Travel/Tasmania | Australian island is an explorer's paradise

Travel/Tasmania | Australian island is an explorer's paradise

By MELISSA EDWARDS

When the Aussies tell you that the trail should take you about five hours, pack dinner — and perhaps a midnight snack. All Australians look like Hugh Jackman — these are active, outdoorsy people — and park rangers are not kidding when they say "strenuous."

We recently spent several days exploring Tasmania, hiking, biking and kayaking our way around this gorgeous — and somewhat remote — state that sits just off the southeastern coast of Australia.

To get there, you'll spend more than a day flying from the Midwest, and you'll be driving on the opposite side of the road once you arrive, but your reward is a land of vineyards and sheep farms, a hiker's paradise, and an unexpected foodie scene teeming with first-rate wines, buttery cheeses and all of the seafood you'd expect from an island smack dab in the middle of the Tasman Sea.

More than 40 percent of Tasmania is protected land, and while the food was a revelation, the opportunity to see unique flora and fauna (combined with a terrific sale on Virgin Australia) made the trans-Pacific, economy-class tickets just palatable enough to justify the trip.

We arrived in Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, which is roughly the size of Champaign-Urbana. Hobart is charming, but we were there for outdoor adventure, so we immediately hopped in the rental car and drove north.

There are a number of multi-day treks in Tassie, as the locals call it, but we opted for shorter, daylong "bush walks" to see more of the island.

We started by exploring the Alpine glory of Cradle Mountain, where the wombats failed to show at the eponymously named "Wombat Pools." Even in the summer, it can snow here, and our hosts at the Kurajong House Bed and Breakfast in Launceston wanted to make sure we knew that rescue helicopters weren't cheap. We had no intention of discovering if they were right, but we did note a few helicopters at the visitor's center that were clearly not just for show.

We also explored Freycinet National Park on the warm and tropical east side of the island and the Tasman Peninsula, where we kayaked through 5-foot waves to dolomite cliffs packed with sunbathing seals. But the true highlight of the trip was Maria Island, a small National Park located off Tasmania's east coast.

The only way to reach Maria Island is by ferry. We arrived after a 30-minute trip and picked up our mountain bikes at the rental in Darlington Town, the remnants of a failed resort built sometime in the 50s. Bicycles are a great way to explore Maria, but remember — the last ferry leaves at 5, and if you aren't on it, you're in for a long night.

We'd spent the previous night in Orford, a small town less than 10 minutes from the ferry, before striking out for Maria. The proprietors guaranteed a wonderful trip to the island — and wombats — which seemed bold, given their evasiveness on prior outings. I shouldn't have worried. Maria delivered.

We bounced along rough and winding roads through eucalyptus forests and stopped for lunch at Encampment Cove (which I originally thought was named Enchantment Cove, but I was gently corrected, and reminded of the country's convict history — enchanting now, not so much then).

After a short break, we turned around and cycled back, encountering our first wombat. Mother Nature does not make a cuter animal. They reminded us of ewoks, which was fitting, given that so much of this gorgeous place felt like another world.

We arrived back to the ferry dock with an hour to spare, so I left my saddle-sore husband to explore the cemetery just over the ridge.

It was the best decision of the trip. While contemplating convict headstones and the sorrow and despair that contrasted so sharply with the beauty of the island, a herd of kangaroo hopped past along the cliffs, the slowly setting sun gleaming off the water far below.

The last ferry of the day approached and I walked briskly back, both grateful that I could leave and wondering if I'd ever return.

Melissa Edwards gardens, cooks and plans travel adventures from her home in Champaign. A former Peace Corps volunteer, she has ridden chicken buses in Central America, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and snorkeled with giant clams in Vanuatu. She works at the University of Illinois.

Topics (1):Travel
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