Travel Special: Tasmania: THE ISLAND LOCKED IN TIME

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For years , Tasmania had eluded me. Like most people who think of Australia, I had thought first of the Reef, the Rock and the Rain forest, the natural wonders found in the north and centre of the "mainland", that term of suspicion that Tasmanians reserve for the great Australian continent just across Bass Strait to their north. And that is as far as most visitors to Australia get, which is a pity.

I sensed Tasmania's difference from the rest of Australia as soon as I landed at Hobart, the capital. Physically, it is more rural England than outback. No hot winds roar across its centre, devastating all in their paths. The island's mountains draw clouds that drop rain into a network of fast-flowing rivers and streams, keeping the climate temperate for most of the year.

And there is something else about Tasmania that hits you at once. Its location as an island state at the bottom of Australia - and the last stop in the Southern Ocean before Antarctica - has spared Tasmania many of the maelstroms of 20th-century development that have turned other parts of Australia into urban high-rise forests, with noise and fumes to match. The island is one of the world's last clean, green refuges, and a living museum of 19th-century colonial history, with the most intact collection of Georgian buildings, towns and farms in Australia. And, thanks largely to environmental battles fought in the Eighties, one-fifth of Tasmania is now a dedicated World Heritage wilderness area. In 10 days, I wanted to see as much of Georgian, colonial and wilderness Tasmania as I could.

Pausing in Hobart to pick up a car, I set off on a journey that would take me first to the Tasman Peninsula, and the infamous convict prison site of Port Arthur, then up the island's east coast to the cliffs and wild flowers of the Freycinet Peninsula, across to the rolling farm plains of the midlands, where some of the oldest and prettiest towns are located, and west to the wild river and mountain country of Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair.

I spent my first two nights at Campania House, an 1813 residence overlooking the sweeping Coal River valley about half an hour's drive north of Hobart, and an ideal base for exploring much of the east coast. Paddy Pearl, an energetic refugee from Sydney, bought the house in 1995 and has lovingly restored it on a small farm where she raises Friesian cattle. "Colonial accommodation", such as Campania House, is a big feature of Tasmania, making a welcome contrast to the brick motels of mainland Australia. And it is not as twee as it might sound. There are simply so many older buildings, and so few Tasmanians (450,000), that it makes sense to open them up to visitors so that they can enjoy the comfort of an open fire and a garden outside the door.

Setting out next morning for Port Arthur, I drove through the neighbouring picture postcard village of Richmond, whose 1823 stone bridge over the Coal River is the oldest bridge in Australia. The closer I came to Port Arthur, though, the more I reflected on the darker side of this tranquil exterior.

The Richmond bridge, together with two others that I admired for their exquisite masonary at the midlands towns of Ross and Campbell Town, were all built by convicts. After Sydney, Tasmania is the oldest part of modern Australia, claimed by the British in 1803 to keep away the French who were snooping around the Southern Ocean. For 50 years, Tasmania became a prison for 93,000 transported British petty criminals, and one of the toughest and most notorious places in the British empire. While the convicts were in chains, the Aborigines were shot, poisoned or rounded up and dumped on off-shore islands.

It is impossible to go anywhere in Tasmania without feeling the past almost reaching out to grab you. Port Arthur closed in 1877, and the last transported convicts died only in the Twenties. Walking around the ruins of Port Arthur, I know I am not the first to be struck by this contrast between Tasmania's beauty and its barbarous past. In 1897, Mark Twain noted: "And it was in this paradise that the yellow-liveried convicts were landed, and the corps-bandits quartered and the wanton slaughter of the kangaroo-chasing black innocents consummated..."

Back at Campania House, Paddy Pearl served a delicious dinner of Tasmanian salmon, vegetables from her garden and Tasmanian cheese and wines. This was a treat because Tasmania's produce, particularly its dairy and seafoods, have become sought-after delicacies on the mainland. Yet many Tasmanians have not woken up to this fact, and it is sometimes frustrating and disappointing to find them glaringly absent on the island's menus.

One of Paddy's dinner guests, Peter MacFie, a local historian, told me that this could have something to do with the Tasmanian psyche of not wanting to draw too much attention to oneself. "It's all to do with the collective amnesia Tasmanians have about their past, as if they don't want to confront it," he said.

