This Australian island was only a name to me prior to this trip. It might not even have been that if it weren’t for Errol Flynn. He was one of my boyhood screen heroes, and I knew he came from a place called Tasmania.
Tasmania is located off the coast of the state of Victoria, directly south of Melbourne. Kay and I spent a week there. We might have spent it somewhat differently had we known what we know in hindsight. This was our first Australian road trip. From where it began on the island’s north coast, we had the choice to go east or west. In either case, we had arranged to return our Mitsubishi Outlander to the port town of Devonport where we had rented it.
We chose to go west with the idea that we would circumnavigate the island, seeing both sides. The difficulty was that Tasmania is big, and its western third is ruggedly mountainous without a great deal in the way of tourist attractions. This is where to come for serious hiking and wilderness camping, activities we don’t engage in as a couple. This left driving too many kilometers on twisting mountain roads as our principal two-day activity.
I don’t want to dismiss western Tasmania completely, though. We spent the afternoon and night of our first full day in the tiny town of Stanley on a peninsula in the island’s far northwest corner. A charming town and once a significant fishing port, Stanley still has a small fishing industry while its main business these days seems to be tourism.
After a pleasant lunch at the Swingin’ Anchor Café, we explored a street lined with pretty cottages. Long-ago sea captains owned some, and one was the birthplace of one of Australia’s popular prime ministers.
The top attraction in Stanley, though, is the Nut, a mountain right in town that we conquered by means of a chairlift.
On top we scuffed up our shoes during a two-kilometer walk that let us view our surroundings in every direction.
Our lodging was the Stanley Hotel, a venerable pile on main street with small rooms and a large veranda that let us keep watch on everything happening up and down the street at cocktail hour.
Our next day’s destination was Queenstown, a settlement that doesn’t even rate a mention in our guidebook. It’s old, though, at least in Australian years. Its business has always been mining. The Mt Lyell Copper Mine is 125 years old and still producing. It was closed temporarily during our visit due to three recent accidental deaths, a reminder of how dangerous mining can be. In 1912 there was a terrible event when 42 miners died in the smoke from an underground fire. How we know this is thanks to the local museum. Never discount the importance of small museums. They are frequently the most interesting places in town.
The Eric “Skewey” Thomas Galley Museum is one such institution. It’s unusual by having been formed around Mr. Thomas’ remarkable collection. He was a miner who somehow collected hundreds of historical photographs, and even more remarkably, learned the names of the people in them and typed them in detailed captions that accompany each photo. Thomas collected other artifacts, too, such as antique medicine bottles and other ephemera. He installed his museum in the rambling Imperial Hotel (c. 1897), and after his death others took over and added to it. Today, Queenstown has to be the most thoroughly documented small town in Australia. Learning the popular history of the places we visit is one of the pleasures of traveling.
We were served a surprisingly good dinner in Queenstown. I write, “surprising” because we are not always so lucky, but we’ll not bore you with our litany of dining regrets except to say that it hurts when we pay too much money for quality that a kitchen doesn’t deliver.
The day after Queenstown with our time passing quickly, we decided to make a dash for Hobart in the south. It is Tasmania’s capital, and the largest city on the island. Our drive took us through such unmemorable places as Derwent Bridge, Ouse, and Hamilton. It was early afternoon by the time we secured a room at the City View Motel across the Tasman Bridge from Hobart proper.
Here, I have to digress a moment and give thanks to the various Australians who have been so helpful to us. What knowledge we have of Australia’s economic culture is due to them. Their travel suggestions have added greatly to our comfort and pleasure. Grant, the owner of the City View, is one of these people. When we couldn’t find lodgings for the next two nights, he offered suggestions about our route and made phone calls to arrange our accommodations.
We had just enough time left that day to drive into the city center, explore the Hunter Wharf area with its heritage warehouses now transformed into bars, restaurants, and galleries, and visit the town’s Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. We were so glad we did, as it included such wide range of fascinating exhibits.
