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Road tripping Tasmania: Self-drive the Hobart Grand Circle
An extraordinary road trip through Tasmania, this journey begins in the capital of Hobart and travels in a loop, taking in some of the state’s most spectacular sights along the way. Visit everything from world-renowned Cradle Mountain and Freycinet national parks to fascinating glow worm-filled caves, thundering waterfalls, dazzling lakes, beaches and historic sites.
Begin by exploring Tasmania’s capital. While it may be smaller than the rest, it’s jam-packed with scenery, wildlife and attractions, while boasting some of the world’s cleanest air. Hobart is the second oldest city after Sydney, thought it has far fewer residents with a population of around a quarter-million. Take time to enjoy what it has to offer, including a buzzing art scene and a thriving foodie scene along with some impressive Georgian and Victorian architecture. Salamanca Place is a great spot to stretch your legs and battle any jet leg, with its terrace of warehouses that date back to the early 19th-century converted into craft shops, galleries and restaurants. If you’re here on a Saturday you can peruse the Salamanca Market with its over 300 stalls filled with fresh produce, baked goods, Tasmanian arts and crafts, comics, crystals, vintage items and more, while buskers strum folk songs on the guitar, play a melodic melody on a harp and sing the blues. You might want to cross the lawn to the working docks where fishing boats sit next to luxurious yachts and tall-masted wooden vessels while ships come and go to Antarctica.
Now, or after returning from your drive around the ‘loop,’ you might want to visit the rather quirky MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art. It’s been referred to as the most ‘far-out’ museum in the world and is located in the northern suburbs, accessed via ferry up the tranquil Derwent River in a subterranean fortress. It showcases some rather controversial collections of art, but it’s probably something you’ll never see anywhere else, with passion, decay and death explored in rather extreme detail. David Walsh, the museum’s creator, was told by academics at one point that if visitors had to walk upstairs, past pillars, it would be considered ‘culture,’ so he decided to construct it underground because he didn’t want his patrons to feel ‘small.’ You’ll be given a GPS-loaded iPod touch to figure out what you’re viewing while listening to Walsh’s running commentary. Just some of what you can expect to see includes maggot-filled installations and a range of various objects of art based around evolution, sex and death, for a mix of shocking, entertaining, and educational. You’ll see some antiquities from Walsh’s private collection such as a 1,500-year-old Egyptian sarcophagus and a golden coin, taken from a statue at Athens’ Parthenon.
Franklin Gordon Wild Rivers National Park
Lyell Highway winds for 56 kilometres through the heart of the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park as you make your way west from Hobart. Enjoy the scenery by taking advantage of one of the picnic areas or short walks along the way. The wild landscape boasts world-famous rivers, soaring mountain peaks and magnificent gorges in the heart of Tasmanian wilderness, shaped by ancient glaciers, while the ancient Huon Pines reach more than 3,000 years old. Just west of Victoria Pass you’ll find the short Nelson Falls Nature Trail which follows boardwalk through the rainforest to a dazzling 35-metre-high waterfall. Another good walk is the 1-kilometre Franklin River Nature Trail marked through the forest from the picnic ground where the road crosses the Franklin River.
Queenstown and Strahan
Continuing west from the national park you’ll reach Queenstown, the largest town on the west coast of Tasmania. It’s surrounded by dramatic mountains and is also a forming mining town – once the world’s richest. Known for its unique ‘moonscape’ due to its copper mining days and logging around the turn of the 20th-century. While you’re here, visit Ironblow Lookout at the top of Gormie Hill for an impressive view. You might want to join a tour of Lake Margaret - It was the first of the state’s many hydroelectrical schemes, including one that wholly depended on natural water flow without a dam. The original village was once home to many migrants, and you can glimpse some of their time there during the early 1900s. A heritage walking tour through town will bring you on a journey into its past.
Venturing on, you’ll reach Strahan about 50 minutes in. It’s worth a stop to stroll the waterfront of this charming West Coast town with its artisan studios and other craft shops, boutiques and boats. From the esplanade, you can take a cruise to Bonnett Island via speedboat. Along the way, keep an eye out for the whales that are frequently spotted in the surf. On the island you can watch the fairy penguins and then dine on Tasmanian cheese paired with tasty pinot noir.
Cradle Mountain National Park
Cradle Mountain’s silhouette, reflected in tranquil mirror-like Dove Lake is considered one of the greatest natural icons in all of Tasmania, with the surrounding landscape looking like it could have been the backdrop of ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ Its dolerite summit, the highest of the four dramatic peaks towering over the lake, are frequently enveloped in mist. It can be found in Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park by venturing inland. It’s renowned for its alpine heaths and Overland Track, a place where streams cascade down the rugged mountains and ancient pine trees frame glacial lakes. This is the ultimate hiker’s paradise, with everything from easy walking trails that meander around remarkably scenic places like Wombat Pool to challenging hikes for adventures like the five-day trek along the 50-mile Overland Trail. You might want to take the two-hour walk around Dove Lake or the short route to Pencil Pine Falls which follows a boardwalk to a lookout where you can marvel at the series of cascades. Cradle Valley and the surrounding area hosts many Aboriginal historic sites containing rock shelters, caves and remnants of stone tools that can be explored via the Aboriginal Cultural Rock from the trailhead at Lake St. Clark at the park’s southern end.
