ONE friend's reaction to the news that I was shipping out to Tasmania was: "Don't forget the Ngorongoro Crater," which of course is in Tanzania.
Another: "Is the Tasmanian devil a person, place, or thing?" Maybe something to eat, like deviled eggs or devil's food cake?
Here goes. You don't eat this devil, but it eats just about everything but you, snakes to sheep. Its fierce jaws and teeth can consume entire animals, fur, bones, and all, when it's not using its mouth for scary screeches. It is the world's largest surviving carnivorous marsupial, found only on this island south of mainland Australia. It is so nocturnal that in more than two weeks here, the only ones I saw were in the form of topiary or taxidermy.
Why spend an entire vacation here, anyway? It's contrary to a certain traveler mentality that calls for one country or capital per day. If you actually want to relax, though, Tasmania is a great destination. The smallest Australian state, about the size of West Virginia, its population of fewer than half a million (compared with West Virginia's roughly 1.8 million) means you will never hit a traffic jam, and, because there aren't many roads, you have to be navigationally challenged in the extreme to get lost.
Aboriginals inhabited Tasmania tens of thousands of years ago, long before the last Ice Age caused its separation from the Australian continent. Europeans "discovered" the island in 1642. How much tension remains between the two populations depends on whom you ask.
Taswegians (that's what they're called, like citizens of Glasgow are Glaswegians) are proud of their small numbers. Bruny Island, a paradise just a short ferry ride from Hobart, has a population of 600 and plans to stay that way, thanks in part to zoning that mandates one building per 50 acres.
What to do in Tassie, or Tas, the island's nicknames? Hike, fish, kayak, take a six-seater sea plane to the forests of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area and cruise into the depths of a pristine national park. Bird-watchers will find rare species, including the orange-bellied parrot, on the brink of extinction. Pastimes outsiders might consider quaint playing horseshoes, for one are big here. Television is not.
Less outdoorsy individuals can visit museums, pottery makers, galleries, wineries and former convict colonies, or shop, eat, and admire the dramatic terrain.
The only expensive thing about Tasmania is getting here. Once you have arrived, prices are so reasonable you'll want to bring an extra suitcase for textiles, ceramics, and wood carvings. There's an abundance of them, thanks to the island's A-list art school and artists who have figured out they can live in Tas cheaply and peacefully.
You'll likely begin your Tasmanian holiday in Hobart, with the biggest airport. It is about as laid-back as a capital city gets, a place for walking, biking, admiring the elegant Georgian and Regency architecture, and visiting attractions including the 160-year-old Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. An old-fashioned hybrid of herbarium, natural history museum, and art gallery, its opening act is a 105-million-year-old skeleton of a lizard. Several galleries of animal skulls and pickled embryos later comes a reptile room with the reassuring label: "All Tasmanian snakes are poisonous."
On the art side of the museum are the idyllic, 19th-century landscape paintings of John Glover, an Englishman who emigrated to Tas in 1830, at age 63, and became the island's most celebrated artist. He was to Tasmania what Paul Gauguin was to Tahiti, and used some of the same tactics, including staged pictures of "the natives" in a pre-European existence both painters romanticized.
Salamanca is Hobart's main art and antique shopping area, but to Dick Bett, who owned a gallery there for more than a decade, "It became too touristy and crowded." Bett relocated to a storefront in North Hobart, where, he says, "If somebody comes through the door, you know they've got a genuine interest." He represents a wide, and excellent, range of contemporary Tasmanian art (and stays in business partly through Internet sales to loyal clients).
North Hobart is quickly becoming the capital's SoHo, which may mean Bett and other like-minded gallerists, along with the neighborhood's boutique and cafe owners, will one day move to a still more out-of-the-way place where they can achieve the solitude Tasmanians crave.
As you drive north out of Hobart and into the hinterlands, you pass through ancient forests filled with rare indigenous woods that have helped spark Tasmania's flourishing designer furniture movement. Its center is Launceston, the island's second largest city. Here is the Design Centre-Tasmania, home of the nonprofit Tasmanian Wood Design Collection, a showcase for the island's finest examples of tables, chairs, benches, chests, clocks, and more. The reigning aesthetic is clean lines that allow the grain and hue of the woods to take center stage. Several of those woods, including Huon Pine, Celery Top and Black Peppermint, are indigenous.
