The Tasman Peninsula feels like an island, and it might as well be. Attached by an isthmus just 30 metres wide, Tasmania’s largest appendage sprawls across 660 square kilometres, lined by white sand beaches, sleepy townships and aqua bays that wouldn’t be out of place in the South Pacific. In contrast to its natural beauty, it was also once home to two of the most severe penal colonies in the country — Port Arthur and the Coal Mines.
The peninsula is compact enough to criss-cross at will, yet big enough to warrant days of wandering — or longer, if you linger at its beautiful bays. Just a 70-minute drive east of Hobart, access is easy but in the 1800s movement across the isthmus wasn’t so straightforward. Back then, a line of chained savage dogs guarded Eaglehawk Neck to prevent convicts escaping.
That brutal chapter has long since closed, leaving a region so temptingly beautiful and full of things to do that no one’s in any rush to leave.
COAST WITH THE MOST
Clustered near Eaglehawk Neck is a string of impressive rock formations, easily accessible by car and with a short walk. First up is the Tessellated Pavement, a coastal rock platform fractured by nature into neat squares like paving tiles. Within five kilometres are the Blowhole (a collapsed sea tunnel), Tasman Arch (a former sea cave, now worn through to an arch) and Devil’s Kitchen (a deep and narrow gulch), carved by the ocean’s pounding waves.
The peninsula is also home to Australia’s highest sea cliffs. During the Jurassic period, around 185 million years ago, slow moving magma oozed its way through fractures in sedimentary rock that later weathered away to reveal columns of dolerite up to 300 metres high. It makes for striking formations that are revealed fairly widely.
On a half-day hike out to Cape Hauy you can peer down over precipitous cliffs and breathtaking structures such as the Totem Pole, a 65-metre sea stack popular with experienced rock climbers. It’s also the perfect vantage point from which to spot passing whales or fur seals that rest on the platforms below.
A different perspective can be gained at sea level. Pennicott Wilderness Journeys runs three-hour cruises beneath the cliffs, past sea caves, waterfalls and the steep-sided plateau of Tasman Island. Rising 300 metres from the sea, this impressive chunk of rock is an important breeding site for fairy prions, while the region as a whole buzzes with thousands of seabirds such as diving gannets, albatross, sea eagles and falcons.
There are over a dozen other trails to choose from. Seeing a waterfall spill 200m over the coastal cliffs to the ocean below is the highlight on the one-hour return walk to Waterfall Bay.
Crescent Bay has to be one of the most spectacular beaches on the Tasman Peninsula but it can only be accessed via a two-hour walk. The journey in is a scenic one, crossing coastal heath, vast sand dunes, and with an optional side trip up Mt Brown for excellent views.
The views of vast and sheer towering walls, formed by more of those dolerite columns, at Cape Raoul have to be a highlight. The track winds through open forest before suddenly ending at a cliff edge. Take a packed lunch for this five-hour return walk because you’ll want to linger.
From the same trailhead, another path leads to Shipstern Bluff. Photos of surfers here often make the headlines as they tackle the infamously dangerous waves that are at times so big other waves form within them. If the surf is up it’s worth venturing out for a look.
If you’ve ever fancied tackling your first multi-day hike, there could be few better to choose in the entire country than the Three Capes Track. Launched in 2015, this 48km trail has three architecturally designed huts en-route so all walkers need to carry is a sleeping bag, clothes and food (hiking gear and lightweight food can be sourced from Three Capes Gear & Gourmet). Shared bunkrooms provide mattresses, kitchens are fully equipped, and rest areas come complete with yoga mats, deck chairs, bookshelves and heaters. There’s even an outdoor shower at the middle camp. In the world of hiking, it’s utter luxury.
The scenery on this four-day walk provides ample distraction from the effort involved as the route leads through rainforest, moors and heaths, and around the capes with views at every turn. Cape Pillar, with its towering cliffs and stunning views out towards Tasman Island, is a highlight.
A decent portion of the peninsula is protected as national park, and the wide range of habitats provide a home to quite an array of wildlife. Pademelon, bettong, , wombats and bandicoots all live here, echidna sightings are common and there is even a population of Tasmanian devils about 300 strong — so far the only group in Tassie free of the deadly facial tumour disease.
While you’d be very lucky to spot one of these stocky little carnivores in the wild, you can see them any day of the week at Unzoo. Set on 25 acres of bushland beneath Norfolk Bay, this operation has a unique philosophy. Rather than rely on fences to contain their subjects, Unzoo focuses on creating habitat, thereby attracting animals and birds for visitors to witness. Nesting boxes are provided in trees for birds and possums, fish frames are left out for sea eagles, and nectar bowls filled for honeyeaters and rosellas.
