Tasmania: Small But Mighty

It may be small, but wonderful Tasmania (affectionately referred to by all Australians as Tassie) sure packs a lot in, so you’ll want to drive around to make the most of your time there. Bring your car over by ferry from Melbourne or hire one to explore this lush, vibrant and historic state. And sadly, no, I didn’t see any Tasmanian Devils 😦

Start off in Hobart or Launceston (Australian version: Launy); Tassie’s two main cities. There are airports at both, but Launceston is the closest to the ferry terminal at Devonport, where the “Spirit of Tasmania” docks. We used Launceston as our base to explore as one of Phil’s good friends lives there, so he was our own personal tour guide and chauffeur for the week, which was lovely (thanks Fitchy!)

Launceston could be deemed a small town in comparison to lively Hobart, but don’t knock it off your list just yet. It’s got a laid-back atmosphere with an up and coming gourmet foodie scene paired with lots of friendly locals. Spend the morning exploring the beautiful Cataract Gorge where you can terrify yourself walking over the old suspension bridge (just me?) and have a dip in the outdoor swimming pool with a cracking view. Take your time stopping at the various lookout points and walking around before heading to the Penny Royal. It’s maybe a bit of a tourist trap, with various amusement rides and boat tours, but it’s a nice place to sit outside and enjoy a drink or a bite to eat at one of the many cafes and restaurants by the water. Launceston is also known for being home to James Boag’s brewery, which first opened its doors in 1883. We didn’t make it there for the grand tour, but we did pay a visit to one of Launceston’s more recently established watering holes, Saint John’s. They offer a wide range of Australian and International craft beers on tap, and you’ll most likely be served by someone with a large beard.

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A view of the Gorges from above

Go West: Cradle Mountain

Just 2 hours west from Launy lies the beautiful Cradle Mountain. There’s a huge variety of walks to choose from  – whether you’re after a 20 minute stroll or a week long hike for the die-hards (the famous Overland Track – check it out here). There’s a park fee for all vehicles entering National Parks in Tasmania, so it’s a good idea to get a holiday pass that permits entry to all of them, and is valid for 4 weeks. Sadly for us, the weather wasn’t on our side, and we hadn’t packed for the rain (where’s the Scottish in me!?) so we opted for one of the easier, but most popular routes, the Dove Lake Circuit. We added in a little detour to the waterfall that involved a lot of scrambling on the boulders, but it only took us about 1.5 hours all in all, and the circuit by itself would be manageable for all fitness levels with just a few steep climbs. Don’t forget to stop for an obligatory picture of the greatly photographed boathouse (which would look more striking on a sunny day, I’m sure!)

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The boys & the boathouse!

On our way back to Launceston, we took a scenic detour through Tamar Valley, Tassie’s largest wine region with roads that meander through infinite valleys of vineyards dotted around the edges of the river. You’ll pass through an unassuming little town called Beaconsfield, which had its 15 minutes of fame because of a mine collapse in 2006. Two men were trapped for 14 nights before being rescued in one piece. It’s worth heading to the Beaconsfield Mine & Heritage Centre to learn more about the history of this gold-rush town.

Hobart: Where It’s All Happening

Once you’re satisfied that you’ve explored the north, head south via the Heritage Trail for a scenic country drive through old towns (many of which really reminded me of little Scottish villages), until you arrive in Hobart; the heart of Tasmania. If you’re as ignorant about Tasmania as I was, you might expect it to be mainly empty farmland where not much happens. Well, Hobart well and truly flattens that myth – with the social hub of Salamanca Place full of bars and restaurants, the lively harbour, heaps of history, and one of the most cutting-edge art galleries I’ve ever seen, Tassie’s capital is anything but dull. Join the locals at Salamanca Place on Saturday night to immerse yourself in Hobart’s nightlife, or visit on Saturday morning to experience the buzz of the marketplace, minus the hangover.

Check out Mount Wellington (you just drive up the hill to reach the summit) for excellent views of the city and explore the historic little Battery Point, which is full of old houses and a more recent addition of hip cafes and bars away from the city centre. By far the highlight of Tassie, for me, was the wonderful MONA (Museum of Old and New Art). It’s free entry for Tasmanians, but it’ll set everyone else back $28 – trust me, it’s worth every penny. I would also recommend visiting on a Sunday as there’s some live music and lots of market/food stalls which was a nice surprise. Expect to see lots of art concerned with death, sex and poo (that’s right – I’ll let you make up your own mind about the “poo factory”). It’s worth joining the queue for the Death Gallery, which only allows 2 people to enter at a time. I won’t spoil it for you, but watch your step as the black stuff surrounding the stepping stones is water (and people fall in from time to time – I asked).

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Water display shoots out words at lightning speed to represent the constant flow of information in daily life – clever huh?

Interestingly, the owner of MONA is not only an art collector but a professional gambler. David Walsh developed a gambling system that gave him a fail proof method for betting and winning on horse races, making him extremely rich. He says that the way he earned his money made him feel “guilty” and he wanted to use MONA as a way to give something worthwhile back to the world. He also has reserved parking spaces for him and his wife under the names”God” and “God’s Mistress” at the MONA car park. Not sure if this is intended as modern art, sarcasm, or just plain arrogance.

