Big Question Marks

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Hello, Tassie!

We weren't sure if it was crazy to take our already-shivering-in-Melbourne selves even closer to the South Pole for a mini-vacation-- but a visit to Australia's 7th and littlest state turned out to be a super idea and a gorgeous place to visit, even in the dead of winter.

Tasmania (or Tassie, as they call it here) is a small island off the southern coast of Victoria, with a population of about 495,000 [June 2008]. A lot of travelers here talk about going to, but as it takes a bit of effort (a lot of locals have never made the trip)--10 hours on the ferry from Melbourne or an hour's plane ride-- many backpackers skip it. Everything we read prior to going said it's a wild and pretty, but tiny island-- so we figured we could see a good part of it in 4 1/2 days-- but it's usually freezing cold and stormy in winter, another interpretation we found to be only partially true...

Another Tassie draw in this season is the cheap flights-- we paid $49 a person from Melbourne to Hobart, $29/pp back-- with only carry-on baggage for the deal. (Helpful tip: Dayle's strategy was to wear her heaviest clothing in layers, and to sneak the travel books and the hair dryer into Adrian's bag!). Jetstar's bargain flight flies at sunrise, so we had to drive up to the airport at 4am, meaning we got lost once or twice and even got on the toll highway by accident, oops! Luckily, our bags did fine for the 10kg allowance-- in fact, we actually had about 5kg each!-- and we got a gorgeous view of the sunrise as the plane reached the northern coast of Tassie.

We arrived in Hobart, and with hours to wait before we could check in to our little hotel and have a nap, it was time for some sleepy exploring. Maybe it was just the cold talking, but Hobart had a little bit of Canada in it, we thought--an air of Vancouver, with the town laid out around the mountains surrounding a bay, and a bit of a Maritimes feel with all the fishing boats and old warehouse buildings around the docks. Many of Hobart's old buildings are really well-preserved, with the former warehouses now converted into restaurants, art galleries, and bars. We didn't see many Popeye types (we're guessing they were on vacation from the cold) but we imagine the docks would be pretty lively in the summertime. On a Friday morning... not so much. We quickly grew bored of the CBD though-- it's pretty small and has that feeling of Oz country town-- so we thought we'd tackle the snow early on in our trip and make a dash up Mount Wellington, just outside of the city.

Now, on a scale of mountains, Mt Wellington's not really all that big. At 1270m, it's an anthill in the list of the world's tallest mountains, but it's still a pretty cool sight to see a snow-capped mountain looming over Hobart. We hopped in our little rental Getz and started the climb. On the way we stopped at the famous Cascade Brewery (Oz's oldest) for photos, not for beer (no matter how long we live in Australia, 11am just still seems too early to drink!). We were sad to find the road to Mt Wellington's summit was closed about halfway from the top-- guess no one has snow tires in Tasmania-- though perhaps also a blessing since they're kind of stingy with the guardrails in Tassie. We hopped out at the end of the road and decided to take a walk through the woods, and got to make snowballs and wee snowmen for the first time in a year and a half-- quite the thrill. Eventually we reached a scenic lookout (Sphinx Rock), and as we snapped photos of the snow above, and Hobart below, the weather went from sunny to rainy to a snow flurry to sunshine and a rainbow, in about 10 minutes. Bizarre! We thought we'd try another route back to the road and ended up lost hiking up a very steep and muddy/snowy pathway which seemed like it would never end... (bringing thoughts of "Into The Wild" and being stranded in Alaska to our minds) until suddenly we emerged on the deserted highway, jeans and Converse sneakers dipped in dark mud and our toes frozen. The park rangers had thoughtfully built a stone hut with a log fire inside by the parking lot, where we hung out for a while after that, thank you very much!

Later on it took a bit of motivation to leave our warm hotel room to get some dinner in the cold, but the waterfront area on Friday night was hopping (with people not wearing coats, a puzzling phenomena we see in wintry Melbourne a lot too). There were art gallery openings and packed restaurants and warm pubs and live music... not bad at all!

We had planned our trip around a Saturday morning in Hobart for the famous Salamanca Market, a huge market held weekly along the strip of old sandstone warehouses by the waterfront known as Salamanca Place. We were hoping to find some bargain brie (Tassie's the place for cheese!) but there was none to be found... though had we not had a great breakfast included at our hotel we could have eaten our way through the market- there was everything from coffee to strange jams to locally-grown tempura mushrooms (couldn't resist those). The quarantine laws are pretty strict, even for the Tassie-to-the-mainland crossing (we'd had a fruit-sniffing dog inspect our bags in the Hobart airport) so we weren't sure if we could bring any cool plants or wooden crafts back... so it was a light shopping trip.

