The Bay of Fires on Tasmania’s northeastern coast. (Photo: Fotolia)
The Bay of Fires on Tasmania’s northeastern coast. (Photo: Fotolia)

On Top of the World in Tasmania

Read the feature that just won a 2018 Folio: honorable mention for Best Single Article in a Consumer Travel Magazine.

“Echidna,” I shout, and my husband hits the brakes. A small, spiky creature with a long snout shuffles across the road, oblivious to its near-death experience. It continues into the scrub, drawn by its search for ants and termites, as my heartbeat slows back to normal.

Our sudden stop doesn’t create any problems on the road, because we are the only car on this stretch of the Arthur Highway. Traffic jams are nearly nonexistent here in Tasmania; Australia’s island state is roughly the size of West Virginia but has less than one-third of its population.

The echidna safely on its way, we ­continue south across a narrow isthmus known as Eaglehawk Neck. This slim tightrope of land ­separates Pirates Bay and Eaglehawk Bay, and also acts as the gateway to Port Arthur, Australia’s most notorious convict settlement. Tasmania is farther south than the southern tip of Africa, and was once considered to be the bottom of the world—a perfect place to send criminals.

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Port Arthur was established in 1833 at the southeast tip of Tasmania because the icy waters and rugged forest that surround it created a ­natural prison. The only means of escape was across the isthmus—a daunting prospect due to the Dog Line, a row of snarling dogs chained across the Neck at its narrowest point.

My admission ticket to the 100-acre Port Arthur Historic Site comes with a playing card. It’s a nine of hearts, with an illustration of a kangaroo at the bottom. “That will help you find your convict,” the ticket seller says. “Start downstairs in the gallery to learn why he ended up here.”

In the convict gallery, there is a wall of 52 tiny compartments, each with a playing card on its face. I find the nine of hearts, lifting the flap to reveal the fate of William White. A native of Leicester, England, he was convicted in March 1823 for picking pockets, sentenced to prison for life, and shipped to Australia.

A second conviction (attempting to commit “buggery” with a fellow prisoner) resulted in White being transported even farther, to Port Arthur, where repeat offenders were sent to be simultaneously reformed and penalized. I step out of the gallery to the attractive grounds on the water’s edge and remind myself that living here was a punishment.

Of course, William White probably didn’t spend any time among the dangling purple foxgloves in the English garden, or sunning himself on the veranda at the commandant’s house. He would have been confined to the now-crumbling brick penitentiary, or perhaps the isolation room of the asylum. He would have been trapped down here at the bottom of the world, cursing his fate.

I step out of the gallery to the attractive grounds on the water’s edge and remind myself that living here was once a punishment.

The wild landscape that once made Tasmania so inaccessible is today celebrated for its natural beauty, which becomes evident as we drive north along the east coast. The Tasman Sea is so clear that I can see straight to the bottom, and the coast is lined with striking giant boulders covered in vivid orange lichen. We stop to take photos and purchase crisp green apples from a roadside fruit stall—Tasmania’s other nickname is the Apple Isle—so it takes an extra hour to reach the Freycinet Peninsula, home of the popular Wineglass Bay.

The track from the car park to the lookout is short (1.3 kilometers, or less than a mile), but steep. The path opens to a perfect view of the bay, shaped like the goblet of a wineglass framed by the granite peaks of the Hazards mountain range. The scene is magnificent from our high vantage point, a curve of vibrant white beach hugging an impossibly blue bay.

From Freycinet we circle northwest toward Launceston, Tassie’s second-largest city and an ideal base for visiting the Tamar Valley, the state’s oldest wine region. We join a small group tour and spend a full day exploring the wineries, admiring the endless rows of lush green vines and sampling the region’s exceptional pinot noirs and sparkling wines.

Our driver is a Launceston local, recently returned home after years away. “I’ve lived all over,” she tells us. “Melbourne, Denmark, Sydney. But Tasmania’s home. I always knew I’d come back. There’s no place like it anywhere else.”

I appreciate the wine slightly less the next day, when we take on another walking trail. Cradle Mountain National Park, two hours west of Launceston, is named for a towering mountain that forms a rugged cradle at its peak. There are several tracks to choose from, and we pick one of moderate intensity that will take us around Dove Lake, at the base of the mountains.

One wrong turn later and we find ourselves gripping a chain and scrambling over rocks as we climb higher and higher. A couple passes on their way down and offers encouragement. “You’re almost there,” the man says. “About 45 minutes to go.”

We’ve gone too far to turn back now, but thankfully his assessment proves wrong. Twenty minutes more and we reach a plateau called Marion’s Lookout, with views that stretch for miles. The lake below has turned an inky black, though at ground level the water is as clear as the Tasman Sea. The glacial dolomite peaks give way to bristly green brush, home to wild wombats that always remain just out of sight. My exhaustion fades and I’m starting to see why our Tamar Valley driver decided to call Tasmania home.

The Museum of Old and New Art, Mona for short, is about seven miles (11 km) north of Hobart. You can drive or cycle, but the best way to get there is by ferry from Brooke Street Pier in the city center. Book ahead for tickets in the ferry’s “Posh Pit,” which will grant you use of a private deck, drinks, and canapes during the 25-minute journey. 

When we arrive, I see no visible evidence of a museum, just a squat mirrored building set on the edge of a synthetic tennis court. Mona isn’t open yet, so we grab coffee at the sleek café; it’s a bit early for a wine tasting at the onsite winery, Moorilla. At 10 a.m., the mirrored wall slides open to reveal the museum’s entrance and the mystery behind its location. Mona was carved into the edge of a sandstone cliff and extends for three stories below the tennis court.

