Thursday, 16 June 2016

Tasmania: Australia's Newfoundland

If you decide to stay at Launceston's Comfort Inn Coach House,
be sure to say a big Alberta hello to the management
We landed in Launceston about mid-day and, as is our custom, without accommodation.  Usually, this works for us but we had not anticipated 2,500 members of the Ulysses Motorcycle Club arriving for its AGM.  A City of about 74,000, we felt fortunate to find ourselves in a very large family room at the Comfort Inn Coach House, their last room that was offered up at a bargain price (perhaps because they could see the whites of our eyes).  While it was well situated in terms of being able to walk down town to restaurants and stores the parking area was not for the feint of heart.  I have spoken in earlier posts of the twisting, turning roads of Australia; did I mention how steep they could be? If they were steeper than what we may be accustomed to in North America, they don't hold a candle to some of the parking lots. Ever the optimist, I naturally assumed, if it was an area meant for vehicles to park, then surely, vehicles could park in it without any serious trouble.  When Eric warned me that our little Honda Civic rental was going to bottom out, I actually scoffed.  My superior attitude didn't last long, as it was no time before bumper met asphalt, I began mentally calculating the fees to be charged by the rental company, and I found myself hyperventilating as I attempted to come to terms with the need to traverse this mountain of a driveway in reverse.  I admit, I felt some consolation when one of the bikers admitted to being as intimidated as I was. 

By the way, if you're wondering how we felt about sharing this small City with 2,500 bikers, let me assure you, there was no rumble in the park(ing  lot); after all, one must be over 40 years old to be part of this club and, with the motto, grow old disgracefully, you know they are going to be an entertaining crew.  We were not disappointed; the few we had the privilege of meeting were welcoming, informative and, indeed, full of stories. . . a good start to our first night in Tassie.

Franco's Italian Restaurant - YUM!
Once parked, everything immediately began looking up. Although new, the management was friendly and shared what tips they could about what to see and do in the community. After we were settled into our room, we strolled down the hill to Franco's Italian Restaurant where we found great food and exceptional service.  The icing on the cake was when, on the way back, we decided to stop in at the Royal Oak Hotel pub to fortify ourselves for the haul up the 'mountain' to our room.  With a logo that reads, 'Leap In, Limp Out' and bills itself as 'an Hotel of Uncommon Character' how could we possibly go wrong?  We owe a HUGE debt of gratitude to our two exceptional bartenders, Tim and Tom, who were invaluable in helping us construct a 5-day itinerary with which to explore Tasmania. You can read more about them in https://hpdsinc.blogspot.ca/2016/03/australia-country-people-quirks.html.


Before leaving Launceston, we visited the beautiful Cataract Gorge. About 10 minutes from City centre, one would think they are miles away, it is so insulated from the sights and sounds of urban living. Originally discovered in 1804, the Launceston City and Suburbs Improvement Association (formed in 1899) undertook the 8-year construction of an access into the Gorge. Today you'll find a chairlift, walking and hiking trails, gardens, a swimming pool, a restaurant and cafe as well as some pretty spectacular views. because, while part of the area is very manicured, there is almost as much that remains very natural in appearance and theme.  It was a great way to spend our morning.

Bay of Fires
Armed with the information imparted by our two trusty bartenders, the determined route was to skirt along the east side of Tasmania, along the coast and ever so slowly making our way toward Hobart.  If you've been keeping up with our travels, you will know that we don't seem to make too many miles in a day.  It seems we are extraordinarily curious or perhaps a wee bit senile, as it appears to take longer for us to absorb the sights and sounds of a new environment.  At any rate, we had five glorious days to explore a route of something just over 600km and, suffice to say, we needed every bit of it! 


The Route
From Launceston, we tracked northeast, to the beautiful Binalong Bay and the southern end of the Bay of Fires. While its name refers to Aboriginal fires spotted by Captain Furneaux when he sailed past in 1773, it seems to apply equally to the brilliant orange lichen that grows on the granite boulders lining the coast.  We're told that to see it during  a sunrise is stunning indeed but, of course, we were nowhere to be found at sunrise.

Spikey Bridge
Near Swansea, we discovered Spikey Bridge.  Built by convicts in 1843, it literally pops out of nowhere alongside the road. Made solely of fieldstones (no mortar), the top layer has been placed vertically, giving the bridge its spikey appearance. Some say they were placed this way to keep cattle from falling off the bridge and into the gully.  While the bridge is now located along the highway, you can reach it and, indeed traverse it, by way of a narrow dirt road.  I'm guessing most folks turn around and head back to the highway but being adventuresome, we decided to follow the road and soon discovered ourselves back enroute.  


Bay of Fires
Also not far from Swansea is Wineglass Bay, considered to be one of the top 10 beaches in the world.  The walk involves a two hour uphill climb through pink granite peaks known as The Hazards, followed by a jolting downhill walk to the beach. Good knees are a must.  We decided to forego the walk but my niece considered it one of the highlights of her visit.

On to Port Arthur we went and once again the joke was on us. You see, we actually thought Port Arthur was a town. . . and it is. . . of sorts. One of Australia's most significant heritage sites, it began it's history as the destination for the hardest of convicted criminals from Britain.  After its closure, much of the property was put up for auction and remained in private hands and occupied until the late 1970s, when funding was received to preserve what remained as a tourist destination.  Visiting the Port Arthur during the day gives you the best idea of its expanse and what it might have been in its heyday. As one might imagine, visiting at night provides a completely different experience. Do one or both; the choice is yours. Haunting stories of its many prisoners and their ghosts are compounded by the mass graves on the Isle of the Dead.  
Port Arthur
Port Arthur's more recent history is equally as gruesome; on April 28, 1996, the site was the location of a killing spree resulting in the murder of 35 people and the wounding of an additional 25 more before capture.  The perpetrator is currently serving 35 life sentenced plus 1,035 years without parole.  The only mass murder in Australia's history ultimately led to the country's national restriction on high capacity semi-automatic shotguns and rifles.    


