Tasmania’s Secret Hideaway
For many travelers, going to Australia can feel like traveling to the end of the earth—but if you really want to explore the edge of the world, consider this scenario. First, you catch a plane or an overnight ferry from Melbourne to Australia’s smallest state, the sparsely populated island of Tasmania, off the country’s southern coast; then you catch another ferry that carries you from Tasmania’s eastern shoreline several miles out to sea, across a strait known as the Mercury Passage, to a little figure-eight-shaped island where the only settlement is a ghost town. This is where Tasmanians themselves go to get in touch with nature.
This lovely and remote spot is Maria Island—and if you’re planning to check it out, be sure to stock up on supplies and rented bikes ahead of time, because Maria Island has no vehicular traffic, no shops, no electricity, and no permanent residents other than the few Tasmania Parks & Wildlife Service employees who watch over the hilly, 19km-long (12-mile) island and its wildlife inhabitants.
During Australia’s summer holidays, several hundred visitors a day take the 35-minute ferry ride to Darlington, the abandoned city on Maria Island’s northern tip. When they arrive, they’re greeted by a recreational and historical wonderland. Bike paths run the length and width of the island, allowing those with the energy and desire to sample the island’s diverse flora and fauna in full (for a bike-route map, go to the Parks & Wildlife Service website; see below). The island’s native wombats and Tasmanian pedamelons (both plant-eating marsupials) were joined in the early 1970s by several species imported from the Tasmanian mainland, including the Eastern grey kangaroo, the red-necked wallaby, and the Tasmanian devil.
Maria Island is also known for its bird population—it’s one of the last refuges of the endangered forty-spotted pardalote, the Cape Barren goose, and the sea eagle. Haunted Bay, on the island’s southern end, is famous for its fairy penguins, whose mournful calls gave the bay its name.
The national marine park that extends for a kilometer off Maria Island’s coast is a vibrant ecosystem of fish, seals (four species), dolphins, and birds. The island is on the whale migration route as well, with Southern Right whales, pilot whales, and humpback whales making regular appearances.
The island is also rich in history, both natural—within walking distance of Darlington you’ll encounter both limestone Fossil Cliffs and sandstone Painted Cliffs, known for their stunning iron oxide patterns—and human. The island has gone through a number of settlement phases, starting as a basic camp for whalers and sealers in the early 1800s (the stench of boiling whale blubber forced the camp elsewhere) and then becoming a convict colony in the 1820s. During the island’s industrial phase, work revolved around a cement factory, and visitors stayed at the truly grand Grand Hotel, a French chalet–style structure complete with dining and billiards rooms (it’s now closed). It was built by an Italian entrepreneur who hoped to develop Maria Island as a tourist destination as well as a production center for wine and silk. The island’s romantic billing as the “Riviera of Australia” never quite took hold, and by the time of the Great Depression, islanders had turned to farming and fishing. Maria Island was designated a national park in 1972.
Tasmania Parks & Wildlife Service (www.parks.tas.gov.au/index.aspx?base=3495 and www.discovertasmania.com/us).
Hobart (2 hr. away).
Triabunna (90 min. from Hobart): Maria Island Ferry & Eco Cruises ( 61/04/1974 6668; www.mariaislandferry.com.au; 35 min.).
Tasmania Parks & Wildlife Service ( 61/03/6257 1420; www.parks.tas.gov.au/index.aspx?base=3503).