The Thylacine or Tasmanian tiger was a remarkable looking animal, a combination both familiar and strange. It resembled a large dog with an extended body and tail but with horizontal stripes across its back. What’s more, it was a marsupial with a pouch able to hold up to four newborns. Once extremely plentiful on the island, it was hunted to extinction with the connivance of the local government that at one time offered a bounty for each animal killed. Perhaps Australia’s strong eco-culture of today has its roots in feelings of remorse for past malpractice toward the natural environment.
Louise Lovely was the screen name of an Australian film actress who appeared in 50 Hollywood films between the years of 1915 and 1922. She returned to Australia to help found an early cinema here. A screen in the museum showed a few short clips of Miss Lovely’s on-screen work and, among her personal belongings, the steamer trunk she traveled with.
As usual for us, we lingered in the museum’s painting galleries. Australian artists such as John Brack, Jan Senbergs, and Robert Dickerson did a lot of interesting work in the post-war 1950s.
We stayed in the museum until it closed at 5 p.m. and then returned to the Hunter Street Wharf and to the IXL Long Bar for beer. A successful early entrepreneur named Jones formed Henry Jones IXL to make and market jam. In the manner of other early capitalist moguls, he tried to control every aspect of the process including owning his own orchards and transport. He drove his employees as he drove himself. Never guilty of false modesty, he named his company IXL claiming, “I excel at every thing I do.”
On our second and only full day in Hobart Kay and I made our visit to MONA that we’ve already described in another dispatch.
For the rest of our short Tasmanian visit we drove north through what are referred to as the Midlands, stopping at the towns of Oatlands and Ross on our way to the east-coast town of St Helen’s, our destination for the day.
We had been told that in Tasmania we would see sights that would remind us of England. It wasn’t until we reached these midland towns that that prediction came true. Oatlands has several examples of Georgian residential architecture. As always, the simple elegance and symmetry of a Georgian façade is satisfying to gaze upon.
It was in Oatlands that we went into the Kentish Hotel for coffee and where I discovered that the lounge is decorated with so many images of Marilyn Monroe that I had to count all forty-seven of them.
We drove on to Ross, an even better example of an English village. It had been a garrison town in the 19th century. The soldiers’ barracks are still standing in good condition.
Ross has a graceful stone bridge designed, we think, by a convict architect. It has three arches and some lovely carved ornamentation around them. Reading the inscription, I believe the bridge was built in 1841.
Another lovely site was a neo-Gothic church with a simple wooden interior and a hammer-beam roof. It has been brilliantly kept up. The floor and wooden surfaces shown with polish.
We ate lunch in Ross, sitting in the Man O Ross Hotel’s garden. I ordered a beef-and-Guinness pie with crunchy chips while Kay had a Caesar salad and a glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. I tried some Frank’s Summer Apple Cider, not bad but not my kind of drink.
The final leg of the drive brought us to St Helens, a small town on a pretty bay on Tasmania’s northeast coast. There, we checked in to the Homelea Accommodation Apartments for the night. Our unit was a surprise. It was a two-bedroom apartment with a real kitchen. We were delighted with the space that allowed us to spread out and relax. We both took naps and got into the town just before the local IGA closed. IGA stores are plentiful in Australia. Both of us remember them in the States where they seemed like small, old-fashioned grocery stores. Here though, they are often the only food store in town. In St Helens’ we bought breakfast food: a red pepper and a cucumber, some cottage cheese and canned peaches, all in reasonable sizes for our overnight stay.
We ate dinner in an attractive bay side restaurant called the Blue Shed. Our fish-and- chips dinners made with lightly battered, fresh flatheads were good but typically expensive. We drank glasses of a local Pinot Gris, a varietal we are not accustomed to.
Back in our apartment we were able to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much with Leslie Banks and the young Nova Pilbeam as the child who gets kidnapped. Peter Lorre with a white streak in his hair and a scar on his face plays the evildoer, leading a gang whose mission is to assassinate a European statesman during a concert at London’s Albert Hall. It’s interesting to compare this version with Hitchcock’s second, starring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day. We could see where Hitch was learning his art. We’d bought this three-DVD set of early Hitchcock films in Sydney and are happy when we find a working DVD player along our way.
