Monday, February 16, 2009

An Island Off an Island

After spending just shy of 24 hours in Melbourne to spectate at "the tennis" (Australian Open) over the Australia Day weekend, Mickey and I caught a flight further south to Tasmania.

My dear friend Alyssa, a seasoned traveler herself, reckons that we've earned major travel cred for visiting this remote island off an island. And from an American perspective, she's absolutely right. Those of us lucky enough to journey to the land down under usually stop in Sydney and/or tour the dying Great Barrier Reef. Few of us Yanks make time to explore Tasmania because we know so little about it.

Indeed, I remember the first time I met a Tasmanian native, a colleague of Mickey's, and recited what little I knew about his home. It is an island off the southeast coast of Australia with a population of less than half a million and home to one of the world's strangest creatures, the famed Tasmanian devil. Even years later after I had befriended another Tassie native (and a little devil in her own way), Kate, I still knew little about the fascinating place.

Since moving to Australia, I learned enough to know that I had to visit. Some Aussies joke that Tasmania is a bit hick because it's so sparsely populated. My boss and I laughed about the 'no worries' attitude evident at Hobart's single terminal "international" airport. Likewise, another colleague warned me about the speed of service, or Tassie time. "You order your coffee, wait 15 minutes and then wait some more and it will eventually get there."

Others take a different view, identifying Tasmania as a chic artist's retreat, reverent of its natural beauty, tranquility and fine food. Both camps agree though, that Tassie is an ideal place for a holiday.

Mickey and I only gave ourselves three days to see what all the fuss was about, knowing that truly seeing the island probably takes weeks. We decided to stay near Hobart, but make three separate day trips outside of town. Our home base was the beautiful Bellerive House, just across the water from Hobart. This is the nicest place I've ever stayed bar none. This B&B, owned and operated by hosts David and Jacqueline, is a large, charming old house that was very recently renovated. The decor tastefully integrates antique furnishings with modern fixtures and luxurious linens.

Bellerive offered everything you love about B&Bs: personal service and character without any of the "old house" inconveniences such as poor water pressure, squeaky doors or mold. In fact, Bellerive was spotless and served some of the best breakfasts I've ever had. The title of one of its Tripadvisor reviews was "Breakfast Dilemma" because guests are spoiled with delicious choices. Though the creamy porridge with brown sugar wasn't an option for a glutard like me, David and Jacqueline made sure I had gluten free muesli topped with fresh yogurt and seasonal, local fruit. And that was just the first course! The second ranged from baked eggs to grilled mushrooms to souffle pancakes. For better or worse, we stuffed ourselves all three days and didn't require lunch until one or two in the afternoon. In the evenings, we'd feast our eyes on the fresh flowers in our room and satisfy our sweet teeth with gluten free cakes, port, chocolate and cherries that David and Jacqueline had left waiting for us.

Somehow, we tore ourselves away from the pampered life long enough to make day trips to the Freycinet Peninsula, Bruny Island and Port Arthur. We spent a lot of time in the car that first day, relishing the surprisingly dry and sunny weather, admiring quaint farms and remarking on the frequency of marsupial roadkill. We picked up a picnic lunch in Swansea and devoured our burgers overlooking the Friendly Beaches. The guidebook had mentioned Tasmania's inexplicably deserted white sand, turquoise water beaches, but I had to see it to believe it. The water was cold, but the shores were pristine; why wasn't this place packed?

We hiked up 300 stairs to the Wine Glass Bay lookout and then down 300 more to get a closer look at the beach. There we found people feeding a wallaby, exactly as the sign advised not to do. We stopped in Orford on the way home for gluten free pizza and locally made ice cream.

Our second day on Bruny Island (population 500), the island off the island off the island was spontaneous and romantic. We dashed down the coast toward Kettering to make the 9:30am ferry. We got caught behind a motorbike and fretted until the last minute that we wouldn't make it, but we did. We stopped at a fairy penguin rookery overlooking the narrow isthmus between north and south Bruny. The penguins were away in the ocean for the day (they waddle back to the beach at dusk), but the views were spectacular.

Later we went berry picking on a small farm (big fun for city slickers like us) and for an easy walk along the coast. We lunched on Mediterranean fish soup at the Hot House Cafe overlooking the water. We joked all day about the guidebook's warnings about booking ahead in January, Tasmania's busiest month. As we encountered very little traffic on paved and unpaved roads, we wondered where everyone was. We found them in line waiting to board the ferry back to the "mainland." We thought we had plenty of time to make it back for the 5:30 and even stopped for cheese tasting en route. In a way, we did have plenty of time because we didn't make it on the 5:30, or the 6:30, but eventually on the 7:30. We felt lucky that we didn't miss the last flight back to Sydney the way the French tourists in the next car did.

We spent our last day in Tasmania on the Tasman peninsula south of Hobart. We stopped at a Tasmanian devil park whose sign dares tourists to "come face to face with a devil." We made it to the 11am feeding of these foul creatures and watched them tear through rats, fur, bone and and all, squealing and stinking all the while. I thoroughly enjoyed (nerd alert) the birds of prey show featuring falcons, a gallah, a cockatoo and a tawny frogmouth. Most intriguing of all though was the exhibit on the (possibly) extinct thylacine, or Tassie Tiger, a strange dog-like marsupial so named because of its striped back. The last one supposedly died in captivity in 1936, but there have been sightings since then. There are parts of the Tasmanian wilderness that remain unexplored and I'd love to believe that the thylacine still lurks there, but it's unlikely. However, plans to clone the tiger give me hope.

Our next stop was Port Arthur, an entirely different type of tourist attraction. Once a brutal but thriving penal colony, Port Arthur is now a high profile tourist destination with multiple types of tours, ruins, cafes a cruise and a sad past that doesn't end with the penal colony days. One day in 1996, a man opened fire on innocent tourists and staff at Port Arthur, murdering 35 and injuring several more. The cafe that was the main site of the massacre was gutted completely and rededicated as a memory garden.

This morbid past makes Port Arthur a creepy place but an important one historically. The pain and suffering inherent in this place didn't match the beauty of the blue skies, sprawling green and golden hills and clear, calm water on the day we visited. One of the most haunting spots was the area where the repeat offenders were sent, solitary confinement. Here, neither prisoners nor guards could speak and they assigned the inmates each a number to eliminate the comfort and familiarity of even hearing one's own name. Here also stands a chapel like no other in the world. It has separate wooden stalls that allowed prisoners to see the preacher, but not each other.

Looking back, I'm not sure that we deserve massive travel cred because Tasmania was so accessible. Flights to and from Melbourne and Sydney are cheap and frequent, despite some unpaved roads travel is easy, the food is fresh and delicious, the service is slow but friendly and of course the language is English. Yet, it's an island off an island and almost no one goes there. Could Tasmania be one of the world's best kept secrets? If so, I've just spilled the beans.

No comments: