Perth. Australians may argue over football and politics, but you'll never hear an untoward word about this modern seaside city

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IN 1893 the cry of ``Gold!'' rang from this remote area. Worldwide, thousands grabbed pick and shovel to follow their rainbow here. Ghost towns tell a silent tale of those who failed. Perth, however -- capital of Western Australia -- blossomed and grew like a desert rose.

This vast state, occupying about one-third of the Australian continent, has a population of only 1.3 million. One million live in and around Perth.

Now, nearly 100 years after the gold rush, it's a mere 134 ounces of silver that brings international attention to this city. It is, of course, the most coveted yachting prize: the America's Cup.

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The tall, bulbous Victorian ewer now resides comfortably, if not permanently, in red-upholstered splendor on the third floor of the Royal Perth Yacht Club, guarded by a polite elderly gentleman who is happy to sell you a sweater, necktie, or tote bag emblazoned with the celebrated sterling trophy.

Perth is bracing for a tidal wave of tourists -- up to a million are hoped for -- between now and next February for the trials and conclusion of the cup races.

Australians may argue over Aussie rules on football and politics, or over whether or not ``Waltzing Matilda'' should become their national anthem, but you'll never hear an untoward word about Perth.

``Such a clean city,'' they chorus. ``So neat, tidy, and well designed -- and modern, very modern.''

No guidebook will dispute it. Perth is clean and modern, almost to the point of being downright antiseptic. From a distance, it looks like a city put together overnight with a giant set of Lego blocks -- sort of a slice of Los Angeles without smog, Kansas City with kangaroos, or a seaside Dallas.

Perth's carefully laid-out streets cut perfect checkerboard patterns between look-alike modern glass, steel, and concrete monoliths.

New hotels are fast filling any remaining gaps in the skyline. Six international hotels have sprung up in the past two years, adding more than 1,000 rooms for the cup comers. Older hotels are getting face lifts and a coat of paint, whether they need it or not.

There's money here, as is opulently evident on ``Millionaires' Row,'' Perth's tony residential area, where this city's most famous citizen has his home. Alan Bond, a self-made millionaire, put up the money for Australia II, winner of the 1983 America's Cup. But Mr. Bond doesn't put all his money on the water. ``Bond owns so much of Perth, I wouldn't be surprised if he changed the name of the city to Bondage,'' someone on the bus commented.

For all the newness and sparkle here, there is something missing: those endlessly fascinating little bits, those delightful, odd touches of something called ``Australiana.'' The things that infatuated Mark Twain, who wrote of Australia as ``full of surprises, and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities.''

A few remnants remain of what must have been a city of utter charm not too many years ago. But you have to hunt for them.

There's Government House, mostly hidden from the street, with its Gothic arches and turrets; and Perth's lovely Town Hall, built with Jacobean grace; plus a few charming red brick churches built during the last century.

Then there's what remains of the Barracks -- once the sprawling headquarters of soldier settlers -- built of handsome, warm brown-and-yellow bricks. An archway is all that's left, after some concerned citizens yelled, ``Stop! That's enough!'' as a wrecker's ball went through this city like a 13th-century mace.

Fortunately, several parks bring swaths of quiet green relief to this glass-and-steel forest. Queens Park is a delight. What was once a quarry on the site is now filled with water and pink-and-white waterlilies, much to the enjoyment of visitors.

Brides flock to have their picture taken there on the sprawling lawn among the trees or in front of Peter Pan, a copy of the whimsical statue in London's Kensington Gardens.

But Perth's great appeal is beyond the hand of man.

The location is enviable and is best viewed from the bluffs of Kings Park. There you see the city rising from the reaches of the Swan River and framed by the Darling Ranges.

Near-perfect weather is another gift. The yearly average is close to eight hours of sunlight a day, with temperatures in the 70s. When summer temperatures soar, a forgiving sea breeze, known as the ``Fremantle Doctor,'' lowers the thermometer and raises the spirits.

None of this is wasted on the people of Perth. Here is a vast playground for an active outdoor society.

Sailboats and sailboards skim along the wide Swan River. Fishing, swimming, and water-skiing are a part of the fun. All of this activity has chased away Perth's much-photographed indigenous black swans, after whom the river was named. They have moved to the quieter waters of nearby Lake Monger, where they exchange their grace for a few pieces of bread, quickly plucked from the gray water with their cherry-red bills.

Millions of dollars are being spent on a network of bicycle trails that wrap around the Swan River, skirt the busy city streets, and wind through parks and gardens. You can pedal along for 40 miles and never risk bumping into a car. You can even have a rental bike dropped off at your hotel -- 10-speed or tandem -- or tricycles for tots and adult cyclists who prefer three wheels.

Some $12 million (Australian, US$7.7 million) is going into revamping the cricket grounds.

But for cool relief on hot days, everyone heads for Kings Park. Rising majestically above the city, it is truly Perth's crown. Here, 1,000 acres of manicured gardens and untouched bush wilderness stretch between pavilions, fountains, war memorials, and broad avenues of lemon-scented gum trees.

A statue of the ever-dour Queen Victoria and a restaurant where you can stop for creamed teas add a British air. Or you may picnic among the vast variety of flora, green rosella parrots, and cheeky magpies.

You can quite literally spend an entire active day in the park. You might plan to set your alarm for 5 a.m. to watch the sunrise over the city. Then go for a bird walk through the forest and a wildflower tour with a botanist guide. In spring, more than 6,000 varieties of flowers sprinkle the park like confetti, including the state flower, the kangaroo paw with its blossom that reaches out like E.T.'s spidery fingers.

Back in the city center there's plenty of shopping at Boans, Perth's most famous department store, and through miles of labyrinths of arcades and malls. Especially interesting is London Court, a 1930s reconstruction of an Elizabethan street. Grab a Danish at Fagin's Pastry Shop, and browse. Here you can find everything from a toy koala to antique saltcellars and coronation mugs.

Everyone leaves Australia with a stuffed koala. But pay attention, as some are made from kangaroo fur. If these are not to your liking, others are covered in cloth and synthetics and are much less expensive.

Perth is called ``the City of Lights,'' going back to the time when the entire city turned its lights on so it could be observed from space when astronaut John Glenn flew over.

Today, Perth is sometimes referred to as the city of restaurants. Indeed there are some 1,600 places to stop for tea. A multi-ethnic population has brought every variety of food, from Indian to Mexican to trendy sushi bars. The problem is finding a restaurant open on Sunday. Fortunately, Chinese restaurants here, like elsewhere around the world, always seem to be open.

Peter Chaplin, restaurateur and member of the Restaurant Association Committee, explains why there are so many eating places. ``There are virtually no government regulations to opening a restaurant. A license costs only $14, so they open up frequently. And, of course, they close frequently, if they don't make it.''

Perth provides free City Clipper buses to chauffeur you about the city Monday through Saturday.

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