We set off for the Tasman Peninsula and the quaint little town of Richmond, along the "convict trail" after that. [See a map of our Tasmania travels here.] At the south end of the peninsula is the former prison colony of Port Arthur, where the repeat offenders and real baddies (though sometimes for what seemed like the silliest little crimes) went between the years of 1830 and 1877. The site has gone through a major restoration over the past 30 years or so, and is now a spooky complex of crumbling sandstone buildings and cute (but maybe haunted) houses. We took a nighttime ghost tour-- under the full moon!--with group of non-believers mixed with jittery screaming girls and equally jittery guys on a bachelor party... which was quite a good time. The buildings were very creepy at night, especially when our guide had us all pile into a solitary confinement cell and stay dead silent (some of us heard a faint hammering noise, and spotted a flickering light in the empty (?) cell across the corridor, eek!). It was getting to the point where a bandicoot dashing across the road would make us jump, so it was probably for the better the tour was only 1 1/2 hours. The next day we explored the site by daylight and it didn't have the same eerieness, that's for sure-- it was pretty and green, with big leafless trees and green rosellas chirping and flying around... almost more like a park than its former gritty, awful prison. (Not to mention the rainbows that kept coming out every hour, which sort of stole the site's creepiness as well).

We hit the road that afternoon in a mad dash north-- Tassie was turning out to have way more to see than we were going to get to in 5 days-- and pretty much had the road to ourselves, aside from logging trucks and endless paddocks of grazing sheep and frolicking lambs. The towns along the way to our next destination, Freycinet National Park, were tiny and far between... but we discovered a new and exciting activity in honking at sheep. (Something we never get to do with Daisy because her horn only works sometimes!) Still no wombat or Tasmanian Devil sightings, as falsely advertised on Tassie postcards, but the scenery up the east coast was pretty nice anyway. We stopped in a little seaside resort town called Swansea, probably overpriced and crowded in summer but a total ghost town in August. We chose the pinkest, kitschiest-looking motor inn and cranked the heating.

On Monday morning, our second-last day, we took the short drive from Swansea to Freycinet National Park, home of the much-photographed aqua-blue Wineglass Bay. None of the books mentioned it would be an absolutely gruelling hike (ahem, "moderate", as the park signs called it) up the mountains to the lookout. I don't think it was just us being out of shape... we met a lot of people along the way who looked like they were going to call it quits before the top. We originally thought we'd hike down to the bay but the thought of having to come back up again kind of cancelled that ambition. Instead, we met a couple of very-friendly wallabies in the parking lot (one with a joey, the other one with a gas problem... video to come shortly!), which was about the extent of our Tasmanian wildlife-spotting.

And since we figured we wouldn't make it to anything that new and exciting before dark-- cheese factories, caves filled with glow worms, more snowy mountains and picturesque gorges, and a place called Dismal Swamp!--we left a lot of Tassie untouched and ended back in Hobart that night... that's right, back in Customs House, in the same room we had the first night (but even the manager said he thinks room #12 is the best one in there... it's one of the original rooms, all refurbished, on a corner so we had windows facing the waterfront on one side and Parliament House on the other side. Awesome!). We flew back on Dayle's birthday in an even-more ghetto airline (rattly plane which had to land at "terminal 4" in Melbourne's airport... basically a big outdoor shed, where the passengers disembark and have to walk along a 2km chainlink-fenced concrete pathway out to a remote bus stop. So that's what $29 gets you! But perhaps we needed the walk-- we were too stuffed from eating many a dessert in Tassie to go out for an official birthday dinner :) It was good times.

Just few things we really love about Tassie:
* All of the hotels we went to were really thoughtful and planted an electrical heated pad under the sheets on both sides of the bed. What a marvellous idea!
* The air is great and the roads are quiet-- the first thing we noticed when getting back on the road in Melbourne is how much people love to use their horns here (and not for sheep). Ugh!
* Tassie is the land of rainbows, at least from our brief experience! The weather was anything but stormy... it was rainy, but it would only rain for a few minutes before shutting off and turning to sunshine again- over and over. It was for the most part, quite enjoyable, and it made everything really green!

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