Featured image: Dove Lake & Cradle Mountain. Photo: Emilie Ristevski
Tasmania is for road-tripping. It’s our favourite way to explore Australia’s compact southern isle, especially over winter when you’ll find fewer tourists and plenty of blazing log fires. Ideal conditions if you’re planning a cosy driving holiday for two.
On a recent Tassie adventure, we took the scenic route from Launceston down to Strahan and Gordon River on the west coast, traversing some of the state’s most spectacular countryside.
If you’re in a hurry, the 300-kilometre drive will take around five hours. Still, we recommend a two-day road trip (or longer) because there’s so much to discover in this often-overlooked area — including magical limestone caves and glorious Cradle Mountain.
Northern exposure: Deloraine & surrounds
Your first stop should be the beautiful riverside town of Deloraine, 40 minutes west of Launceston in the foothills of the Great Western Tiers. First settlers arrived here in the 1820s, building lovely Georgian and Victorian-style buildings classified by the National Trust. Many of the original cottages and nearby homesteads are now galleries and craft shops, museums, and restaurants, so there’s plenty to see.
While you’re in town, don’t miss the magnificent Yarns Artwork in Silk at the Visitor Centre. This large-scale textile project features four soft-sculpture, quilted panels (one for each season) and draws you into the landscapes, culture, and heritage of the Meander Valley people. Presentations are made every 30 minutes but book beforehand at greatwesterntiers.net.au.
The route from Deloraine to the west coast through the region of Kentish, is one of the most picturesque in Tasmania. A land of rich soil with rolling hills, delightful valleys, and spectacular views of the alpine highlands — which we were lucky enough to see dusted with winter’s new snow.
There’s much to keep you in this area, including Sheffield: the ‘Town of Murals’ and home to Tasmania’s largest outdoor art gallery. Painted on almost every available wall, over 150 murals depict local history and characters and create an engaging introduction to Sheffield’s vibrant arts and crafts scene.
Then there’s the quirky 20-kilometre Novelty Letterbox Trail. Starting at Wilmot (known as ‘Valley of Views’), it features 80 letterboxes and is bookended by a life-sized Doctor Who Dalek and Tardis. In the same off-beat spirit, check out the eight amazing mazes of Tasmazia and the Village of Lower Crackpot. This whimsical tourist attraction is nestled under towering Mount Roland in the charmingly named area of Promised Land.
And if you can’t resist a cute wildlife encounter, stop by the excellent Trowunna Wildlife Sanctuary in Mole Creek for an up-close-and-personal with a wombat or Tasmanian devil. The sanctuary’s private VIP tours, with a personal guide for behind-the-scenes access, are perfect for animal lovers.
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Cosy up with a tiger: Mole Creek
If you’re continuing on to Strahan, leave a couple of hours to complete the journey before dusk as you’ll be sharing the road with local wildlife. But why rush away when you have the state’s most breathtaking caves to explore?
Our tip is to bunker down at Mole Creek Hotel — or check into one of the many local cottages and cabins and hit the hotel for a coldie and meal. There’s another unmissable attraction here, and that’s the hotel’s Tiger Bar: a shrine to the presumed-extinct Tasmanian Tiger. The pub boasts over 260 pieces of memorabilia and photos dedicated to this phantom marsupial. Now that’s got to be worth seeing!
Under & over: Caves & Cradle Mountain
In the morning, make your way to Mole Creek Karst National Park to tour two incredible caves: Marakoopa and King Solomons. These are the state’s most accessible troves of superb stalactites and stalagmites, underground rivers and glow worms, sparkling crystals, and reflection pools. It’s a 15-minute drive between them, with Marakoopa’s first tour at 10 am and King Solomons’ at 11.30 am. Tickets are available from the central office at Mayberry, and you can book beforehand on (03) 6363 5182.
Keen walkers may want to add a day or more here to explore the Cradle Mountain region. Try the treetop cabins of Lemonthyme Wilderness Retreat, near Moina in Cradle Valley, where you can thaw by the fire after a day mountain biking or roaming through the temperate rainforest. Or else take the 90-minute drive to Cradle Mountain for its famous walking trails and mesmerising Dove Lake.
Whichever route you choose, your drive to Strahan down the A10 will take you into the lush, raw wilderness of the west coast’s mountain area. You’ll also pass the historic mining town of Zeehan where nearby Renison Bell Mine is still one of the largest tin mines in the world! Delve into the history of the ‘Silver City’ at the West Coast Heritage Centre, which offers a unique insight into the mines and men that have played such a big part in Zeehan’s development.
Welcome to the west coast: Strahan
Passing through an infinite expanse of green forest, you’ll arrive at the picturesque seaside village of Strahan. Located on the banks of Australia’s second-largest harbour, Macquarie Harbour, this is the gateway to the World Heritage splendour and beauty of Tasmania’s Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park.
Strahan is rich in history, and you can tap into the bygone-era style at grand federation retreat Ormiston House. Original owner Frederick Ormiston Henry pioneered the town’s early construction, and Ormiston’s current owner loves to share the story over a glass of wine and platter of cheese. Fascinating!
Unless you’re a hiker, the pace is leisurely here over winter. Leaving plenty of time to enjoy a romantic stroll around the harbour, a windswept walk along Tasmania’s longest beach, Ocean Beach (ten minutes away), or a feast of fresh seafood washed down with a glass of local pinot. Rail buffs? Don’t miss the West Coast Wilderness Railway for a half-day diesel journey from Strahan to Dubbil Barril or a full-day journey to Queenstown, returning by bus. There’s also fishing, camping, and sailing trips to be enjoyed in any season, part of why Strahan has become one of Tasmania’s top holiday destinations.
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River dreaming: cruising the Gordon River
But back to the main attraction. Most travellers arrive here to enjoy a Gordon River cruise: a bucket-list adventure of soul-stirring proportions. There are two cruises to choose from, World Heritage and Gordon River Cruises, both doing the same run, half an hour apart. Whichever boat you prefer, you can look forward to a day on the water that will stay in your hearts and minds for a very long time.
Cruising across the harbour in early morning light, into the mist-wreathed Gordon River, is an almost spiritual experience as the shadowy forest mirrors itself on the still waters. Travelling further into the untamed landscape, the raw beauty of forest and river is breathtaking, silencing passengers on deck to record their day on phone and camera in a reverential hush.
To think we almost lost this pristine area, where rivers run wild and free, with the proposed damming of the Franklin/Gordon Rivers 40 years ago is sacrilegious. Thankfully, the land’s timeless rhythm goes on to the beat of the incoming and outgoing tide, and the solace and soothing power of the wilderness work their magic on everyone lucky enough to experience it.
An emotive highlight of the cruise is a stop at Sarah Island, an old penal settlement site where convicts laboured under the harshest conditions. The tour guide tells fascinating stories about the brutal and lonesome life endured by these poor souls in an unforgiving place of infinite pain and suffering. The old stone walls, still visible in areas, are testimony to the tyranny of time and weather, adding colour and substance to the sad stories.
This river trip alone makes the 270-kilometre drive around winding mountain roads from Launceston to Strahan worthwhile. However, there’s also the discovery of so many unique areas along the way. Destinations that will leave you wanting to delve even deeper into this great land we’re lucky to call our own.
We look forward to sharing more with you as we return time after time to experience Tasmania in all seasons.
Check out more Tasmania Off Season winter highlights here
Images supplied by Tourism Tasmania