Chain gangs, solitary confinement, floggings with a cat o’ nine tails and savage dogs – all were part of the everyday routine in Port Arthur, Tasmania. Tasmania was one of Australia’s most notorious 19th Century penal settlements and there was only one escape for many sent there: death and burial in an unmarked grave on the Island of the Dead. Conditions were so terrible that some prisoners were driven to commit murder in order to be sent to Sydney to receive an almost mandatory death sentence. For many, it was preferable to rotting in Van Diemen’s Land, Tasmania’s original name. By 1816, Tasmania was a lawless place overrun by escapee bushrangers, originally referred to runaway convicts in the early years of the British settlement of Australia who had the survival skills necessary to use the Australian bush as a refuge to hide from the authorities. The term “bushranger” then evolved to refer to those who abandoned social rights and privileges to take up “robbery under arms” as a way of life, using the bush as their base.
Today, Tasmania has transformed into Australia’s safest and cleanest state. Known as the “Apple Isle” and for the Tasmanian Devil, it is a beautiful island surrounded by mountains with one of the deepest rivers in the world, the Derwent River. A holiday to this great southern island is a must for boating enthusiasts – the town of Hobart is the final destination for the world famous Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race – and lovers of nature and wildlife parks. Tasmania is also a treasure trove for those with a refined palate, who enjoy fine wines and gourmet seafood. Hiking, camping, restaurant hopping, wine and beer tasting, fishing and boating are just some of the everyday leisure activities enjoyed by locals and tourists alike in this island paradise.
Visiting the Island
As Australia’s most southern land mass, Tasmania is snow capped throughout much of the year, and the mountainous terrain and many lakes make for a tranquil and beautiful island which is a popular destination for holiday makers from all over the world.
For travelers, the island can be divided into 4 sections. The Northwest, where the ferry from the mainland disembarks at Devonport; the Northeast, with beautiful beaches and snow capped mountain peaks; the Southwest, renowned for the system of rivers and the beautiful rainforests which comprise a magnificent World Heritage Area; and the Southeast, which houses the ruins of the penal settlement of Port Arthur, and has a rugged and beautiful coastline interspersed with many fine surf beaches. The island is also home to the reputed oldest living thing on earth, a Huon pine tree in the southwest wilderness estimated to be 4,000 years old.
Rich in Australia’s young history, Tasmania was the second settlement in Australia after Sydney and the first settlers arrived in 1803 to what is now Hobart. Primarily established as a penal settlement to house prisoners from the United Kingdom, much of this early penal history can still be seen around the state. The island takes its name from the Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman who first charted it in 1642 and originally named it Van Diemens Land. Like those who visit it today he was struck by its intense and captivating beauty.
Tasmania was inhabited by an indigenous population, the Tasmanian Aborigines and evidence indicates their presence in the territory as far back as 35,000 years ago. The indigenous population at the time of British settlement in 1803 has been estimated at 5,000, but through persecution and disease much of the population was eradicated. At Mt. Nelson just outside of Hobart City is Truganini’s trail, famous for the murder of the last surviving Tasmanian Aborigine, who was chased off the edge of the cliff with her baby in her arms. Today, one can walk along this trail to its end and experience what it must have been like for the last native Tasmanian.
No part of Australia is more tangibly steeped in history than Tasmania, because it escaped much of the destruction of physical heritage that occurred elsewhere during the spree of “modernization” that followed World War II. As a result, history is a common obsession; it has been said that there are more historians per square kilometer in Tasmania than anywhere else in Australia.
Hobart is the main city in Tasmania and has a very historic feel. Salamanca Place, lined with old Georgian warehouses, is its cultural hub – full of restaurants, galleries and theaters. On Saturdays from 8:30am to 3pm, the entire street is closed off and becomes an open air market filled with arts, crafts, local produce and musical entertainment. Take a peaceful stroll while shopping for souvenirs and enjoy the surrounding harbor, cafes and antique stores. While there, be sure to try the local “meat pie” or “cottage pie” and soak in the atmosphere amid the historic buildings and stone paved roads that navigate this quaint little town.
