Cataract Gorge rocks — it’s ancient (about 200 million years old), it’s mighty (with tall, tubular dolerite boulders dominating the landscape), and it’s wild in parts, especially standing on the footbridge watching the flooding South Esk River gouge a path through the bedrock. But it’s also tranquil in other areas, like the basin where Aboriginal people have been gathering for thousands of years and where tourists now come to enjoy the serenity.
It’s also super accessible. With all this geological magnificence around me, you’d think I was in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been over, around, and even through a lot of gorges and gaps, canyons and chasms all over Australia, and I never tire of exploring them. But most require an effort to get there, usually in the form of a long drive and significant hike.
Not Cataract Gorge — this one is a 20-minute stroll from Launceston’s city centre. The massive bush-covered hills form a beautiful backdrop to this city of 85,000 people in Tasmania’s north-west. It’s so easy to get to that many locals use the extensive hiking trails which weave further into the gorge as part of their daily fitness routine.
If you want to drive to Cataract Gorge, it’s two minutes from town to the gardens, paths, pool, cafe, and footbridges found in the basin.
A chairlift goes over the river to the Band Rotunda where you’ll meet peacocks, wallabies and maybe even Rex, the resident echidna.
The Heart of Launceston
Launnie, as the locals like to call Launceston, is the largest city in the north-west. As well as having wilderness right on the doorstep, it has history and charm, arts and culture, fun and festivals, and is heaven for foodies — in fact, it’s just been named a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy! Put Stillwater, Grain of the Silos, Bluestone, and Geronimo on the dining wishlist.
Settled back in 1806, when migrants were given land (and convicts to help develop the land), Launceston is Australia's third oldest city after Sydney and Hobart. Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery is the place to go to have all that history detailed. QVMAG is a two-part complex — the industrial museum created from derelict railway workshops, and the stylish art gallery which also houses a permanent Aboriginal collection.
Launceston is said to be a city of churches, but on closer inspection I think pubs might rule. There’s an ‘old school’ feel to the elegant, two-storey city buildings, but venture inside and you’ll find old is new again — it’s all modern and sophisticated with touches that maintain a respective nod to the past. Think industrial gin bars like Alchemy, intimate wine bars like Bar-Two and Cinco (right next door to each other), or moody Firestorm for tacos and cocktails if you’re after some nightlife or a bit of bar hopping.
Launceston lies snug in a valley, and it’s blessed with three rivers — the South Esk and North Esk which merge into the Tamar River. With so many waterways and so much rain, levees and concrete gates have been built to protect the city from flooding when the water levels rise, as they often do. On top of these levees are walking and bike tracks that connect the suburbs to the city to the gorge, and all the beautiful riverbank precincts in between.
One of the best ways to see the city is by pedal power. Alison Hugo has created On Your Bike tours to showcase the best of Launceston. She leads the pedal brigade past Boag’s Brewery (you’ll have to come back later to explore) and into the ‘burbs to see historic cottages built through the generations since 1806. Then it’s through reclaimed Heritage Forest, along the levees around Riverbend Park, past the Peppers Silo Hotel and marina, through Royal Park and over Kings Bridge to a melaleuca forest that Alison believes hasn’t changed much since settlement. You’ll be surprised to have covered about 14km by the end of the tour. It’s an easy ride on a day full of fun stories, history lessons, lunch and exercise!
If you need to shop, The Mall has all the usual brand names you’re probably used to seeing. But if you love to shop, there are some stores not to miss.
Cocoon is for tea lovers — Bruce Webb has a T2 concept store full of pots and cups and tea of every description, even tea cosies knitted by the staff. Most Launnie women have a story to tell about Capri, the underwear institution still going after 60 years. There’s Petrarchs Book Shop, Inspire Yourself & Your Home, Card Castle, and Glazed and Confused ceramics in Quadrant Mall. Lead’Em Footwear has been fitting school shoes through generations and the CWA shop is cake heaven.
The city centre is five streets by five streets of easy walking and many distractions thanks to a pub on (nearly) every corner. Make sure to detour through City Park for the plants, Design Tasmania Centre, and the Japanese macaque monkeys. Yes, a free monkey enclosure in the middle of the city — just add it to the surprises Launceston likes to dish up.
All that glistens is probably a sparkling wine
Launceston is the perfect place to start your tour of the Tamar Valley, Tassie’s oldest wine growing area famous for its cool climate sparkling wine. The valley stretches up either side of the Tamar River which winds its way from Launceston north to Bass Strait. The Tamar Wine Trail is a 170km loop with 23 cellar doors. Here are just a few to get the taste buds itching for more.
Josef Chromy Wines
Let’s take wine tasting up a notch, or down a notch — whatever the instructor might require. And let’s take it into the pinot noir and chardonnay grapevines this region is so famous for.
