The devil's footsteps are dancing circles around us. They start at a massive sand dune to our right, zigzag past the beached man-of-wars ballooning at our feet, then vanish mysteriously where the foamy ocean tide melts into the talcum-white shore. Anywhere else on the planet, I would take this as a sign to run screaming for the nearest priest, but here on the magnificent coastline of northeast Tasmania, devils — not to mention wombats, wallabies, and rare kangaroos — are about as serious a threat as the whirling dervish from the Warner Bros. cartoons.
No, the real problem is my appetite. Long walks always make me hungry, and today's stroll is a doozy. My wife, Ruth, and I have joined a small band of happy adventurers on a four-day trip that includes a 15-mile trek to the Bay of Fires, a nearly unknown stretch of dazzling beachfront hopping with cuddly marsupials. The hike includes an overnight at a beachside camp and culminates in a two-night stay at the Bay of Fires Lodge, a stylish new wilderness retreat where—devils be damned—all manner of food and drink is readily available.
THE TRIP BEGINS IN LAUNCESTON, TASMANIA'S SECOND-LARGEST city after the capital, Hobart. Our young guides, Josephine and Misha, who both look like Goldilocks in Gore-Tex, watch carefully as Ruth and I stuff our polypropylene thermals and goofy halogen headlamps into backpacks supplied by the lodge. During the three-hour van ride to the coast, the nine guests soon realize that we all have our reasons for going walkabout. Michael, a cricket-consumed Australian architect, wants to get a look at the lodge's award-winning design. Marty and Lisa, round-the-world tall-ship sailors from Sydney, just need to feel the firm earth beneath their feet. Then there's the Baron (or at least that's what Ruth and I call him privately), the eccentric Kiwi multimillionaire who has brought along his family and a stunning array of communications gadgetry, the better to unplug with, obviously.
Even by Australian standards, the Bay of Fires is remote. The Bass Strait islands, lining up on the horizon as we begin our trek, once formed a land bridge that connected Tasmania with the rest of Australia. The Aborigines crossed over it from the mainland some 30,000 years ago, and as we explore Stumpy's Bay, our jumping-off point, it looks as if the vacant white beach hasn't changed much since. The Baron contemplates which offshore island he'd like to purchase, while Jo directs our attention to a huge mound on the beach topped by perfect brown and purple turban shells and a few dried sea horses. It is a midden, she says, several millennia worth of shell and bone leftovers from Aboriginal meals. We have stumbled upon an alfresco dining spot dating back at least 5,000 years.
Of course, modern wanderers have to eat, too, and by the time we arrive 51/2 miles later at the rustic Forester Beach Camp, a large tentlike building where we are to spend the first night, I'm so hungry I could bite into the poisonous puffer fish Michael and Marty have plucked from a nearby tide pool. But Jo and Misha promise tastier fare—they've carried in steaks, couscous, and salad, and have even laid out a tempting platter of Tasmanian cheeses and crackers, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and pickled onions, all accompanied by velvety Ninth Island Chardonnay. The camp is rustic, to be sure. Canvas walls and roofs don't offer much noise protection and Ruth and I fall asleep listening to a passing downpour and the Baron cursing his weak cell-phone signal.
FROM THE BEGINNING, THE BAY OF FIRES LODGE, THE ONLY STRUCTURE for miles on this ancient and sacred shoreline, was intended to be not just a hotel experience, but rather a near-mythic journey aimed at rekindling age-old impulses. "Indigenous peoples who moved around on foot were closely attuned to their environment," says Sydney architect Ken Latona, the lodge's designer. "Unfortunately, that link to our early nomadism is now largely lost. The easiest way to reconnect people with place is to slow them down and make them walk."
Having demonstrated his point with a series of understated backcountry huts along the trail up Tasmania's Cradle Mountain, Latona wanted to try the trick at sea level. He envisioned his beach lodge as a wholly sustainable shelter in which every element—from the rainwater-collecting tanks to the massive picture windows—hinged on protecting the landscape and making guests feel connected to the dramatic coastal environment. He also knew the place should be awesome enough to make the destination worth the trek, since no one would be able to simply drive in and stay the night.
So far, it's worth the effort. For one thing, beach walking in Tasmania isn't like beach walking in other places. The sand seems whiter, the lichen-colored rocks seem redder, and the water shifts dramatically from blue-black to turquoise with every crashing wave. As for catching a glimpse of shy kangaroos and spiky echidnas on the beach, it's just plain trippy. The Bay of Fires walk follows the shoreline of Mount William National Park, a coastal refuge that's home to a population of endangered forester kangaroos, the island's biggest mammal. When we finally spot one, in the heathlands above the beach, the Australians in the group don't seem to give it a second glance. Ruth and I, the only Americans, whoop it up as though we've just seen our first unicorn.
