The island of Tasmania might be small compared to the mainland, but it pays to think big when travelling here.
Square kilometre for square kilometre, Tasmania is arguably the most naturally varied state in Australia, packing the country’s most spectacular mountains, some of its finest beaches, raging rivers, placid lakes and grand rainforests crowned with some of the world’s tallest trees into an area less than one-third the size of Victoria. To road-trip Tasmania planning is essential.
How long do you need?
The first rule of Tasmanian driving is that distances here should never be taken at face value. Roads on the island wriggle across the landscape – climbing, descending, twisting and turning – slowing every drive to a meditative pace.
That’s one of the reasons why Tasmanian journeys should never be hurried. While it’s possible – with enough planning – to see the highlights in a single week, to do a lap of the island you’ll need a minimum of 10 days, or 14 days to do it at a comfortable pace.
Planes, trains or automobiles?
You won’t find any passenger trains in Tasmania, internal flights are expensive and buses are slow and unwieldy. A better plan is to explore the island’s wriggly landscape and small towns under your own steam in a rental car or motorhome.
You can pick up a car at Hobart, Launceston, Burnie or Devonport airports, or Devonport ferry port if you’re arriving by boat on the Spirit of Tasmania, and motorhomes can be collected from Hobart airport and city locations.
When taking a road trip in Tasmania, you quickly discover that it’s an island in two halves: the west is its wild side and the east, its mild side. In between are Tasmania’s two largest and most fascinating cities: Hobart in the south and Launceston in the north.
Hobart and the south-east
Hobart’s prize feature is MONA, a world-class art gallery tunnelled into sandstone cliffs on the banks of the Derwent River – but that’s just the start of what’s on offer in Tasmania’s capital city.
You can drive to the summit of Mt Wellington, at an elevation of 1271 metres, for an overview of the city and its surrounds and wander among the shipping fleet and floating seafood caravans in the city’s docks, where the famed Sydney to Hobart yacht race finishes in the days after Christmas each year. Hobart also has a wealth of fine eating, from those simple fish caravans to award-winning restaurants named among Australia’s best.
Launceston and the north
Anchoring the state’s north, Launceston sits at the point where the North and South Esk Rivers merge to form the Tamar River. It’s a city split by Cataract Gorge, a stunning combination of cliffs and water right by the city centre’s edge – a wild natural feature that few cities in the world have so near to their heart. Walking trails and boat cruises explore deep into the gorge, which is also straddled by the world’s longest single-span chairlift.
Beach beauty on the east coast
Beaches rule the days on Tasmania’s east coast. The perfectly curved Wineglass Bay on Freycinet Peninsula is the headline act. See it from above at a lookout platform atop a short walking trail, or continue down from the platform to the white sands of its beach. If you have a head for exposed slopes, the finest view comes from the summit of Mt Amos, high above the lookout.
More beach beauty comes at the northern end of the east coast, in the aptly named Bay of Fires, where blazing orange lichen paints a vivid scene among white sands and vibrant blue seas. If you’re travelling in a motorhome, the Bay of Fires is also lined with great little campgrounds.
Port Arthur brings Tasmania’s brutal convict history into full focus, with so much of the penitentiary still standing, and an equally compelling convict station at the northern end of Maria Island.
The island, reached on a short ferry ride from the east-coast town of Triabunna, is entirely national park; the lawns of the Darlington convict penitentiary are among the finest wildlife viewing spots in Australia – wombats, wallabies, Cape Barren geese and even Tasmanian devils are plentiful. The sandstone patterns on the Painted Cliffs, an hour’s walk from Darlington, are natural works of art.
The wild west
By the time you reach the west coast from Hobart, you’ll have crossed the vast mountainous sweep of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, which covers almost 25 per cent of the state, and come to an ocean that’s travelled uninterrupted since South America. Little wonder it’s so wild here.
In Strahan, delve back into the wilderness with a cruise on the Gordon River, where the early-morning reflections are among the most pristine in the state, and perhaps even the country. Cruises include a stop at Sarah Island, one of the most unimaginable and remote convict stations ever devised.
Emblematic Cradle Mountain beckons as the Murchison Highway continues north from Strahan. The view from the shores of Dove Lake, looking across to the bowed figure of the mountain, is arguably the most recognisable in Tasmania.
The far north-west
It’s worth detouring away to the state’s far north-west corner, where the world’s cleanest air officially blows ashore, and where the striking Nut – an ancient volcanic plug – rises above Tasmania’s most beautiful seaside town, Stanley.
Along the way to Stanley, duck in to Boat Harbour Beach, which locals will assure you is at least the equal of Wineglass Bay, and if you’re here in October, seek out Table Cape, which lights up with flowering tulips.