Traveller's Guide: Tasmania

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Australia's island state has temperate rainforests, deserted beaches, world-class wine – and a compelling convict history.

Long haul, small island?

The smallest state in Australia sits 150 miles across the Bass Strait from the south-east mainland – but it feels like a different world, starting with the climate. While much of the mainland is hot, red and dry, Tasmania is cool, green and temperate and it is a place of magnificent diversity.

In the west is the vast and dense Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, covering one-fifth of the land mass. Here, few roads penetrate the ancient rainforests, wild rivers and mountains. This coast takes the brunt of the Roaring Forties, the winds that rush uninterrupted across the ocean and bring winds of 120mph (strongest in Spring) and an average annual rainfall of 10ft (five times as much as the nearest big city, Melbourne).

Rugged mountain peaks and tranquil lakes in the central highlands lead the way to a flatter, drier coastline in the east. One glorious deserted white sandy beach follows another, the sand so fine that it squeaks under your feet.

Further south, walls of volcanic rock rise vertically from the sea. Tall sea stacks and arches, carved by the southern ocean, create dramatic coastal vistas. And in addition to the main island of Tasmania, the state encompasses more than 300 smaller isles.

Signs of life?

Man's impact has been modest. The island takes its name from Abel Tasman, the Dutchman who landed in 1642 and called it Van Diemen's Land in honour of the governor-general of the Dutch East Indies who had commissioned Tasman's trip. Until the early 19th century, the island was largely ignored. In 1803 the first European settlement was established in Risdon Cove on the banks of the Derwent river near Hobart, which is now the state's capital. The largest town in the north is Launceston, its neighbours Devonport and Burnie being the other two significant settlements. Despite the sparse population, there is plenty of historic interest, from colonial villages to mining communities and penal colonies.

Unlike the easy-going place you find today, Tasmania has a bloody past. The first half of the 1800s brought growth and development. Initial peaceful relations with the native population progressively turned into unease and confrontation. The Tasmanian Aborigines were actively hunted and killed, or rounded up and imprisoned on islands and then slowly left to die out.

Tasmania was also a prison. The Tasman Peninsula is a fist of territory punching into the Great Southern Ocean, connected only by a 50-yard-wide isthmus, Eaglehawk Neck. It once housed the most savage penal colony in Australia, Port Arthur, the British Empire's equivalent to Alcatraz (00 61 3 6251 2310; portarthur.org.au). A half-day pass costs A$30 (£19).

While many of the structures are still visible, you will see no walls or fences, for the simple reason that none were needed. To escape, a prisoner had to cross Eaglehawk Neck, which the authorities had populated with vicious and hungry dogs. The sense of tragedy is intensified by the memorial garden to the 35 people who died in the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 at the hands of a lone gunman, Martin Bryant.

Urban appeal?

Start in Hobart. Australia's second oldest city (after Sydney) sits on the river Derwent, in the foothills of the brown fragmented columns of rock that is the 4,167ft Mount Wellington. The state capital is a vibrant city set around the waterfront of Sullivans Cove, a harbour busy with fishing vessels, cruise ships and expeditions departing for the Antarctic; it is also the destination of the Sydney-Hobart yacht race.

From 21 January next year, the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) will propel Hobart into the cultural premier league. Mona (00 61 3 6277 9999; mona.net.au) is currently being installed in a spectacular underground building overlooking the Derwent 15 minutes' north of Hobart. The museum styles itself "a subversive Disneyland". Exhibits range from ancient Egyptian statuary to vivid modern Australian works.

There are plenty of other places of interest in the capital. Salamanca Place is a row of Georgian sandstone warehouses built in the 1830s and now thriving with restaurants, bars, art and antique shops. Every Saturday, Salamanca Market is held here from 8.30am to 2.30pm, with locals and visitors attracted by art, crafts, food and drink.

The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (00 61 3 6211 4177; tmag.tas.gov.au) is in the middle of a multi-million-dollar renewal project. The ningenneh tunapry exhibit (meaning "to give knowledge and understanding"), created by descendants of the Tasmanian Aborigines, is an enlightening experience, as is Islands to Ice – exhibiting the Southern Ocean and Antarctica. Open 10am-5pm daily; admission free.

The view from the peak that dominates Hobart is a must, best achieved as part of a trip organised by Mount Wellington Descent (00 61 3 6228 4255; mtwellingtondescent.com.au). The company picks you up from your hotel or hostel at 9.30am or 1.30pm and takes you by van to the top of the mountain, from where you cycle (or at least freewheel) to the waterfront. The price including transport and equipment is A$80 (£50).

