure waters, or rent a bike to go looking for the native Quokkas – cute little, brown marsupials who were originally mistaken for cat sized rodents.
With so much to see and do, Fremantle should definitely be on your must-visit list anytime you visit Western Australia. In fact, Fremantle, especially Fremantle Prison is worth planning a trip around.