The little french bulldog rolls its great eyes, a young german shepherd starts to howl, the ship shakes free of its moorings, and we're off. If you thought you had to get to the Mediterranean to go sailing, you've forgotten about our own modest sea crossing, from Melbourne to Tasmania.
Sure, you can fly to Tassie – it's just two hours from Sydney and but an hour from Melbourne to Launceston. But the luxury of time and the convenience of driving your own car obviously appeals to many, for tonight's sailing on the Spirit of Tasmania is a busy one. There holidaymakers with their fur families (hence all the hounds in the hold), caravanners with kids' car seats and those who, like us, have a few empty eskies waiting to be filled with Tassie's spectacular produce.
We set sail on the Spirit just in time for dinner, and already the message is clear: you'll never starve on this island. The ship's yet to clear Melbourne's Port Phillip Bay and already our dining table in the ship's Leatherwood restaurant is laden with smoked quail, brandied chicken pate, ocean trout all from the island state – and that's just entrees. The exploration of Tasmania's 60-plus vineyards also starts here, with a handy list of cellar doors and wines including Ghost Rock's hard-to-get, sparkling wine, the Catherine, and a cheery MacForbes Riesling, both from northern Tasmania.
Our gang of three shares a four-berth cabin: it's compact and comfortable with two sets of bunk beds, and the ship rocks gently across the Bass Strait to arrive in Devonport just on sunrise. The information booth hands out leaflets on the best breakfast cafes open at this ungodly hour, and the recommendation is for Anvers' Chocolate Factory, in nearby LaTrobe (anvers-chocolate.com.au). Bingo.
The plan is to drive from east to west along the north coast in just a few days, seeking out its hamlets and beauty spots, avoiding the (relatively) big smoke of Launceston, the Bass Strait keeping us company all the way.
I have already drawn up a shopping list for our three-day getaway, and it's embarrassingly food-oriented: raspberry jam from Christmas Hills in Elizabeth Town (raspberryfarmcafe.com), Hellyers' single malt whiskey in Burnie (hellyersroaddistillery.com.au), Tasmanian wagyu pies in Devonport (wagyupiecompany.com). There are scallop pies to be devoured, wine and cider to be drunk, berry ice-cream to be licked. Lucky I'm also sailing home: the airlines surely would charge me excess baggage on the return journey.
A word on driving in Tassie: a hundred kilometres will not take an hour: there be many corners, there be wild animals on the road, there be the cutest little beach just right for paddling, a pick-your-own berry farm or a glorious vista begging to jump onto your Instagram feed.
On the drive east of Devonport, our journey comes to a screeching halt at a crossroad on the B82, amid a cluster of Australia's top sparkling producers, including Jansz and Piper's Brook, and we celebrate our find with a glass of bubbles.
Further along, at Bridport, the diversion is a sweet little local bakery followed by a walk through the rolling sand dunes that stretch out in front of our room for the night at Barnbougle Dunes, whose golf course, The Dunes, is rated 11th in the world. We snicker at road signs warning of kangaroos and golfers, and play "what's that funny name" when passing Squeaking Point and The Dazzler Range.
Driving west of Devonport, the diversions are many and fabulous, such as the hamlet of Turners Beach, notable for its kid-friendly beach and the welcoming La Mar cafe, which packs together a dinner for our night's stay in the self-catering The Winged House.
Further on, at Penguin, we stop to admire a giant (concrete) penguin, penguins painted on shop walls and the town's rubbish bins garnished with penguin sculptures. The actual penguins are absent, although a smiling woman at Cocoon, one of Penguin's brace of remarkable homewares shops, tells me she spent the morning watching a baby whale frolic in the warm coastal waters with its mum. It's lunchtime so the order is for a couple of scallop pies from the town's bakery and, like every other time I've eaten them, I'm surprised all over again that the fat scallops are baked in a curry sauce so thick it's almost rigid. Not Thai or Indian or some exotic curry, but more like a super-yellow, English-love-it Keen's-curry-powder curry, and I just can't help but feel a little sad.
With a population of 20,000, it feels like we've hit the big smoke at Burnie, which has more than its fair share of great finds, including the best little drive-in boozer in the north, with rare and wonderful ciders galore, set beside the recently renovated Ikon Hotel, with great family-sized apartments. But if you had to make but one stop along this coast road, make it Burnie's Maker's Workshop.
