Maria Island, Tasmania

Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Photographer: Lee Mylne
Pioneering Italian entrepreneur Diego Bernacchi had a bold vision for Tasmania’s Maria Island that involved — among other things — vineyards and silk-making.

He saw that the Mediterranean climate and beauty of this small island was ideal, so in 1884 he planted 30,000 grapevines and built a fine colonial house.

Bernacchi’s fortunes were not to prosper for long, but his legacy to Maria Island and Tasmania’s tourism industry remains. Those who make the trip across Mercury Passage to Maria Island’s only settlement, Darlington, are rewarded by the chance to peel back many layers of history.

There are two ways to explore Maria Island. You can take the ferry from Triabunna on Tasmania’s east coast to Darlington (about 50 minutes) and stay in bunkhouse accommodation in the former penitentiary cells, or you can take a four-day guided walk with Maria Island Walks, which has exclusive use of Bernacchi’s house for the last night’s accommodation, as I did.

Most day-trippers confine themselves to Darlington, where there is much to see, and the short walks around it.

Darlington pre-dates Port Arthur as a convict settlement and as one of Tasmania’s most significant historic sites has been nominated for World Heritage listing.

Once home to the Tyreddeme Aboriginal people of the Oyster Bay area, in 1642 the island was named by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman.

In 1802, French explorer Nicolas Baudin charted Maria Island and it was later a popular spot for whalers.

From 1825 to 1832 the island was a penal settlement for up to 150 convicts, until it was abandoned in favour of Port Arthur. The Commissariat Store now serves as an information centre. More than 600 convicts were returned to the island from 1842 to 1850.

The entire Darlington precinct is listed on the National Heritage Register, and a walk around it brings the history to life because so much remains intact.

Among the places of interest are the Coffee Palace (1888), the penitentiary cells, a miller’s house on the hill, and the ruins of Bernacchi’s war-time cement factory.

Maria Island National Park covers 11,550 ha, including 1,878 ha of marine reserve and the 7.4 ha Ile des Phoques. It is a largely untouched island of sandy beaches, rugged coastline, mountains, forest and geology including the Painted Cliffs and the Fossil Cliffs near Darlington.

Wildlife is abundant — you are almost guaranteed to see kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, echidnas and rare Cape Barren Geese at close quarters. Little penguins nest along the coast, and walkers who head inland may even spot the endangered 40-spotted pardalotes.

There are no shops, private vehicles or houses, and the only vehicles are used by two park rangers.

Those who venture further afield can take the inland track to Hopgrounds Beach and the Painted Cliffs or continue to the 709-metre summit of Mount Maria or the more achievable — if you have a head for heights — Bishop and Clerk, with its coastline views north to the Freycinet Peninsula, from 599 metres.

At Point Lesueur, the vivid orange bricks of the early convict punishment cells are a contrast against the blue skies and golden tussock grass. At Haunted Bay, we stand on the granite cliffs which shelter nesting penguins, while sea eagles wheel overhead.

Relics of farming families remain too. At French’s Farm, a wallaby pops its head out of the bracken to greet our arrival and the abandoned house contains little except a visitors’ book! On another part of the island, the walls of Howells Cottage are papered in the daily news from 1924; the house was inhabited until the 1960s when farming was bought to a halt by the declaration of a fauna reserve for the whole island. Joseph Howells was an English convict transported for sheep stealing in 1852 and stayed on after he was pardoned, raising his family of 10 children here.

Back in Darlington, a night in the Bernacchi house beckons at the end of our third day’s hiking. Dinner is served around the 1850s dining table, and the house is warmed by roaring fires. There’s candelabra, a decanter of port, historic photos, antiques, and even a piano.

From the verandah, you can gaze through the macrocarpa trees planted when Bernacchi first arrived, across to the waters of Darlington Bay — and it’s easy to see why he fell in love with it.

For more information or to book campsites and the penitentary, contact the Parks and Wildlife Service on Maria Island on (03) 6257 1420, or visit

Maria Island Walk four-day guided trips leave Hobart three times a week from November to April. For more information visit