Arabella Edge: My Tasmania

It was meant to be a spot of house-sitting for a friend. But as soon as the bestselling British author Arabella Edge set eyes on rugged and remote Tasmania she was hooked. Now she calls this faraway land her home

Ilived in Sydney for 10 years before visiting Tasmania. Despite falling instantly in love with Australia when I arrived from England in 1992, and exploring its vast continent in a year-long adventure, not once did I consider crossing Bass Strait to see the little island state to its south. Yet, when I unexpectedly found myself in Hobart housesitting for a fellow author, I was immediately seduced by the pace and size of what felt like an English university town.

Situated in Tasmania's south east, near the mouth of the Derwent River and the foot of dramatic Mount Wellington, Hobart is the state capital and Australia's second oldest city after Sydney. Miraculously, its elegant Georgian architecture has survived intact. Hobart is still very much a working fishing port, and its lively wharf district captures the new spirit of Tasmania, where old and new have learnt to find their place.

There is an authenticity and buzz to the area, and it has benefited from a smart makeover that has thankfully spared it from becoming just another kitsch tourist trap. The early 19th-century wharves and warehouses along the docks, once teeming with whalers, sealers and merchants, now house vibrant cafés, restaurants and galleries. The fishing punts lining the wharves continue to sell a variety of seafood and nothing can beat a dozen plump Tassie oysters fresh from the pristine waters in which they were harvested.

On the eastern side of the docks is a row of sandstone waterfront warehouses dating back to the early 1820s. There you will find a former jam factory which has been skilfully reinvented as the jam-packed Henry Jones Art Hotel (thehenry jones.com), with its ever so trendy front bar. The fabric of the old building provides the highlights of the new. Many of the luxuriously appointed rooms incorporate exposed wooden beams and metre-thick sandstone walls.

This new development, which showcases the work of Tasmania's artists and includes an acclaimed restaurant, has revitalised this side of the docks, which some years back had a forlorn and neglected feel.

A short stroll from the wharves takes you to Salamanca Place, again a classic Georgian stretch crammed with galleries and old-fashioned pubs with a seafaring theme. Every Saturday from 8.30am to 3pm, this strip converts into the Salamanca Market, with a profusion of crafts, woodwork, ceramics, jewellery, high-quality second-hand books and retro fashion. It also has live music and gourmet food stalls - Salamanca Markets is an entertaining weekly event not to be missed.

Hobart is the perfect starting point for an expedition up the east coast, dubbed the "sun coast" for its temperate climate. The spectacular winding coastal roads, farmhouses, orchards and vineyards are reminiscent of the countryside of the south of France - except that the vast tracks of surf-dashed beaches are deserted and you won't see many cars on the road.

A 20-minute drive from Hobart brings you to the historic town of Richmond. Built by convicts in 1823, the town's bridge spanning the Coal River is the oldest road bridge in Australia.

Very little has changed in Richmond in the past century, although the colonial cottages have metamorphosed into teashops, antique emporiums and galleries. Yet for all Richmond's old-world charm, the Richmond Gaol, built five years before the establishment of Port Arthur, stands as a grim reminder of Tasmania's past. The locks and cells have not been altered since 1825 and stepping inside the dank darkness of the solitary confinement cells evokes the same chilling sense of despair as wandering through the ruins of Port Arthur.

From Richmond, you wind through some pretty countryside until a narrow riverside road heralds the coast at Orford, opening up dramatic vistas of Maria Island (parks.tas.gov.au). From Orford the road continues, with the ocean reflecting the outline of the Freycinet Peninsula and its precipitous granite cliffs, the Hazards, etched with orange lichen. On a clear day, the Hazards seem to glow with an unearthly pink light.

Further along, 12 miles south of Swansea, the Japanese restaurant Kabuki by the sea (kabukibythe seas.com.au) comes as a surprise in this surreal setting. Perched on the clifftop and commanding panoramic views, Kabuki offers impeccably prepared Japanese or local dishes and accommodation in self-contained units. About six miles further on brings another highlight, Kate's Berry Farm, famed for its jam, wine and fresh fruit ice cream.

