“Slip into Broometime” is a well-worn local aphorism that still captures the tropical charm of BROOME, which clings to a peninsula overhanging Roebuck Bay. The accommodation market in Broome has expanded a great deal over the last few years, particularly at the pricey end, and to some extent the town is struggling to catch up, with a bit of a “wild west” air still pervading – this is not the west-coast Byron Bay many expect but it’s the classiest town in the northwest by quite a stretch.
Easily collected pearl shell heaped along nearby Eighty Mile Beach led to the northwestern “pearl rush” of the 1880s, initially enabled by the enslaved Aborigines. Later, indentured workers from Asia sought the shell in ever-greater depths below the waves, and Broome originated as a camp on sheltered Roebuck Bay where the pearl luggers laid up during the cyclone season.
After a violent and raucous beginning, the port finally achieved prosperity thanks to the nacre-lined oyster shells, or mother-of-pearl (not the pearls themselves). By 1910, eighty percent of the world’s pearl shell came from Broome, by which time a rich ethnic mix and a rigidly racially stratified society had developed. Each season one in five divers died, several more became paralyzed and, as Broome’s cemeteries steadily filled, only one shell in five thousand produced a perfect example of the silvery pearls unique to this area.
Stagnation then rebuilding followed both world wars, after the second of which the Japanese – masters in the secret art of pearl culturing – warily returned and invested in the pearl-farming ventures around Broome’s well-suited coastal habitat. Things improved with the sealing of the coastal highway from Perth in the early 1980s and the philanthropic interest of English businessman Alistair McAlpine, who was seduced by Broome’s diamond-in-the-rough charms and subsequently kicked off its latter-day reinvention. He led the old town’s tasteful development and refurbishment, using its oriental mystique and pearling history as inspiration. This rich history is enhanced by the sweeping expanse of Cable Beach, the paprika-red outcrops at Gantheaume Point and the Indian Ocean’s breathtaking shade of turquoise.