While one part of the Design Centre is a museum, another part sells the furniture. Rex Heathcote's sleek little three-legged table comes in four Tasmanian timbers, folds to fit into a sturdy box that airlines don't mind accepting as cargo, and costs less than $150.
Whether unique or produced in small editions, designer furniture doesn't use up immense quantities of wood. Papermaking does. Almost half of Tasmania is owned and protected by either the National Trust of Australia (Tasmania) or the national parks, a happy statistic countered by the reality of logging and mining that have left large bald patches on many hillsides and are a constant source of political controversy. Huge logging trucks transport the timber destined to be turned into wood chips and sent to Japan to be made into paper.
"I plant a tree for every day I live here," says Peter Adams, one of Tasmania's best-known furniture/sculpture/landscape artists. A Harvard graduate and Peace Corps veteran who moved to the island 19 years ago, Adams lives on a gorgeous stretch of land called "Windgrove," on the Tasman Peninsula southeast of Hobart. His 100 acres overlook the sea where he swims every day "as a way to get rid of the anger I feel when I hear the buzz saws clear-cutting forests or read about war," he says.
Equally passionate about peace and ecology, he has created a huge garden of stones benches, and totems on his property, a place where people from all over the world come to meditate, where a split rock represents, he says, "the broken heart we must have to develop our inner lives."
While he also hosts a "Refugee in Residence" program that allows like-minded souls to stay in tents on his property for up to two months (contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.windgrove.com), mostly Adams is alone in the house he built; he has given to calling himself "the inadvertent monk."
Named Van Diemens Land by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1642, the island was, like greater Australia, first settled mostly by convicts transported from Britain and their military guards. The island was a penal colony from 1803-53, and a harsh colony it was. For instance, prisoners in solitary confinement were occasionally let out into little pens with hoods over their heads so they couldn't see anybody.
While convict ancestry used to be something to hide, Henry Reynolds, author of the much-lauded "Fate of a Free People" (Penguin, 1995), a reexamination of the wars between Aborigines and European colonizers, says that now it is a point of pride.
Convicts' histories were well recorded, while those of nonconvict immigrants are largely lost. At the Port Arthur Historic Site, once the largest of the penal settlements, a convict inquiry service will trace ancestors for their descendants. Among the complications of this genealogical research is that 251 convicts arrived with the name John Jones.
Port Arthur, on the Tasman Peninsula, now consists of romantic ruins, glorious perennial borders and a lake with an island cemetery. Gravedigger John Barron lived here alone for almost 20 years. Novelist Anthony Trollope met him in 1873 and wrote about his singular and "wonderful" life in his travel book on Australia and New Zealand.
While Port Arthur today is a beautiful place, the guided tour through the property is filled with information about the grimness of prison life. Each visitor gets a card with information about a particular prisoner, to encourage empathy with an individual whose fate you follow.
It's a six-hour drive through spectacular scenery from Port Arthur to Strahan, a fishing village set in a natural amphitheater overlooking Macquarie Harbor on Tasmania's rugged west coast. Stretch your legs en route with a half-hour walk at Donaghys Lookout. While Strahan's harbor is the second largest in the Southern Hemisphere (behind Port Phillip Bay in Victoria), its population is less than 1,000. You won't run into a lot of other folks as you walk the trails and beaches here.
Fortunately, given the paucity of people, it takes only three actors to perform the island's longest-running play, which is about as far from the global productions of glitzy shows like "The Lion King" as Tasmanian restaurants are from McDonald's. "The Ship That Never Was" is, despite the name, based on a true event in 1834, which an enterprising young group of thespians has transformed into a delightful farce about escaping convicts. The trio build a getaway boat in front of your eyes, change their costumes to play various characters, and enlist audience members to play others. They tend to cast 9-year-olds as crusty nonagenarian sailors, which adds to the silliness. They perform outdoors year-round.
Move on to the Freycinet Peninsula, the island's easternmost point, and enjoy the national park of nearly 30,000 acres. Take a hike short, long, overnight along trails with flora and fauna that exist nowhere else on Earth. Sparkling blue insects look like crawling sapphires. The ribbony, peeling bark on eucalyptus trees reveals a brilliant palette underneath. Freycinet has more than 80 species of orchids, in bloom year round, and resident wallabies as springy as ballet dancers.
The park's terrain runs from steep hills to the beaches of Wineglass Bay. You may catch a glimpse of dolphins or whales.