Not enough long-haul travellers to Australia reach Tasmania, the roughly triangle-shaped island off the south coast of the continent. Tasmania offers a different set of experiences from the vibrant commercialism of the mainland cities of Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. Reachable by air in about an hour from Sydney and Melbourne, Tasmania for the most part is a gentle agricultural landscape of green gums and russet fields, which boasts very clean waters, fabulous seafood, tasty fruits, delicious cool-climate wines and gales and gales of the world’s cleanest air. Sample an amalgam of the above and, if you get the dosage right, you can expect to add at least a solid hour to your nightly dozing time while here. Stay long enough and you might make a meaningful increase to your life span.
The best way to tackle the island is to tour, either in a rental car or camper. The roads are winding but not overly busy. A full navigation would require a month on the road, but good parts of the island can be sampled in much less time. Figure on devoting at least five days to the island: landing in Hobart and exiting via Launceston 200km to the north is one viable option. I entered and exited via Launceston and devoted five days to the north-east part of the island, describing a gentle clockwise circle without any backtracking.
Although the sedate communities of Hobart and Launceston, with populations of about 200,000 and 100,000 respectively, pass for what counts as cities on Tasmania, the rest of the island is a loosely related network of villages and small towns. Hobart is Australia’s third oldest city, colonised in a hurry by the British who were fearful of a competing claim from the French. Although the French did snuffle around for a while during a scientific exploration ordered by Napoleon in the early 1800s, they left little more than a list of French names that still dot the eastern seaboard. Freycinet Peninsula, Capes Bougainville, Bernier, Peron and Tourville all can be traced back to French sailors. In fact, you had to be cleaning out the heads on a French cutter in order to have not to have been rendered eternal on Tasmania’s eastern coastline. In dismissing any colonist ambitions, the French captain in charge of the expedition noted wryly that the island seemed already to be inhabited – as it was by several aboriginal tribes whose decline and extinction over the first 70 years of settler arrivals is the saddest chapter in the island’s history.
French touches apart, the early settlers were of course British and the place names reflect this. Glamorgan jostles with Devon and the odd reference to Scotland is thrown in too. Incongruously there is a Baghdad 20km north of Brighton, named by an exploring settler who was inspired by the two books he carried: the King James Bible and Arabian Nights.
Tasmania boasts the world’s cleanest air. When a southerly blows, it brings air that has crossed sea for over 10,000 miles and last troubled land over Patagonia. Chemical analysis of this air reveals a mere 20 particles of material per cubic centimetre. When a northerly carries the compromised airs down from Melbourne the traces leap multifold to 10,000-50,000 particles per cubic centimetre, a unnerving statistic provided by the British writer Nicholas Shakespeare in his riveting genealogical account of the island In Tasmania.
There are three or four routes that take you north from Launceston to the coast and all of them will pass the Tamar Valley vineyards. Placate your designated driver by a morning deviation to the lavender farm at Bridestowe Estate where the purest vials of the relaxing stuff can be bought, as well as all things lavender: fleeces, baseball caps, cup-holders, pinnies and tea towels. Then aim to pull into a vineyard in good time for lunch. Pipers Brook was the pioneer here in 1974 and still is the first choice. The lunch platter for two offers cheeses, compote, smoked quail and trout and goes well with the estate chardonnay. This A$35 (£15) wine is deliberately French in style, which entails some restraint and has none of the cloying butterscotch taste of many Australian chardonnays. Pipers markets its wine under this name but also as Ninth Island and Kreglinger, a sparkler which has adopted the cheeky appellation of méthode tasmanoise.
Pipers’ vineyard is only 32km from the northern coastal town of Bridport. The best way to take on nature’s zesty breezes that lick this shoreline is with a bag of 14 steel and titanium instruments, fashioned for the purpose. Golf’s most interesting modern course designer has designed a course of great originality between the dunes at Barnbougle, just outside Bridport. Tom Doak is unlike his American golf-course design compatriots in that he is a very well travelled and cerebral designer who has absorbed the classic layouts of Braid, Ross, MacKenzie and Tillinghast. He has built a course of great cheek and challenge in among the dunes, featuring massive rake-less bunkers, whose sand is smoothed by the wind, and countless blind shots. The course is designed for public use and A$90 buys you a ticket to one of the most exhilarating experiences in golf.
After being blown off your spikes at Barnbougle, clear a half day for a leisurely navigation to the east coast. The old tin-mining town of Derby is worth a stop along the way. Derby is overtly historical in its attractions: museums and craft shops have supplanted its original commercial purpose. But, like so many Tasmanian towns, it is easy to grasp the nature of its past communities. (This is a far more difficult task on the mainland where the original form of the towns has been compromised by hectare upon hectare of suburbia.)
Ninety-three kilometres from Derby is the east-coast town of St Helens, the island’s pre-eminent game-fishing port. Prevalent species include trevally, blue fin tuna, striped trumpeter, east Australian salmon, barracouta, bearded rock cod and school whiting. Head for Swansea but stop off at the Freycinet Vineyard along the way to buy a bottle of Australia’s best pinot noir at the cellar door. Fifty dollars a bottle from the grower certainly feels a little steep – especially as new world pinot remains out of favour – but the Bulls have nurtured a great wine from the fickle pinot grape. More powerful than its French cousins, this 14 per centre certainly pushes the limit on fruit and spice and alcohol but somehow just keeps its tail in shape. Expect to pay closer to A$60 from vintners in Australian cities.
A gentle half day south of St Helens is the charming coast town of Swansea. Swansea lies at one side the Great Oyster Bay a long, sweeping and sparsely inhabited bay with the national park of Freycinet Peninsula facing on the other side. Swansea manages to accommodate tourists, retirees and alternative lifers without abandoning any of its integral charms. Roughly half way between Hobart and Launceston it hasn’t been subsumed into the tea-towel, coffee-mug commercialism of a Carmel in California, for instance. There’s a couple of decent bistros, a nine-hole golf course, three churches, two banks, three electricians, three garages, two machinery hire shops and one optometrist. Outside the town stretches Dolphin Sands and Nine Mile Beach, which might be one of the most pleasant places to live in the world. The best place to eat is the Piermont Retreat, just outside of town. The Boulet family live in the handsome family house of Robert Webber, which was built in 1817, and they administer 13 self-catering stone bungalows arranged along a pristine beach. A double-bed bungalow rents for A$210 a night and they also have two- and three-bedroom cottages. In keeping with the alternative feel of the area, all have been laid out to be clear of ley lines and underground water streams so as to be magnetically neutral. It is not unusual for grateful, refreshed guests to make enquiries about purchasing the beds and mattresses.
The pleasures of Tasmania should work for most of us, though it is probably not the best place to bring feisty teenagers and the island does not have as comprehensive a backpacker infrastructure when compared to the mainland. Tasmania’s charms are of a gentler, more subtle order. Tour slowly under the low skies, graze deeply, ease a few corks out of bottles, read In Tasmania and Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves eat seafood, munch the best berries in the world, tackle the links, go game fishing, sleep deeply and revive.
Get alerts on Brisbane when a new story is published