We descend to the ground floor and spend several hours working our way up, gobsmacked by the museum’s sheer scale and mind-bending exhibitions. My husband is fascinated by an eerie Egyptian sarcophagus while my favorite is Dots Obsession, a room filled with yellow and black polka-dotted objects by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Mona’s creator, David Walsh, is a Tasmanian local, a professional gambler turned art collector and philanthropist with a taste for the bizarre.

From the dark confines of the museum we emerge into the brilliant afternoon sunshine and head for Bruny Island, our final destination in Tasmania. It takes only an hour by road and car ferry to reach the island, which is made up of North Bruny and South Bruny. Like Port Arthur, this island features an isthmus known as the Neck that separates its two parts. There are no snarling dogs here, only harmless fairy penguins that clamor onto shore at night.

We spend several hours in the Museum of Old and New Art, gobsmacked by its sheer scale and mind-bending exhibitions.

A single road runs from North Bruny to South Bruny, and along the way there are several local goodies to tempt your taste buds. We stop at the Bruny Island Cheese and Beer Co. for a tipple and the Bruny Island Providore to pick up some fudge. On South Bruny we stop by Australia’s southernmost vineyard, Bruny Island Premium Wines, where we follow a short wine tasting with a late lunch of local oysters and seafood chowder.

At dusk we go in search of the elusive white wallaby, said to be found in South Bruny National Park. Just when I’m about to give up, a woman approaches and beckons us closer. “There’s a white wallaby,” she says. “About 25 feet in front of you, up the hill.” The animal is the size of a large cat and impossible to miss with its bright fur. The wallaby peers at us through thick white eyelashes, twitches a pink nose and translucent ears, then returns to its grassy meal.

We go back to Hobart two days later, stopping at the Neck to soak up one final view of Tasmania. A set of rickety wooden stairs leads to a lookout that provides a full panorama of the calm water lapping at either side of the isthmus, blue skies above, and gentle hills rising from the background. Tasmania may be at the bottom of the world, but from where I stand, I am sure that I’m on top of it. 

Traveler Fast Facts

What it is:
An island state about 150 miles (240 km) south of Australia’s mainland, Tasmania is about the size of West Virginia. It has a population of half a million people, about 40 percent of whom lives in and around the state capital of Hobart. It is believed that Aboriginals lived here for thousands of years prior to colonization by the British Empire, which created the state in 1803 and sent thousands of convicts to the island during the first half of the 19th century.

The ideal time to visit is Tasmanian summer (December–March), when daytime temperatures across the state hover between 62 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Weather in Tasmania’s west can be wild and windy all year, but expect conditions to turn on a dime no matter where you are—this is an island, after all.

Getting there:
Fly from the west coast of the U.S. to Sydney (14–15 hours) and then on to Hobart or Launceston. Hobart International Airport’s single runway is undergoing an extension to 9,025 feet, with completion expected in 2018. The expansion will allow for direct flights between Tasmania and Southeast Asia; currently all flights from mainland Australia to Tasmania come from Sydney, Melbourne, or Brisbane. Commercial operators include Qantas and Virgin Australia. Both Hobart and Launceston airports accommodate private jets.

Getting around:
Car rental companies Avis, Budget, and Hertz all operate out of Hobart Airport. Driving around Tasmania is much like driving in the U.S., except that you’ll be on the left side of the road and there’s a chance you might encounter unusual wildlife. Keep an eye out for brown signs that signify tourist attractions such as historical sites, scenic lookouts, or other points of interest.

What to know before you go:
Tasmania uses Australian dollars and ATMs are plentiful, particularly in Hobart and Launceston. U.S. visitors will need to apply for an electronic tourist visa online prior to arrival. Australia has strict quarantine requirements to prevent the introduction of dangerous pests and diseases. For information on what can be brought into Tasmania.

Traveler Report Card

Accommodations (A):
In Hobart, stay at the artsy Mona Pavilions, where you can choose from eight one-of-a-kind properties overlooking the River Derwent. On the east coast, base yourself at the Saffire Freycinet, where you’ll get floor-to-ceiling views of the Hazards. For a country escape in Launceston, book the Relbia Lodge, a private cottage within minutes of the award-winning Josef Chromy winery. When hiking Cradle Mountain, relax for the night at Peppers Cradle Mountain Lodge.

Cuisine (A+):
Tasmania’s reputation as a foodie’s paradise is well founded, and excellent meals can be had all over the state. Try Lebrina in Hobart and Stillwater in Launceston for stylish dishes created from local produce. The Doo-Lishus food truck in eccentric Doo Town is the place to get fresh scallops with a seaside view on your way to or from Port Arthur.

Activities (A):
The best way to see Tassie’s natural beauty is to lace up your hiking shoes. Pick up a copy of 60 Great Short Walks from any visitors’ center and choose a trail from a range of ­difficulty levels. You can also cruise around Bruny Island’s stunning coastline or hire a driver to take you on a culinary tour of the Tamar Valley wineries. To meet a real-life Tasmanian devil, visit Devils@Cradle near Cradle Mountain.

Quietude (B+):
In Tasmania it is still possible to have a beautiful beach all to yourself; and if you do, the only sounds you’ll hear are your feet squeaking on the sand and the waves rolling into shore. The same is true for the many national parks, though you may encounter crowds at Cradle Mountain and Wineglass Bay.

Author Lauren Fitzpatrick paid her own expenses in Tasmania.