More than 20,000 people a year visit the Port Arthur Historic Site on the scenic Tasman Peninsula. That makes the sandstone remains of the old convict penal colony the most visited place in Tasmania … and it’s not hard to see why.
Its historic significance is basically impossible to deny. As Australia’s best preserved former penal colony, Port Arthur holds a very special place in the hearts of this convict-loving country. From a geographic point of view, you can see why it was a top spot for a jail. The rugged coastline of the area made escape from here a daunting prospect, although that didn’t stop the odd desperate long-termer from giving it a go.
Even now, covered as it is in beautiful lawns and magnificent English oaks and elms, and set against the truly spectacular backdrop of the Tasman Sea, there is something haunting and eerie about the site.
For nearly half a century, from 1830 onwards, Port Arthur housed more than 10,000 convicts. Their often trivial offences back in England condemned them to a harsh life of brutal incarceration. For the many poor unfortunates who ended their days within these walls, a mass grave on the Isle of the Dead beckoned. Nowadays, you can take a boat trip out to the self-same Isle of the Dead but, even though you know you’re coming back, it’s still an unsettling experience. If you’re feeling really brave, you can take a night-time guided ghost tour!
The whole historic site is very well done and manages to be informative, entertaining and respectful. There is, of course, a monument also to the victims of the more recent horror of the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in which 35 people lost their lives at the hands of gunman Martin Bryant.
IN THE AREA
Many visitors arrive in the area expecting Port Arthur to be a significant town but there is really not much here apart from the well-appointed historic site itself. Port Arthur is only about 100 kilometres or so from Hobart but the countryside is so beautiful you will want to stay here as long as you can.
The sheer dolerite cliffs of the Tasman Peninsula offer sweeping views across the Tasman Sea, and there are also spectacular beaches, vast forests and abundant farmland. The Tasman National Park is here too and its wonderful camping possibilities make it an ideal base from which to visit Port Arthur and indeed to explore the whole peninsula.
The park, with its sheer sea cliffs reaching to 300 metres, offers some of the best coastal walks in the country. There are also blowholes, sandy beaches and fascinating rock formations. When the sun is shining, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would ever want to leave this part of the world. But then you remember that 150 years or so ago, an army of downtrodden, suffering prisoners could have thought have nothing more pleasurable than saying goodbye to it forever.
How times change.
MAKE SURE YOU ….
Take a boat trip to the Isle of the Dead; consider taking a guided ghost tour; explore the natural wonders of Tasman National Park; soak up the atmosphere at this most atmospheric of locations.
WHERE TO CAMP
Port Arthur Holiday Park is located a kilometre north of Port Arthur and is set on 40 acres of gardens and natural bush. Sites are separated by rows of trees and shrubs.
Tasman National Park’s Fortescue Bay camping area is both beautiful and popular, so bookings are recommended, especially in peak season. Call (03) 6250 2433. Caravans are welcome. There are no powered sites but there are toilets, hot showers, fireplaces, and gas barbecue in the day use area. The beach at the campsite is beautiful, the views heavenly, and the water tranquil.