On a bright, sunny summer afternoon it is hard to reconcile the thought that Port Arthur has one of the bleakest histories in Tasmania.
Port Arthur was established in 1830 as a penal colony. Its dark history contrasts with the beauty of the surrounding area. With an aim “to grind rogues into honest men”, the Port Arthur Penal Settlement aimed to reform and rehabilitate some of the worst criminals from Britain. Regarded today as the best-preserved convict settlement in Australia, Port Arthur was remote, harsh and compelling. The site contains more than 30 historic buildings and ruins. There’s also a memorial garden to the victims of the 1996 Port Arthur mass shooting tragedy.
Exploring the World Heritage site
A complimentary tour and harbour cruise are available throughout the day since the Port Arthur site reopened in early July. After dark, a ghost tour is hugely popular. This World Heritage site is also a great spot to pick up some souvenirs for friends interstate or overseas. The gift shop has a huge variety of quality, locally produced goods. Plus, there’s an on-site restaurant that uses seasonal produce from local growers.
If you haven’t had enough, visit the Coal Mines at nearby Saltwater River, Tasmania’s first operational mine and a place of punishment for the “worst category” of felons. Entry to the Coal Mines Historic Site is free and visitors are encouraged to explore the self-guided walks and ruins of houses, barracks, offices and cells.
Both sites are an easy 90-minute drive from Hobart through the pretty Tasman Peninsula countryside.
Eat, drink and lavender
The Peninsula is a spectacular destination that offers a range of food, wine, whisky and walks. The area is famous for natural attractions including dramatic coastal rock formations and towering cliffs. And for gourmet drawcards like McHenry Distillery and the local produce served at long lunches on the farm at Port Arthur Lavender. The property stretches across nine hectares of lavender fields, rainforest and ocean frontage. It includes an essential oils distillery, eatery and visitor centre. They also offer treats including lavender chocolate and lavender ice cream. The gift shop has a large selection of Tasmanian-made products.
Don’t miss out on the Bangor Vineyard Shed, overlooking the water at Dunalley. It’s a cellar door, farm gate shop and restaurant in one – and specialises in local oysters.
Distilleries and artisan producers in the Port Arthur region
Spirit lovers will want to pop in for tasting at both the Nonesuch and McHenry distilleries, while Bream Creek Farmers Market promises the freshest produce from local growers. Catch the market on the first Sunday of every month.
At McHenry, distiller Bill McHenry makes gins, whiskies and vodkas. He also holds tutored distilling lessons by appointment, allowing guests to distil their own gin.
“We think it is a fascinating process,” he says. “Hopefully, people will be engaged with what we do and leave with a greater understanding.”
Turn the clock back 15 years and McHenry was an incredibly stressed high-flyer in the pharmaceuticals industry. He had an epiphany when he drove through a red light in busy Sydney traffic one day, so engrossed in his business issues that he had completely forgotten what he was doing.
“I didn’t hit anyone but it shocked me what I had done,” he said. “I went back home and decided on big change. I’ve always wanted my own business and I’ve got Scottish heritage so distilling seemed a natural fit.”
These days McHenry and his family are very much at home in slow-paced Tasmania. The distillery sits on 40 pristine hectares on the Tasman Peninsula. “It has its own natural springs – and pure water is essential for distilling,” he says.
McHenry delights in showing guests (and would-be distillers) around his rustic property, which is teeming with wildlife.
Exploring Port Arthur and surrounds on foot
Port Arthur Historic Site is the start and finish point of the most recent of Australia’s great walking tracks – The Three Capes Track. Think 48 cliff-hugging kilometres in Australia’s far south-east; four days and three nights taking in views that might include migratory whales, dolphins or fur seals. The coastline features spectacular beaches, blowholes and caves.
“We like to think there is enough in the region to keep people interested for a night or two,” says Impression Bay Distillery operator and tourism advocate Michael Moore, pointing to drawcards including coastal rock formations like Devil’s Kitchen, the Tasman Arch and the Tessellated Pavement.
For a close-up view of the coastline visitors can take an eco-cruise to the tip of the peninsula exploring the waterfalls, deep sea caves, towering cliffs and wildlife on the way. Pennicott Wilderness Journeys operate three-hour Tasman cruises.
Animal lovers, meanwhile, will enjoy a visit to the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park at Taranna to interact with the endangered critters and other Australian native animals. Much of the peninsula is protected as national park and is home to many animals including the brush tail possum, wallabies, wombats, bandicoots, Australian fur seals, penguins, dolphins and migrating whales as well as the endangered swift parrot and many forest-dwelling birds. You may also see endangered wedge-tailed eagles and sea eagles overhead.
An $11 million luxury accommodation and restaurant development plan is in place for Stormlea but current options include Stewarts Bay Lodge, Port Arthur Villas and Little Norfolk Bay Chalets.
Find more Tasmanian escapes here.