THE RACE: By the time the America's Cup race is over in 1987, 17 different syndicates (the groups of investors who own the boats, some of whom may withdraw between now and then) will have spent from $4 million to $15 million apiece in their efforts to win the cup. They will have participated in as many as 600 races total before one boat is proven the fastest of the group.

Elimination races begin Oct. 5, running between 10 and 15 days continuously each month through December. By the time the finals begin Jan. 31, the field will be narrowed to one Australian boat one challenger from another country. In the finals the cup goes to the boat that wins four of seven races.

There are a number of tour packages being organized around the race. For information, contact a travel agent.

GETTING THERE: United and Qantas airlines fly from Washington to Perth, with possible stopovers in Hawaii, Fiji, New Zealand, Melbourne, Sydney or Cairns, Australia. The low-season fare -- April through November -- is about $1,500 round trip, based on 14-day advance purchase; the high-season fare -- December through March -- is about $1,800.

WHERE TO STAY: In Fremantle, the newly renovated colonial-style Esplanade Hotel, with a view of the America's Cup contenders docked in the harbor, should be the first choice for both atmosphere and convenience. But it is small and may be booked up early; rates are $55 to $110 double.

Excellent accommodations in Perth are available at several new hotels: Orchard, Merlin, Sheraton Perth, Ansett International and Parmelia Hilton International. Rates start at $75 double per night.

On Rottnest Island, try the Rottnest Lodge Resort or write the Rottnest Island Board (Rottnest Island, Western Australia 6161), which can book campsites or rental cottages.

WHERE TO EAT: Even fast food in Perth and Fremantle is fresh and varied by American standards. Try the Sunmarket Centre near Barracks and Murray Streets in Perth for international food or the Fremantle Bread and Cheese Shop in the Bannister Courtyard in Fremantle for gourmet and health food plus gorgeous pastries.

But the restaurants in both places are a gourmand's delight. Even hotel food here is good, but for a cozy atmosphere try any of Perth's Outram and Ord Street restaurants, which serve sophisticated eats in stylishly converted houses: Wellington's, Bagwell's, Pierre's, Outram 77, Haskins and the Ord Street Cafe'. Here ceiling fans take the place of air-conditioning and liquor is often bring-your-own, but entre'es are original and delicious: quail legs crumbed in pistachio nuts; duck breasts Cassis; duck terrine with peppercorns and Grand Marnier.

In Fremantle Mrs. W's at 211 South Ice is the up-scale equivalent of Perth's Ord and Outram Street restaurants, serving expensive but excellent meals. More down-to-earth is the Roma Restaurant at 9 High St., a favorite among locals. They serve Italian and Australian food at very reasonable prices.

For lunch an old Fremantle stand-by is Cicerello's, on the waterfront not far from where the America's Cup contenders are docked. Here you can buy fish and chips wrapped in paper to eat at outdoor tables overlooking lthe harbor.

*Qantas Airways has a listing of apartments available for rent or you can have Jean Smiley at Homestay of Western Australia (40 Union Rd., Carmel, W.A. 6076) make arrangements for you to stay with an Australian family in a private home.

SIDE TRIPS: Perth is a good home base from which to take day trips before ranging into the vast expanses of Western Australia.

There are daily boat excursions on the Swan River to visit the Houghton and Sandalford wineries, both at beautiful locations on the river, or you can stop by the wineries for tastings on your way to the small, colonial town of York, about an hour and a half drive east from Perth.

On the way to York you drive through the Darling Range, which is actually an escarpment running parallel to the coast. Stop in Kalamunda to enjoy the views -- and the wildflowers August through November -- and also at the Mundaring Weir to see this turn-of-the century dam built to supply water to the gold fields near Kalgoorlie (300 miles further east) and to have tea in the 1837 Mahogany Inn.

The nearby John Forrest National Park has picnic grounds and miles of trails through forests of giant marri and keri trees. You might even be startled here by a group of friendly kangaroos munching leaves in a meadow.

Near York you can get a taste of the outback at Kaj and Pat Nielson's 1890s farm, Cloverlea, where their pet kangaroo Skippy and dog Jess will entertain you while you enjoy tea on the bougainvillea-draped porch. Cloverlea also offers lodging in pretty pink, flowered guest rooms, and the Nielsons can arrange for a camel caravan tour of the countryside at the Great Northern Camel Farm next door.

On the way back to Perth along the Swan River are several suburban stops worth making: the Hall Collection of Australiana in Guildford behind the 1840 Rose and Crown Hotel; Mechanics Hall, a small folklore museum; Woodbridge, a colonial mansion overlooking the river. Also in the suburbs is Monger Lake, home to Australia's native black swans.

INFORMATION: The Western Australian Tourism Commission, 489 Fifth Ave., 31st Floor, New York, N.Y. 10017, (212) 687-1442.