The Great Escape: a Hobart to Port Arthur road trip

Port Arthur Historic Site

It’s just a quick trip from Tasmania’s capital to Australia’s most famous gaol. Chris and Sarah take off to check out the convict ruins and find out what natural wonders the Tasman National Park has to offer.

Who doesn’t love a horrifying story about the days of yore? Chris and I have visited plenty of places with unbecoming histories, and we’ve decided it’s time to tick off the convict site at Port Arthur from our to-do list. And we can do it in a long weekend, so we’ve booked a car with Apex Car Rentals and will pick it up when we fly into Hobart.

Quick Sticks: Hobart to Port Arthur

Sunset view of the rocks arranged in a natural block formation at Tesselated Pavement, Pirates Bay, Tasmania

When you pop Port Arthur into Google Maps at Hobart Airport, it tells you it’s only about 75 minutes to get there. Thankfully, I’ve done some research and we’ve got a few stops to make along the way. The first is Blue Lagoon Oysters. Both Chris and I are big fans of these salty morsels, and these guys sell them fresh from the water. So delicious!

It doesn’t sound like much, but the Tessellated Pavement at the north end of Pirates Bay is well worth checking out. It’s a natural rock formation that looks a lot like blocks of stone have been laid with intent. It’s just before Eaglehawk Neck, which has strong ties to Port Arthur. This narrow stretch of land only a few hundred metres wide was the only link to Tasmania’s mainland and dogs were tied across it – if a prisoner tried to get past, the dogs would wake the guards.

Time’s on our side, so we park the car at Doo Town, where all the houses have Doo in their names (Chris has decided he wants to move there), and take a long walk along Pirates Bay to the blowhole, Fossil Bay Lookout and the Doo-lishus seafood van.

History Revealed: Port Arthur

Two people stand on the balcony of a grand sandstone building, the old Guard Tower at Port Arthur, Tasmania

Because we’ve set aside the day to explore the historic site, we decide to visit Port Arthur Lavender on the way for a late brunch. Being the end of summer, we’ve missed the peak of the blooms, but the outlook is still beautiful and the cafe is one of the best in the area. There’s no doubt about it: the blueberry pancakes infused with lavender and served with berry compote and lavender ice-cream are the bomb.

Nothing can prepare you for the scale of the Port Arthur Historic Site. It covers almost 40 hectares, so we were right to save the full day. Interestingly, when you arrive, you’re given a playing card from the Lottery of Life. Mine – the four of hearts – is associated with a convict called Thomas Fleet. The idea is to look for clues throughout the visit and discover more about him.

When prisoners were brought to Australia from the UK, the worst of them were shipped on to Port Arthur. Surrounded by water, it was thought to be inescapable (back in those days, most people couldn’t swim). Designed as a model prison, based on what were thought to be pioneering principles, it was still a brutal place.

It’s so well preserved though and everything about it is fascinating. By the end of the day, I’ve discovered Thomas Fleet tried to escape, but was caught and whipped. He then hit a guard with an axe for which he was tried for attempted murder and executed. It brings home the harsh reality of what life was like here.

Walk to Waves: Port Arthur to Tasman National Park

Two people, who are in a den looking through a plastic bubble at ground, watch a Tasmanian Devil, Unzoo, Taranna

The following day we explore Tasman National Park, where hardcore hikers come to complete the Three Capes Track. As good as that sounds, we’re heading straight for Remarkable Cave. There are 115 steps to the cave, shaped thanks to years of being thrashed by the ocean’s waves. It’s very cool, but we scamper back up to drive to the start of the Cape Raoul hike. Today, however, we’re taking a detour on the trail that will take us to Shipstern Bluff. It’s a fairly easy walk there, and we climb the rocks above the bay to look out along the entire coastline. It’s spectacular, but we go down to the beach and sit. Chris is a surfer and the likes of Kelly Slater and Mick Fanning have, in the past, taken on the swell here, which, at times, reaches nine metres. It’s not that big today and there are no surfers – it’s a 30-kilometre boat or jet ski ride to the break, so it takes a lot of planning. Chris decides quickly it’s far too scary for him.

By the time we walk back to the car, we’ve covered about eight kilometres, so we deserve a treat. On the way back to Hobart, we stop at the Unzoo. At this wildlife sanctuary, where they’ve studied them for years, you can meet the famous Tasmanian devil. The Devil Den, where you can be at ground level within a clear dome, is unreal, with the devils coming right up close. It’s the best way to end the weekend.