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Best of 2003: Adventures with Jason returns! We rejoin the wanderer in Tasmania

Our intrepid reporter explores Australia's Southern Island State
Mark Webber and teamates ride along the beach
The beach in Strahan in Tasmania, AustraliaRyan Pierse / Getty Images
/ Source: Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel

Why don't more Americans go to Australia? Sure, last year, some half a million made the trip--not a bad number. But it could be higher. We can thank the airlines.

Yes, I know, blaming the airlines has become the most predictable habit of us travel writers, but in this case it's true. The airlines charge Americans around $1,200 (on a good day, although bargains as low as $800 round-trip can be had if you trawl Budget Travel online) for the privilege to visit Down Under. Yet they charge Australians about 60 percent that. Fair?

I've come to Australia to illustrate, once again, that although airfare can be high, with the Australian dollar trading at about 58 cents to the U.S. dollar, costs on the ground Down Under are very low indeed. Once airfare is paid, Australia is a budget travel dream, with quality accommodation often as low as $30 a night, meals about $5. Over two weeks, it's possible for a tourist can spend about $1,500 Down Under. I dare you to keep the budget that low over the same period in Europe. Especially for nature lovers, there's no vacation like Australiasia.

Tempting Tasmania

I arrived in Melbourne. Most Americans initially land there or in Sydney, a 90-minute flight northeast. This time of year, the flight from Los Angeles takes about 15 hours westbound and 14 hours homeward--a seeming eternity, but not really painful since most of Qantas' flights leave LAX around 11 or midnight, perfectly timed for a full night's sleep, a meal, and an in-flight film. By the time you arrive in Oz, it's 9:30 in the morning, so the adjustment isn't too tough.

Just in case, I always give myself a night to rest once I arrive in Australia. I didn't need it; I spent my first day wandering around Melbourne (now in the throes of the Australian Open) and went to bed at my usual hour, Melbourne time.

My first real stop was to be Tasmania, the island state off Australia' southeastern coast. Although it's famous for wilderness and hikes (especially this time of year, when it's high summer in the Southern Hemisphere), and it's much cooler, greener, and wetter than the rest of Australia, I am here to learn about Tasmania's history as a convict settlement.

Back when Australia was a baby colony, two hundred years ago, Tasmania was called Van Diemen's Land, and it was the dumping ground for all the convicts that were too tough even for Sydney. Those discarded individuals-jettisoned from the U.K. for repeated petty crime-were sent to this island because it was deemed the perfect prison. It's certainly remote, its coastline is rugged and impassable, and since its sits entirely within the Southern Ocean (the only sea that completely encircles the earth without running into land masses), the surrounding waters were so treacherous that it was difficult to get across them.

Americans do not generally realize how bound our history is to Australia's. Before Britain shipped its convicts Down Under, they went sent to America. It was only the Revolutionary War that prompted the Crown to find a new repository for its undesirables, and by 1788, Australia, then considered the end of the earth, was the very place. Even the Tasmanian capital of Hobart, which a generation later was still considered of little interest by England, was suddenly populated with convicts once Britain noticed American whalers sniffing about in its waters.

Today, being shipped Hobart is nothing to fear. In fact, it's quite a treat. Without question, the best thing to happen to travel in Australia within the past five years is Virgin Blue. Before Richard Branson set up his upstart airline (, Australians were usually forced to pay monopoly prices for domestic flights-US$200 and up for quick hops. Virgin Blue revolutionized transport around Oz. Now, with advance purchase, it's easy to get between Sydney and Melbourne or Melbourne and Tasmania for about US$40 each way, and Web-only sales net fares even lower. Australia is a giant country-roughly the size of the continental U.S.-so if you've only got a week or two, flying is necessary. It's also easy; since Ozzie airports are generally uncrowded, you can check In just a half hour before departure and be fine.

And once you arrive in Hobart, in compact Tasmania's southeast (Australia's southernmost state capital), it's as if you've flown into some coastal Maine city, circa 1955. There is still no baggage carousel; luggage is literally hauled indoors by a tractor, and you pick it off yourself. And literally at the end of the runway, a company called Barilla Bay oysters ( makes and sells some of the freshest seafood in Australia. Ten minutes after I arrived, one of the owners showed me around and cracked open a fresh sample for me to taste. It was grit-free and tasted of the sea.