But, in other respects, the island is opening up to the world, as its dramatic wilderness regions become more accessible. Another diner, Steve Robertson, an American-born official with Tasmania's Parks and Wildlife Service, told me that there are some pockets of the rugged south-west that are still unexplored. "Tasmania is one of the few places left in the world, along with parts of Chile, Papua New Guinea and Madagascar, that still looks the way it did when we were all part of Gondwanaland, the `supercontinent', millions of years ago."

Fortified next morning by a breakfast of scrambled eggs and wild mushrooms picked from Paddy's lawn, I set forth on my roundabout route to the Gondwanaland features of the wild west coast. But first, at Orford on the east coast, I took the ferry for a day trip to Maria Island, a former convict settlement that Port Arthur later superceded. The bare bones of Maria Island's 1830s buildings survive, including the original penitentiary now fitted with bunks and tables for campers to stay overnight. Otherwise, there are no outside intrusions, no shops, no cars. I spent hours wandering along the island's spectacular sandstone cliffs and pristine beaches, my only companions being groups of friendly Cape Barren geese and Rufus wallabies, known as "paddy melons" because of their fluffy, roly-poly look.

Back on the spectacular east-coast road, stone-fenced fields swept down to golden beaches with the Freycinet Peninsula and Maria Island in the distance. Then came the incongruous sight of a Japanese restaurant, Kabuki- by-the-Sea, perched on a cliff. Inside, over an even more incongruous Devonshire tea, Terry Lanning, its British-born owner, told me why he and Mitsuo Nakanishi, his chef, had traded in their Japanese restaurant in Sydney for here: "I had always wanted to live in Cornwall, and Tasmania is the closest thing to Cornwall that I have ever seen."

But there was nothing Cornish about two of Tasmania's gems that awaited me outside the town of Longford, in the north midlands. Woolmers and Brickendon are two adjoining grand properties that are complete time capsules of Australian colonial history. Like Somercotes, another property near the town of Ross, they are unusual for Australia in having stayed in their founding families' hands since the early 1800s. Two sons from the Archer family of Hertfordshire, seeking to make their fortunes on the other side of the world, built Woolmers and Brickendon six generations ago. And virtually nothing has changed since then. Several rooms at Woolmers look as if people had just walked out and left them 100 years ago. Which, in some cases, they did.

By the time I reached Cradle Mountain national park after a two-hour drive, the sun of the east coast had given way to sleet and snow. The park in the central highlands forms part of the World Heritage area and stretches down to the Gordon and Franklin river systems of the south-west. Anything less than the two days that I spent exploring the park's walking trails would not do the area justice. The landscape encompasses rainforest, tall eucalyptus forests, moorlands, waterfalls and caves. On one walk, I joined Laurie Wootton, an old-timer who first climbed Cradle Mountain in 1936, and who pointed out its plants and wildlife as if they were old friends.

Some wombats and "paddy melon" wallabies waddled unconcernedly across our path. But not, alas, any Tasmanian devils, the black marsupial unique to Tasmania that I desperately wanted to see. The devils are not to be confused with another unique species, the Tasmanian tiger, which is said to have been extinct since 1936, despite hundreds of alleged sightings since. "I've walked all over Tasmania and I've never seen one," Laurie said.

Laurie is one of those intrepid creatures who has walked Cradle Mountain's 81km overland track to its finishing point at Lake St Clair, a week-long undertaking. Making a note that I would embark on this challenge next time, I drove to the lake through mist and snow across the central plateau's pot-holed road.

And it was there, in the most unlikely place in the middle of nowhere, the "visitors' centre" restaurant by Lake St Clair, that I had one of my best dinners in Tasmania. The Tasmanian oysters were fat, fresh, salty and succulent. The char-grilled, marinated beef was the best steak I could remember ever eating. The Tasmanian cheeses measured up to expectation. While I ate, I pitied those overland walkers in their tents on the mountain. TRAVEL NOTES: GETTING THERE: A round trip to Tasmania booked through Trailfinders (0171 937 5400) or STA (0171 361 6262) is pounds 765 (visa required). FURTHER INFORMATION: The best time to visit is November-May. East coast weather then is usually warm and sunny, but the west coast, with its rugged landscape and higher rainfall, is more unpredictable. More information: Australian Tourist CommissionAuss ie Helpline, 0990 022000.