The outside world has always regarded Tasmania as something of a mystery. In the 18th century, Jonathan Swift situated Lilliput off its coast in Gulliver’s Travels; soon afterward, some of the first British convicts that were transported here tried to escape by walking to China, only to get lost in the rugged hinterland and resort to cannibalism. An aura of mystery persists today, perhaps because Tasmania, an island slightly larger than Nova Scotia, is one step farther removed than the rest of the Australian continent, hidden under its southern shore and cut off by the violent seas of the Bass Strait. Nature is on a dramatic scale here: over 3.4-million acres of its area is protected wilderness, including ancient rainforests, jagged peaks and powerful rivers. In recent years, Tasmania has become easier to reach with Qantas flights from Sydney and Melbourne, luring more travelers to discover its surprising range of attractions. A wave of plush new eco-lodges, wineries and gourmet food producers has recast the travel landscape in the last decade, and with the addition of MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) in 2011, Tasmania has quickly been transformed from mysterious to downright alluring.
The waterfront of Tasmania’s tiny capital city (pop. 212,000) is today almost entirely intact from the British colonial era, when convicts, sealers and whalers made up the bulk of the hard-bitten community. A stroll along the restored Salamanca Place is eerily picturesque: the Georgian-era buildings were carved by 19th-century prison laborers from golden sandstone, and are framed by Hobart’s gleaming waters, with eucalyptus-covered mountains in the distance. The once-crumbling stores around Salamanca Square have been renovated into art galleries, bookstores, outdoor cafés and high-end restaurants, including Smolt, which specializes in Tasmanian salmon. After dinner, continue around the harbor for a drink at the Henry Jones Art Hotel, a former convict-built warehouse converted into chic luxury accommodation and exhibition space for local artists.
Pounded by the wild Southern Ocean, Tasmania has a cooler and more volatile climate than mainland Australia. But the east coast is the island’s sunniest shore, and the Freycinet Peninsula its most welcoming stretch, with white sand beaches and lime green waters framed by magnificent peaks called the Hazards. Stay at the majestic new eco-lodge Saffire in Coles Bay, which opened in 2010 with breathtaking views from its designer cabins, then take the hour-long hike over the mountain saddle to Wineglass Bay. The arc of the beach is like an enormous goblet, whose pristine sands are patrolled by wallabies. The landscape may look like an antipodean version of Hawaii, but throw yourself into the waves and you quickly realize that this is definitely the deep south, where the currents flow directly north from Antarctica. Saffire also runs boat trips along the peninsula, where you can spot thriving seal colonies—as well as an isolated rock quarry where pink marble was mined to decorate the lobby of the Empire State Building in the early 1930s.
Tasmania’s grim convict past is encapsulated in the ruins of Port Arthur, which from 1833 to 1853 housed repeat offenders from Australia’s other prison camps. The idyllic pastoral setting on the Tasman Peninsula, with verdant bush and trimmed green grass, forms a striking contrast to the Gothic structural remains, with their sinister-looking cellblocks and bleak history. An extreme form of solitary confinement was instigated here, where prisoners were locked in total darkness and provided just bread and water for days on end, driving many to madness; to deter escapees, the peninsula’s narrowest point was guarded by half-starved dogs. Today Port Arthur’s serenity only seems to highlight its tragic past; the standard tour of the site contains many gruesome details and ghost stories. Spectral sightings at Port Arthur first began in the late 19th century, but true fans of the occult can now sign up for the Paranormal Investigations Experience, a four-hour search for late-night unnatural activity that uses the latest “professional” testing equipment.
If The Lord of The Rings had been filmed in Tasmania, the otherworldly Cradle Mountain would have made the perfect backdrop. The dolerite summit—wild, wet and jagged, battered by winds and often shrouded in mist—is the highest of four peaks that tower over the glacial Dove Lake. The surrounding shores are laced with ancient alpine vegetation, making it the centerpiece of the enormous Tasmanian World Heritage Wilderness Area. Stay at the Cradle Mountain Lodge and hike the four-hour Dove Lake Loop Track, which leads through the twisted “Ballroom Rainforest” and across spongy moss-covered streams at an altitude where it seems possible to touch the sky. (Keep in mind that the weather can change at a moment’s notice from sunny blue skies to ice storms.) More intrepid travelers tackle the 50-mile Overland Trail, a five-day hike to Lake St Clair in the south. But if lugging your own tent and food seems too ambitious, the guiding company Cradle Mountain Huts operates comfortable refuges en route.
Unlike the famed Warner Brothers cartoon version, the real Tasmanian devil is a small, hyena-like marsupial with a haunting hiss—a sound “like that of a woman being strangled,” in the phrase of Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan. Convicts first thought they were tormented souls in the bush. Today, the devils are a beloved island icon—although one that is endangered by a mysterious cancer, the Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD). Luckily, visitors can help. The environmental group [email protected] has created a specially designed “devil sanctuary” near Cradle Mountain to enable visitors to view the nocturnal marsupials at close range, raising awareness of their plight (and funds for their defense). The Keepers Tour offered during the day, when they are more docile, includes the possibility of petting devils. But the most spectacular viewing comes after dark, when the carnivorous critters indulge in loud, snarling feeding frenzies.
