We bounced into Tasmania on a windy day. Instead of shouting “Hello, beautiful!” at the shimmering ocean and emerald hills that unfurled below us like a Renaissance painting, a multitude of expletives tumbled forth from my mouth as our tiny Fokker struggled in its descent and we’re tossed around like a bunch of crash test dummies inside.
This wasn’t a great introduction to Van Dieman’s Land but, on the flipside, things could only improve from there, once we skidded onto the tarmac, limbs and all intact.
And it did — much, much more significantly, I might add.
We hopped into our car and headed straight for dessert, being unable to resist House of Anvers’ tagline: “Fancy breakfast in a chocolate factory?”
Why yes please, we are ready to die of diabetes after narrowly escaping a plane crash.
Unfortunately, the word ‘factory’ was a bit of an overstatement, since the chocolate-production site was a sterile two-room affair that you can peek into, only to find that there were no Oompa Loompas milling about and singing songs. Fortunately however, the waffles and hot chocolate lived up to its hype.
We stopped by Burnie, a sprawling industrial hub in northwest Tassie, to check out the local crafts scene at the Makers Workshop. Once a mining town, Burnie has reinvented itself as a creative centre, and this place is where you can watch the artists at work — and buy their stuff, if you like.
The life-sized paper sculptures in the front of the shop were worthy of Tate Modern, and the craft market was made for impulsive shoppers, with its expensive range of designer accessories and scarfs made from locally sourced materials.
The real reason we went to Burnie, however, was for Hellyers Road Distillery, a whiskey distillery founded by a group of eccentric dairy farmers.
What do dairy farmers know about whiskey? Plenty more than I do, apparently.
We skipped the whiskey walk tour to have lunch at the onsite restaurant, which offers floor-to-ceiling views of Emu Valley’s undulating hills. After a downing a (delicious) shot of whiskey cream liquer which resembled — but isn’t — Bailey’s, we proceeded to have what the boys happily declared ‘a feast’.
This bucolic scenery accompanied us all the way to Stanley, the first European settlement in this region. This small, sleepy village sits in the shadow of of a long-extinct volcano, lovingly called The Nut.
It was hard not to be taken in by Stanley’s most famous landmark, and harder still to not want to climb it. On a not-so-windy day — which is uncommon from June to August in this part of Tasmania since the wind blows in straight from Antartica — you can ascend on foot or on chairlift.
The decision was a no-brainer for those of us with children, and we cruised to the top in about 5 minutes. It was a beautiful day to be standing on top of the world — the crescent-shaped coastline extended for miles, and both sky and sea was a placid blue.
The top was not very volcano-like— it was covered in bushland, and there was an easy walking trail that goes in a loop so you could take in the views from all sides. The boy’s curiosities were piqued when they came upon a few large holes in the ground — it was only later that I realized these are burrows made by an echidna, an adorable spiny creature with a long anteater snout, to survive in extreme weather.
And as we all know, the weather in Australia can be pretty extreme.
Even though it’s summer, temperatures plunge dramatically once the sun sets. We sought refuge at Stanley Hotel Bistro, a local favorite because it seemed like three-quarters of the town was there. The waitstaff didn’t seem too thrilled about having extra customers to serve on an already busy day, and I would’ve left if there was something other restaurant open after 8pm.
But there isn’t.
And so we waited and waited, and at this point, it felt like a whole millennia has passed and we were on the brink of a full-scale robot rebellion when our food is served. The seafood chowder and steak was good enough to save the restaurant from an apoplectic Tripadvisor review — or maybe we were just hungry.
As we emerged into the joltingly crisp night air, we realized that the entire town and its residents have shut down for the night — and there was absolutely nowhere to go but home.
We certainly hadn’t expected the animals to be so thoughtful and throw a street party in our honor — and, as we drove, we saw little marsupials (wallabies, penguins, possum and quolls) darting back and forth, wagging their furry behind at us.
