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AFTER Cradle Mountain, Hobart, Australia's second oldest city (Sydney is the oldest), seemed like Manhattan. With a population of slightly under 200,000, Hobart is just big enough to feel like a real city. According to a government fact sheet, Tasmania has "the greatest complement of historic buildings in Australia"; I'm not sure how such things are measured, but you can certainly wander around the streets of Hobart for an hour without seeing more than a handful of twentieth-century buildings -- and many of those are charming examples of British Art Deco.
Much of the architecture in the city center is Georgian in style, constructed from golden-hued sandstone. Salamanca Place, a long, straight row of beautiful sandstone warehouses on the harbor, dates back to the 1830s, when Hobart was a whaling port. The district has been redeveloped for shops, galleries, and restaurants, and is now the center of the city's nightlife. The old residential sections contain street after street of trig Victorian cottages, every one with a tiny rose garden in front.
I stayed in such a cottage, part of a bed-and-breakfast managed by another of those visionary edge-seekers, a Dutchman named Wilmar Bouman, and his partner, Matthew Ryan, an Englishman who grew up in Tasmania. When Bouman was twenty-two, he and his parents and his brother decided to leave Holland, so they looked around the world and chose Tasmania. Soon after they moved here, Bouman met Ryan, and the two began restoring old houses together. They finally settled in Corinda, an Italianate Victorian mansion fallen to the condition of derelict boarding house, on a hill overlooking the harbor. They restored the outbuildings at Corinda and furnished them with antiques and period bric-a-brac for paying guests.
I stayed at the gardener's cottage, on the edge of Bouman's exquisite formal parterre. Pleached lime trees, box, and old yews form enclosures, each with its own color scheme, "painted" with fritillaries, hellebores, and, of course, roses. I went into the garden at dusk, taking a book to read but instead finding myself watching the parakeets and kookaburras dart about. Bumblebees buzzed industriously; butterflies flittered. The edge of the world couldn't have seemed more like the center of an orderly universe.
A brick wall running alongside this oasis was built before the house, when the land was a vegetable garden worked by convicts. In no other state of Australia does the convict past loom so palpably. British magistrates continued to transport convicts to Tasmania for thirteen years after they stopped sending them to New South Wales, in 1840, and when convicts on the mainland committed crimes, they were sent to Port Arthur, on the Tasman Peninsula, southeast of Hobart -- the cruelest and most feared prison in a cruel, fearsome system.
Tasmanians are quite open about the convict period; Di cheerfully told me what rascals her great-great-grandparents had been. I confess that before I went to Tasmania, I was a bit apprehensive about visiting a place where so many people are descended from criminals; even some fashionable neighborhoods in Sydney can be scary at night, with prostitutes and drug dealers and what used to be known more generally as riffraff. Yet as I explored Tasmania, it seemed to me noticeably less rowdy than the mainland -- or than my own neighborhood in New York City, for that matter. Opium poppies happen to be a major cash crop here, but they are grown for export to American pharmaceutical companies; the island was chosen both because its climate is ideal for growing poppies and because the level of illegal-drug use is low. As I traveled around the island, I kept thinking how much more British it was, in a cozy, Jane Austen-y way, than any part of the mainland I've seen.
At Port Arthur, I saw a very uncozy side of the British. It's a sinister place; I felt a chill as soon as I clapped eyes on it. The site was chosen because the Tasman Peninsula at one point is 200 feet across: to prevent escapes, platforms with ferocious chained dogs were placed at intervals across the neck of land, Cerberuses guarding a penal hell. The cuffed and fettered prisoners were worked like slaves in granaries and coal mines, confined in tiny lightless cells, and whipped mercilessly when they broke the strict rules. Many went mad; some committed murder or other capital crimes to find release from their suffering in the hangman's noose.
In 1877 the prison was finally closed, and modern Tasmania began to emerge from the gloom of the penal era. Every visitor to the island should have a look at the Port Arthur Historic Site. It's well interpreted and beautifully landscaped, and the ninety-minute drive from Hobart passes through some spectacular coastal scenery. But this is definitely an educational experience, not a fun outing.
THE only sensible way to see Tasmania is by car. Don't make the mistake of getting on a plodding bus tour just because the Australians drive on the wrong side of the road. The roads are excellent here, the traffic thin, and the drivers polite; no competent driver will have any difficulties. The island is also just the right size for driving: the trip from Hobart, on the south coast, to Launceston, Tasmania's second largest city, in the north, takes a leisurely day, and one passes through some delightful villages stocked with early-nineteenth-century sandstone bridges, churches, and houses.
In Oatlands we saw the seventy-five-foot-tall Callington Mill, built in 1837. A handsome gray-haired woman, who seemed to be in charge, told me that if I was willing to oversee the restoration of the windmill, I could move into the miller's cottage for a dollar a year. The town of Ross (pop. 282) is famous for its graceful convict-built bridge and tiny women's prison; almost all the buildings are limestone Georgians, but the village was too self-consciously quaint for my taste. If you wanted to, you could stay the night there at Apple Dumpling Cottage or Church Mouse Cottage (the rate for the latter, the equivalent of $60 U.S. a night, seemed a bit steep for a church mouse's budget). Back on the road we saw a cheese factory, a run-down mansion full of antiques and Salvator Rosa paintings, and a family farm open to the public, which is now run by the great-great-great-grandson of the man who established it, in 1824. At a jumble sale I bought a copy of the memoirs of that doughty embodiment of Australia's buoyant self-confidence, Dame Edna Everage.
Launceston, founded in 1805, is Australia's third oldest city, if a place with a population of 70,000 qualifies as a city -- you can walk from one end of town to the other in twenty minutes. The period architecture is mostly Victorian, much of it in a fine state of preservation; there's a spectacular cataract gorge just outside the center of town, some lovely public gardens, and an impressive old water mill. But the best reason to come this way is to tour the island's northern wine country. Though the industry in Tasmania is young, it produces some wines that rival the mainland's best -- and that's saying a lot. The sparkling wines are particularly fine; have a glass of Lake Barrington Alexandra with fresh-shucked Tasmanian oysters and you'll forget there's a place called France.
At the last possible moment I saw my kangaroo. Di, never one to pass up a chance to meet a wombat, took me to another park on the way to the airport. There's no asbestos in Asbestos Range National Park; someone thought the local quartzite outcroppings looked like the stuff. (Di told me that of late there has been talk of changing the name to something less toxic-sounding.) The landscape there doesn't possess the rugged, spectacular beauty of the Cradle Mountain Valley, but its gentle, grassy plains and placid tea-tree wetlands have their own mellow charm. We arrived just before dusk, and creatures were wandering around everywhere, wallabies and pademelons -- shy hopping marsupials less than a foot tall.
Di soon found her wombat, a big fellow in tall grass, who nibbled away for a long time, oblivious of us. Then, when I turned back to the plain behind us, I saw a Forester kangaroo, with a magnificent tail, who would have been almost as tall as I am if he stood up straight. He peered at me coolly with his glossy black eyes and then hopped away. There's something undeniably comical about the way a kangaroo hops, but when you feel the earth shudder under you with his every bound, awe creeps into your smile. I saw where he was heading: far away perhaps a hundred kangaroos were roaming in a herd on a grassy plain beside the sea, quietly having their afternoon graze. Paradoxically, the edge of the world felt close enough to touch, yet it was a comfortable, familiar place.
For more information about the tourist attractions of Australia, telephone the Australian Tourism Commission at 661-775-2000. The Tourism Tasmania Web site, at www.tourism.tas.gov.au, can supply more specific information about the island.