Mole Creek Karst National Park and Marakoopa Cave
Traveling east you’ll come to Mole Creek Karst National Park, famous for its accessible caves that include glow worms, stalactites, stalagmites, columns and subterranean streams. The park hosts some 300 caves with the Marakoopa and King Solomons caves the most easily accessible. Marakoopa is known for housing the largest display of glow worms among all of Australia’s publicly accessible caves, and it also features two subterranean streams. The ‘Great Cathedral’ features impressive crystals, and the ‘Gardens’ has delicate formations as well as a remarkable array of colours.
Launceton and Cataract Gorge Reserve
Continue to Launceton, which makes a great base for an overnight. Just a 10- to 15-minute walk from the city centre of Launceston is the Cataract Gorge Reserve, known locally as the Gorge. A unique natural formation, it’s made up of cliffs, bushland and a river. It offers lots of attractions, including a bird’s-eye view of the forested hills from the southern hemisphere’s longest single-span chairlift. There’s even a free outdoor pool for swimming at First Basin, open between November and March. You can also walk the two scenic trails straddling the gorge, including the easy Cataract Walk and the steep Zig Zag Track. Just upstream, cross the shaky Alexandra Suspension Bridge. The area also hosts summer concerts, while wallabies and peacocks can often be seen just before sunset.
St. Columbia Falls and St. Helens: The Gardens and the Bay of Fires Coastal Reserves
In the morning, make your way toward Pyengana via Scottsdale, detouring to St. Columba Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls, plunging over 90 metres. It’s part of the St. Columba Falls State Preserve which has picnic facilities and beautiful forests, with lush ferns, beech, myrtle and sassafras trees, while the cascading waters of the South George River spill over steep granite ledges. Watch for the elusive platypus, which burrows alongside the creeks.
Heading to the east coast you’ll come to St. Helens which lies along Georges Bay. The game fishing capital of Tasmania, it’s known of its especially abundant yellowfin and albacore tuna, as well as lobster and oysters. There are lots of shops and eateries to enjoy, but one of the top things to do is visit nearby Binalong Bay and the Bay of Fires with its idyllic white sand beaches and crystal-clear waters. The Bay of Fires was named in 1773 by a passing British sea captain who noticed the aboriginal’s campfires burning in the bush. Today, there are few signs of those indigenous inhabitants who were brought to extinction in a colonial campaign – the very last full-blooded islander passed away in 1878. A coastal paradise, it spans some 50 kilometres from Binalong Bay in the south to Eddystone Point in the north. You can walk for miles across the powder sugar-like sands that edge the strikingly clear aquamarine waters, keeping a watchful eye for dolphins and right whales that pass. The Gardens is 10 minutes from Binalong Bay and offers swimming, fishing and uncrowded beaches that are well-worth exploring before driving south along the coast to Freycinet National Park.
Freycinet National Park
As you make your way to Freycinet, just south of Scamander, take the scenic drive along the Tasman Highway which meanders up St. Mary’s pass. At the top of the pass, you can embark on the short rainforest walk on Gray Mares Trail to a waterfall. From the town of St. Mary’s, the road journeys south through narrow Elephant Pass, where you’ll find a popular breakfast stop for pancakes. Return to the coast at the Chain of Lagoons, continuing further south to the national park along the wild and rugged Freycinet Peninsula. One of the country’s top vacation spots, it juts out into the sea, surrounded by turquoise bays and postcard-perfect white sandy beaches, while the soaring pink granite peaks of the Hazards Range provide an awe-inspiring backdrop. A not-to-be-missed destination for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers, you’ll want to spend some time here with plenty to do along with spectacular scenery. For one of the most photographed views in all of Tasmania, take the short trek to Wineglass Bay. The Wineglass Bay Lookout Walk reveals some of the most beautiful curved white sands as well as spectacular views over the bay. There are routes through the Hazards Range that provide amazing views of Great Oyster Bay and picturesque coastline too. You’ll see Australiasian gannets diving for their dinner, and white-bellied sea eagles soaring overhead.
Traveling back to Hobart along the south-east coast you’ll reach the seaside village of Swansea overlooking Great Oyster Bay. It has a rich colonial history and a laidback vibe, with a town centre that boasts lots of interesting historic buildings and a local history museum. The surrounding area is filled with vineyards and farms to explore. You might want to stop by one of the local wineries to taste some of its offerings. Just south of town at Kate’s Berry Farm, you can try berry wines, jams, ice cream and fresh berries.
Historic Village of Richmond
Just before you reach Hobart, the historic village of Richmond is worth a visit, providing the opportunity to explore Tasmania’s colonial past. You can visit Australia’s oldest Roman Catholic Church, walk across its oldest, still functioning, bridge and learn about convict history at its oldest intact jail. The Richmond Gaol is a convict-era building where you can tour the chain gang sleeping rooms, a flogging yard, cookhouse and female solitary confinement room while learning about the state’s convict past.
The Model Hobart Village is a miniature replica of Hobart as it was in the 1820s, designed and built from the original historical plans. Oak Lodge hosts a museum focused on colonial life in a grand Georgian house that’s like a time capsule. Finally, the last item on the agenda before reaching the end of your road trip through Tasmania, is to sample some of the local Tasmanian fare at one of the fabulous cafes and restaurants in town, and perhaps pick up something for the road at “Sweets and Treats,” a traditional candy shop with delectable Tasmanian fudge.