The next morning, on the advice of our hostess in Reception, we drove a bit further up the coast to Binalong Bay and were astonished at what we saw. The beach there has been judged one of the nicest in the world, and we were able to see why. The sand is very fine and almost pure white. The water near the shore is of the color celadon, while a bit further out it is turquoise and further still, a brilliant blue. This morning the surf rolled in gently, and the sky was blue with white clouds. As a perfect touch, there were only a handful of people on the sand. The scene was gorgeous; we stood looking at it for a long time.
The drive to Launceston, Tasmania’s second city and our day’s destination took us through country of rolling fields with mountains in the near distance. Like just about everywhere we’ve been in Tasmania’s open country, these are grazing lands. We saw herds of cattle and sheep. It is very dry all over the island so the land is light brown. Only the trees and bushes are green. The landscape is pretty enough if one can look past the consequence of drought.
Launceston, situated on the Tamar River, has a population of about 70,000. In the 19th century it was an important and wealthy city judging by the extravagance of its surviving heritage buildings. For us it is the architecture, especially that of the Central Business District that was the big draw. The commercial buildings there range in date from the 1890 to the 1930s with some more recent additions. The thing is that even the newer buildings were designed to fit in with their neighbors so that whole streets have the kind of uniformity of height and look that is so appealing to the eye. In the bright, limpid afternoon light the streetscapes were beautiful.
We had a well-spent hour to spend in the local Art Museum before it closed. A local painter named David Keeling impressed us with his work and his expressed love for Tasmania. Another exhibit of striking black-and-white photographs gave us a sense of what the wilderness areas of the island look like. There was a slide show of historical photos as well taken in the late 19th century. Many of these were excellent. It seems that in those days many wanted to go into the wild and explore. The Launceston Art Gallery is another very well curated and cared for Tasmanian museum. We’re impressed that in Australia the museum entrances are usually free.
On our last day in Tasmania, Launceston provided one more excellent experience. We checked out of our night’s lodging, the Penny Royal Apartments, and drove a few short minutes to the car park of Launceston’s Cataract Gorge Reserve. There, a fast-flowing stream splashed down from the mountains over several cataracts, filling a basin the size of a large pond or small lake before continuing on, widening and emptying into the Mersey River.
Back in the day, the citizens of Launceston drained swamps and carved out paths and trails to form the reserve.
They made a kind of Victorian pleasure garden where genteel behavior was the order of the day. Today, it has been modernized with restaurants, snack bars, a swimming pool, and other amenities.
Kay and I took a chairlift from the car park to a point on the mountainside above the basin. She was much more relaxed on this lift than she had been going up the Nut in Stanley a week before. The weather was pleasant, and the slow ride over the park with views of the surrounding hillsides was perfectly enjoyable.
At the end of the ride we walked various paths, crossed a suspension bridge, and had some moderate exercise. Then, at one point our paths diverged. I chose to take a hiking trail called the Zig Zag, while Kay walked to the terrace of a nearby snack bar to wait for me.
My walk was longer than I expected. I climbed up a mountain trail, steep and rigorous. From the top I walked down the other side. The trail ended at a point known as King’s Bridge along a busy highway just along the river. I was surprised to discover that a nearby group of faux heritage buildings was the Penny Royal Village, part of the complex where we had spent the night.
I hadn’t carried water with me on my climb and was very thirsty. Not seeing a store nearby, I walked into an open guest room in the village, picked up an empty water bottle and filled it with tap water. It did the trick.
My walk back to find Kay, along an asphalt path beside the gorge with its steep walls of rock with vertical fissures towering over me was delightful.
I found Kay at a table surrounded by a flock of juvenile peacocks hoping for handouts. All around were signs requesting that we not feed them. A Chinese family that either couldn’t read the signs or chose to disregard them was steadily feeding the birds.
Our last drive in Tasmania to our starting point at Devonport was about 100 kilometers. We reached our destination at the Argosy Motor Inn about 3 p.m., giving us plenty of time to shower and do some work on-line before dinner.
Our week in Tasmania began awkwardly and finished well. Were we to do it again, we would skip the western side of the island and spend more time in the southeast where we would have wished to spend more time. Everything is so much clearer in hindsight. C’est la vie!