On the western shore of Great Oyster Bay, Swansea bustles as a popular holiday resort featuring some fine colonial buildings, including the 1838 Morris's General Store. The museum of local history at Glamorgan Community Centre, dating from the 1860s, vividly recalls the lives of the east coast's early settlers,, whose descendants still live in the area today. Renowned for establishing the best café on the east coast, the founders of The Left Bank have moved, but their trademark fare lives on, including a famous lemon tart.

From there the highway bypasses the glorious Freycinet National Park and it is best to reserve the stunning three-hour walk to the pure white sands of Wineglass Bay for an entire day's experience. Coles Bay (freycinetcolesbay.com), 31km along a sealed road from the Highway, is the closest port of call to all the activities Freycinet National Park has to offer and it is advisable to book accommodation during the peak season.

To escape the madding summer crowds yet remain within a five-minute striking distance of Coles Bay, head for the mountains and the luxurious lodges on Mount Paul (mountpaul onfreycinet), owned by two intrepid English women, who exchanged their Suffolk home for 1,200 acres of wilderness and views of the peninsula. As mobs of Forester kangaroo crash through the bushland - not to mention Tassie devils, possums, wombats and a variety of other wildlife - you will feel like you're on safari as you sit on the deck and crack open a bottle of pinot noir.

Continue along the highway and the road to Bicheno takes you past several wineries all worth a visit, beginning with Springvale Vineyards, the original 1842 homestead of the writer Louisa Anne Meredith whose book My Home in Tasmania provides a fascinating insight into colonial life. Acclaimed for its award-winning Gewürztraminer, the cellar door is situated in the original convict-built farmhouse stable, surrounded by the gardens landscaped by Louisa herself - several of the trees she planted are still standing. Further on, Freycinet Vineyard is famed for its cabernet sauvignon and has won a fair share of awards for its sparkling Radenti, named after Claudio the proprietor.

A two-and-a-half hour drive from Hobart, Bicheno is still a true working fishing town, its principal industries being abalone and crayfish. Each morning the fishing fleet returns to moor its sturdy vessels in a sheltered harbour called the Gulch, which in Louisa's day was a significant whaling station. In 1842, Louisa visited the Gulch and wrote: "Skeletons of huts and skeletons of whales stood side by side and with greasy barrels in long and black array, and remains of putrid carcasses steaming in the sunshine, formed one scene of dirt, desolation and disgust, contrasting powerfully with the clean bright crags, snow-white beach and the pure brilliant character of the surrounding scenery."

Bicheno's savage past still resonates in the poignant and lonely grave on the headland of the town's main beach, Waubs Bay, named after Waubadebar, an aboriginal woman, who was enslaved by sealers in the early 19th century and saved the lives of two men when their ship was wrecked offshore. The headstone is inscribed with the simple epitaph: From English friends.

Today you can still admire the bright crags of the Gulch and Governor's Island teeming with gulls and terns at the Apsley Gorge Vineyard in the old fish-packing factory which ex-abalone diver, Brian Franklin, has transformed into an eaterie. In addition to pinot noir or chardonnay from his nearby winery, Brian serves fresh lobster, abalone and a gourmet range of smoked meat and terrines produced by the local award-winning butcher Rob "Sirloin" Breier.

The northern end of Bicheno's Redbill Beach provides a sanctuary to a clamorous fairy penguin rookery. The best way to view these delightful creatures returning to feed their young at dusk is to book the one-hour penguin tour (6375 1333) from the surf shop in the centre of town.

By random twists of fate, Bicheno has now become my home. During a brief respite from our housesitting duties in Hobart, we stayed at a small chalet operation on ocean land just outside Bicheno only to discover the following morning that the foreshore block next door was for sale. We made the impulsive move from Sydney to Bicheno, a rugged and nautical landscape, harsh yet haunting and drenched in a luminous blue light.