A word of advise: book accommodations well in advance as there is no real 'town' at Port Arthur. Instead, you will find a smattering of different accommodations available in the area but only a very few located within easy walking distance of the site for those who have no real desire to drive Tassmania's roads at night.  Judging by the amount of road kill we witnessed in Tassmania, no night driving was an easy decision for us.  Though a fair bit off the beaten track, Port Arthur is well worth the time and effort.



Back north we headed and eventually found ourselves in Richmond.  Only a few nights prior we were told, if we only had one time to visit a single penal colony, then the Richmond Gaol was the one.  While there has been great expense put into Port Arthur, Richmond is not only Australia's oldest existing gaol but also the best preserved, receiving TripAdvisor's Certificate of Excellence for two years running.

Richmond Bridge
The entire area is steeped in history, a great deal of which ties into the Convict Trail.  The oldest bridge still in use in Australia, as well as being the oldest stone bridge in the country, Richmond Bridge  must surely be one of the most photographed as well.  If its beauty doesn't capture your attention, surely the ghost of its overseer, George 'Simeon' Groover will. Originally convicted for steeling, after serving his sentence, George became a rather brutal overseer of other convicts working on the bridge.  Clearly, in a popularity contest, George wasn't going to be a winner in their circle. Also a notorious drinker, one day his charges took advantage of his inebriated state and threw him over the bridge, into the river below, where he died.  Over the years, there have been numerous sightings of George pacing back and forth across the bridge.  A second ghost, known as Groover's Dog, has also been seen from time to time.   

Athuna (previously Lavender) Cottage
We ultimately found ourselves spending two nights in Richmond, the first in Red Brier Cottage and the second  in Anthuna Cottage, previously known as Lavender Cottage. Both carry their own special brand of charm, are very comfortable and the management accommodating, with the former being simpler but larger  2- bedroom accommodations and the latter providing a touch of romance, perfect for a couple and offers some handicap accessibility. 

One of the best finds was a little shop call The Sensory Tasmania. Being the girl who literally sniffed her way from one end of Australia to the other, The Sensory literally left me giddy! Not only is the entire front yard a garden of lavender, this little gem offers up paradise to the olfactory senses  in its sensory pods.  Somewhat akin to the Cone of Silence from the old Get Smart TV series, these pods recreate scents from Tassmania's southwest wilderness, leatherwood flower and devil aroma.    If that isn't enough, it is filled to the rafters with Tasmanian-made products including chocolates, merino woolens, honey, wood crafts and jewelry.  It's truly a 'come see, come hear, come touch, come taste, come smell' experience.  And, if that's not enough, it actually gets better! It is situated right next door to a wonderful little cafe with a charming barrista; the perfect place to park the husband!


Hobart Marina
Our last destination, before heading back to the mainland was Hobart. The state capital, with a greater area population of more than 200,000, Hobart seems a contrast to the rest of the state.  The financial and administrative heart of Tassmania, this busy seaport also has a very metropolitan vibe and is a hub for cruise ships during the summer months and home port for the Australian and French Antarctic programs.  Architecturally, it abounds with fine examples from very well preserved Georgian and Victorian eras.  It also offers a diverse cultural experience and is home to MONA  (https://hpdsinc.blogspot.ca/2016/04/its-all-about-mona.html)

I expect you might be wondering why I refer to Tasmania as being similar to Canada's Newfoundland.  First, if Australian's are generally considered to be quirky, Taswegians (not Tasmanians) have them all beat hands down, and I mean that in a good way. Though polite, there is no beating around the bush; if it needs to be said, it is said.  The consider themselves to be a little outside the rest of the country and, being an island, that makes perfect sense.  Perhaps this is why they appear to be somewhat less judgemental, more open minded and perhaps more connected to the earth. Tasmania was home to the first Green Party and had the first openly gay leader of a national political party. And yet, at the same time, they seemed to be conservative.  To me, it likens back to living in smaller communities where everyone knows everyone and accepts their differences at face value, even if they don't prescribe to them.  And if all of these nuances pass you by, what you surley won't miss is their lingo.  While we in the rest of Canada often struggle to understand Newfouneez, we found ourselves in the same position in Tasmania, particularly in isolated areas.  We are quite convinced we met many a Taswegian that had rarely left home.  

And how could one possibly not fall in love with their dedication and loyalty to their state?  They are passionate when it comes to protecting and preserving their wilderness areas; consider David Walsh, founder and owner of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) a folkhero and are proud to their very core of all that Tasmania is.



All in all, it's a glorious place to visit.  If not already on it, add it to your bucket list.

Resources:
http://www.launcestoncataractgorge.com.au/index.html
http://www.discovertasmania.com.au/about/articles/bay-of-fires
http://www.australia.com/en/places/freycinet/tas-wineglass-bay.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Port_Arthur,_Tasmania
http://www.richmondgaol.com.au/
http://www.internationalghostsandhauntings.com/2011/12/groovers-ghost-of-richmond-bridge.html
http://www.thesensorytas.com.au/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hobart