The place to stay is the Henry Jones Art Hotel (00 61 3 6210 7700; thehenryjones.com), occupying a former jam factory on Victoria Dock, with contemporary styling and modern art contrasting with the original timber and brickwork. Doubles start from A$265 (£160), including breakfast. Located at the other side of the harbour next to Salamanca Place is Lenna of Hobart (00 61 3 6232 3900; lenna.com.au), a late 19th-century colonial mansion with modern guest accommodation next door. Double rooms with mountain views from A$225 (£140).

Montgomery's Backpackers (00 61 3 6231 2660; montgomerys.com.au) is located in the heart of the city on Argyle Street. A bed in a dormitory starts at A$30 (£18) without breakfast; private en-suite doubles from A$130 (£81).

Launceston, on the banks of the Tamar river, is more laid back than Hobart, with a fine marina and gorge, and a selection of Georgian and Victorian-style buildings. The Ashton Gate guest house (00 61 3 6331 6180; ashtongate.com.au) has individual period furnished rooms. It is also handily located on the free bus route around town. Rooms start at A$140 (£87), including breakfast.

The wood for the trees

Travelling around Tasmania, it would be hard not to pick up some knowledge of the beautiful trees native to this island state.

Mount Field National Park is just 58 miles from Hobart. A steep road winds its way from the visitor centre over nine miles, climbing 2,850ft through eucalyptus and sub-Alpine forests on its way to a plateau. There is a variety of walks for all abilities, from 20 minutes to nine hours.

Check out the giant swamp gums, the tallest hardwood trees in the world rising to 320ft high and the sub-Alpine Pandani – chunky, shaggy palm-like trees.

A Park pass costs A$24 (£8.75) for a vehicle for 24 hours – but the A$60 (£37.50) island-wide pass, valid for two months, is best if you are visiting several parks (00 61 3 6288 1149; parks.tas.gov.au).

At the Design Centre (00 61 3 6331 5506; designcentre.com.au) in Launceston sassafras, blackwood, myrtle, leatherwood and the protected huon pine are turned into beautiful works of art.

Fine flavours

Tasmania offers great seafood: blue-eyed trevalla, flake, flathead, garfish and striped trumpeter will become part of your daily vocabulary. The clear cold mountain lakes and streams of the central highlands provide plenty of freshwater fish; indeed, you can catch your dinner with Ken Orr's Tasmanian Trout Expeditions (00 61 3 6289 1191; orrsometassietrout.com.au).

On Bruny Island, the Smoke House (00 61 3 6260 6344) is a gem offering freshly smoked meats and seafood. The Tamar Cove Motel and Restaurant (00 61 3 6383 4375; tamarcove.com) in Beauty Point is a great place to stop to soak up the excesses of a day's wine tasting.

Tasmanian wine is rarely found on the shelves in the UK, but it constitutes 10 per cent of all premium Australian wine, with pinot noirs and chardonnays prevalent. The big wine-producing areas are the Tamar Valley and Pipers river region in the North, and the Coal Valley in the South. Expect to pay up to A$6 (£3.75) for a tasting of five wines or more at most estates, refundable if you buy.

Pedal along to Velo (00 61 3 6330 3677; velowines.com.au), run by a former Tour de France cyclist, Michael Wilson. Specialities include riesling and pinot noir. Jansz (00 61 3 6382 7066; jansztas.com) showcases Tasmania's finest sparkling wine. For possibly the friendliest welcome, visit Puddleduck Vineyard (00 61 3 6260 2301; puddleduckvineyard.com.au) in the Coal Valley, where owners Darren and Jackie Brown will entertain with you a very informative tasting. Pick up Wine Route guides from Tourist Offices to help you to plan your route.

Go walkabout

The Overland Track runs 50 miles from the spectacular jagged peak of Cradle Mountain to the deepest lake in Australia, Lake St Clair. En route you pass through a landscape carved by glaciers – from lakes and mountains, to deep gorges and rain forest.

The record for running the whole track is seven hours 25 minutes, achieved during a race in 1996, but most people take five to seven days. Basic facilities are available on a first-come first-served basis and shouldn't be relied upon for accommodation. Access is restricted in peak season (November to April) so you need to book a place ahead ( overlandtrack.com.au). A track fee of A$160 (£100) is charged in summer.

Guided walking is also possible and Cradle Mountain Huts (00 61 3 6392 2211; cradlehuts.com.au) offers a comfortable six-day trek staying in its own private huts.

If this isn't challenge enough seasoned bushwalkers can fly from Cambridge, near Hobart, to Melaleuca in the South West Wilderness to start a 53-mile trek taking about a week: along the South Coast Track to Cockle Creek, traversing rivers, walking knee-deep in mud as well as crossing mountain ranges and deserted beaches.