The Bay of Fires in Tasmania’s northeast received its evocative name in 1773, when a passing British sea captain, Tobias Furneaux, spotted the campfires of Tasmanian Aborigines burning in the bush. Today, the only sign that there were indigenous inhabitants are the ancient middens above the sands—the first Tasmanians were hunted down in a colonial campaign, and the last full-blooded islander died in 1878—but the bay, a ravishing stretch of unblemished sand, is the climax of a popular four-day guided walk. On the first night, the small group of hikers camp by the surf in comfortable permanent tents. The second and third nights are spent in the Bay of Fires Lodge, a superbly located building of polished local hardwoods and glass perched on an isolated headland. From the balcony, you can spot passing right whales and pods of dolphins in the surf, while the guide-chefs serve up Thai prawn curries and Tasmanian wines.
The fertile Tamar Valley northeast of Launceston produces some of Australia’s most prestigious wines: the cool, moist climate results in outstanding pinot noir, Riesling and chardonnay, as well as award-winning sparkling and dessert wines. And with 32 wineries within about 120 miles, it makes for a classic Aussie road trip. Many of the establishments on the Wine Route (which is conveniently marked on highways with yellow and blue signs) are worth visiting for their settings alone. The Josef Chromy Winery is on a historic lakeside estate, with its tasting room and excellent café, serving local produce, housed in a pioneer homestead from the 1880s. The Bay of Fires Winery produces the House of Arras line: Its mastermind, Ed Carr, was recently declared Australian Winemaker of the Year in honor of his 25 years of service crafting sparkling wines, earning the nickname among Aussies “The Fizzicist.”
The former logging port of Strahan (pronounced “Straw-n”) is now the gateway to the enormous South West Wilderness. Covering nearly a quarter of Tasmania’s area, it’s one of the world’s last truly pristine landscapes—an almost impenetrable terrain of raw mountains, dense rainforests and untamed rivers that have carved their way through dramatic gorges. In the early 1980s, a battle to stop the damming of the lower Gordon and Franklin rivers became Australia’s most significant environmental test, and the subsequent victory of the “greenies” led to the area’s protection as a World Heritage site. Today, daily boats from Strahan provide a taste of all that raw nature, setting off into the vast Macquarie Harbor, whose narrow entrance to the sea was named Hell’s Gates by 19th-century sailors for its murderous currents. Boats then enter the Gordon River, whose steep banks, covered by cold-climate rainforest, are mirrored in the calm tea-tinted water (the color derives from tannin exuded by grasses). Boardwalks lead among rare, ancient Huon pine trees. More adventurous travelers can sign up for white-water rafting trips on the Franklin, or catch a light plane to the trailhead for Tasmania’s ne plus ultra, the 51.5-mile South Coast Track—a grueling, nine-day-long trek across the southern rim of the Antipodes, where you are unlikely to encounter another soul.
Shaped like a figure eight, this outcrop three miles off the east coast has only a handful of year-round inhabitants—the few park rangers who manage the ghost town of Darlington—but lures a busy summer population of energetic nature-lovers. A passenger ferry from the town of Triabunna, two hours north of Hobart, brings day-trippers to hike through forests of Tasmanian blue gums, cycle the bush trails (cars are banned on the island, and bikes are available for hire) and visit evocative ruins. Wildlife thrives on Maria (pronounced Ma-rye-a), which is entirely protected as a national park: 11 of Tasmania’s 12 endemic bird species can be found, including the rare forty-spotted pardalote, as well as wombats, kangaroos and wallabies. Overnight visitors can stay on bunk beds in the island’s old convict prison (provided you bring your own food, bedding and lighting). A more luxurious option is to take the guided Maria Island Walk, which covers 22 miles from coastal plains to cloud rainforests. Hikers spend the first two nights in elegant timber camps, and the third in the restored homestead of Italian pioneer Diego Bernacchi, all the while being plied with gourmet Tasmanian food and wine.
In the 2011 Australian film The Hunter (just released in the United States), Willem Dafoe plays a mercenary sent to track and kill the last surviving Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine. It has long been a favorite Australian fantasy that one of these magnificent creatures—which look like sleek wolves, with dark tiger stripes and powerful jaws—has somehow survived in an unexplored Tasmanian valley, although scientists believe that farmers hunted them to extinction long ago, and that the last specimen died in captivity in Hobart Zoo in 1936. The fascination with the tiger continues as a symbol of Tasmania’s unique character—it is on the island’s tourism logo, car license plates and even the local Cascade Beer label—and regular “sightings” by hopeful locals still occur in the bush. The best place to understand the fate of the tiger is the Wilderness Gallery at Cradle Mountain Chateau, whose Tasmanian Tiger Exhibition presents an intriguing collection of artifacts, as well as poignant film footage from the 1930s of the last tiger in captivity.