Silence golden in old-world setting

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 May, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 May, 1998, 12:00am

It is the last stop before Antarctica, a pollution-free island with rolling mountains, long beaches and a lifestyle so laid back it verges on the horizontal.

Indeed, Tasmania is so quiet that many youngsters leave for the bright lights of the nearest mainland city, Melbourne, as soon as they leave school.

The island state, located off southeastern Australia, relies on farming, fishing and tourism for its income rather than heavy industry.

However, the very paucity of city-style razzle-dazzle is the reason urban dwellers head to Tasmania, a place that can guarantee solitude and natural splendour in equal measure.

Tourists can hire a car for a circuit around the island, a trip that takes at least a week.

In keeping with its old-world, English-countryside image, Tasmania has car hire firms which offer refurbished old bangers for touring.

Cars such as Morris Minors and Austin Minis, with manual gearboxes and oh-so-slow acceleration, can be rented for less than the latest gadget-laden Japanese model.

For a really fundamental driving experience, which is a little on the noisy side, Rent-A-Bug has Volkswagen Beetles for hire.

The island has been a major battleground for environmentalists, who have fought tooth and nail to stop as much as a leaf of the beautiful forests being turned over to developers or loggers.

Cradle Mountain, in the northwest of the island, has come to symbolise Tasmania's raw beauty and isolation.

Planning has been so strict that only one major hotel has been developed at the site and the builders were forced to make it blend into the surrounding forest.

It is an ideal place to spend a few days, ambling around the waters of the chilly Lake Dove or padding along the numerous wildlife trails.

Local guides know every tree, bug and animal lurking in the vicinity, including the friendly wallabies which bounce up to the lodge for tit- bits.

More hardy open-air aficionados set off from Cradle Mountain to tackle the Overland Trek, a six-day hike across the mountains.

Simple huts offer basic shelter along the way but there is no proper accommodation: all supplies and belongings have to be carried.

Hikers are jokingly warned to keep an eye open for the Tasmanian Tiger, last seen at the beginning of the century and thought to be extinct . . . but you never know.

Hiking without a comfy bed at the end of the day is not everyone's idea of a relaxing vacation. Most tourists are content with a gently taxing afternoon's trek in one of the national parks, or a long stroll along the splendid east coast beaches.

Tasmanian home-stay accommodation is plentiful in volume and warmhearted by nature. The options include country mansions which have been turned into hotels; simple homes that have an extra room to spare; and farmhouses with self-contained guest suites added to the main building.

One small hotel, near Port Arthur in the south, was once used as a holding station for newly-arrived convicts sent from Britain to its furthest-flung colonial outpost.

Few places in the modern world have such an unspoiled bucolic atmosphere and almost none is so bracingly clean. When the wind blows in Tasmania, it brings fresh ocean air from the Tasman Sea, unpolluted by factories, lingering diesel fumes or city smog.