Barilla Bay Oysters runs a small food shop where gourmet, locally made items cost nearly nothing. I bought a jug of "hazelnut honey" for a week's worth of breakfasts for US$3.50. Then I headed to the Tasman Peninsula, an hour's drive away, for a tour of Australia's most notorious penal colony.

Port Arthur

Although it closed in 1877, the ghosts of Port Arthur are still active. Some ghost-chasers call it one of the most haunted spots on Earth. Once an isolated prison work camp suited only for the most hardened of Australia's transported convicts, now Port Arthur is an eerie collection of stoic ruins. In a country where wise stewardship of heritage buildings is a rarity, PA stands as one of the only remaining places to peer, however distantly, at the hardships of Australia's past. Even today, many Australians prefer to sweep their convict roots under the rug, much as Americans don't like to acknowledge slaveholding ancestors. But there are signs the Aussies are lightening up: The restaurant at the Visitor's Center is called Felon's (slogan: "Prison food never tasted so good"). Some might consider that off-color, but I consider it prime Australian humor. They can make fun of anything.

Some ruins have been thoughtfully reconstructed, and archeologists work year-round on the premises. Ever since the prison closed, tourists have thrilled themselves by sealing themselves, for minutes at a time, in the airless, dark cells that once drove solitary prisoners mad. The cottage of the prison's commandant survived the years mostly unscathed, and today its bedroom, from which much of the misery was devised an overseen, is said to be among the world's most haunted places. Nightly ghost walks (US$8) take tourists to these dark and terrible spots throughout the compound.

Other relics are gone forever, such as the infamous "Dog Line" that stretched across the 100-yard-wide isthmus connecting the peninsula to the rest of Tasmania. When the prison was operational, a row of savage hounds was kept in perpetual hunger, lest a would-be escapee penetrated to the wilderness beyond. At Eaglehawk's Neck, there's a modern statue of a slavering dog, just to give you the idea-and the willies.

At the other end of the peninsula, the old coal mine is now filled in, but its convict barracks is an eerie ruin. This is where the miscreants that even Port Arthur couldn't reform were banished to crawl and toil in deep shafts; it was eventually shut down for "vice" (read: homosexuality) and for its messy, sputtering yield. For more information on the Port Arthur region, visit

Sadly, Port Arthur's suffering did not end in 1877. In April 1996, three years before Columbine, a madman stormed the historic site with a semi-automatic weapon, killing 35 tourists and workers. The former Broad Arrow cafe, where 20 people were slaughtered, has been stripped to its brick walls and is now a memorial to the dead. (Since many current employees were there that day, it's probably polite not to question them about these events.)

I couldn't have chosen a better place to stay than the Norfolk Bay Convict Station B&B (about US$45 to 50, When I knocked on the door, the owner, Dot Evans, was busy in the kitchen making blackcurrant jam. Frankly, that alone would have been proof that I'd found the perfect spot. But it's also a historic building, constructed by convicts, that originally served as the railhead for the five-mile wood-rail supply train-operated by convicts, who jogged alongside it-then ran to the settlement. The railway is long gone but in the soil outside, Dot told me she often finds old hobnail boots and other relics from the convict days. Dot happens to be one of the biggest experts of convict history; she oversaw the excellent museum at the site's Visitor's Centre, and her husband Mike is a guide there, so guests with any questions need look no further than the couple with the jam.

Should you want to glimpse an actual tasmanian devil (hint: this snaggle-toothed critter it looks nothing like that mud-brown whirlwind from the Warner Bros. cartoons), for A$16 (about US$9), you can spend the day at the Tasmanian Devil Park (, seeing the snarling little varmint up close. Feeding times are posted at the entry, and there are also shows of live birds, kangaroos you can touch, and other wildlife displays you can't see at home.

