Refreshing 'Freo' Fremantle: Once neglected, this bustling 19th-century seaport owes its resurgence to the business of yachting


FREMANTLE, Australia - When the yachts in the Whitbread Round the World Race emerge from the howling vastness of the Southern Ocean and steer toward Fremantle, crews' spirits rise with the temperatures of the sea and the air. And long before they actually sight that low, dun-colored coast, their nostrils catch the unmistakable dry and pungent aroma that wafts from the great eucalyptus forests and the dry desert hinterland beyond.

Closer still and the very air seems thick with the smell of broiling steak, char-grilled seafood, freshly baked bread and the bitter sweet tang of fresh ground coffee.

After weeks of unrelenting cold in which they have lived day and night in wet gear and eaten nothing but reconstituted freeze-dried food that looks and tastes much like the cardboard packets from whence it came, the crews allow their imaginations to run away with them.

Two days out of Fremantle, Dave Scott, watch captain aboard Chessie Racing, reported, "our minds are already on land. The talk has turned from boat speed to where one can find the best steak, pizza, beer, atmosphere."

They won't have far to look. Fremantle today is one of the most vibrant, cosmopolitan and thoroughly delightful cities in Australia. It owes its renaissance almost entirely to the business of yachting.

Fremantle has always been a sailor's town with all that that implies. Twenty years ago, it still had the rowdy, dangerous, brawling spirit of the Wild West frontier. With the trackless wastes of the Indian Ocean before it and the great Australian deserts behind it, "Freo," as it is called, was about as far from civilization as one could get.

Although it was a bustling seaport city during the late 19th century gold rushes, during the years it fell into a kind of urban slumber. While the glistening skyscrapers and the luxurious homes in the capital, Perth, reflect that the state of Western Australia is endowed with fantastic mineral wealth, poor old Freo lay decaying, almost forgotten, 20 miles to the south.

But, in September, 1983, the "auld mug," the America's Cup, toppled from its pedestal in the New York Yacht Club and fell into the clutches of Alan Bond, a brash, self-made property tycoon. Bond's decision to defend the cup off Fremantle in 1987 led to a real estate boom that has transformed the city. But instead of ripping down the wonderful low-scale Victorian-era limestone buildings around the waterfront, almost all of them have been sympathetically restored and converted.

New construction is invariably in the style of the old so there is a sense of architectural harmony and a pleasant, human scale about the entire city. The tallest structure is the square-rigged signal flag mast atop the old Fort by the harbor's entrance.

Fremantle's Mediterranean emigrants, mostly Greeks and Italians long established in the lucrative local fishing industry, have opened delightful trattorie and bistros, sidewalk cafes, delis and high-class eateries on every street corner. Workers cottages have been transformed into cute little bed and breakfast places. The atmosphere is entirely laid back.

And after 15 or so days at sea, that's the kind of R&R the Whitbread sailors will be looking for.

Pub Date: 11/26/97

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