How Does Tasmania differ from the mainland?
For much of its history, Tasmania has had the unfair reputation of being the poor relation of mainland Australia: a remote, storm-lashed backwater that's even left off some maps of the nation. But in these eco-conscious times, "Tassie" is coming into its own as an unspoilt gem, containing one of the last surviving areas of temperate wilderness.
The island juts out of the Southern Ocean 250km off the coast of Victoria, meaning the climate is more maritime European than Australian. And whereas travelling in mainland Australia can involve mile after mile, day after day of much the same thing, Tasmania's landscape is as varied as Britain's. In an area no larger than the Republic of Ireland it has pretty well every weather system except tropical, and everything from green, English-style hills and valleys to icy, Alpine crags; from typically Australian bush and eucalyptus forests to deserted white beaches and wild dunes.
In some parts, vines and fruit trees grow profusely on the fertile slopes; in others, domestic cows and sheep share rough pasture with wombats and wallabies. The overall feel of the place is more understated New Zealand than brash Australia, and offers visitors a markedly more relaxed pace of life.
Why is the weather so changeable?
Sail due west from Tasmania and the first landfall is southern Argentina, two oceans away. The weather comes hard in the opposite direction, borne by the Roaring Forties. Tasmania lies directly in the path of this weather system. The west coast especially in the winter takes a frightful battering and drenching. The hardy people who live around Strahan and other former logging and mining centres endure up to three metres of rain a year. But the wind and rain exhaust themselves over the central mountain belt, and parts of Tasmania's east coast have had years of near-drought. The hottest days are during the summer (November-February), but in March and April the weather is usually more stable. Even then, it always pays to pack a fleece and a wetsuit if you're planning on surfing.
Worth going half way around the world to visit?
Not if you're looking for a beach holiday, but otherwise the possibilities are limitless. Separated from the mainland 12,000 years ago when the sea rose to form the Bass Strait, Tasmania boasts a unique natural environment, largely unaffected by man. Fewer than half a million people live there, which leaves an enormous amount of empty space. The wilderness, maintained as a World Heritage Area, comprises more than a third of the island's landmass. Elsewhere there are 17 accessible national parks, with species of tree, shrub, flower, mammal and fish that can't be found in their natural habitat anywhere else. These include the stately Huon pines, some of which are 10,000 years old and rank among the world's oldest living organisms.
The island is the last home for several mammals that once roamed the Australian continent, including the Tasmanian Devil and rare varieties of quoll (wild cats), parrots, possums and platypus.
The scenic, little-used roads make for spectacular driving tours . There are nearly 80 golf courses, including Ratho in Bothwell (www.rathogolf.com), which is Australia's oldest club, and a new, world-class links course at Barnbougle (00 613 6356 0094; www. barnbougledunes.com.au) on the north coast. You can find luxury spas in the mountains, a fast-developing wine industry, and fascinating historical sites from Aboriginal to British colonial. Adventurous travellers can track down serious challenges for mountaineers, cavers, white-water rafters, divers and mountain-bikers. And Tasmania's wilderness contains Australia's most celebrated hike: the Overland Track from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair in the central highlands.
A tough walk?
Yes, but a glorious one. Every year, about 9,000 people take the Overland Track through part of the World Heritage Area that includes Tasmania's highest peak, Mount Ossa (1,617m), and some of the island's most elemental scenery. Demand is so great that during the peak season (November-April) walkers have to book in advance, head in one direction only (north to south) and pay a fee of A$150 (65) towards maintenance of the track. But even in summer, progress can be slowed by high winds, rain and even snow, so it's essential to carry a tent and a fuel stove. To make a booking, call 00 613 6233 6047, or visit www.overlandtrack.com.au.
The six-day journey has become a rite of passage for so many recreational ramblers that every precaution has been taken to ensure they complete the 80km route in one piece. There are well-maintained bushwalkers' huts at the five main overnight stops, and most of the track has been hardened or duckboarded to protect the immediate environment and ensure that walkers don't come to grief in areas of boggy marshland.
While the Overland Track is one of the world's great long-distance hiking routes, at its busiest it makes the wilderness less, well, wild. For solitude, the 83km South Coast Track (5-10 days) is a challenging and spectacular route, far less travelled, but the only access to the starting point at Melaleuca, deep within the Southwest National Park, is by boat or light aircraft.
