Separated from mainland Australia by the 240 km stretch of Bass Strait, Tasmania is a land apart. A place of wild and beautiful landscapes; friendly, welcoming people; a pleasant, temperate climate; wonderful wine and food, a rich history, and a relaxed island lifestyle. Make sure to visit Tasmania's two main cities, Hobart, the capital, and Launceston. There are lots of things to see in Tassie (as it's known in Australia): historic sites, spectacular landscapes, bustling markets, vineyards, and wineries. There are two ways to get to Tasmania--by plane, or if you want to bring a car or just go a different way, there is a ferry service.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Tasmania has been inhabited for more than 35,000 years.The first European visitors arrived in the mid 1600s, when the Dutch landed on the island. It would be another hundred years before the British would land and several more years before a European settlement was established as a dependency of New South Wales, Australia.
A French expedition in 1802 explored the island now known as Maria Island, off Tasmania’s east coast. For much of its history the island was used as a convict settlement, and many of the penal accommodations remain, though they are now used to house visitors. In 1803 the British explorers founded a small settlement at what is now Risdon Cove. The settlement attracted the attention of residents in Sydney, Australia, and the colony grew. A second settlement was established at Sullivan’s Cove, now known as Macquarie Wharf, within a year. This settlement would grow into Hobart Town and later into the City of Hobart.
The city of Launceston was founded in 1805 and at the time was the capital of the dependency. The village of Ross was founded around 1821 and became a prominent rest stop on the journey between Hobart Town and Launceston. The spot was secure because it grew out of a military garrison to manage convicts, and as it was a rest stop, Ross became a center for local trade. In 1822 a bridge was built in Campbell Town, which today remains the oldest usable bridge in the country. One year later the settlement of Port Frederick was founded. In 1827 Emu Bay, the settlement that would become the city of Burnie, was founded.
Tasmania’s vast space and distance from the more populated colonies resulted in the island being used as a makeshift penal colony, so most of its early residents were convicts and prison guards. Unfortunately, this use led to many of the aboriginal natives being forced from the island. This, and the fact that Tasmania was the last stop for many convicts and prison guards, led to a new nickname: The Island Of The Dead.
In 1830 the town of Port Arthur was founded as a center for the logging and timber industry. Before long the region became a penal colony (being enclosed on three sides by shark-infested waters helped) and by the mid 1800s was the home of some of the most hardened criminals. Port Arthur became a blueprint for the American prison of Alcatraz Island. A prison was constructed to explore the potential of a new form of punishment. Until that time, physical punishment was employed, but the new system would attempt a form of psychological punishment. Prisoners were often required to wear blinding hoods and not speak a word, forcing them to reflect on their deeds.
The new penal institution was considered inescapable. Despite this, many still attempted to run. One inmate even went so far as to disguise himself as a kangaroo (an animal unique to the region) in an attempted escape and was only caught because hungry guards thought it would make a nice meal. The Port Arthur prison closed in 1877. Following the Great Irish Famine in the mid 1800s, many prominent Irish people were deported to Tasmania. Several residences built during this imposed migration are now protected heritage sites.
Also during the mid 19th century, the penal colony of Bothwell was founded. It is now home to the Ratho golf course, the oldest golf course in Australia. During the late 19th century the island was discovered to be rich in mineral deposits, leading to a rapid growth in mining interests. The settlement of Burnie grew considerably as a base for these efforts.
The University of Tasmania was founded in 1890. That same year, the settlement of Port Frederick was renamed Devonport and is now the third largest city on the island. By the turn of the 20th century, Tasmania had begun to shake its reputation as the last destination for hardened criminals, and its beauty began to attract the attention of Oceania’s growing tourist industry. The dark history proved a macabre attraction, and cities like Port Arthur reaped the benefits.
When the mass production of paper products came to Tasmania in the early 1900s, Burnie once again became a prominent player and grew considerably. The population exploded, growing from 4,000 residents to more than 10,000. The University of Tasmania moved to its current location in the Sandy Bay suburb of Hobart in 1940 to accommodate growth. The first legal casino on the island opened in the early 1970s in Sandy Bay. The Wrest Point Hotel Casino remains the city’s tallest building.
Tragedy struck the island in the late 1990s, when a disgruntled resident murdered 35 people in Port Arthur. The horrifying event led to a national ban on semi-automatic weapons. As one of the oldest cities on the island, Launceston maintains many of the oldest historic sites in Tasmania. As such, the city enjoys a booming tourist industry.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
There are plenty more things to do in Tasmania.