- The Washington Times - Friday, October 31, 2003

Under Down Under

That’s how some people refer to Tasmania, that speck on the map just off the southeastern coast at the bottom of the Australian mainland. This part of Australia was almost completely overlooked by nearly everyone except Australians, but now it has become one of the world’s hottest travel destinations — and for lots of good reasons.

On this little gem of an island — it’s no larger than West Virginia — snowcapped mountains and white sandy beaches that seem to stretch to the ends of the Earth are within easy drives of one another. It’s a place where you can walk among dense rain forests one moment and an hour later stroll along the streets of an attractive modern city.

Mention Tasmania, and what usually comes to mind is the Tasmanian Devil television cartoon character that bears little resemblance to the real ones. Experience this remarkable island, however, and you will remember the incredible natural beauty, comfortable surroundings, clean air, pure water and vast protected wilderness.

In Tasmania, you can enjoy just about any outdoor adventure you wish — hiking, biking, mountain climbing, white-water rafting, trout fishing, kayaking — and yet be no more than an hour’s drive from every imaginable comfort of home. The scenery is striking, the food is excellent, there’s no language barrier, and the people are especially fond of Americans.

Launceston — less than an hour’s flight across the Bass Strait from Melbourne or two hours from Sydney — is a perfect place to begin a Tasmanian adventure. Situated amid steep hills 40 miles inland from the Bass Strait, this attractive little city (population 78,000) is a pleasing mix of modern and British colonial architecture. It’s nicknamed the Garden City because of its plentiful parks and squares.

For an introduction to Aussie humor, go by Irish Murphy’s and look at the sign in front. It doesn’t mention bar or tavern or saloon — not even pub. The Tassies who run Irish Murphy’s bill themselves as “drinking consultants.”

A mere 10-minute stroll from the heart of Launceston brings you to magnificent Cataract Gorge, with nearly vertical towering cliffs surrounded by 450 acres of parkland. Nature trails wind through a wildlife preserve, with 198 different native plants and 53 bird and 16 mammal species native to the area, and there’s a chairlift ride of more than 1,000 feet with a stunning view of the gorge.

ISLE OF WILDERNESS

Wilderness is easy to come by in Tasmania. More than a third of the island is wilderness area, and roughly a quarter of its landmass is World Heritage Area land set aside to be forever wilderness “for all people for all time.”

When you consider that about 40 percent of its population of less than half a million lives in its capital city of Hobart; that half of its total area is set aside either as World Heritage Area or parkland; and that a quarter of it is taken up by farms, wineries and other agricultural pursuits, you quickly grasp that Tasmania is a land of disproportionately wide-open spaces that few other comfortable places in the world can match.

Just north of Launceston is the Tamar Valley-Pipers River winery region. Tasmania has long been known for its outstanding fruits, vegetables and berries. The Tassies launched their wine industry in the 1970s. With a climate very similar to that of France’s Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne regions, this area has been enjoying an ever-increasing reputation for its pinot noir, chardonnay, Riesling and sauvignon blanc.

A short drive east of Launceston leads to the Bay of Fires and its beautiful long beaches. The route passes well-manicured farms, tall pines, lush rain forests and high waterfalls. The views of sea and golden sand dunes are stunning. In summer, the fields are painted with miles of lavender bushes.

West of Launceston is one of Tasmania’s best-known reserves — Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park and the beginnings of the vast Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. Tasmania is very mountainous, and Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park has the island’s finest alpine scenery and highest peaks as well as Australia’s best mountain hiking trails.

There is something for hikers of all levels, from half-hour walks to the challenging 53-mile Overland Track, perhaps the most famous hiking trail in Australia.

Many visitors pretty much keep to the periphery of bona fide wilderness, concentrating, for example, on areas such as pine-fringed Dove Lake, which can be circuited in two to three hours on an easy, mostly level, all-weather track.

Any direction you drive from Launceston seems to take you through rolling-hills countryside with picturesque farms, into deep forests and past twisty streams and gorgeous lakes. In spring, roadsides are lined with daffodils, and so many fields are rainbow-ribboned with colorful tulips that it may not surprise you to learn that Tasmania exports tulip bulbs to Holland.

The countryside is dotted with pleasant little towns where you should try the local cheeses and taste some of the wonderful leather-wood honey that is produced only in Tasmania from the flowers of certain species of rare evergreen eucryphia trees from the pollutant-free rain forests of the island’s rugged west coast.