Come nightfall, I found I had to be extremely careful behind the wheel, and not because here you drive on the left. Doing that is easy after the first 10 minutes, and roads are pretty empty anyway. No, when it's dark, nocturnal marsupials like wallabies and wombats come springing out of the bush in front of cars. Tasmanian highways are, sadly, full of roadkill. It's odd to see street carnage made up of such an exotic menagerie (dead kangaroos, eyes shining in the headlights of my car), but in a way, it's a refreshing example of culture shock. (My rental car, by the way, is costing me about US$22 a day from Avis.)

Heavanly Hobart

Tasmania (or as locals call it, "Tassie") is wild and full of undeveloped expanses for hiking and camping, but the capital is a lovely, slightly square town that up to a few months ago didn't even have supermarkets that opened on Sunday. In general, Tasmanians have long been both the most conservative yet the most free-spirited of all Australians. The weather helps. Instead of the summertime swelter on the mainland, evenings call for jackets and light coastal showers are common. The rounded peak of Mount Wellington, which surveys the city at a fair distance, is by evening covered in a healthy-looking white cloud. Right around then, Hobart's easy-going population wanders down to the docks or to the row of historic buildings along Salamanca, where galleries and pubs attract through the night. Salamanca's also where you'll find the interesting Antarctic Adventure; Hobart being the base of operations for Australia's Antarctic teams, this high-tech museum, including a planetarium and a "cold room," aims to teach visitors about life on the Frozen Continent (US$8,

In addition to world-class sailing (the Prince of Denmark is in town for a yachting event), Hobart is famous for its lovely wood-frame homes, which line the hills around the Derwent River and recall gentle wharfside cities such as San Francisco or Wellington, New Zealand. Naturally, it's a terrific place to have a stroll and get seafood; I went to Mure's, a popular seafood joint on the docks, for grilled Blue Grenadier that was flopping around the Tasman Sea that morning; a massive plate cost me US$5. God bless that Australian exchange rate! \tab

The garden at Corinda's Cottages, Hobart, Tasmania\tab Once again, I chose a true winner for my accommodation. I'm two-for-two, and I'm beginning to wonder if every property in Tasmania is drop-dead gorgeous. This one's a delightful wooden Hobartian mansion called Corinda's Cottages (, and just as the name implies, it supplies guests with a mini-house all to themselves. Mine, the "Servant's Quarters," began life as a tool shed for convict workers 160 years ago, and guests still tread hand-sawed floorboards. The owners, Matthew and Wilmer, have painstakingly renovated and designed each cottage in full-on Australian country style. Downstairs, I had a full kitchen, foyer, washer/dryer, wood fireplace, and bathroom with a claw-foot tub, and upstairs (yes-a duplex for US$65) I got a massive bed, a walk-in closet, and a sitting room. Everywhere, antiques caught my eye and steeped my accommodation in old-world style. The makings for breakfast were in my fridge. For me, there's no prettier place to stay in Hobart; apparently others agree, because this morning, the back garden, with its vista of the city, was rented out for a big wedding.

A half-hour northeast of Hobart, the town of Richmond is as sweet and well-preserved a slice of old Australian life as you're ever going to see. Its bridge is well-known in Australia for it picturesque arches and evocative British span, and the town gaol (jail) is probably the best-preserved in the whole country. There are still graffiti marks on the window shades put there by convicts in the 1840s.

I know many of you will be jealous about my final activity here in Hobart: I donned a hairnet and went to the Cadbury chocolate factory for a tour. It costs US$7 and on it, you can not only get nosy with workers as they concoct Cadbury's confections, but you do it a complex that smells of rich warm chocolate-every step you make is steeped in the stuff. Naturally, you get tons of free samples along the 90-minute tour (I lost count at 15 pieces of fresh chocolate and fudge of many types), and at the end of the tour, there's an outlet shop where I bought about two pounds of Caramello bars (one of my favorites) for US$2.50. I don't care what anyone says-chocolate is much better if it's made outside the United States. It's richer, it's creamier, it's chocolaty... Hershey's has nothing on foreign-made Cadbury. (You have to book several days ahead to get on a tour: 011-61-3-62-490-333/inside Australia: 1800/627-367.)

{Editor's note: Have you ever vacationed in Australia? Have an instructive anecdote or tip you'd like to share. Simply click here to send a message to our editors and we may use your comments in an upcoming Letters to the Editor column.}