The 600 odd mile passage from Sydney to Hobart on the Isle of Tasmania can be one of the most rugged of any sailor’s career. In particular, crossing Bass Strait, with its huge seas born from strong westerly winds and a shallow bottom can pound a yacht to bits.
Our trip to the “South Island” was without drama, in the comfort of a spanking new Impulse Airlines Boeing 717 at 30,000 feet. Ironically, Bass Strait was a millpond the day we flew south. The clear skies enabled us to get a good look at the ruggedly natural landscape of Tasmania as we descended into Hobart, near the south end of this island state.
Even though Hobart is the capital city of the State of Tasmania, its airport is quite modest. There are no taxiways along the runway, so our jet had to whip a U-turn at the end of the runway to taxi back to the terminal building.
Our bags were first to come down the conveyer first (a first for me) and we called the local Rent-a-Dent to organize a car. For less than US $15 a day, we got a vintage Holden Camira (not to be confused with a Camaro) with the requisite insurance and unlimited kilometers. Everything worked but the cigarette lighter, so our mobile phone battery died by the end of the week.
We stayed the first two nights at a lovely old cottage converted to a Bed and Breakfast in the historic Battery Point district, just south of the Central Business District. It was situated near the water and a short walk to the lovely Salamanca Place shopping/café/pub area. After checking in, we had a walk down to Salamanca Place for a quiet glass of wine and dinner in one of the many cafes in the area.
Our first full day was spent in the Hobart area. After an early breakfast, we drove to the top of nearby Mt. Wellington. It was a scenic but windy half hour drive to the 1270 meter (4000+ foot) summit through various microclimates ranging from rain forests to eucalypt forests to rocky escarpments. Hopping out of the car at the summit provided us with a commanding view of Hobart, the Tasman Peninsula and surrounding landscape. It also provided us with a near winter experience. Being solar powered, I didn’t take to this very well. The lapse rate dropped the temperature to near freezing, and with a steady 25 knot blow, the wind chill factor pulled it way below. A few quick camera snaps and we were back in the car, shivering and trying to figure out how to work the heater, while descending into more agreeable temperatures.
We headed back to Salamanca Place for some lunch and a browse through the many shops and galleries, and then headed north up Highway 1, along the Derwent River, in search of Willie Wonka. Willie never showed up, but we did have an interesting and yummy tour of the Cadbury Chocolate Factory just outside of Hobart. Cadbury is the British Commonwealth’s equivalent to Hershey’s, but in my opinion, quite a bit better. Just to cleanse our palettes afterwardf, we popped into a neighboring winery on the way back to town to sample some of the local drop. The Tasmanians produce some excellent cool climate wines, particularly Pinot Noirs.
Tasmania, or Tassie, as the Aussies call it, was originally settled as a British penal colony. Convicts were transported from England as well as New South Wales in the early to mid 19th century. Evidence of Tasmania’s convict beginnings is still present throughout the country in the form of spectacular dams, colonial building and stone bridges, but the most significant historical site is in the town of Port Arthur, on the Tasman Peninsula. The Tasman peninsula is connected to the rest of the island by a tiny spit of land called Eaglehawk Neck. In the convict days, guards posted there with a large gang of toothy dogs prevented the convicts from escaping to mainland Tasmania.
We spent a half a day wandering around the ruins and restored buildings scattered around the lush, well manicured landscape of Port Arthur. Today, it is a lovely little seaside village, which belies its origins as a cruel prison colony where hard labor, solitary confinement, preaching of hellfire and brimstone and brutal lashings with the cat-o-nine-tails were the order of the day. From the accounts of early life in Tasmania, it occurred to us that there was a fine line between the quality of life of the convicts and the guards and free settlers.
After a quick bite of lunch, we hit the road and headed north along the east coast of the island. We opted for the shorter “scenic route” on an “unsealed” (dirt) road through the coastal forest. We enjoyed the ride, but after an up close encounter with a very
large kangaroo skipping across the road, we now understand why many Aussie vehicles have a very large “roo guard” bumper as an option.
We checked into a rustic old “hotel” in the quiet little village of Swansea, along the shore of the Great Oyster Bay. A hotel in Australia is primarily a pub/restaurant with some modest sleeping accommodations. Dinner confirmed why the bay is so named. The local oysters were, in fact, GREAT!
The next morning we rose early and had a hearty Aussie breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast, sausage, grilled tomato, juice and coffee. A breakfast like that is just screaming to be followed by some exercise, so we drove out to the Freycinet National Park and did some hiking in “the Hazards,” a granite mountain range that lies between the Tasman Sea and Great Oyster Bay. The terrain was sort of like Arizona with scrubby eucalyptus instead of cactus and tumbleweeds.
From our vantage point in the pass between the two main peaks we could look down on the Tasman Sea where it’s deep hues of blue gradually turn into white sands on the shore of Wineglass Bay. This spectacular anchorage with flat water and a mile of perfect wineglass-shaped beach was occupied by only one yacht when we were there. We were wishing we had sailed down and could spend a few days there on the hook aboard Moonshadow.
After an exhilarating hike, we jumped in the car and started making our way back to Hobart. Along the way we popped into the Freycinet Winery for a sampling of their excellent Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. We enjoyed a hearty “pub lunch” at a rustic roadhouse on the banks of Lake Leake and had a yarn with the publican about trout fishing and Harley Davidsons. We stopped for a coffee break in the Historic town of Ross and took a look at their convict built bridge and some historic buildings. From there, the road widened to four lanes and we were back in Hobart in no time.
Typical of any Australian town, Hobart comes alive on Friday evening. We enjoyed a bit of pubbing and strolling around town. On Saturday, our last day in Tassie, we took in the weekly market at Salamanca Place. This is a regular event with hundreds of booths selling everything from fresh fruits, veggies and flowers to local handicrafts, music and books. This is quite an impressive market that would rival any of the once a year “street fairs” in San Francisco. Well attended by the locals, it is sort of a shopping trip, a social gathering and a family day out all wrapped into one. We found it to be quite good people watching and loads of fun.
A few notes about Tasmania. Even though food and accommodation are similar in price to the “Mainland,” Tasmanian real estate is still quite inexpensive by US standards. One can still buy a modest three bed/two bath home in a close Hobart suburb for less than US $40,000. (Some of you could cover that with your VISA card) The best-stocked Australian chandlery we’ve seen so far is located in Hobart. Contrary to Australian urban myth, the Tasmanians don’t have pointed heads. One of the best Australian beers I’ve tasted, Cascade, is brewed in Hobart by the oldest brewing house in Australia. The convicts started a tradition of quality wood boat and ship building in Tasmania, which continues today. Tasmania has a flourishing art scene as well as its own unique style of cuisine. We didn’t see any Tasmanian devils, wombats or Tasmanian tigers. Contrary to it geographical location near the end of the earth and the wild and wooly image that the name Tasmania conjures up in non-Australian minds, the island is quite lovely and civilized.