In an era of soulless and procedural jet plane travel, there was something wonderfully vintage about the 10-hour overnight sea journey I was midway through. I&rsquod driven my Toyota Camry aboard the Spirit of Tasmania at the Melbourne ferry wharf the previous evening and now this 29-ton ferry was cruising along the Bass Strait at a relaxed 25 knots, halfway through its journey to Devonport, Tasmania. On board there was enough entertainment to ensure that this wasn&rsquot just any point A to point B slog &mdash a gaming room to see if luck was your lady, two restaurants to savour, three decks to hang out on, four bars and open spaces with shooting stars to wish upon. Right then, at 3am, I was standing against the rail cupping an espresso laced with a tot of Southern Comfort. Yes, this was travel and I was completely at peace, enjoying my wicked drink, feeling the chilly and moist breeze on my face and slowly becoming mesmerised by the haunting gloom of the Southern Ocean.
The next morning, I discovered why the breeze had been laden with moisture. Devonport was cloaked in grey under the relentless attack of a thunder squall. But wasn&rsquot this supposed to be summer, with blue skies and a happy sun It was as if He had loaded the wrong slide into the celestial projector.
&ldquoThat&rsquos Tassie for ya sweetie The weather here is as fickle as Hollywood,&rdquo chortled the lady at the Devonport Visitors&rsquo Centre. She added that rain was forecast for two days all along West Tasmania. We&rsquod planned our Tasmania driving holiday in an anti-clockwise direction (as shown on a map) and it seemed that the rain was going to ride shotgun with us. Okay then, so be it, this was a beautiful land and we weren&rsquot going to allow some unexpected rain to wash away the joy of exploring it. We grabbed a hearty Aussie &ldquobrekkie&rdquo at a waterfront café and took the road to Strahan, our first night&rsquos halt.
En route, at the Cradle Mountain National Park, one of Tasmania&rsquos best and a must-visit for its landscapes straight out of a painting, we did the forest walks, squishing along on the wet ground under a dramatic sky as the sun raged against thunderclouds, peeking through one as it won a battle and then disappearing as it lost the next.
It finally won the war and was shining bright when we arrived at the huge Henty Sand Dunes, quite phenomenal by virtue of the fact that they are surrounded by rainforest. In Strahan we could have stayed in a colonial house or a Victorian lodge but our digs were aboard the Stormbreaker, a 60-foot yacht moored in the harbour. The skipper ran us through the procedures for using the toilet and shower. Because every inch of space has to be utilized aboard, things are made to fit like a jigsaw, so if you leave, for example, the shower door open you can&rsquot put the toilet seat down. But it was fun having a whole yacht to that and ourselves too for just Aus$35 a head.
Early next morning the rain was a fast fading memory as the sun quickly evaporated the puddles on the road in wisps of steam. That morning stands out as simply the best drive of my time Down Under. Our target was the Tasmanian capital of Hobart, or more precisely its Saturday Salamanca Place market, 300km away.
This market is reputed to be the most happening street market on the entire continent and I was determined to see it at a lethargic amble. So, I had my co-travellers up by 4.45am, and while they zombied through their showers I whipped up breakfast in the Stormbreaker&rsquos small but utilitarian kitchen. We were strapped into the Camry by 7.15am.
The route to Hobart would take us along the boundary line of the Cradle Mountain and Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers national parks the road itself, smooth tarmac that wound itself across hills, had been washed clean by the overnight rain and was now a rubber tyre&rsquos inseparable friend. There was also no traffic, thanks to the early hour and the weekend. The Camry was like an eager thoroughbred and she and I had a blast. It was sheer joy blitzing through those windy mountain roads to the theme from Hawaii Five-O. Now that trumpety tune has the ability to instantly transport me back to those delightful twisty roads, the multi-hued rainforests, the shimmering lakes and the crisp morning air that were all part of that fantastic three-and-a-half hour drive.
If the region through which we drove was a soft harmonious pastel-coloured painting, then the Salamanca Place market was a vibrant in-your-face modern art masterpiece. The whole place was bustling and the buzz, of shoppers browsing and bargaining at stalls set up by locals to sell home-grown produce and handmade products, was infectious. The market has a big focus on organic produce right from fruits and vegetables to breads and pastries. There were handicrafts made of Huon Pine, a tree that can live for up to 2,000 years. The wood doesn&rsquot rot as it contains special oil. But it&rsquos the buskers that are responsible for the festive atmosphere. Buskers are hobby musicians and the word covers everything from a full eight-man band to a single eight-year-old girl playing the clarinet, nearly masked by her sheet music.
Hobart was our base for two days, days we spent walking around the gorgeous old town area behind Salamanca Square. The Visitors&rsquo Centre hands out a walking map through Hobart&rsquos prettiest neighbourhoods resplendent with Victorian architecture and uncluttered by modern highrises.
Even a person who just about scraped through the geography exam in school will find maps in Tasmania a cinch to read. Every road marked on them is properly signposted and correctly named. This is why we could enjoy the surroundings rather than having to scratch our heads while referring constantly to the map, trying desperately to orient ourselves.