We are doing Yoga in the Vines at Josef Chromy Wines. Meg Culhane is our yoga instructor, and a picture of strength and poise as she adopts the warrior pose. I’m giving a whole new meaning to ‘downward dog’. It’s not easy trying to contort and balance and not giggle with a glass of bubbly in hand. But I have to say, sparkling wine tastes even more special when you’re upside-down. And despite my lack of agility and ability, these classes are a lot of fun. I’m admiring typical Tasmanian scenes — rolling hills, vineyards and lakes. Guests in the restaurant are admiring us. Well, at least we’re providing comic relief.
Josef Chromy Wines is just 10 minutes south of Launceston. And importantly, more wine and lunch are just 10 minutes from my yoga mat.
Bay of Fires Wines at Piper River is about an hour’s drive north west, past cherry orchards and berry farms and alongside huge forests. This is home to House of Arras, a household name if you’re a bubbly fan and the work of Ed Carr who is widely regarded as Australia’s pre-eminent sparkling winemaker.
Visitors sit down to a structured tasting starting with the best — the Blanc de Blancs, seven years in the making.
Sinapius is a family-owned 4.5ha vineyard known for high-density plantings and dry-grown vines on the rich, red ferrosol soil. Everything is bottled, labelled and sold here so you’ll have to visit to taste the knockout 2020 Jean Morice Rose made from 100 per cent gamay.
Delamere offers the chance to sit down with the ‘wine waffler’ Simon McInerney. Simon loves to chat, especially when it’s about wine. The focus at Delamere is on bubbles with six on the tasting menu. “The value of wine is not about price point,” Simon says. “In the bottle, it’s worth something but the joy is in the drinking.”
As he pours a glass of Museum Release (2013) Chardonnay and a 2011 Pinot Noir, Simon touches on the need for wine deadlines. “Check the ageing capacity then store it by years — then it never goes off and never gets wasted.”
Pipers Brook is a good spot for lunch and a self-guided tasting at Nadine’s Cafe. You can choose from Pipers Brook, Ninth Island, Pipers Tasmania and the Kreglinger Sparkling labels.
Jansz Wine Room and Dr Andrew Pirie’s 2ha sustainable vineyard, Apogee, are also on the eastern side of the Tamar.
Velo Wines is the first cellar door along the western side of the Tamar River with the ever-popular Timbre Kitchen restaurant next door.
All dishes here are made to share from the sumac and smoked paprika popcorn to cold-cut brisket, smoked onion and flatbread and miso caramel mousse with honeycomb.
With more time to spare, you could drop in to Tamar Ridge Wines, Loira Vines and Marion’s Vineyard at Deviot, but we are booked in for a Swinging Gate tasting. I’m keen for Pet Nat (petillant naturel) said to be the precursor to modern-day sparkling wine.
Nellie will be the first to greet you, she’s the loveable winery dog. Next is Corrie Cox, owner and winemaker and her daughter, Hannah. Corrie’s husband, Doug — a viticulturist — is busy looking after the only frontignac vines in the valley.
Like most wineries in the Tamar, pinot noir is their biggest seller but fronti runs a close second. And then there is the Pet Nat, a cloudy sparkling wine that appears to have things growing in the bottle. “This wine is unfiltered so the CO2 binds to the sediment and can cause gushing,” Hannah warns. “Open very chilled and over a sink with your glass handy so you don’t lose a drop.”
The Spirit of Tasmania ferry from Melbourne (note: this will change to Geelong in spring 2022) arrives in Devonport, 100km north of Launceston. The drive will take you along the western side of the Tamar River so you could tick off some of the wineries on the way down.
Devonport is worth exploring, especially the Bluff Beach area, Bass Strait Maritime Museum and Tasmanian Arboretum at nearby Eugenana.
Dine at Mrs Jones Restaurant and Bar Lounge (you’ll need to book).
If you want to leave the van home, take advantage of new direct flights to Launceston from Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and the Gold Coast.
Where to Stay
Launceston Holiday Park Legana
711 West Tamar Hwy, Legana 7277
Ph: (03) 6330 1317
Big 4 Launceston Holiday Park
86-94 Glen Dhu St, Launceston 7250
Ph: (03) 6344 2600
Discovery Parks Hadspen
Cnr Main St & Meander Valley Hwy, Hadspen 7290
Ph: 1800 281 885
If you’re not in a van, try Peppers Silo Hotel in Invernay (Ph: (03) 6700 0600, W: peppers.com.au/silo), or Hotel Verge in Launceston (Ph: (03) 6310 8100, W: hotelverge.com.au).
Mersey Bluff Caravan Park (next to Mrs Jones)
41 Bluff Rd, Devonport 7310
Ph: (03) 6424 8655
If you’re not in a van, try Waterfront Complex Apartments in Devonport (Ph: 0498 966 464, W: waterfrontcomplex.com.au)
East Beach Tourist Park
40 Gunn Parade, Low Head 7253
Ph: (03) 6382 1000
Low Head Tourist Park
136 Low Head Road
Ph: (03) 6382 1573
Big 4 Kelso Sands Holiday Park
86 Paranaple Rd, Kelso 7270
Ph: (03) 6383 9130