Salamanca Market is a five-minute walk from the city centre and close to historic St. David’s Park on the edge of Hobart’s central business district, where city shops are open all day Saturday. From the market, it’s a short climb up Kelly’s Steps to reach the Georgian cottages and the village atmosphere of Battery Point. Hobart’s picturesque waterfront is also nearby, across Salamanca lawns to the docks, where hardworking fishing boats are berthed close to cruising yachts and a square-rigger or two.
Explore the buildings created with convict labor, along with actual prison facilities that housed them at Port Arthur (website). Travelers can see a range of different sites, from gardens, to ghosts on the famous Port Arthur ghost tour.
Standing 4,000 feet over Tasmania’s capital city, Mount Wellington is Hobart’s highest peak and a great place for a spectacular panoramic view of the city. Mount Wellington provides a wilderness experience within 20 minutes’ drive of the city and the 13-mile drive to the summit takes you from temperate rainforest to sub-alpine flora and glacial rock formations, ending in panoramic views of Hobart, Bruny Island, South Arm and the Tasman Peninsula. Guided tours are also available.
Boasting Tasmania’s sunniest climate, the Freycinet Peninsula is host to outstanding natural beauty – white beaches, turquoise waters and pink granite peaks. This special fusion of climate and place has resulted in a true sea kayaking paradise. Coles Bay, Tasmania sits at the foot of the granite mountains known as the Hazards and on the edge of the world-renowned Freycinet National Park and Wineglass Bay (website), about two and 1/2 hours drive from Hobart and Launceston on the east coast of Tasmania.
Mole Creek Karst National Park (website), created in 1996, is internationally renowned for its spectacular caves. Mole Creek Karst National Park protects deep limestone caves of superb stalactites, stalagmites and columns, glow worm (a species of firefly) displays, subterranean streams and cathedral caverns. The park is best known for two richly decorated caves open to the general public, but its 1,345 hectares (3,324 acres) contain 300 caves and sinkholes in all. Both Marakoopa and King Solomons Cave are open to the public, providing an opportunity to take a deeper look into the fascinating world of ‘karst’ landscapes. The caves are also home to a range of fascinating animals which have evolved features that allow them to adapt to their lightless environments.
Eaglehawk Neck (website) is an isthmus about an hour drive from Hobart. The unique feature of this landscape is its remarkable geology. At the neck itself you can visit the Tessellated Pavement, while a short drive south are the impressive coastal rock formations of the Devils Kitchen, Tasman Arch and the Blowhole. The Totem Pole is an offshore favourite with rock climbers and kayakers. Travelers can also take a cruise from Pirates Bay along some of the most dramatic coastline you’ll ever experience, through areas rich in seals, dolphins and penguins.
If you are interested in diving, the towering dolerite and sandstone sea cliffs extend deep into the ocean, providing a wonderful array of caves and crevasses to explore. Tasmania’s temperate waters are renowned for their excellent visibility, adding to the magic of swimming amongst weedy sea dragons, sponges, fish, giant kelp forests and a wide variety of invertebrates
The Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race
The 66th Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race 2013 will start on Boxing Day, the 26th of December, and will be conducted on the waters of Sydney Harbor, the Tasman Sea, Storm Bay and the Derwent River. Over the past 65 years, the race has become an icon of Australia’s summer sport, ranking in public interest with such national events as the Melbourne Cup horse race, Davis Cup tennis and the cricket tests between Australia and England. Few other yachting events worldwide attract media coverage like this does with over 40% of viewers coming from outside of Australia.
Eat & Drink
Tasmania shares the 42nd parallel of latitude with the northern part of New Zealand’s South Island, with its four wine regions (website) producing similarly complex cool climate wines. Varieties grown in Tasmania are Pinot Noir (44%), Chardonnay (28%), Riesling (9%), Sauvignon Blanc (8%), and Pinot Gris, with some Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Gewürztraminer. Tasmania also produces apple ciders, fruit wines, liqueurs and malt whisky. The cold Antarctic air means grapes ripen slowly, which increases the final complexity of the wines. Although vineyards in Tasmania are small, they have a big reputation for quality. Pipers River north of Launceston, well known for its sparkling wines and Tamar Valley near Launceston have some of the most important boutique wineries, as well as big names producing quality wine.