Less demanding walks can be accessed from the beautiful Freycinet peninsula. The walk of choice is to perfectly formed Wineglass Bay, so named for its shape, walking uphill through pink granite hills on a well-worn track to The Lookout and then down the other side to the dazzling white sands of the beach itself. Stay in a cabin at the Freycinet Lodge (00 61 3 6225 7000; freycinetlodge.com.au) or the newly-opened boutique Saffire Lodge (00 61 3 6256 7888; saffire-freycinet.com.au).

Several other guided walks of three or four days cover stunning scenery. One example is the Bay of Fires (00 61 3 6392 2211; bayoffires.com.au), 22 miles of perfect beaches and coves stretching between Eddystone Point in Mount William National Park and Binalong Bay near St Helens.

Alternatively, the four-day Maria Island Walk (00 61 3 6234 2999; mariaislandwalk.com.au) is a remarkably diverse hike. The island was once home to the Oyster Bay Aborigines, and was later used as a small penal settlement. Prices range between A$1,000 and A$2,000 (£625-£1,250).

A devil of a time

No wonder this native Tasmanian marsupial earned the name "Devil". It is blessed with neither attractive looks nor good character. It screeches and growls. It has a disproportionate body, its back end being significantly smaller than its front. It has a nose that can smell food more than a mile away, and a wide jaw equipped with a vicious set of teeth that can crush bones. It is five times stronger than an American pitbull. It is primarily black, with a touch of white around its neck and pink ears that turn red when it gets angry.

In the last 14 years a facial tumour disease has brought about a sharp reduction in the population. Last year the Tasmanian Devil was declared endangered. Reports suggest it could be extinct in the wild in as little as 10 years. To try to conserve the species, sick animals are being removed, and healthy Devils are being quarantined.

Two places where you can get up close to the animals are the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park (00 61 3 6250 3230; tasmaniandevilpark.com) at Taranna on the Tasman Peninsula – where experts say the wild population is disease-free – and Devils@Cradle (00 61 3 6492 1491; devilsatcradle.com) in the Cradle Mountain National Park (dedicated solely to Devils).

Sadly, another native marsupial, the Tasmanian Tiger, or Thylacine, is extinct. It was the largest known carnivorous marsupial of modern times. The last one known to humans died in Hobart Zoo in 1936.

Cruises, cliffs and convicts

Twice a day in high season (December-April, 10am and 2pm), Tasman Island Cruises (00 61 3 6250 2200; tasmancruises.com.au) offers a half-day trip around the spectacular Tasman Peninsula from Eaglehawk Neck. For A$100 (£63), you travel in a purpose-built 900hp speedboat past dramatic coastline on the way to the 1,000 ft sea cliffs of Cape Pillar, the highest in the southern hemisphere. The boat pokes its nose into caves and crevices. Sealife includes seals, dolphins and southern right whales.

For big-game fishing, head for the east coast. Striped marlin, tuna and sharks are the quarry for Rocky Carosi (00 61 3 6376 3083; gamefish.net.au) who operates from St Helens; A$170 (£106) for half a day.

A very different cruise is offered by World Heritage Cruises (00 61 3 6471 7174; worldheritagecruises.com.au) in Strahan, overlooking Macquarie Bay: a five-hour tour to Hells Gates. You stop for a guided tour of Sarah Island, where Tasmania's first penal settlement was established. The trip continues down the Gordon River; you disembark at Heritage Landing for a short walk into the largest tract of temperate rainforest on earth.

Travel essentials: Tasmania

Getting there

* With no direct flights from the UK to Tasmania, you will need to connect at one of Australia's mainland cities. The main gateway is Melbourne, served direct from Heathrow by Qantas (020-8600 4300; qantas.co.uk). Indirect flights are available on Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines and many more.

* Jetstar (00 61 3 9092 6500; jetstar.com) flies to Hobart and Launceston from A$89 (£43) each way. Qantas and Virgin Blue (00 61 7 3295 2296; virginblue.com.au) serve Hobart. Tiger Airways (00 61 3 9335 3033; tigerairways.com.au) also flies from Melbourne from as little as A$29 (£18).

* By sea, the Spirit of Tasmania ferry ( spiritoftasmania.com.au) sails between Melbourne and Devonport. A twin inside cabin costs around A$548 (£343) per person for a supersaver return in early February. A car costs an additional A$79 (£49) each way.

* Qantas Holidays (020-8222 9125; qantasholidays.co.uk) has a 14-day Royal Tasman escorted tour, starting from Melbourne, from £3,175, with flights from the UK. Intrepid (020-3147 7777; intrepidtravel.com) has a one-week Tasmania Wild trip from £1,060 excluding flights.

Getting around

* The rental broker Carhire3000 (0800 358 7707; carhire3000.com) offers a fortnight rental in October from £370. Tassielink (00 61 3 6230 8900; tassielink.com.au) operates a comprehensive bus service around the state.

More information

* discovertasmania.co.uk

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