When I lived in Sydney, arguably Australia's most worldly city, I was less impressed by its skyscrapers and cafés than I was by the miles of coastal beaches and national parks at its fringes. I sought out bits of ecological wonder—a drive along the Great Ocean Road from Melbourne, parrot fish munching on coral in the Great Barrier Reef, a 360-degree, fireball-orange sunset in the outback sky—and thought I'd seen it all. Then a friend returned from a monthlong trip to Tasmania with a look of breathless awe that I recognized.
What he said was, "You have to get there."
Seven years later, the sort of edge-of-the-world experience he described has brought me and my boyfriend, Matt, to Australia's smallest state. A piece of land shaped like a heart lies just off the mainland's southern coast, Tasmania has a rugged, transcendent beauty. Perhaps the fact that it's an island off an island—and the literal last stop before Antarctica, where research vessels stop to provision—makes it seem even more singularly isolated than its mother country.
We've begun our six-day drive in the harbor city of Launceston, and even in town, the drama of the scenery is apparent. Most inbound commuters cross the bridge that spans the towering 300-foot façades of Cataract Gorge every day, yet to be in the gorge is to feel completely removed from it all. Jagged gray and white cliffs spiral up to walking trails under the shade of old pine, oak, and cypress. On my first day, as I rappel down to the base of Feltham Buttress, the only thing that reminds me of civilization is the sight of the bridge in the distance.
"Launceston's just the right size—it has one of everything and you never have to wait," says Bob McMahon, our rock climbing guide for the day. And the small-town character of Tasmania supports his theory: people greet us with a casual humor, and everyone seems to know everyone else. What we don't expect in such a remote destination is the modern sophistication of Hatherley House, designer Flora de Kantzow's intimate nine-room hotel. In this restored circa-1830's mansion, Georgian and Victorian architecture (winding staircases, carved archways, stained-glass windows) has been blended with the new: glass and stainless-steel spa bathrooms, heated floors, flat-screen TV's. From the breakfast room, looking out on a hillside, we watch an early-morning sky overlaid with a searing-yellow glow; the effect is that of a Vermeer painting. The inn maintains its connection to the land outside, serving local melon and berries with yogurt and homemade muesli, and even its own line of plum preserves.
More than a third of Tasmania is protected parkland, and we're eager to hit the road to get to it. On the next leg of our trip, 2 1/2 hours west to Cradle Mountain National Park, Highway 1 leads us to rolling green farmland speckled with cows and sheep. As we approach the mountain, the landscape shifts to steep climbs alternating with plateaus blanketed in scrubby grass. After an endless series of switchbacks, we arrive at Cradle Mountain Lodge, an alpine wilderness retreat with 88 private-fireplace cabins at the edge of one of the few remaining temperate rain forests in the world. This is World Heritage country, and people come here for the wildlife, an extraordinary range of native animals that includes kangaroos, wallabies, wild hyena-like Tasmanian devils, and the famously elusive platypus. Spotlight tours leave every night from the lodge, and trails crisscross the national park area, marking the start of the Overland Track, one of Australia's best-known long-distance hikes.
It turns out we don't have to go far for wildlife. The next morning, Matt calls me to the door of our cabin. Peering up at us from the porch is a creature that looks like a cross between a small kangaroo and a rat. It noses forward, and an additional dozen or so others hop down from the wood, more closely resembling stalking predators than gently inquisitive herbivores. We hustle toward the car. Through an early-morning fog, we take a single-lane road up to the Dove Lake Circuit trailhead, where Cradle Mountain rises before us over the calm mirror of the lake. We hike for two hours, periodically descending frosty trails into green rooms of moss-covered rain forest, then climbing to quartzite cliffs. On our return to the lodge's Waldheim Alpine Spa, we find that the outdoors has followed us in. Floor-to-ceiling windows in the treatment rooms look out on stands of sassafras, cider gum, and pine; exfoliating scrubs include Tasmanian pepperberry, eucalyptus, and myrtle.
Throughout the week, nearly empty roads remind us of Tasmania's isolation, and when we drive over the rippled earth of the Great Western Tiers toward Deloraine, we pass just three other cars. Along the roadside in Mole Creek, an eight-foot fiberglass Tasmanian devil—complete with hunched posture, dripping fangs, and beady rodent eyes—signals the location of Trowunna Wildlife Park, and we stop to take a look. We watch real-life Tasmanian she-devils shriek and fight it out over a piece of wallaby leg, before we move on to feed kangaroos and black swans in the open bushland. The crowning moment: a pen of orphaned pademelons—described to us as "football-shaped kangaroos"—allows us to identify our morning visitors at Cradle Mountain Lodge from the marsupial lineup.