Heemskerk (website) produces benchmark Tasmanian varieties and styles, including sparkling, chardonnay and pinot noir. World renowned Pipers Brook (website) pioneered the Pipers River area, while Jansz (website) is widely known for its sparkling wines – the only wines they produce.
For beer lovers, Cascade Brewery (140 Cascade Road, South Hobart, website), Australia’s oldest, offers tours and is only 10 minutes from the centre of Hobart. As the brewery is an operational work site, visitors should wear long pants and covered flat shoes. Tours are $17 for adults and include a beer tasting. James Boag & Son (39 William Street, Launceston, website) also has a tour of its working brewery – with a tasting of four beers and local Tasmania cheeses at the end. Tours $12.50 – $21 depending on length.
Mures (website) is a lovely restaurant overlooking the harbor with a sushi bar and two decks. The lower deck is ideal for travelers with kids or for quick and easy fish and chips. Dining on the upper deck, one gets an elevated view of the harbor, surrounding mountains and boats, while indulging in great gourmet seafood caught fresh from Tasmanian waters.
Where to Stay
Grand Mercure Hadleys Hotel (website), established in 1834, is centrally located in Hobart’s business district. Rooms range from
The Hotel Grand Chancellor Hobart (website) is located on the waterfront in central Hobart with views of the Derwent River, Mount Wellington and the city.
Macquarie Manor Hotel (website) has 18 beautifully appointed Victorian and Edwardian style rooms. Only five minutes walk from Salamanca Place and the waterfront, it is a short drive to Wrest Point Hotel Casino.
The Old Woolstore Apartment Hotel (website) is centrally located a stone’s throw from the city centre and just a block from Hobart’s waterfront. With spacious rooms and the decor contemporary, the hotel is ideally suited for business travelers.
Cradle Mountain Lodge (website) is set in Tasmania’s beautiful wilderness in a World-Heritage listed National Park. There are a range of wonderful activities to do against the backdrop of stunning scenery and wildlife found nowhere else in the world – learn to fly-fish or explore on horseback and mountain bike. At the end of the day, relax with a therapeutic massage or sauna.
Getting There: The Spirit of Tasmania ferry (website) from Melbourne on the mainland arrives at Devonport on the north of the island. Ferries run overnight year-round at 7:30pm with additional trips at 9am and 9pm at peak times (late December – January, mid-March to mid-April). Fares from $88 (day) and $102 (night) if pre-paid online. Frequent flights arrive at Hobart and Launceston, most connecting through Melbourne.
Getting Around: Tasmania is Australia’s smallest state, about 150 miles across at its widest points. To see the island fully, a rental car is needed. One car rental firm is Hobart Car Hire.
When to Visit: The summer months, going into autumn, are an ideal time to visit Tasmania. From December to around March, the weather is pretty much perfect since Tasmania does not get overly hot during these months. Although, as they say in Tassie, be prepared for “4 seasons in one day!”
During the New Year period, from the 28th of December to the 3rd of January, Hobart hosts the “Taste of Tasmania” in Salamanca. “The Taste” is a food and beverage event showcasing Tasmania’s much celebrated food and wine. The Taste has become one of Australia’s most popular and successful food and wine events. Be at Hobart’s historic waterfront just after Christmas to witness the finish of the exciting Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race and to experience The Taste.
Visitor Info: The Hobart Travel Centre provides information on what to do depending on your interests, covering everything from food and wine to adventure and family to museums and galleries.
Smartvisit Card: The Smartvisit Card gives access to more than 60 of Tasmania’s best attractions. You can buy a 3 day, 7 day or 10 day card and this includes a 128 page free guidebook of what to see and do while in Tasmania. A 3-day pass is about $150. For more details, visit SeeTasmaniaCard.com.
Currency: Australian dollar. Credit cards are widely accepted and ATMs can be found throughout the island.
Visas: Americans do not need visas to visit Australia