Guides lead visitors around the property at set times, pausing to handfeed Forester kangaroos, red-necked wallabies, cape barren geese and green rosellas. A small group of rescued devils are the star attraction — one of the few species fenced, for everyone’s safety — and it’s a real thrill to see them up close. During feeding, the sight of a furry rabbit leg sends them into a frenzy and provides a demonstration of their incredibly strong jaws — the most powerful relative to body size of any carnivore.
Unzoo is active in conservation efforts, including a devil breeding program, and if you’re lucky you’ll be able to join a Devil in the Dark tour which tracks and views wild devils in their natural habitat in nearby forests.
A HARSH PAST
The isolation offered by the peninsula made it appealing for the establishment of penal colonies. Today, Port Arthur is considered the best-preserved convict site in Australia. From 1830 until 1877, convicts were incarcerated, providing slave labour as needed for the settlement while suffering brutal punishments for bad behaviour.
Set on 40 hectares around the shores of Mason Cove, Port Arthur was quite a bustling place in its day and now its remains are an open-air museum with around 30 buildings, ruins and restored period homes. Guided tours help interpret the history of the site.
The 'worst class' of convicts from Port Arthur were sent to work underground in horrendously damp, dark and confined conditions at the coalmines near Plunkett Point, 32km away. The Coal Mines Historic Site is a little less defined than Port Arthur but no less interesting. A collection of ruins and foundations are scattered across quite a wide area, linked by kilometres of walking trails that are enjoyable in their own right. For such a miserable prison, the location is stunning, sandwiched between forest and the shallow aqua waters of Norfolk Bay — you might want to consider packing swimwear.
Although the site is unmanned and entry free, there is some excellent interpretive signage to help you appreciate what life here was like in the 1800s.
SO MUCH SERENITY
In contrast with its turbulent past, the modern-day Tasman Peninsula feels exceedingly peaceful. Just a little further up the unsealed road from the Coal Mines site is Lime Bay State Reserve, an idyllic location to set up camp for a few days on grassy sites beneath wattle and casuarina trees, with the sound of gently lapping water from the adjacent beach.
Water temperatures never get that warm in Tasmania, but it’s hard to resist the lure of Fortescue Bay’s clear blue waters fringed in dazzling white sand. Plus there’s a great bush camp just behind it, complete with boat ramp. This is also the start point for the walk to Cape Hauy. Stewarts Bay is equally pristine but has emerald green water to complement its white sand.
Nubeena is considered the main township on the peninsula (although it’s still very modest) and the Nubeena Foreshore Walkway makes for a nice amble around a sapphire bay dotted with yachts. Next door, the tiny town of White Beach has a long arc of sand sheltered in Wedge Bay.
The scent of lavender is known to induce calm and there are seven hectares of purple blooms to inhale at Port Arthur Lavender Farm. December and January are the best times to witness fields of purple, but you can visit anytime to enjoy the café or stock up on a dazzling array of lavender products. If chocolate is more your kind of feel-good fun, Federation Artisan Chocolate run tours where you can ‘meet the maker’ and learn about the whole process of chocolate, from bean to bar.
Things have changed a lot since the guards gave up their posts watching over convicts in 1877. Today’s Tasman Peninsula is a place where pleasure rules.
WHAT TO DO
- Explore stunning rock formations like Tasman Arch, The Blowhole, Devils Kitchen, Tesselated Pavement and Cape Raoul. Grab some fish and chips from award-winning food van Doo-Lishus, parked near the Blowhole.
- Wander the ruins of convict settlements at Port Arthur (portarthur.org.au) and Coal Mine Historic Site (coalmines.org.au)
- Hike the Three Capes Track, threecapestrack.com.au. Gear and dehydrated meals available from 3capesgearandgourmet.com.au.
- See Tasmanian devils at Unzoo, tasmaniandevilunzoo.com.au
- Swim at Fortescue Bay, White Beach
- and Stewarts Bay
- Tasman Island Cruises,
- Port Arthur Lavendar,
- Federation Artisan Chocolate, federationchocolate.com
WHERE TO STAY
- Waterside bush camping at Fortescue Bay Campground and Lime Bay State Reserve, parks.tas.gov.au
- White Beach Tourist Park, whitebeachtouristpark.com.au
- Port Arthur Holiday Park, nrmaparksandresorts.com.au
- Nubeena is a registered RV Friendly Town and has a free dump site opposite the SES.