THAT'S NOTHING COMPARED TO OUR REACTION WHEN WE FINALLY set eyes on the lodge. We round a wedge of ragged coastline and come upon the crescent cove that British navy captain Tobias Furneaux spotted in 1773 while charting what was then called Van Diemen's Land. He saw Aboriginal flame pits on the beach and hills—perhaps a friendly warning to keep his ship away from offshore rocks—and named the inlet the Bay of Fires. At first, though, we can't see the lodge. Latona's design fits so comfortably into the landscape (only three trees were cut to make way for the building) that it's all but invisible from below. We hike across dunes carpeted with a creeping pink-and-green plant they call pigface, following those now-familiar devil tracks to a rough access road. As we climb higher, beach scrub turns to Tasmanian pine and peppermint gums. After one final uphill burst we come at last to the lodge's back door.
The Bay of Fires Lodge raises the art of elegant simplicity to a lofty new level. Set on a hilltop 130 feet above the surf, it is cloistered in a grove of rare casuarina trees. Two long timber-and-glass pavilions with an open-air walkway between them are fronted by a spectacular ocean observation deck. On its airy perch, the lodge relies as much on sky and water for its aesthetic appeal as it does on burnished Tasmanian hardwoods and hand-hammered steel. Latona lobbied for special permission to build in the park, and all his materials were either flown in by helicopter or hand-carried. It's no wonder the Royal Australian Institute of Architects honored the lodge with its highest award last year. The angled metal roof, with its sleek solar panels, lends an air of eco-industrial chic. The south pavilion houses 10 gracefully austere guest rooms with comfortable beds, simple throw rugs the color of sky, and high walls of windows without shades. In the north pavilion, a wood-burning fireplace lines one wall of the comfortable lounge, and communal tables fill the dining room. As for hotel amenities, there are none—no phones, no TV's, not even a check-in desk. The overall effect is of a place so gentle on its surroundings, it seems to have tiptoed out of the bush just to get a better look at the sea.
That said, I don't remember the last time I had to work so hard for a shower. This is an eco-lodge, after all, and during a crash course in backcountry hydraulics, Misha explains that it takes 40 hefty cranks to pump enough water from the holding tanks for a good five-minute solar-heated spritz. As the group takes turns heaving and ho-ing, I can't help but think there's some essential life lesson to be learned from generating your own shower power (to say nothing of the wisdom gleaned from using the lodge's surprisingly elegant composting toilets, which are shared by the guests). By the 27th pump or so, even the Baron seems to be getting into the eco-spirit. How could he not?Once the pumping's done, lathering up in hot rainwater inside the sleek stainless-steel stalls is a little like splashing around in a summer downpour.
We base ourselves at the lodge for two glorious days and nights. The first afternoon is spent frolicking at the impossibly beautiful semicircle of beach seen from the sundeck. Following a group swim, Michael shows me the finer points of beach cricket, a game that, as far as I can tell, involves whacking soggy tennis balls and sidestepping poisonous jellyfish carcasses. Fortunately, the only spectator is a happy fur seal sunning itself on a giant red boulder. The day winds down in the cozy living room after a dinner of local opah fish, portobello mushrooms, garlic potatoes, and flash-fried greens, all prepared by the guides in an outdoor fire pit under the gentle glow of solar-powered lamps. Jo even whips up a perfect lime tart and old-fashioned brownies for dessert. Later, those who are up for it take flashlights and head out on a nighttime safari through the steep lawns to spot the kangaroo-like pademelon and the adorable spotted-tailed quoll, a diminutive wildcat.
The truth is, just when we get into the rhythm of life at the lodge, we have to leave. Two nights is enough time to rest our aching soles, but it's hardly enough time to linger at every tide pool and scuttle up every sand dune, as we would like to do. Of course, a short stay seems appropriate considering Latona's ethos of moderation. And it's long enough, certainly, to have had an effect, even on a non-hiker like me. As we take that final stroll back to the van—a mere hour along an easy path through hilltop eucalyptus trees—the restored wanderer inside me wants to keep walking and walking along this gorgeous coast. I do know one thing: If a devil ever crosses my path again, I'll definitely follow it.
Bay of Fires Lodge, Mount William National Park; 61-3/6331-2006, fax 61-3/6331-5525; www.bayoffires.com.au; open October—June. The four-day, three-night trip costs $771 per person and includes all meals, accommodations, guides, and some equipment.