Esk-ceptional Launceston

Lee Atkinson
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Pack your walking shoes if you're heading to Launceston, Tasmania's second largest city and the third oldest city in Australia (after Sydney and Hobart). Situated 50 kilometres from the north coast at the junction of the North Esk, South Esk and Tamar rivers, its mix of Victorian and Georgian architecture and abundance of riverside parks and gardens make it one of the country's prettiest cities … and one of the most foot-friendly.

Most of the attractions, accommodation and nightlife are within a four or five-block radius of the city centre, including the city's star attraction Cataract Gorge. Ten minutes walk from the city centre, this Victorian-era park is a piece of wilderness in the heart of the city. The spectacular gorge extends from the mouth of the South Esk River at King's Bridge and winds its way up the river to the Trevallyn hydroelectric dam five kilometres upstream. The reserve is popular with walkers, river rafters, rock climbers and abseilers. The chairlift crossing the gorge is the longest single-span lift in the world and there is a restaurant and a kiosk in the grounds. On the southern side of the basin is a 50-metre swimming pool that includes a full-length wading pool for young children.

From Cataract Gorge you can follow the river via Kings Park, Royal Park and Old Launceston Seaport. Along the way, jump aboard a river cruiser at Home Point or drop into Ritchie's Mill and browse the provedore or treat yourself to the best lunch in town at Stillwater River Café. During the day this elegant restaurant in the restored riverside mill has a casual café atmosphere, with extensive outdoor dining overlooking the Tamar River and the basin yachts. At night, it's fine dining with Australian cuisine with a strong Asian influence and plenty of fresh Tasmanian seafood. Each dish is matched with the best local wine.

Cross the river to the Inveresk Cultural Precinct, where you'll find the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, the largest museum and art gallery in Australia located outside a capital city. The Museum is located on two sites, the original purpose-built building in Royal Park and the Inveresk site, once the Launceston Railway Workshops. These once-derelict railway workshops have been transformed into an innovative industrial museum with art galleries housing Australian colonial art, contemporary craft and design, a blacksmith's shop, railways and migration exhibitions and more.

Back on the other side of the river, City Park, the largest and most impressive of Launceston's many beautiful parks and gardens, was developed in the 1820s by Australia's first horticultural society. The park's 13 hectares feature fine Victorian gardens, a troop of Japanese macaques at Monkey Island, a giant chess board, a bandstand and a beautiful conservatory full of exotic hothouse plants. At the park's entrance, the Design Centre of Tasmania showcases the best of Tasmanian timber design and craftsmanship, with changing exhibitions of everything from furniture to sculpture in a specially-designed gallery space. The well-stocked shop selling Tasmanian-made art and furniture is a great place to pick up a high-quality, original souvenir.

Opposite the park, the National Automobile Museum of Tasmania is a must for car enthusiasts, housing an $8 million collection of cars and motorbikes from across the motoring era. Vehicles on show when the museum opened included an 1960s E-type Jaguar, three 1995 Ducati 916 motorbikes, a Lamborghini Urraco Ferrari 308 GTB, a Maserati Merak, a Stutz 8 limousine, a Model T Ford van, a 1949 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith, a 1928 20-HP Rolls Royce, a 1946 Packard Clipper and a 1961 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow.

Other attractions include Penny Royal World, a theme park offering a variety of 19th-century activities, including a reconstructed 19th-century mill with a 16.5-metre windmill, a fort, a gunpowder mill, a paddle steamer and a cannon foundry.

You can visit a real mill, the Waverley Woollen Mills, on the edge of town. Established in 1874, this is Australia's oldest woollen mill. It also has a hydroelectric generating plant which dates back to 1889 and which the company claims to be the oldest in the southern hemisphere. Conducted tours of the mill are available and you can buy woollen garments at the mill's showroom.

Beer lovers can take a guided tour of the Boag's Brewery, which has been brewing on the banks of the Esk River since 1883. The tour takes in all the processes that produce the amber liquid and includes a free tasting at the end of the visit.

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