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Embracing Tasmanian winter

Everyone always talks about what you should do in Tasmania, but it’s what you shouldn’t do that really counts.

I’ve picked up my hire car from Avis at Hobart Airport. Don’t expect to have those keys in your hand for at least a half hour after you land. Hobart may not be the busiest airport, but the rental car kiosks certainly are. However, the service crew are super helpful and keen to please.

My Mitsubishi compact SUV is pleasant to drive, and it feels as if it’s just come off the showroom floor. I can’t wait to hit the road in this motor.

I’m heading to Strahan on the west coast of Tasmania for a four-day winter getaway. Google Maps says it’s about a three-hour, 45-minute drive from Hobart. Don’t trust Google Maps’ assessment of Tasmania alpine roads. More on that shortly.

Just off the Lyell Highway, about a half hour from Hobart, there’s a sign saying Stefano Lubiana Winery and Osteria. Don’t drive past that sign. Instead, drive down the little gravel track called Rowbottoms Road in Granton, up to the Tuscan-style house-turned-cellar-door and restaurant, and park your car and prepare yourself for a treat.

Stefano (Steve) is a fifth-generation winemaker who came to Tasmania from Italy’s Trieste region and immediately got a feel for Tassie grapes to create cold-climate wines. His vineyard is biodynamic, as is all the produce from the property.

As soon as I open the door, I feel the rustic, yet sophisticated, charm of an old Italian villa. The winds outside are cold, but the roaring fire inside soon takes care of that. Then sampling the wine does the rest. Dave, the cellarmaster, first offers me some bubbly, which is fruity and refreshing. Next, he pours the Estate Pinot, which is the first Pinot I’ve ever really liked.

I sip and look outside and am greeted by a picture-book rainbow and a scene straight out of a coffee table travel book. I comment to Dave on this view.

“Yeah, and it’s not even really a great day, today,” he says.

Spoilt, I think to myself. Not many views are as good as the one we’re looking at right now. In all seriousness, the building is a beautiful, sandstone and rock villa set on the side of a small mountain , overlooking the River Derwent and Dave is a really nice, knowledgeable sommelier (and person!).

He will let you sample up to four wines free or, if you pay a small fee, you can sample as many as you like. If I didn’t have to drive, I’d have sampled them all. They’re that good.

I order the roasted line-caught kingfish, with Brussels sprouts, mussels and kingfish bacon matched with the Sauv Blanc. It is divine. The Osteria’s menu changes daily, based around what is harvested from their biodynamic vegetable garden that day, but I highly recommend the kingfish if it’s on.

All I want to do now is cosy up on the couch in front of the fire with a glass of Merlot, but I have a long drive ahead of me.

Back on the road, I know I’ll be doing the one thing I was told not to do before coming here: drive in the dark from Hobart to Strahan. There are a thousand bends, and wallabies abound (literally). You have to drop your speed to 60kph just to make sure you won’t hit one.

I make a quick pitstop at Gretna, a little town about an hour and a bit out of Hobart to say “Hi” to an old friend.

“Yep, you got a bit of a drive ahead of you. It’s only about 250km, but it’ll take you at least four hours. And the chances of you hitting a wallaby are pretty high, so take it easy,” he tells me.

Suffice to say, I’m quickly back behind the wheel and after driving the last two and a half hours in the dark (and I mean dark) and heavy rain, walking in the door of my BNB for the weekend feels like heaven.

So, don’t drive those roads in the dark. Some of those switchbacks are pretty hairy and there’s a reason they call the stretch of road immediately before you hit Queenstown the ’99 bends’. But as challenging as it was to drive at night, it’s the scenery I’ve missed that irks me most.

If you’re looking for a place to stay in Strahan, then it has to be the Wheelhouse Apartments. A five-minute drive or 10-minute walk from the centre of town (which is also on the waterfront), it is the perfect, long-weekend accommodation. With amazing views of Macquarie Harbour, a clean, stylish, two-level, two-bedroom house with floor-to-ceiling windows cantilevered over a cliff-side lawn, and a kitchen brimming with fresh food and supplies for the duration of my stay, I couldn’t ask for anything more of my lodgings. I take the spiral staircase up to the main room, see the queen bed overlooking the port, the moon shining in through the cinematic windows and then spy the spa in the corner and I’m floored. What a place!

And from $250 a night per couple, my advice is: don’t stay anywhere else.

The pink and orange sunrise is the perfect start to my day and it only gets better as I board the Spirit of the WildGordon River Cruises’ brand-new luxury catamaran – on which I am travelling as a guest today. I’ve always wanted to cruise the Gordon River and see the ancient rainforest riverscape running into the heart of Tasmania’s UNESCO World Heritage Wilderness Area and today I have my chance.

The cruise does not disappoint, even with the skies heavy with mist and, eventually, rain. The heads at Hells Gate are as promised: tumultuous bordering on treacherous, although at no point do I ever feel unsafe. If anything, being so close to the roaring Southern Ocean is exhilarating. Entering Gordon River, the rainforest breathes and teems with birdlife. Peace and calm are induced by the gentle lapping of the water as it caresses the hull. That may sound a bit poetic, but honestly, being here feels poetic. The tour of Sarah Island is as fascinating as it is windy, and it’s very windy. Our guide, Kiah, really puts on a show and I learn more from her about our colonial roots in an hour than I would have from a year of reading books on the subject.

Fed to the gills with fresh local produce, sated by Tassie wines and a couple of state-favourite beers, I’m as happy as a ‘Leon on a Gordon River Cruise’.

Here’s a tip: Don’t skimp on the main deck fare (although that’s pretty good, too) – fork out the extra coin for the Upper Deck fare and enjoy all the food you can eat and wine you can drink. And another tip: Don’t drive to the dock, get a cab or walk, so you can really enjoy the onboard offerings.

Also, don’t pass up the chance to ride the rails on the West Coast Wilderness Railway. I’m on the Dubbil Barril run, but you can catch an old loco to Queenstown from Regatta Point in Strahan, or any number of rail and adventure packages.

The railway is a reconstruction of the original Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company line which began operation in 1897 as the link between Queenstown – where the copper was – and the port of Strahan – where it was shipped. It uses the ‘Abt’ system to tackle steep inclines and declines throughout the rainforest region. The original locomotives still operate today, although the carriages, built more recently, have been recreated in a ‘period’ style.

There’s nothing like breathing in the fresh rainforest air tinged by the scent of a steam engine. The thrill of riding behind such an old engine makes me feel like a kid again.

For an afternoon feed I’m now at View 42°. It’s famous for its gourmet buffet, services more than 100 suites in the Strahan Village, and overlooks Macquarie Harbour and most of Strahan. Sitting down to a specially prepared platter by chef Nico, I’m treated to caramelised oysters in mint and pea puree, smoked wallaby, salmon and herbed goat cheese roulades, salads and antipasto. While not everything I’m eating is on the buffet menu all at once, you can be assured of trying some of it yourself at any given time. I’m told the fresh oysters are to die for, and the gourmet pizzas on offer all year round are the best in town.

Tasmania is home to some of the best nature walks in the country, and the one at People’s Park just around the corner on the esplanade is a tranquil, easy walk to Hogarth Falls that you can do in around 40 minutes. I’m more than appreciative of the chance to work off some of the fabulous feed I’ve just had, before venturing over the road to Risby Cove – a favourite restaurant of the Strahan locals, and upon walking in I know why.

Such a lively atmosphere. It’s Saturday night – specials night – every Saturday it changes. It might be a curry feast one week or an Asian-inspired degustation another. Tonight is dumpling banquet night and I sit down to traditional chicken momo, pork dumplings, teriyaki beef and cabbage dumplings and share plates such as bok choy and garlic (yum!), lemongrass rice and my favourite, Risby-style chilli pink ling.

The pièce de résistance is the chocolate spring roll with coconut egg custard and ice cream, dusted with white chocolate soil and chocolate flakes. Don’t eat so much that you can’t fit this in – you’ll regret it. Top that off with a neat Scotch and your day is nicely done.

Waking to a mauve and lilac sunrise makes me sad to be leaving, but again, I have the drive back home to consider. Severe weather warnings and snow fall predicted in the alpine region have me a little nervous, but we’re on the road ready to take it on.

Here’s a tip: if, like me, you haven’t driven through an alpine region with snow before, don’t do so without reading up a bit on how to navigate potentially perilous situations. I did and felt much better about tackling the road with all sorts of wild weather on the forecast.

Through the windies from Strahan to Queenstown, which I did in the dark three days prior, I now see the scenery I missed on my way in and I am glad to see it in the daylight.

Just outside of Queenstown, there’s a spectacular waterfall called Horsetail Falls. Don’t drive past. Instead, park and wander along the cliff-side boardwalk to get a close-up glimpse of this remarkable rock fall and look back on the almost lunar landscape of the old Queenstown mines.

Driving through the snow in the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park is again, challenging, but I am rewarded by the stunning vistas through my windscreen. Exciting. Exhilarating. I can’t resist the chance to stop at Lake St Claire for a quick romp in the snow. Short story: Don’t pass up the opportunity to drive through the alpine region in winter.

The road to Strahan and back is beautiful, demanding but delightful, and it really is an enlivening short-break road trip. The scenery is spectacular, as are the attractions on the way, including Nelson Falls and The Wall in the Wilderness. I can’t wait to get back and spend more time in the smaller towns in between.

Strahan itself is the ideal base from which to venture up and down the west coast. I’m told the 4WD tracks along Ocean Beach are well worth a visit and Lowanna and Letts Point are also picture-perfect spots to check out. The locals are super friendly and the whole Tassie vibe is laid back, relaxed and casual. Spend some time and get to know the people – and they’ll let you in on all the secrets of the west coast to really make your stay a special one.

Leon travelled courtesy of Tourism Tasmania.

Have you been to the west coast of Tasmania? What did you think of the drive? How was your west coast experience? Do you have any Tassie tips for our members?

Related articles:
Take three in Tasmania
Cruising a Tasmanian treasure
Ten reasons to visit Tasmania

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