Most walkers get there by chartering a light aircraft from Hobart. Services run most days during the summer if weather permits. The walk ends at Cockle Creek, 130km south of Hobart, from where a bushwalkers' bus service can be pre-booked to return you to civilisation. More information: www.parks.tas.gov.au.
Any quicker insights?
Yes, you can explore the bush without having to trek for a week. Craig Williams is your man. He is a self-taught Tasmanian bushman, based near Launceston in the north of the island. Craig guides nature-lovers through Mount William National Park and other remote areas partly on foot, partly in his 4x4 making sense of the unfamiliar tangle of flora and fauna.
Mount William contains 100 different bird species, the world's tallest gum trees, hidden waterfalls in the primordial forest and a treasure-trove of secrets. To help unlock them, Craig equips you with what he calls his "Bush Altimeter", "Bush Compass" and "Bush Barometer" by making you notice things you would otherwise have missed.
As you climb, he explains how to judge the altitude by identifying plants that flourish at different heights. You get a precise direction-reading from the angle of the main branches of the trees (they all lean eastwards), and you learn that the pressure is dropping when certain birds fly from the coast towards the mountains a sure sign of approaching bad weather.
The many varieties of berries enhance the flavour of the bush tucker (fresh trout, wallaby tenderloins and local vegetables) which he prepares at sunset over an open log fire. Later, you aim spotlights into the darkness, learning to distinguish between a possum and a wallaby by the colour of their eyes. For more details of the tours on offer, contact Pepper Bush Adventures (00 613 6352 2263; www.pepperbush.com.au).
On an adventure island such as this, just name your sport. Take diving. With 322 offshore islands and 5,400km of coastline, Tasmania is one of the top temperate dive locations in the world, and the last refuge for many of the continent's cold-water species. In Europe, visibility reduces sharply below 10 metres. Off the Tasmanian coast, colours remain vivid at twice that depth, and between March and August you can see clearly 20-25 metres below the surface.
One of the best diving locations is the Tasman Peninsula, south of Hobart. The Eaglehawk Dive Centre (00 613 6250 3566; www.eaglehawkdive.com.au) gives access to massive underwater caves and giant kelp forests, and the marine life is astonishing. There are colourful anemones, delicate sea dragons and a blameless-looking fish known locally as the "real bastard trumpeter". Two dives and gear hire costs A$190 (82), and there's bunk-style accommodation for A$25 (11) per night.
The most accessible national parks?
The most photographed is the Freycinet Peninsula, an easy two-hour drive up the east coast from Hobart. A glorious, winding approach through a eucalyptus forest leads you to a long tongue of land upon which nature's bounties are distributed.
The west side faces the exhilarating ocean; the more sheltered east gets the sunsets and calm waters of Great Oyster Bay.
The best photo opportunities are of The Hazards mountain range, and the perfectly symmetrical Wineglass Bay, which can only be reached by boat or by crossing the peninsula on foot.
A luxurious base is Freycinet Lodge (00 613 6257 0101; www.freycinetlodge.com.au), a pleasing arrangement of 60 cabins set in the bush. A minimum two-night stay costs from A$195 (84) per head, with breakfast included.
The Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park gives a taste of the mountains without your venturing too far from the comfort zone. Amid the ice-carved landscape of crags, lakes and rainforest there are numerous well-marked walks, ranging from 10 minutes to nine hours. The longest is a guided hike to the summit of Cradle Mountain itself; the prettiest is the six-kilometre circuit of Dove Lake, where on fine days you can bask on small, sandy beaches.
Among many accommodation options, Cradle Mountain Lodge (00 613 6492 1303; www.cradlemountainlodge.com.au) stands out, with cosy timber cabins equipped with wood-burning stoves and a free supply of timber from the forest. Some cabins have private terraces, which you're likely to share with fearless wallabies and wombats if you produce any food. A basic cabin costs A$137 (59) with a full "mountain breakfast" included.
A different experience awaits you on and around Maria Island, an hour north of Hobart. The old penitentiary on this former convict site has been converted into a bunk room for overnighters. The island's only permanent human occupants are the park rangers, who have the peaks, fossil cliffs, deserted tracks and beaches to themselves.
On a boat trip around the island you explore dark sea-caves big enough to swallow a boat, pass Haunted Bay so called because of the strange, echoing cries of the penguins who frequent it and circumnavigate Ile de Phoques, a neighbouring rock that is home to a huge seal colony.
