Lured by rain-forest oases, deserted white-sand beaches—and the open road—Bonnie Tsui encounters the natural wonders of Australia's heart-shaped world
Blasius Erlinger

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.

During the late afternoon, we arrive in Deloraine and check into a 200-acre former ranch, Calstock Country Retreat. The six-suite bed-and-breakfast is run by Ginette and Remi Bancal, and we're unprepared for the extravagance of food and wine that we find there. Remi, a chef with a pedigree that traces back to Sydney's Banc restaurant and the Ritz in Paris, serves up French-meets-Tasmanian fare—Bruny Island scallops, saffron ice cream—much of it sourced from the estate's own organic garden as well as local producers. The next morning, we're sent on our way, with Remi's food and drink recommendations in hand, to the Tamar wine region. The most important stop is the Daniel Alps restaurant at Strathlynn, a vineyard framed by 100-year-old oak trees and owned by Pipers Brook, Tasmania's most famous winery. Daniel Alps is rumored to be the best place to have lunch in the state, and we're not disappointed; the highlight of the meal is ven- ison served with Swiss brown mushrooms and shaved Parmesan, the earthy flavors complemented by a glass of Pipers Brook Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir. After tasting an abbreviated flight of wines, we reluctantly continue our 21/2-hour trek to Freycinet National Park.

It's a long day of driving from Deloraine to Freycinet, about 90 miles, but we finally make it to Freycinet Lodge. We've booked one of the spa cabins, tucked away in the bush and linked to the main lodge by timber walkways. The luxury here is all about easy access; the lodge's 14 acres lie within the boundaries of the park, overlooking the beaches and granite coastline of Great Oyster Bay, where kayak expeditions set out. On the other side of the isthmus is the much photographed white-sand crescent of Wineglass Bay, Cape Tour-ville Lighthouse to its north. This lookout is the best place to catch the sunrise, and we struggle out of bed before dawn the next morning to do it. Alone at the lighthouse, 500 feet above the crashing waves, we watch the sun pop up like a strobe over the sea.

On our last full day, as we cruise down the Tasman Highway to the capital city of Hobart, we stop for a morning dessert—raspberry ice cream at Kate's Berry Farm. The main attraction here is a small shop and café situated high on a hilltop above the shore town of Swansea. We know the detour is worthwhile when we see locals filing in for their daily fix of tea, hot scones, and blackberry jam.

Late that afternoon, we check into the newly opened Henry Jones Art Hotel—the latest of Flora de Kantzow's creations, located in an old jam factory along the Hobart waterfront. As she did at Hatherley House, de Kantzow takes advantage of historic detail—antique machinery, an original grand staircase—and works in ultra-modern design, such as an all-glass atrium. Our suite is huge, with exposed-wood beams, and the bathroom is an opaque green glass cube with an open shower that takes up half the room. But the Henry Jones was also created to showcase art. Students and staff at the Tasmanian School of Art designed furniture, installations, and prints for the hotel. More than 250 works by these and other Tasmanian artists are on display in the atrium, restaurants, and guest rooms. With its long history, the old factory space seems a fitting place to find such an assemblage of local voices exploring what it means to live here now.

People tend to describe Tasmania in terms of other places. "All the cows and farms remind me of England," or "It's so wild, like New Zealand," or "That bushland looks just like the Serengeti." The locals complain good-naturedly about this, but I see it differently. If Tasmania's lot in life is to be forever compared to something else, that's the sign of a wonderfully elusive quality, one befitting an island culture that shows both a skillful 21st-century design sense and an eco-conscious awareness of its rare natural treasures.

BONNIE TSUI, a former associate editor at Travel + Leisure, writes frequently for the New York Times.

Day 1
Fly into Launceston, climb Cataract Gorge, and overnight at Hatherley House.

Day 2 50 miles
Take Highway 1 west to B13 to Kimberley. Proceed on C156 to C136. At Moina, make a left at C132 and continue to Cradle Mountain Lodge for the night.

Day 3 34 miles
Hike at Dove Lake, before returning east on C132to Moina and taking C136 to Cethana. Turn right onto C138, then right again, onto B12. Stop in Mole Creek and continue on to Calstock, in Deloraine.

Day 4 89 miles
Follow 1 east and take A7 to Rosevears. Backtrack to Campbell Town; turn left onto B34, then left onto A3 and right onto C302, to Freycinet Lodge.

Day 5 74 miles
Take C302 north, then A3 south. At C351, turn right toward Richmond. Follow B31 south, then A3 west to Hobart's Henry Jones Art Hotel for the night.

Day 6
Explore Hobart and fly out.

Hatherley House
43 HIGH ST., LAUNCESTON; 61-3/6334-7727;

Cradle Mountain Lodge
CRADLE MTN. RD., CRADLE VALLEY; 61-3/6492-1303;

Calstock Country Retreat

Freycinet Lodge

Henry Jones Art Hotel
25 HUNTER ST., HOBART; 61-3/6210-7700;

Daniel Alps at Strathlynn
95 ROSEVEARS DR., ROSEVEARS; 61-3/6330-2388;

Kate's Berry Farm
ADDISON ST., SWANSEA; 61-3/6257-8428

Tasmanian Expeditions
23 EARL ST., LAUNCESTON; 61-3/6334-3477;

Cradle Mountain/Lake St. Clair and Freycinet National Parks

Trowunna Wildlife Park
B12 HWY., MOLE CREEK; 61-3/6363-6162;

Daniel Alps at Strathlynn

Fresh regional dishes such as Spring Bay scallops in a leek-and-thyme butter sauce.

Hatherley House

Freycinet Lodge

Calstock Country Retreat