The boys by this time were almost clambering our of the windows to say hi to their newfound friends, and no amount of “the cops will see this and lock mommy and daddy up forever” threats worked. It was like a private game-spotting drive, but without the five-digit price tag.
We stayed in Cable Station Accommodation, a cluster of heritage buildings out of town that served as the first telecommunications centre linking Tasmania and mainland Australia, but is now a small bed and breakfast run by an affable couple called Don and Charlotte. The phone switches and cables can still be seen in the common breakfast lounge where we had bread, muesli and cheese every morning.
Don happily offered to do laundry for us, while we deliberated over more important things like: When can we go on an animal-spotting evening jaunt? And who gets to wear the cool headlamps provided by the hotel?
The next day, we returned to the one-street town centre, and was pleasantly surprised to find some of the shops open even though the weather was diabolical.
One of the best ways to take in the colonial-era architecture is to explore the town on foot, so we ran from shop to shop under the cover of our hoodies. Traffic was almost non existent — it was quiet even on a weekday afternoon — and so the chances of getting hit by a car is relatively low in this neck of the woods.
We had our first taste of scallop pie — a Tasmanian specialty — in Touchwood Cafe, a cosy mom-and-pop eatery. You could choose between classic mornay (a creamy cheese sauce) or curry, but I don’t trust the latter, having been made by white people. The former, however, the kids and I could vouch for.
Later that day, we took a drive inland, past remote farmlands and the odd artwork featuring rusted car bonnets mounted on tree stumps…
…to Dip Falls. There was no other vehicle on that lone road and it felt rather The Hills Have Eyes-ish.
But all that is forgotten as soon as we came face to face with the two-tier cascade, looking magnificent after the summer rains.
There were also signposts leading us to what was simply called a Big Tree, and we followed it until we came to a mountain— just joking — no, a pretty gigantic tree (duh), which is said to be around 400 years old.
Located in the middle of a lovely mossy forest, this great granddaddy of eucalyptus was almost destroyed in the 2016 Mawbanna bushfires, but a group of firefighters managed to save it — it took about 16 of them to make a circle around the tree for an adorable photo later.
That evening, we strolled to Godfrey’s Beach Penguin Viewing Platform while the frosty Antarctic wind pummeled us. We waited, huddling in silence with a handful of other travelers and shivering in our overcoats. And there they were, the first penguins shuffling home, so close we could almost reach out and touch them.
Of all the things we would miss about Stanley, it’s these little guys.
Cable Station Accommodation This historic property is all about quality not quantity. Located on top of a hill several minutes drive out of town, visitors can choose between one of two spacious suites with its own clawfoot tub and private verandah. The continental breakfast is limited but of good quality and laundry is available. The evening drives back to the accommodation can be particularly rewarding, with plenty of animal encounters along the way. $
- The northwest is not as touristy as other parts of Tasmanian and, as such, has many excellent value-for-money hotels and restaurants.
- Stanley makes a great base for those seeking to escape the crowds, while the less-scenic Burnie offers more shopping and dining options. Stanley can be cold even in the summer so remember to bring those jackets.
- The northwest is perhaps the best location in Tasmania for wildlife spotting. Visitors can choose to do a day trip to Narawntapu National Park — dubbed Tamania’s Serengeti for its sheer diversity of endemic fauna — or just hunker down in Stanley and wait for the animals to emerge in the evenings. The latter experience is free, and equally exciting. (Penguin viewing is also free here too, unlike many other parts of Tasmania).
- Boat Harbor Beach — 45 minutes from Stanley and 30 minutes from Burnie — is one of the most beautiful, family friendly beaches in Tasmania. There are safety petrols, cafe and toilets in the area.
- The nearest transportation hub to the northwest is in Launceston / Burnie. You can can travel from the mainland via plane or an overnight ferry called the Spirit of Tasmania (Melbourne only), and from there, it takes 1 hour 40 minutes by road to Burnie and 2 hours 40 minutes to Stanley. You can also