Kate Swanson is a Scottish-born Australian who has traveled to and lived in many countries across the globe.
Tip #1: Just Go!
Many visitors to Australia never visit Tasmania, which is a pity as it is a charming island with plenty to see and do. It's also very easy to navigate by yourself because nothing is very far from anything else. If you love breathtaking views, unspoiled landscapes, and unpolluted air, Tassie is a must-visit destination.
Tip #2: Fly, Don't Drive
You can take your own car to Tasmania by catching the ferry from Melbourne to Devonport, but you need to time your visit carefully: travel at the wrong time of year and it can be very expensive indeed. You can save money by booking a seat on the ferry instead of a cabin—but it is an overnight trip so that means sitting up all night. Besides, the straits between Melbourne and Launceston are famous for their rough weather, so any poor sailors in your group could have a very unpleasant trip. Not the best way to start your vacation!
Even though we live in Australia, we worked out that it was cheaper to leave our car at home, fly to Hobart and hire a car.
If you've ever picked up a car at an airport, you're probably imagining a spaghetti junction of roads and a rather scary introduction to driving in Tasmania—but Hobart is not like that at all. Traffic was light and road signs were easy to follow. Tasmanians do drive fast, though!
Tip #3: Hire a Car
I made my first visit to the Island State by booking a bus tour, and frankly, it was a mistake. It was frustrating to find we made fleeting stops at places I wanted to see more of and lingered far too long at places I had no interest in!
Tasmania is a compact country. You can drive from Hobart to Launceston in less than three hours, for instance (though you should allow a full day because there are so many interesting sights along the way). Most of the roads are wide and well maintained, and traffic is generally quiet, so we found it a real pleasure to drive around.
Tip #4: Plan Your Trip
The following itinerary suggestions assume you fly to Hobart and hire a car.
Like most capital cities, Hobart's hotels and holiday apartments are expensive. You'll find several cheaper options slightly out of town, and near the airport, but I think it's worth the extra to stay in the city.
Last year, we booked a hotel near the airport and found that it really cramped our style. Although the drive was less than half an hour to Hobart town, it was just far enough to be irritating. The cafes, restaurants and shops are all in town—and at night, the roads were poorly lit and there was the constant fear of hitting kangaroos and other wildlife wandering across the road.
Sights to See
Hobart is a pretty town, right on the water, with Mount Wellington rising high above it. You can drive almost to the summit (wear something warm!). Also worth visiting are the Signal Station (for its great view and nice café), the Shot Tower, the Salamanca Markets and if you like modern art, MONA.
Places to Eat
You'll find plenty of eateries around Salamanca and in North Hobart, but my favourite spot is Mures Cafe and Restaurant on the Franklin Wharf. I don't know if there is any other city where you can sit right on the waterfront and enjoy your breakfast or a succulent barramundi and chips at café prices (they also have humongous gelato cones, so try to leave some space!).
Day Trips From Hobart
You may not think of a prison as an attractive place to visit on vacation, but Port Arthur is a fascinating place. In the early 19th century, it was a prison for some of the most hardened criminals—convicts who re-offended after arriving in Australia. Deliberately sited on a remote peninsula, it was virtually impossible to escape, and inmates led a harsh life.
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From Hobart, you can visit Port Arthur in a day—but there is so much to see, I recommend an overnight stay. Even though it's now a ruin, it's a beautiful setting and there is an eerie feeling of sadness about the place. It's also an absorbing insight into the history of Australia.
The Freycinet Peninsula
You can visit the Freycinet National Park on a day trip from Hobart, but you will enjoy its pristine wilderness much more if you take your time. It's a good place to stop for a night or two on your way to Launceston. Drink in the spectacular scenery and stunning beaches, and perhaps do some kayaking or walking.
Launceston is Tasmania's second city, but has a few interesting sights in town. Base yourself there for a day or two so you can enjoy a picnic or lunch at Cataract Gorge, a spectacular park just outside the city. In some ways, it's a typical British Victorian pleasure garden with its lawns, rhododendrons, peacocks and bandstand—but it also has a spectacular natural river gorge which you can cross on a gently swaying suspension bridge!
A stay in Launceston also gives you time to visit two must-see locations not far away:
Bridestowe Lavender Farm
A lavender farm may not sound very exciting, but it has a particularly special attraction—Bobbie the Lavender Bear. I defy any girl, big or small, to resist this cuddly lilac teddy! It takes just a few seconds in the microwave to turn him into a warm, beautifully-scented bedtime companion. Each one is handmade at Bridestowe—no "Made in China" here! I have seen some copies on sale at airports, but they are not the same quality as the real Bobbie the Bear.
Actually, I found the farm itself more interesting than I expected. I learned that lavender has all kinds of unexpected uses!
The mine is closed now, but it's famous for the incredible rescue of two miners who were trapped for days after an explosion. Many Australians will remember watching the rescue unfold on television. The museum features a reconstruction of the tiny space where they were trapped, and you can even crawl inside it to experience for yourself how claustrophobic it must have been.
Northern and Western Tasmania
On the opposite corner of the island is the quaint little town of Stanley with its famous Nut—a large rock jutting out into the bay. You can take a chairlift up to the top, where there's a lookout, cafe and barbecue area. I was foolish enough to try it and was terrified all the way, but then I am not good at heights—I opted to WALK down. The best thing about Stanley was the delicious Devonshire tea which we had in one of the many cafes. Tasmanian double cream is amazing!
The Wilderness Railway
As you proceed down the Western side of Tasmania you really start to enter the unspoilt wilderness that covers so much of the island. Several national parks cover this area, offering towering peaks and ancient rainforests to explore. Along the route down the West Coast, there are several opportunities for safe, easy walks through the rainforest as well as challenging treks for the more adventurous.
The Wilderness Railway, once the only way to get through the rugged mountains to Queenstown, is a half-day trip on a beautifully restored steam train.
We took the Railway as part of an organised tour, so I was surprised to find how expensive the rail trip is if you book direct. I can understand why the tickets are so dear, considering the cost of upkeeping the train and tracks in such a hostile environment, but I'm undecided whether I would do the trip again if I had to pay the full price.
Tip: If you do decide to take the train, book ahead. The schedules do change from week to week and people who travel to Strahan, expecting to just hop on the train, are often disappointed to find it's not running.
Cradle Mountain is famous, but you can do much more than just admire the strangely-shaped peak (and I must admit, I can't see the baby in the cradle, no matter how long I stare).
Cradle Mountain is a paradise for walkers, with miles of walking track and a host of companies offering organised hikes. You can decide whether to rough it on a long trek or treat yourself to some pampering at one of the luxury spas!
One thing I am really sorry that I missed is the Wall in the Wilderness, sometimes called “Tasmania's Sistine Chapel”. We enjoyed Freycinet so much that we'd stayed longer than we planned, so by the time we left Strahan we were short of time. By all accounts it's a very impressive wall carving created by a local sculptor, depicting the history of the area.
By the time we got back to Hobart, I'm sure we had both gained several kilos, because all through our trip the food had been one of the highlights, especially the fresh, locally caught seafood. It didn't stop me going back to Mures for another of those big gelatos, though!