We were wandering along the dusty trail of Cataract Gorge when we came upon a group of young derring-doers dive bombing off the cliff’s edge like a bunch of lemmings.
“Common, Jack, don’t be a wuss!!!” yelled the alpha male of the group several feet below.
Our lanky, babyfaced Jack hesitated, then closed his eyes and took the leap of faith, preferring to commit actual suicide than social suicide.
We scampered back to the pool — yes, there’s an actual chlorinated pool here — before our kids get any ideas.
Cataract Gorge, a slice of wilderness in Tasmania’s second most populous city, was established as a recreational park in the 1890s by a group of settlers wielding some red paint and dynamite. In addition to occasional toxic masculinity, the park also has a chairlift, a playground, a suspension bridge, cafes and, of course, a chlorinated pool staffed with lifeguards (which local youths seem to shun in favor of the gorge’s badass river).
There were also several signposted walking trails which one could easily do with kids — provided that they don’t get distracted by the family of peacocks that roam the park and attempt to feed them acorns.
Minutes away from the gorge is the city centre, a laidback affair that prides itself in having some of Tasmania’s finest restaurants. Launceston grew around the Tamar River, but its harborfront is a lot quieter and less exciting compared to Hobart.
We had lunch in Mudbar, a riverfront restaurant doling out Australian cuisine with an Asian twist.
Fusion cuisine is usually short for pretentious, overpriced garbage in my books but the restaurant’s slow-cooked spiced lamb or sticky soy duck tacos were as fine as Ryan Gosling (or Godling, if you will).
There isn’t much to do in central Launceston itself apart from eating, which was why we ended up in Penny Royal Adventures, a compact Tassie attraction geared towards young adventurers.
You could go on a boat ride, zipline and do a bunch of other random stuff that may or may not be connected with Tasmania’s convict history.
It was a hot day, so we played some remote-controlled pirate ships in the shade and had a brain freeze moment at the Ice Creamery — the yummy ice creams here are made on the spot using liberal amounts of fresh raspberries.
In the City Park, cheeky Japanese snow monkeys (known for their love of bathing in hot springs during winter time) engage in horseplay.
Apparently, the park has had a long history of putting exotic animals on display and pissing off animal welfare activists. The first ever animal that took the starring role here was the Tasmanian Tiger, which was hunted to extinction in 1936.
While there is neither snow nor hot springs in their Tassie habitat, the macaques live in a pretty snazzy enclosure — it was upgraded in 2002 after overcrowding led to a virulent form of herpes among the macaques. These days, they eat better than the average American kid — their diets consist of barbecued chicken, scrambled eggs, honey sandwiches and other such treats that make me hungry just typing about it.
We had dinner in Me Wah, which is reputedly the best Chinese restaurant in the city. But even the xiao long bao arrived tepid, failing to inspire any excitement amongst its youngest fans.
While not a single dish here is memorable, we still enjoyed ourselves because it was our 6-year-old’s birthday, and he received a neon green and yellow sorbet that is possibly made-in-China and filled with toxic food coloring, compliments of the house.
We stayed in Country Club Villas because its proximity to a gated retirement community made it a peaceful and wholesome family getaway. There are no nightclubs or obnoxious drunks in sight — only a casino and golf course nearby to inject minimal excitement into the lives of its geriatric residents.
For fun (and to get pissed), most visitors to Launceston venture upriver to the Tamar Valley Wine Region. It’s dotted with wineries, cellar doors and small, godforsaken towns, where one almost expects to see an inebriated gun-slinging cowboy swaggering out of a dusty ol’ saloon.
We dropped by the The Beaconsfield Mine & Heritage Centre at the town of, you guessed it, Beaconsfield. Settlers moved here during the gold rush years of 1847 and mining continued up until 2012, despite the tragic collapse in 2006 that killed a miner and trapped two in a harrowing two-week ordeal (inspiring Foo Fighters to release a tribute on one of their albums).