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Head South for History + Natural Wonders

The great thing about Tasmania is that everything is a short drive away (in comparison to the rest of Australia). After a short stay in Hobart, we swiftly made our way to the lovely Tasman Peninsula. You’ll be greeted with lots of extravagant looking rock formations as you drive through Eaglehawk Neck at the opening of the peninsula itself. It’s well worth jumping out the car to take a closer look at the natural phenomenons of Tasman Arch and Devil’s Kitchen, if nothing else.

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Tasman Arch

Keep driving south and you’ll soon arrive at the aptly named Remarkable Cave.

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There’s a short walkway down the steps that gives you a view of the cave from about 50 m away, but you can hop over the fence if the tide is out and you’d like to explore inside. Emphasis: beware of the tide! We were lucky when we visited. Skip the video in the link below to 2:50 and you’ll see what I mean.

Beware of the tide!

One last natural wonder for you to marvel over: The Tessellated Pavements (basically flat rocks that have fractured from local stresses until they eventually resemble tiles). I especially loved these because it looked like someone had got down on their hands and knees to carve out the perfect lines – but, it’s all nature’s fine work 🙂

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The real feature of the Peninsula, for me, lies in the fascinating town of Port Arthur, which is famous for its well-preserved World Heritage-listed Historic Site ($37 – peak season) where thousands of convicts used to live. Your entry pass includes an introductory tour and a marine boat ride (we didn’t end up doing the latter). The tour guide was really informative, so I wouldn’t recommend getting the $6 audio guide as it is just a less interesting version of the tour guide himself. He told us shocking stories of the Separate Prison, which was supposedly built as a new style of rehabilitation, but turned out to be a place for the truly brutal and disturbing treatment of prisoners in isolation. After a widespread introduction to the 40 acre land, the tour guide left us to explore some 30 buildings at our leisure. All in all, we spent about 3 hours here (and that’s without the free boat tour) so it is well-worth setting aside a whole morning/afternoon to explore the fascinating, at times haunting, history.

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A beautiful setting, a haunting past

Another chilling reason that Port Arthur is well-known, is because it suffered from a horrific shooting in 1996 which shocked the town, and the whole of Australia, to its core. Fitchy told us that locals don’t really like to talk about it, which rings true when you visit the town yourself. But the story goes that one man committed suicide after failing to secure the purchase of a local B and B, missing out to another couple. That man’s son later set out to kill the couple who successfully bought the B and B, along with 33 others. As you walk around this small town, it really strikes you just how much of an impact this devastating act would have on the people who live there. When you visit the Historic Site, there is a small, understated memorial area with the remains of the café where the gunman first started shooting, which is a particularly eerie and unsettling experience as you stand enclosed in the remains of the building. A silver-lining, if you can call it that, is that just days following this horrific event, Australia’s then Prime Minister, John Howard, outlawed all semi-automatic rifles/shotguns and a enforced a buy-back scheme that saw the return of more than 650,000 guns. A country that was once reliant on guns went cold-turkey, and hasn’t looked back for more than 20 years – a lesson on gun control to be learnt by other countries.

If you have the time, it would be well worth looking into staying somewhere along the peninsula so you can explore this area in full. Unfortunately we had a bit of a tight schedule, so headed up to the fishing town of Bicheno to stay with one of Fitchy’s friends, Ed (a professional fisherman himself) for the night. It was a great wee town with lots of holiday houses, and you can’t leave without sampling some of their finest fish and chips at The Wharf – try the succulent boarfish for a nice change (caught by Ed!)

The next morning we continued up the East Coast to the stunning Wineglass Bay (Freycinet National Park), which is probably one of the most photographed spots in the whole of Tasmania – and I can now see why! However, I must have brought the Scottish weather with me again, as the rain was pouring that day, meaning we were advised not to climb the challenging Mount Amos to the summit 😦 it looks like a really great route, but our walk to the lookout point was still really worthwhile, giving you a similar end result (from just a little lower down than Mt Amos!) Since we had a bit more time to kill, we did a short walk to the lighthouse which was pleasantly peaceful in comparison to the crowded Wineglass Bay lookout. The free binoculars were great for spotting a seal colony in the ocean and a gliding Albatross above us.

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Wineglass Bay – named after its bloody and violent whaling history, not its wineglass shape as you might expect!

As a reward for (what was meant to be!) our gruelling climb, we headed to Freycinet Marine Farm to sample their sought-after oyster-trio! Expect queues as bus-loads of tourists unload here to get their fix of oysters, scallops and lobsters – but they’re good, and they’re fresh 🙂

That brings us to the end of our short but sweet time in beautiful Tassie. We managed to pack a lot in for a short trip, but I would strongly suggest spending more than a week here as we barely scratched the surface of the west coast, and hiking the Overland Track would be an amazing experience. As I always like to say, at least it leaves something to come back for next time!  For those of you travelling Australia: please, please, please – put Tassie on your list of places to go! With return flights for as little as $90 from Melbourne, there’s no excuse but to have it as a top destination during your trip in Oz – I promise you won’t be disappointed!

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