During the course of the next three years I wrote my second novel, The Raft, inspired by the life of the French painter Théodore Géricault. I worked in a 1950s caravan to the sound of the waves while my husband built the house on the land. Then last year we took the idyll one step further. Hideaway, the chalet operation next door, came on to the market and we could not resist the challenge. In addition to the four existing chalets, we inherited the previous owner's house, now decorated in an eclectic maritime style and renamed the Boathouse. Having Freycinet National Park only a 19-mile drive away and the Douglas-Apsley National Park four miles to the north of us, Bicheno lies at the heart of the Tasmanian east coast. We seem to attract like-minded guests, who love the sunrises and the absolute tranquillity of the place. However, we have found that the most common mistake visitors make is attempting to do the island in five days - Tasmania is deceptively small on the map but big on the ground. Our most frequent request is to book an extra night. Having stayed and never left, we completely understand.

My top eaterie

T42 Bar (00 61 3 6224 7742; tar42.com.au) on Hobart's Elizabeth Pier, a relaxed waterfront wine bar, is one of my favourite spots to watch the yachts sailing past and the trawlers offloading their crates of live crayfish. It has great service and a versatile modern Oz menu. Next door, Fish Frenzy (00 61 3 6231 2134; fishfrenzy.com.au) does a roaring trade in generous seafood platters. Afterwards, catch live music at one of the bars.

My best island

Named in 1642 by the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman in honour of Maria Van Diemen, the wife of the Governor of Batavia, Maria Island was once a penal settlement, then leased in the 1850s for a series of doomed industrial enterprises. It wasn't until 1972 that it was declared a national park to preserve its magnificent forests, cliffs, wild beaches and the ruins of its former settlements. There are no shops or cars on Maria Island, making it the perfect escape for intrepid bushwalkers and campers.

Best foot forward: Arabella's walking tips

GARDEN PLEASURES

Stroll around Hobart's Royal Botanical Gardens. Established in 1818, they house the oldest and largest collection of conifers in Australia. The Sub Antarctic Plant House has many specimens from chilly climes. Next door at Government House, the Governor's cows still graze in their paddock.

TOP VIEW

Take a hike up Mount Maria, Maria Island's highest point at 711m. This is quite a hike - it takes seven hours to complete the round trip. It starts from the old township of Darlington. One of the pleasures of this walk is seeing sea eagles wheel across the sky.

MIND THE HAZARDS

The three-hour walk to beautiful Wineglass Bay involves climbing up and down 600 rough-hewn bush steps. After a dip in the sea, continue along the isthmus track to Hazards Beach and return via the coastal walk. Or take the 90-minute return walk to Wineglass Bay Lookout.

ROCKY WAY

Mount Amos is part of the range of mountains known as the Hazards. The track to this summit is steep and strenuous but the three-hour round trip offers the reward of amazing views. Beware, the sheets of steep rock can be slippery after rain.

WATER BLISS

The tranquil pools and river scenes of the Douglas-Apsley National Park are the highlights of a four-hour walk which begins at the Apsley Waterhole. Due to river crossings, this walk should be attempted only in dry weather between January and March.

SURF'S UP

Take two-mile Foreshore Footway from Bicheno's Redbill Beach along flat rocks marked with red arrows through the Gulch and along to the Blowhole, where the surf spumes spray from a large granite boulder.

Arabella Edge's new novel, 'The Raft', inspired by the life of the artist Théodore Géricault, was published by Picador last week, price £12.99. For more information about Bicheno Hideaway go to bichenohideaway.com. Austravel (0870-166 2070; austravel.com) offers flights to Tasmania via Hong Kong, Melbourne and Hobart with Qantas from £645 return. Ten-night packages start at £1,204 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, car hire and accommodation. See discovertasmania.co.uk for more information

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