As I stumbled out of a thicket of gum trees and into the small clearing, high up in the cluster of mountains known as The Hazards, I saw her: a wallaby, not yet fully grown, examining her paw in the bright grey Tasmanian light. I was certain that my arrival would scare her away, but she regarded me calmly, thumped her tail once on the floor, then returned to admiring herself. A few minutes later, after my panting had subsided, I gingerly crossed the clearing at a respectful distance and continued on my way.
It was only my first morning hiking the high-country trails in Freycinet National Park, but I’d already come across several wallabies (the kangaroo’s smaller, nimbler cousin) as I made my way through remote expanses of dark-green Australian forest and up sharp, red granite hills. The Tasmanian countryside, cooler and wetter than much of the Australian mainland, teems with wildlife – and, in this largely unexplored, 42,000-acre preserve, marsupials are never far away.
I’ve visited Tasmania several times over the past decade. So on this recent trip, a short flight from Melbourne, I was determined to experience something new. Pressed for time, I zeroed in on Freycinet, an easy drive from the capital Hobart, midway up the picturesque east coast. The park is relatively popular by Tasmanian standards, thanks in part to two charming lodges, but beyond a couple of well-worn lookout points and the eminently sailable Coles Bay, it remains more or less undisturbed. Intrigued by word of new attractions in the park, I set aside three days to explore.
It was easy to return to Tassie: the island’s lush and brooding beauty seduced me immediately when I first visited as a cadet journalist straight out of school, and the place continues to exert a pull. Back then, I was reporting on Australia’s federal election campaign and Tasmania’s outsized role as a battleground state; but I found the island’s politics less engaging than its terrain, which encompasses temperate rainforests, white-sand beaches, rugged highlands and rain-soaked prairies. Scattered across the state is a disparate population of about 500,000 farmers, artists, loggers and conservationists, united by their love of this strange, remote place that seems to somehow simultaneously have everything and nothing in common with the mainland.
For those who’ve not visited Tasmania before, Freycinet is a fitting corner to start in: the park is something of a microcosm of the island. It covers a twisty peninsula which divides Coles Bay from the raging Tasman Sea. Dramatic cliffs separate several dozen powdery beaches, and scores of walking tracks thread through the dense bushland. It’s home to one of Tasmania’s most luxurious hotels, Saffire Freycinet, and the slightly more affordable Freycinet Lodge. Just outside the park boundary, happy Tasmanians farm oysters and honey on idyllic properties.
Freycinet also offers routes for just about every type of hiker. I was feeling like a challenge, so I chose several day-long circuits hiked mostly by experienced locals, planning to return, sore-footed, to comfortable accommodation each evening. Other methods abound: for total immersion, there’s the four-day guided Freycinet Experience Walk, which includes accommodation each night at Friendly Beaches Lodge, a no-frills ecolodge deep within the park; or the Wineglass Bay Sail Walk by the Tasmanian Walking Company, which pairs coastal treks with overnight stays on a yacht. Alternatively, in the summer, a small number of Freycinet camping permits are made available to the public via ballot.
But I was determined to go it alone. Destination: Wineglass Bay Lookout, a sheltered outcrop shrouded in gumtrees at the top of hundreds of steep steps, with views across one of the most stunning beaches in Australia. I began at the foot of the track on my first morning – a cool and cloudy day perfect for walking – and plotted a trail that continued past the lookout, along a ridge and down the other side of the mountain towards the ocean. By the time I reached the lookout, I was gasping for air. But the view was an instant salve. Setting eyes on Wineglass Bay from above is surreal: that elegant curve of white sand, fringed by olive-green vegetation and the clear-dark ocean, seems almost too well-measured to be true.
I continued on, along a trail that narrowed in places as it passed between granite rock faces, and marvelled at the collective buzz of insects echoing off the stone. In the 1940s, two Italian brothers, the Zanchettas, began quarrying this red granite and soon found willing customers in Hobart. But they struggled to expand the business: shipping the rock from Tasmania to Sydney for onward sale proved prohibitively expensive and the mine ceased operation in the 1970s.
This is the most exciting time ever in Tasmanian dining” – Chef Iain Todd, Saffire Freycinet
After my first day’s walking, I pulled up at Saffire. Dark clouds were rolling in across Coles Bay and the breeze was picking up, foreshadowing an end-of-day storm. By the time I’d oriented myself in the split-level suite and raided the minibar for local fruit and soda, it was time for dinner: beef from Tasmania’s renowned Cape Grim; a salad full of red, yellow and green tomatoes from a nearby farm; and seafood so fresh it seemed to dance on the tongue. Chef Iain Todd took up the role here in 2018. He made his name in Hobart at the helm of fine diner Ethos during the first blush of the city’s culinary blossoming.
Todd’s arrival at Freycinet was quite a coup for the area. We talked about how the Tasmanian capital has undergone significant changes in recent years: notably, its new cultural institutions such as the provocative Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in 2011. There are also two new festivals: Mona Foma in January and Dark Mofo in June, and new hotels such as Maylands Lodge and MACq 01 have given once-sleepy Tasmania more forward-thinking allure. But it’s the dining scene, reckons Todd, that’s been the real game-changer: opened in 2015, fine diner Franklin made international media such as The New York Times and Condé Nast Traveller. And many mainland Australians are taking notice of Tasmania for the first time. “I think this is the most exciting time ever in Tasmanian dining,” Todd told me as we watched lightning fork across The Hazards. “We’re getting more and more great restaurants opening, particularly in Hobart, and that lifts the standard of everyone else. You’ve got to push a bit harder to stay on top.”
Even so, don’t expect a crush. Sure, visitor numbers are increasing statewide – up 21 per cent to 307,000 in 2018, according to Tourism Research Australia. But these figures remain negligible compared with those for Australia as a whole (9.2 million). In fact, just beyond city limits, Tasmania remains a thrillingly wild and gloriously unpopulated place where mainstream Australian signifiers – wallabies and platypuses, gumtrees and dry earth – share space with natural phenomena that can be found nowhere else in the country, such as the fearsome Tasmanian devil and Eucryphia lucida (or leatherwood), a handsome tree with delicate white flowers. Much of the island is protected by conservation orders, and the tourism industry has so far trodden lightly and sensitively. For example, the much-admired Three Capes Track, which opened in late 2015 in the state’s south-east corner, is limited to around 60 walkers per day.
After the next day’s hike I wound up at Freycinet Lodge. While the food isn’t as splashy, the property, which sits near pretty Richardsons Beach, has other lures. On my final night in Freycinet, I received the keys to one of the lodge’s undulating Coastal Pavilions, whose floor-to-ceiling windows overlook a quiet stretch of the bay’s shoreline. At about US$700 per night, the multi-wing pavilions are considerably pricier than the rest of the accommodation at Freycinet Lodge, but are a tempting alternative to Saffire’s suites.
I spent that evening on the pavilion’s back deck, soaking away the day’s hike in the outdoor tub and absorbing the nocturnal sounds of the national park. Occasionally, I’d make out the chatter of a family as they made their way back to their sleeping quarters; then the voices would fade and nature would take over again. All was calm. Out on the Freycinet peninsula, people and nature seem, for the time being, to have found balance.