Twice a day, a ferry (A$40/17) leaves from Triabunna on the mainland, and the operator, Sea Wings (00 613 6257 1226; www.seawingsecotours.com.au) runs a variety of tours around Maria and its satellite islands.
Were many convicts sent to Tasmania?
Tens of thousands; only New South Wales received more. Indeed, the export of convicts was the reason Tasmania was settled by the British in 1803. Of the seven convict sites restored for visitors, top billing goes to Port Arthur, on the Tasman Peninsula, where u o thousands of habitual offenders were confined between 1830 and 1877 in conditions the Lieutenant General in charge wanted to be portrayed as "hell on earth" to act as a deterrent. Here more than anywhere else it's possible to appreciate the hardship and hopelessness of the inmates, who knew they would never see their families and homeland again.
Escape attempts were especially perilous because Eaglehawk Neck, the narrow strip of land connecting the peninsula to the rest of the island, was guarded by a line of savage dogs. By 1840, the Port Arthur penal settlement had 200 buildings, housing more than 2,000 convicts, soldiers and staff. By then, the first juvenile prison in the British Empire had been opened on the adjacent island of Point Puer.
Thirty of the buildings have been restored, and the complex is a major tourist attraction. It opens between 9am and 6pm; admission is A$25 (11), which includes a boat trip round the harbour and a guided walking tour. Sadly, Port Arthur was the scene of a massacre by a lone gunman in 1996, in which 35 people died.
Does Tasmania offer much in the way of urban life?
More than half the population live either in the capital, Hobart, or its northern counterpart, Launceston. The north-south divide is more imaginary than real, but you can always tell where you are by the beer the locals drink: Cascade in the south, Boag's in the north.
Hobart has the more spectacular location, with its wide harbour at the foot of Mount Wellington, and a handsome road bridge spanning the River Derwent. Renowned for their arts and crafts, Hobart's local producers set up stalls every Saturday morning at Salamanca Market, selling honey, fudge, clothes, jewellery and 1,001 things made out of Tasmanian timber.
Launceston has better weather and wine, some notable Victorian buildings, and a riverside boardwalk running from the centre to the Cataract Gorge, where you can cross the river by suspension bridge or chairlift to reach a magnificent open-air swimming pool.
How do I get there?
With some difficulty, in the absence of direct flights to Tasmania from the UK. The main connecting point is Melbourne. It has daily flights from Heathrow on Qantas (0845 7 747 767; www.qantas.com.au), and easy connections to both Hobart and Launceston and less frequent services to Devonport and Burnie. Sydney is the other main gateway for international visitors. Virgin Blue (www.virginblue.com.au) offers low-cost connections from several Australian cities in competition with Qantas. A pair of car ferries (00 613 6421 7209; www.spiritoftasmania.com.au) make the daily 10-hour crossing between Melbourne and Devonport.
Flight Centre (0870 499 0042; www.flightcentre.co.uk) offers 10-night packages to Tasmania from 1,297, including flights from Heathrow, domestic flights, seven days' car hire, four- or five-star accommodation on the island, and a stay in a Melbourne hotel on either side the trip.
Further details on travel options are available at www.discovertasmania.com
The next for extinction?
About the size of a small dog, the Tasmanian devil is a carnivorous marsupial unique to the island. With its screech-like growl and relentless scavenging, the devil looks and sounds much fiercer than it really is and now it's endangered. A form of cancer that produces tumours in the face and head and kills its host within six months has so far proved incurable. The devils' population has been reduced in places by more than 80 per cent; across the island as a whole, their numbers have halved since the disease was first observed in 1996.
The Australian and Tasmanian governments have launched a captive-breeding programme that they see as the best way of ensuring that the devil doesn't go the same way as the Thylacine, known as the Tasmanian tiger, officially extinct since 1936 (although unconfirmed sightings continue).
Devils are being bred and monitored at various sites, allowing visitors to see them at close quarters. The Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park (00 613 62 503 230; www.tasmaniandevilpark.com), an hour south of Hobart on the Tasman Peninsula, is the only wildlife centre in an isolated disease-free region, where healthy specimens are being reared to restock the wilderness if the disease risk passes. Here, the animals can be viewed in their natural habitat of forest, swamp and marshland.
Another captive breeding programme opened in the north last year, within the infected zone near Cradle Mountain. Devils@Cradle (00 613 6492 1491; www.devilsatcradle.com) currently nurtures 11 healthy adults and five babies. Visitors can tour the compound after dark to see the animals feeding and exercising.