Maria Island, Freycinet Peninsula: Cruising Tasmania's east coast

Just as photographers live by the light, so do seafarers give due regard to the strength and direction of the wind, the size of the swells, the rise and fall of the barometric pressure. So are their options governed, and it was with this in mind that we left Hobart with a cap of cloud over the southern city, misty rain drifting across its waterways and a slightly foreboding forecast.

Under-promise and over-deliver: the corporate mantra might well work on this adventure up Tasmania's east coast in Odalisque, a custom-built 20 metre expedition cruiser that you'll find in these waters in winter and spring or exploring Tasmania's south west in summer and autumn.

Skipper and owner Pieter van der Woude, a blue-eyed Tasmanian who was once a Flinders Island policeman and once an abalone diver, doesn't overuse words, he gives it to us straight: "it could be too rough to go outside the Tasman Peninsula; we may not even make Coles Bay." Meaning we may need to seek the shelter of Norfolk Bay, inside the Tasman Peninsula, missing its spectacular seaward coast of cliffs and capes, not to mention our ultimate destination on the Freycinet Peninsula.

We pass the Iron Pot, Tasmania's oldest lighthouse, perched on a modest piece of rock that so delights Sydney Hobart sailors as they take a final turn for Hobart. If we were turning for Norfolk Bay, we'd do it here. But we don't. We have a big enough window in the weather to see those soaring cliffs, past Cape Raoul and on past Cape Pillar, to slip between it and Tasman Island.

There are rafts of shearwaters relaxed on top of the swells and terns and gannets scooting around in the sky and dive bombing for food. There's an albatross in the distance and humpback whales, making their way south for summer. Seals and dolphins throw in some cameo appearances as we round the last of the three capes, Cape Hauy, and make for the shelter of Fortescue Bay for a late lunch on board.

Want a place to be shipwrecked? Or somewhere to sit out the southerlies? Here is an oasis of calm, like a lake in a forest, with tall blue gums growing all the way to the white sands or rolling rocks at the waterline. There's a sea eagles' nest high in the trees abeam of us, big as a king-size mattress.

After lunch, we sit out the rain in the cabin with games of Ninja Scrabble or some reading before a dinner of trout, lobster and salads. There are two chefs on board - Ashi Balasuriya, Sri Lankan by origin who now calls Tasmania home - and Courtney Drew from A'Petit in North Hobart. The food is exceptional, as are the Tasmanian wines.

First night on board and we're rolled gently to sleep in Fortescue Bay, with a couple of rocks among the rolls around 4am when a front sweeps through. The morning comes and the weather is still blowing outside the bay but there's no shortage of options - the cruise splits with some heading for a tour of the historic Port Arthur penal settlement and others staying to walk the tracks around Fortescue Bay.

I'm in the latter group and we're in the hands of Peter Marmion, an encyclopaedia of the Tasmanian bush who stops us to hear the calls of swift parrots, spots bush wrens and points out plants in every shade of green.

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Once we're all back on board, we up anchor and head out of Fortescue Bay, along the cliffy coast of the Tasman and then the Forestier Peninsula, escorted by dolphins as we pass Waterfall Bay, water tumbling over the cliffs and into the sea.

The swell has grown and somebody asks chef Balasuriya if he is OK with all that movement, "oh yes," he says, "it's no problem, it's just like riding in a third world bus. Only not as crowded."

We spend the night in Watsons Bay (the Tasmanian one, not Sydney's; the tail wind wasn't that strong) and with a calmer morning, cruise over to Maria Island, anchoring there and hopping in the tender for the short trip to its southern shores. We are alone in this part of the island and a stroll across the skinny isthmus that connects it from north to south takes us to a surf beach for a walk through something like a beachcombing poster: the toothy skull of a fur seal and seaweed of all sorts, cover for the sea lice as they clean up anything the sea sends their way.

In the time we spend at Maria, we walk the beaches, tracks to old abandoned farms and ruins of convict stations and from the boat admire its painted cliffs and ragged peaks. We see sea eagles soaring and in the bush, spot the rare forty-spotted pardalote skipping among the branches. A bandicoot shoots past here, some wallabies hop casually away over there. And the wombats - Maria has an extraordinary wombat population, so many a person new to them might mistake them for little aliens.

After a night off Maria and a morning walk, we make our way north, across the open sea towards Freycinet Peninsula, passing the extraordinary Ile des Phoques (Seal Island), with its cliffs covered in fur seals, barking and bustling about on the rocks, some of them slipping into the sea that transforms them from lumbering landlubbers to sleek swimmers.

As we approached Schouten Island, the weather, that so far on our cruise had gone from slightly stormy to overcast and breezy, finally ran out of puff. The clouds cleared, the wind died and as we anchored off Schouten, I thought I might update my preference on places to be shipwrecked. Fish and squid were darting about in the waters below, the beach nearby was a little scallop of a thing with creeks of fresh water trickling over its sand.

We celebrated the day with Deep South Brewing's draught beer on the back deck and then a dinner of fresh calamari and steak from the barbecue. On our last morning, there was a walk to be had on Freycinet and then we motored past those well-known peaks, The Hazards, and into Coles Bay to be dropped at the jetty.

This is an exceptional experience, on a boat big and well-powered enough to handle the seas, comfortable enough to enjoy the experience and manoeuvrable enough to anchor wherever it suits and accommodate the whims of the weather.

With a very accomplished crew of four, the guest party of five (it'll take as many as 10) ate well, drank well and laughed long. We saw the sea crash up against those skyscraper cliffs when there was a chance we wouldn't. There are things we didn't see that in perfect weather we might have. There are things we saw that, with perfect weather, others may never see. That's the way the wind blows.

THE DETAILS

FLY

The cruise departs at 10am, so it's necessary to overnight in Hobart. There are regular flights from most Australian capitals with Qantas, Virgin Australia and Jetstar.

CRUISE

In 2022, the five-day/four-night East Coast Expedition runs from June to December, including chef-prepared meals, Tasmanian beer and wine, shore excursions such as guided walks and a tour of Port Arthur Historic Site, a three-hour kayaking tour on Freycinet Peninsula and a land transfer from Coles Bay to Hobart or vice-versa, depending on where the cruise starts. From $6650 a person twin share.

MORE

traveller.com.au/tasmania

tasmanianboatcharters.com.au

Jim Darby was a guest of Tasmanian Boat Charters.

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