The museum was pretty fascinating, with plenty of hands-on exhibit that showcases the town’s history. The boys couldn’t stop fiddling with the collection of antique phones and toys, while I couldn’t help but be terrified by the mercury vials and hacksaws used by 19th century doctors.
The piece de resistance, of course, was the abandoned mine shaft itself, a rusty, solitary giant surrounded by crumbling walls.
We went to Beauty Point, a small fishing town and home to Australia’s National Institute for Maritime Studies, and had more scallop pies in Tamar Cove Motel Restaurant. The food was very much like the life here: slow, delicious but devoid of any aesthetics.
We then visited Seahorse World, a breeding facility that was first started to cater to the traditional Chinese medicine market. However, this practice proved financially unviable — TCM stores prefer to get their seahorses from the wild because it is cheaper (until the next pandemic happens, that is) — so the farm now supplies seahorses to pet wholesalers and public aquariums worldwide.
Seahorse World can only be accessed via a 45-minute guided tour. Our guide, Rob, showed us what it was like on a working seahorse farm filled with tanks of starving seahorses.
Our entire family now knows more about seahorses than we do each other — like, for instance, why male seahorses look pregnant (the larger the bellies are, the stronger its sex appeal) and why female seahorses have a most enviable life (the males gives birth and look after the brood, while the females just float around with their girlfriends and make googly eyes at the seahorse equivalent of Chris Hemsworth).
The highlight of our time, of course, was to be able to see all sorts of other odd marine creatures (like the handfish that looks like Tom Arnold) and hold a poor seahorse — trust me, I felt bad (and a little scared) but the little guy was so chill it was amazing.
Our final morning coincided with Harvest Market Launceston, a once-weekly farmer’s market bursting with fresh local produce and food trucks. We strolled around, stopping occasionally to sample some cheeses, nuts, pastry and what could possibly be the world’s best chocolate quinoa brownie or to chase our kids down.
Excited to try some real Asian food and capture the glory that was promised to us in Me Wah, I bought some Korean bulgogi and Afghan bolani from some lovely vendors for a fraction of the price. The Korean lady who whipped up my beef is actually a lawyer five days a week, but today she has slipped into her apron while her husband mans the cash register.
A spoonful of bulgogi later, there it was, the familiar fire on my tongue, the comforting taste of home, all encapsulated in one bite. The city was right about having some of the best eateries in Tasmania, but what they failed to realize is that it isn’t always about white linen tablecloths or uniformed waiters. Sometimes, some of the best food can be found on the streets, cooked up by a bulgogi-obsessed lawyer.
Country Club Villas Located a few minutes drive out of town, this is one of the few properties in Launceston with a playground and swimming pool. Facilities like the fitness centre, tennis courts and dining and entertainment options including a small casino are shared with Country Club Tasmania next door. The one-bedroom units are perfect for a family of 4 and equipped with bathtubs and a kitchenette. $$
- Launceston is the second biggest transportation hub in Tasmania after Hobart. You can take a direct flight from Sydney or Melbourne, or hop aboard the Spirit of Tasmania overnight ferry. We started and ended our 18-days round-island trip here, but you should opt for Hobart if you’re short on time.
- You could easily spend several hours in Cataract Gorge. Don’t forget to pack those swimmers and a sunhat as there is very little shade!
- Apart from its excellent wineries, the star attractions of Tamar Valley include the Beaconsfield Mining and Heritage Centre, Platypus House and Seahorse World. The Tamar Triple Pass includes entry to these three sites at a reduced price, but you need to plan your day carefully, especially with children. Hotel and restaurants are thin on the ground, so it’s best to do this on a full day trip from Launceston.
- If you love kitsch, there is a not-so-authentic Swiss village of Grindelwald 15 minutes outside of Launceston, where the kids can go crazy with mini golf, bouncing pillows, pedal boats and an electronic games arcade. Entry is free but activities are payable.
- Harvest Market is held every Saturday from 8.30am to 12.30pm.