For day trips to Cradle Mountain or Launceston and for visiting wildlife sanctuaries and some beautiful forests and waterfalls, a perfect base is Calstock Country Guest House, a bed-and-breakfast inn just outside Deloraine. Hosted by a friendly French-Australian couple, Ginette and Remi Bancal, the mid-19th-century Georgian mansion is in a lovely 200-acre private park.

Noting the locally grown organic products of Calstock, an Australian gourmet magazine ranked it as having one of the top restaurants in the country, remarkable praise because it isn’t primarily a restaurant. Only guests of the B&B can eat there, and those who do often say the meals Mr. Bancal prepares match the best of France.

Good eateries and reasonable prices can be found anywhere you drive along Tasmania’s first-rate highway network. They’re not fast-food places, more like good New York delis, and many have a bakery offering fresh sandwiches as well as pastries.

The drive from Launceston, near the top of the island, to Hobart, near the bottom, takes less than four hours. A good place to break for a snack is the pleasant village of Ross (population less than 500). Ross is known for its convict-built bridge, third-oldest in Australia and gracefully constructed with distinctive decorative carvings. The town’s Tasmanian Wool Centre, a museum and craft shop, is a good choice for purchasing some of the top-quality wool products for which Tasmania is noted.

LOTS OF WILDLIFE

Fifty miles northwest of Hobart is Mount Field National Park, where a 15-minute walk into a rain forest will take you to the base of the much-photographed 130-foot-high Russell Falls. You’ll likely spot a good bit of wildlife in any Tasmanian national park, but if you aren’t lucky there, don’t worry. Throughout Tasmania, there are a good number of first-rate wildlife reserves. Bonorong Wildlife Park, just outside Hobart, is among the best, a good place to see Tasmanian devils.

Unlike the cartoon character, the real thing is not all that cute. Found only in Tasmania — it has been extinct on the Australian continent for a few hundred years — this marsupial gets its name from its devilish expression, snarl and bad temper.

It is small, 20 to 32 inches long with a 9- to 12-inch tail. It usually won’t bother you if you don’t bother it, but be careful around a Tasmanian devil because it has large and powerful jaws that are stronger than a pit bull’s. Only a shark has more powerful jaws.

It is far less common to come across a Tasmanian devil while you are walking about than it is to see one dead on a road. The devil is a scavenger that eats insects and small birds and mammals and likes to feed off roadkill. While doing so, it frequently ends up as roadkill.

If you think the Tasmanian devil is unusual, bear in mind that it lives in a country that has birds that dig burrows and mammals that lay eggs. For the truly odd, it is tough to top the platypus. With a 2-foot-long narrow body, webbed feet, a long flat tail, two layers of fur and a 2-inch-wide soft, flexible beak, it looks like something assembled from odd parts of different creatures — like a joke, which is exactly what people believed when settlers first displayed stuffed ones back in Europe.

Tasmania’s inventory of weird wildlife also includes the echidna, which looks like a cross between a kiwi bird and a porcupine. It and the platypus are the world’s only egg-laying mammals.

You will find it easy to spot wallabies, which are small to midsize members of the kangaroo family, and wombats, stout and sturdy, furry little marsupials with large blunt heads.

The Tasmanian tigers that once roamed the island looked like large dogs with dark stripes across their backs.

Some people still search for them, and rumors periodically spread that one has been sighted. That happens probably as often as Elvis is spotted in the United States, but the last known member of that species died in 1936 in a zoo in Hobart.

STUNNING SETTING

Australia’s most southerly city of any size and the second-oldest after Sydney, Hobart sits astride a two-mile-wide estuary of the Derwent River and Tasman Sea at the foot of heavily forested and occasionally snowcapped Mount Wellington. The setting rivals that of Sydney, Hong Kong and Vancouver, British Columbia.

What tourists seem to enjoy most about this pleasant city (population 185,000) is dining on fresh seafood at outdoor cafes on the harbor and strolling through the Salamanca Market, the festive open-air Saturday market where goods on sale include fresh foods, flowers, clothing and works by local and regional artisans.

A good souvenir is one of the popular crafts made from the island’s native Huon pine, a fragrant and incredibly dense wood.

