The infamous convict ruins tell dark and ghostly tales, writes Lee Atkinson.
An easy day drive from Hobart, Port Arthur is one of Tasmania's most popular tourist attractions. The ruins of the convict settlement are one of Australia's most significant historical sites, added to the World Heritage list in 2010. But they are not the only things worth seeing on the Tasman Peninsula. The coastline is riddled with dramatic rock formations, extraordinary rock pillars, sea stacks and sea caves; top spots include the Tasman Blowhole, the ruins of once huge sea caves at Tasman Arch and the Devils Kitchen - a 60-metre-deep cleft in the rocks that would once have been a natural arch.
What it's known for
More than just the ruins of a jail, Port Arthur was an industrial village, complete with ship works, flour mill, timber mill, shoemakers, smithing and brick making. More than 12,500 convicts called the settlement home between 1830 and 1877, and it became known as "Hell on Earth". Later its dark history continued with the tragic shooting spree in 1996; the event is acknowledged today with memorial gardens and a site for quiet reflection.
What you didn't know ...
Most people head straight to the Port Arthur historic site, but there's another World Heritage convict site a half-hour drive away on the shores of Norfolk Bay. Port Arthur's bad boys were sent to the coal mines as punishment, where they were forced to work, and live, underground. You can no longer see the underground workings of the mines, but the houses, barracks, offices and punishment cells are still there, mostly roofless ruins. It's free to enter; more often than not, you'll be the only person there.
People have been seeing ghosts at Port Arthur since the 1870s and guides have been conducting lantern-led ghost tours of the site for many years. But for serious ghost busters the new Paranormal Investigation Experience uses specialised equipment to record and observe paranormal activity, such as full spectrum cameras. Port Arthur's guiding manager, Jake Bradshaw, says there have been some seriously spooky things captured by the equipment, including ghostly voices in otherwise empty rooms that defy logical explanation. The four-hour, late-night ghost-hunting tour (it ends at about 2am) includes a midnight supper and is held on the last Saturday night of every month. It costs $125 a person and is for over-18s only. For bookings phone 1800 659 101.
There are more than 30 buildings on the 40-hectare site, a mixture of furnished houses, atmospheric ruins and re-created gardens. Take the time to visit the Interpretation Centre in order to get a deeper understanding of the life of the convicts and join a guided walking tour for an overview of the site before exploring on your own. Buildings worth seeing include the ruined penitentiary and church, both gutted by fire in 1897, the cruciform-shaped separate prison and furnished museum houses. There's a range of ticket combinations available, starting with a two-day pass at $32 an adult, $16 for children.
Where to eat
Most restaurants inside major tourist attractions are usually pretty ordinary, but Felons licensed bistro inside the grounds of Port Arthur Historic Site is good. The menu features local produce with salmon, Tasmanian scallops, Cape Grim beef, venison and even wallaby. It's open for dinner daily, phone 1800 659 101.
Where to stay
There's a motel (portarthur-inn.com.au) on the historic site, but rooms are a bit tired and in need of a makeover. A better bet is Stewarts Bay Lodge, a 15-minute walk from the Port Arthur ruins. Riverfront cabins start at $150 and there's a restaurant on site. See stewartsbaylodge.com.au. If you'd really like to soak up the convict history, Cascades at Koonya on the northern side of the Tasman Peninsula, about a 10-minute drive from Port Arthur, was built in 1841 as a Convict Probation Station and housed up to 400 convicts. The buildings offer self-contained accommodation in the officers' quarters or luxury cottages. Doubles start at about $150. See cascadescolonial.com.au.
How to get there