Even on the next day when we drove a clockwise circuit around Hobart, going first to Bruny Island &mdash which with its blue waters, amazing beaches and charming little villages makes you seriously consider becoming an illegal immigrant &mdash and then Peppermint Bay and the Tahune Skywalk (a cantilevered platform that takes you round the rainforest at treetop level) before returning to Hobart, simple and lucid maps ensured that we did not take a single wrong road or turn.
Tasmania is meant to be seen by road. There is so much to see along the way that often we just stopped because the region we were driving through was so pretty.
When we drove from Hobart to Port Arthur our first stop was Richmond 25km away. Richmond was almost entirely built by convict labour the baddies&rsquo most famous construction still stands firm today, Australia&rsquos oldest bridge, which stretches across the Coal River and dates back to 1823. Across this arched masterpiece of honey-coloured stone is St John&rsquos Church, the oldest remaining Catholic Church in Australia, and completing the trio of &ldquooldest on the continent&rdquo is the gaol. Driving on towards Port Arthur we sampled strawberries at the Sorell fruit farm, stopped at the Tasman Peninsula National Park and walked on the Tessellated Pavement, a natural floor of volcanic rock tiles tempered by the ocean over the ages. Further on we drove through the narrow isthmus of Eaglehawk Neck, where fierce dogs once guarded the narrow corridor against escaping convicts, and had a delicious lunch of hot Tasmanian pies and rich and creamy boysenberry ice-cream near the Devil&rsquos Kitchen and Tasman Arch, both rock formations shaped by natural erosion.
Port Arthur&rsquos most famous attraction is its historic convict colony, the ruins are well looked after and there are informative signboards all over. The site is at its dramatic best when the setting sun gives the yellow stone a golden hue. But somehow I couldn&rsquot escape the sense of gloom that pervades the place. A century and a half ago, convicts lived here in appalling conditions, watched over by ruthless guards. Sorrow and pain were constant companions. The atmosphere is ominous enough to make you believe the guides on the 45-minute late evening Ghost Tours, the path lit only by lanterns. I have no qualms about admitting to moving closer to the centre of the group (and safety), as the guides spoke with chilling conviction about the ghosts that have been seen and heard in the vicinity.
The next two days that we spent driving along Tasmania&rsquos East Coast were a heady cocktail of terrific roads, panoramic views and local produce. The road alternately ran through dense rainforests, along the Tasman Sea and swung by postcard perfect bays &mdash the Wineglass Bay, Coles Bay and the Bay of Fires. The huge appetites generated by all these vast and breathless views were assuaged by the wholesome fresh produce from the sea and the land served at charming pubs present in all the little towns we drove through.
By the time we drove into Launceston, the Camry had already clocked 2,000km around Tasmania. The day and a half we had left on the isle would be spent exploring the Tamar River region, visiting the Clover Hill vineyard, tasting cheese, sampling salmon and savouring the distinct taste of leatherwood honey at the Chudleigh Honey farm. Yes, waistlines were going to expand but we&rsquod worry about that later.
As for now, the three of us were watching the brilliant colours of dusk and basking in the rustic ambience of Stillwater, among Tasmania&rsquos most celebrated restaurants, housed inside a restored 1830s flour mill by the Tamar River.
Sipping on a chilled Riesling from one of the region&rsquos vineyards, we raised a toast to the setting sun as it brought to an end the eighth day we&rsquod spent on this island, one of Australia&rsquos most understated destinations, a magical place that rewards the traveller who takes the time to explore it at length.
Malaysia Airlines flies Delhi-Melbourne, Qantas flies from Mumbai (you can check the fare from Shikhar Travels, 011-23312666). From Melbourne, the Tasmanian capital Hobart is just over an hour&rsquos flight away. Or cruise overnight on one of the three Spirit of Tasmania ships (www.spiritoftasmania.com.au). SoT I and II sail overnight from Melbourne, leaving at 9pm and arriving in Devonport on Tasmania&rsquos north coast at 7am. SoT III sails from Sydney three times a week.
Where to stay
A typical hostel is Central City Backpackers in Hobart. Choose from private rooms to a dormitory with as many as eight beds. . See www.centralbackpackers.com.au. There are also hotels and bed & breakfasts, and opportunities to rent your own apartment or cottage or stay in a local farm and help milk cows or pick grapes. There are also wilderness lodges with views of the sea and cliffs. For a comprehensive list see www.discovertasmania.com.
What to see
A See Tasmania Smartvisit Card offers free admission to over 60 attractions ranging from national parks, to museums and galleries, to historic sites, river cruises, rail tours, etc. The card comes with a guidebook with maps and tips, as well as discounts at shops and restaurants. See www.seetasmaniacard.com.
Tasmania is a trencherman&rsquos idea of heaven. It is justly proud of its food and wine, the huge, fresh, briny oysters, the excellent local Riesling and pinot noir produced in gorgeous wineries usually with restaurants attached. There is also the full-bodied beer, the local cheese, salmon and venison and the gigantic servings at every mealtime.