One should not visit Tasmania without visiting Port Arthur Historic Site. In its early days, Australia, including Tasmania, was used by England as a place to exile convicts, many of whom were banished halfway around the world for offenses that would be considered minor today.

You wouldn’t think so from its grounds — a 100-acre parklike environment with lovely sea views — but back in the days when this island was still known as Van Diemen’s Land, Port Arthur had an atrocious reputation and escape was considered hopeless. That’s because the Tasman Peninsula, where it is located, is connected to the rest of the island by an easy-to-guard strip merely 300 feet wide.

Though a few thousand prisoners died at Port Arthur over time, the truth is that many of those who behaved well actually enjoyed better living conditions than they had back in England.

At its museum, you can discover whether any of your ancestors were convicts there — and many Aussie visitors seem to hope they do. Being a convict’s descendant is a minor status symbol.

From Port Arthur, you might want to head north to Coles Bay and the Freycinet Peninsula.

It’s an easy scenic drive along the Tasman Sea east coast, nicknamed “the sun coast” for its more than 2,250 hours of sunshine a year and noted for its long sandy beaches, golf and fine fishing. Any Tassie friend will tell you that near Swansea you need to pull into Kate’s Berry Farm for homemade soft ice cream — especially the blackberry.

BEAUTIFUL BEACHES

Hike to a hilltop lookout platform in the 25,000-acre Freycinet National Park for a spectacular view of crescent-shaped Wine Glass Bay. It is ranked as one of the top 10 beaches in the world and is one of the most beautiful sights in Australia.

This area is also home to one of the island’s outstanding wilderness lodges, Freycinet Lodge, located in a thickly wooded setting at the southern end of Richardson Beach within the park. The views of sunset over the bay and the red granite mountains called the Hazards are magnificent.

You certainly will be glad you came to Tasmania and may wish you had allowed for more time here. A week is not enough, for Tasmania is a destination, not an afterthought side trip.

Don’t leave without stopping by Coles Bay to look up Simon and Alison Stubbs, a delightful mid-30ish couple who own and operate Freycinet & Strahan Adventures in this sheltered bay area ideal for swimming, windsurfing, water-skiing and kayaking in safe ocean water — and sign up for all sorts of other Tasmanian adventures.

The fresh Tasmanian water in lakes and rivers is safe to drink, so Mr. Stubbs scoops up a cup of lake water and gulps it down. “There are a whole lot of things about Tasmania that are pretty wonderful, don’t you think?”

Any time’s a good time for Tassie hospitality

Australia is considered a safe travel destination, and Tasmania is probably the safest destination within Australia. Any

time of year is a good time to visit Tasmania — but for the highlands and wilderness areas, avoid the winter months — June through August. A valid passport and a visa are required to visit Australia.

As for language, if you think Aussies speak with an entertaining accent, wait till you hear the Tassies.

One of the best guidebooks for Tasmania is published by Lonely Planet. For a fine introduction to Tasmania and a splendid souvenir of your visit, pick up a copy of the beautifully illustrated Australian Geographic Book of Tasmania by a Sydney couple who relocated to Tasmania several years ago.

Tasmanian wool products are of exceptional quality. So are wood items made from the island’s sturdy Huon pine. Also try the wines. Blundstones, those heavy-duty boots that have become a fashion rage with Hollywood and the younger set, are made in Tasmania and are bargain-priced there.

For more information, check out www.discovertasmania.com. Excellent tour packages for Tasmania are offered by Goway Travel (800/387-8850), Qantas Vacations (800/641-8772) and United Vacations (800/917-9246). Air New Zealand (800/262-1234) flies to Australia via Auckland, New Zealand.

We found Calstock Country Guest House in Deloraine (www.calstock.net) the best bed-and-breakfast accommodations we ever have experienced, and it is a perfect base for visiting many attractions of the island’s north. In the Coles Bay-Freycinet Peninsula area, Freycinet Lodge (www.freycinetlodge.com.au) is outstanding. A diverse and good selection of accommodations can be found throughout the island. In Hobart, we found Somerset on the Pier very comfortable and conveniently located.

Food is one of the best reasons for visiting Tasmania. It is very high in quality and low in cost. Especially good is a fish fry called blue-eye or trevally.

For an outdoor adventure, check with Freycinet & Strahan Adventures (www.freycinetadventures.com or [email protected]).

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide