Tasmania’s most famous convict settlement combines an idyllic coastal setting with a brutal history.
Between 1830 and 1877, about 12,500 convicts served sentences at what is now the World Heritage-listed Port Arthur Historic Site.
More than 30 buildings and ruins dot the Tasman Peninsula site, ranging from a large penitentiary, which was originally constructed as a flour mill, to a roofless church built by convicts. Sombre scenes such as the much-feared isolation cells of the Separate Prison are contrasted by the neat homes and gardens of the settlement of soldiers and free settlers that arose around the prison.
“One of the most common reviews we get is, what a beautiful place for somewhere that has such horrible history,” says Meahd Farnaby, who has been a guide at the site for more than a decade. “You’ve got acres of manicured gardens and these big beautiful buildings, and then you start going down those layers of realising that someone had to haul those logs and cut that stone and move it. For a long time, it was all manpower – there was no bullock help, it was all done by the men. That was part of their punishment.”
Wander the 40-hectare landscaped grounds and join one of the tours to gain full appreciation of this pivotal place in Tasmanian history. Tickets to the historic site allow entry for two consecutive days, and include an introductory walking tour and a 20min harbour cruise. The cruise offers glimpses of the Isle of the Dead and Point Puer, where more than 3000 boys were imprisoned in Britain’s first purpose-built prison for children.
- Tour the Isle of the Dead.
- Mingle with Port Arthur’s ghosts on an after-dark tour.
- Peer through the dark tunnel of Remarkable Cave to the sea.
Port Arthur is a 90min drive (95km) south-east of Hobart.
Things to do
Isle of the Dead Cemetery Tour
More than 1000 convicts, soldiers and free settlers were buried on a tiny island one kilometre off the Port Arthur coast – the latter in marked graves on the island’s higher end, the former in unmarked graves on the lower ground. Guided tours of the island recount the stories of those who rest beneath, from the children of free settlers to the convict forger who became Australia’s first novelist.
This 90min walking tour incorporates Port Arthur’s most significant buildings, such as the Penitentiary, Separate Prison and Convict Church, providing insights into the structures and history, much as the prison commandant did for visiting dignitaries in the 19th century.
Escape from Port Arthur Tour
Port Arthur was deliberately positioned to prevent convicts from escaping – surrounded by wild sea, with only the narrow Teralina / Eaglehawk Neck isthmus that needed be guarded against land escape. This hour-long tour dips into the tales of those who tried to break out, and the extreme measures they took to do so.
Things get spooky after dark at Port Arthur – it’s been called Australia’s most haunted place – and this 90min lantern-lit evening tour journeys through some of the historic site’s most infamous buildings and ruins, digging up chilling tales of convict times and paranormal activity.
Find different sorts of spirits on the slopes of Mount Arthur, high above Port Arthur. One of Australia’s southernmost distilleries, McHenry Distillery crafts fine whisky, gin and vodka. Enjoy a tasting paddle of gins or whiskies on the outdoor deck, or sign up for a distilling workshop to blend botanicals into your own personal bottle of gin.
Remarkable by name, remarkable by nature, this ocean-carved tunnel at Port Arthur’s edge provides a dark eye onto the sea. Descend the 115 steps to the lookout platform at the foot of sandstone cliffs, where the view is through the tunnel to its opening into the Southern Ocean.