You can barely turn around in Tasmania without bumping into a slice of its fascinating convict history. Of course, what began as an outpost for an overburdened British prison population, is now an exhilarating destination, thriving with historical sites, gastronomic raptures and glorious wilderness. But in the early 1800s, this island state 240 kilometres to the south of the Australian mainland, was on nobody's bucket list, home as it was to some of the British government's largest and most notorious penal colonies.
Church – Port Arthur Historic Site. Photo / Poon Wai Nang.
Perhaps the most dramatic stories and evidence of the brutality of convict life await at the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Port Arthur Historic Site. The remains of this settlement come alive with the tales of those who struggled, survived, flourished and died here.
Among other sites, you can visit the Penitentiary, whose bottom two floors were reserved for prisoners of especially 'bad character under heavy sentence'; and the elegant Government Gardens, constructed for important visitors away from the 'disturbing presence' of convicts. A short drive away and you'll be standing where the very worst of those were sent: the Coal Mines Historic Site. Operational for 40 years, the mines served to limit dependence on imported coal while doubling as a particularly severe form of punishment. Aside from the attraction of the ruins, there are paths and tracks here ranging from a few minutes to several hours, all with gorgeous scenery.
Port Arthur Historic site. Photo / Hype TV.
Of course, Port Arthur is not just about convict history. The Tasman Peninsula, where the convict settlement ruins are situated, is also home to dramatic coastal rock formations, including soaring 300-metre high dolerite sea cliffs. Here at the Tasman National Park even a stroll of an hour or two will bring you to the edge of sheer drops and mind-blowing ocean views. For a fuller immersion, The Three Capes Track is a 46-kilometre journey taking in Cape Pillar, Cape Hauy and stunning views to Cape Raoul.
Or if it's a more placid experience you're after, make sure you breathe deeply on a visit to the 18-acre lavender fields of Port Arthur Lavender, where you can stroll the floral-scented trail, or gaze at the ocean from the lavender-inspired café.
Port Arthur Lavender. Photo / Port Arthur Lavender.
If something a little stronger is more to your taste, you can wet your whistle at McHenry Distillery, the southernmost whiskey distillery in Australia. This family-run establishment rests on the side of Mount Arthur and, as such, you're definitely going to want to take another deep breath here, with an unparalleled purity of air. Then it's time to put your nose in a glass of the distillery's range of gin, whisky and vodka, and then you'll likely want to rest your head at their brewer's cabin accommodation.
McHenry Distillery. Photo / Alice Hansen.
Wherever you go, though, you can't escape more fascinating history – there are 1000 convict sites spread across the land – including much of the island's buildings and infrastructure; Tasmania's road network, for instance, was created entirely by skilled convict labourers.
At the end of one of those roads, just a short drive from Port Arthur, you'll find evidence of a history that makes the island's convict past, seem comparatively recent. The geological phenomena of the Tessellated Pavement, near Eaglehawk Neck, dates back some 300 million years. The tiled-like appearance of these rocks along the water were essentially formed by the Earth's movement, in what is called jointing. But it's the presence of salt crystals and consistent erosion by the Tasman Sea's waves and sediment that have deepened the geometry of this startling sight.
Tessellated Pavement. Photo / Luke Tscharke.
So while Tasmania was once a punishment, whether you're a history buff, gourmand, nature lover or thrill-seeker, it is now a destination that just keeps rewarding.