Lush Tasmania Is Australia's Counterpoint

Article excerpt

After the hot, dry red of Australia's center, Tasmania is like a tall glass of cool water.

From Cradle Mountain's silent, jagged peaks to Freycinet National Park's contemplative beaches, Australia's island of Tasmania feels like a different, more restful country than the mainland.

The only thing not restful is deciding whether to orient a visit around history or nature. The island has plenty of both, but to explore either takes time.

My focus was nature, and I had one week to see the island. Starting from Launceston, Tasmania's second-largest city, I picked up a rental car at the airport and traveled around the island in a roughly counterclockwise circle.

Day 1: Launceston. The choice here is between the Penny Royal Powder Mill (a Disneyland-like renovated mill and gunpowder factory) and the Cataract Gorge that's right behind it. I chose the gorge. Entering it is like turning a corner in an English village and finding Colorado. A river runs through a narrow, rock-ribbed canyon that you can hike around or cross in an aerial tram.

Devonport. Tourists gather at dusk in bleachers here to see small fairy penguins make their nightly dash from the ocean to burrows in the sand. This particular night must have been too bright, because we spotted only one confused loner who made the scramble when it was nearly dark.

Day 2: Keen to get to the famed Cradle Mountain early to do some hiking, I almost skipped the town of Sheffield. But it's quite a sight: The whole town is filled with murals! In 1968, Sheffield decided to honor its pioneer ancestors by painting their likenesses on the sides of old buildings. Now it's called the "Town of Murals."

Cradle Mountain. The dolomite-capped peaks of Cradle Mountain jut from hilly terrain. From a distance, the mountain looks like a crown. It's only when you're up close and surrounded by the peaks that the resemblance to a cradle emerges.

While many visitors climb Cradle Mountain, I opted for a day hike. Dove Lake, at the base, is a favorite spot to take photographs of the mountain's reflection.

The Cradle Mountain Lodge provides perfectly fine lodging right at the base of the mountain, but I chose the more intimate Lemonthyme Lodge about 45 minutes away. Both places turn on spotlights after dark and put out fruit to attract padymelons (a type of small kangaroo), wombats, and possums. Some of the animals climb right up on the verandah.

Day 3: Strahan. Across to the west is this former fishing village, the gateway to the Franklin and Gordon Rivers. Now World Heritage-listed, the Franklin River was almost dammed in 1982, but was saved as a result of a determined blockade by environmentalists.

The town is rapidly losing its rough-hewn character since a developer started buying up the place. …