The town is packed with art deco architecture thanks to a cash injection via the Australian Pulp and Paper Mill in 1938, yet the Makers' Workshop is a super-modern construct of glass and steel, built in 2009 on the waterfront. At any time, up to five "makers" will be creating anything from jewellery to baskets, paintings to glassware and I strike up a conversation with a peg dolly maker and a felt maker. The glass-fronted cafe lets you watch the working waterfront from a cosy perch. The tourist information centre is comprehensive and its gift shop, selling Tasmania's artisan wares, really is worth saving your pennies for. While the paper mill has since closed, they're still making paper here – but this time, it's from wombat poo or apple pulp and visitors can turn their hand to making it on the frequent paper-making tours. But it's not all scones and cappuccinos. There's also a monstrous, yellow Elphinstone underground loader in the foyer, a reminder that Burnie is also the home to a Caterpillar factory and the former mechanic and the state's richest man, Dean Elphinstone.
Table Cape is best known for its tulip farm, but it's out of season, and no vivid strips of flowers to be seen. From our architecturally intriguing home for the night, The Winged House, the coastline disappears into the mists, first mapped by Matthew Flinders with his surgeon friend, George Bass, in 1798. To the west is The Nut at Stanley and further on, Robbins Island and Cape Grim, said to have the world's most pure air. It's a delight to learn that the IGA supermarket at nearby Wynyard does what a franchise is supposed to do, and stocks local scallops, whole Tassie salmon fillets and the famed beef from Cape Grim.
It's invigorating here on this headland, with the Roaring Forties living up to its name. So after photographing the coastline from the island's last working lighthouse, we push on to Boat Harbour, which a Tassie friend tips as a must-visit. She's not wrong. The tiny harbour has a sunny cafe-cum-surf life-saving club, set on a sandy beach that curves sweetly into the headland, every one of the village's beach shacks has commanding water views. It's the same story at nearby Sisters Beach, where sea-changers and retirees are providing brisk business for the local tradies and real estate agents.
Despite its location on the north-west edge of Tasmania, little Stanley is terribly chic. Sure you can hike or catch the chairlift to the top of The Nut, a rough volcanic bluff but it also sports a genuinely boutique hotel, @ VDL Stanley, upmarket fish-and-chipperies, more fabulous homewares shops and cafes with a dash of city slickery.
Next time, I'm going to juggle my days better to hit the Sunday markets at Penguin and pretty Ulverstone, I'm going back to funny little Tomahawk to pitch my tent once again, and I'm going to finally hike in the Tarkine wilderness.
On the way home, a vivid super-moon lights the ship's decks and I score an upgrade to a vast deluxe cabin with a double bed, right at the very front of the ship. Instead of portholes, there are panoramic windows, just the spot to sit and write that list for the return journey.
The Spirit of Tasmania sails from Melbourne into Devonport. Children travel free between March 6 and September 13, book by February 28. Costs from $96 adults in an ocean recliner, or from $258 for two adults and two children in a four-berth cabin, one-way. See spiritoftasmania.com.au. Virgin Australia (virginaustralia.com), Jetstar (jetstar.com) and Qantas (qantas.com.au) fly from Sydney and Melbourne to Launceston. Rex Airlines flies Melbourne to Burnie (rex.com.au)
Barnbougle Dunes in Bridport costs from $190 a night. Phone (03) 6356 0094, see barnbougledunes.com.au. The Winged House at Table Cape costs from $360 a night, Table Cape. See thewingedhouse.com.au. Ikon Hotel, Burnie costs from $170 a night. Phone (03) 6432 4566, see ikonhotel.com.au.
WHILE YOU'RE THERE
Makers Workshop, Burnie, makersworkshop.com.au is a must-see.
FIVE MORE GREAT TASSIE DRIVES
Hobart to St Helens. Explore some of the island's best national parks, including Bay of Fires and Maria Island. Distance: 295km.
Convict Trail: Hobart to Port Arthur via Richmond. Discover our picturesque, yet brutal colonial history. Distance: 205km.
Cradle Country: Devonport to Cradle Mountain. Balance farmgate snacking and shopping with world-class hiking. Distance: 226km.
Due South: Hobart to Cockle Creek. Camp at Cockle Creek and take a short walk to South East Cape, the most southerly point on the island. Distance: 148km.
Wild West: Burnie to Strahan. Drive through Australia's largest rainforest, the Tarkine wilderness, via Waratah to the remote west coast. Distance: 180km.
The writer was a guest of the Spirit of Tasmania, Barnbougle Dunes and the Winged House.