A hike of wonder, down under
Tasmania's Freycinet Peninsula offers world-class walking trails and secluded beaches sure to enchant even the most modest trekker
It's not every day that check-in starts in the bush.
The tour-bus driver veers to the side of a dirt back road, opening the door. Our guide, Hugh Maguire, points to a crude trail zigzagging into a thicket of trees.
"From here, it's a lovely walk to the lodge," he says. "Let's go!"
Traipsing through rough brush and grassy patches, I silently pray that I don't step on a deadly Australian snake. Eventually, the trail falls away to reveal a desolate beach with a lonely stretch of sugar-white sand. A wallaby grazing by the dunes looks up, ears pert, and in a split second, hops away.
"Welcome to Friendly Beach," Maguire says. "It's your backyard for the next few days."
He leads us to a wooden cabin, shrouded by a fortress of greenery and steps from the beach. I can hear the surf pounding against the shoreline from the sprawling terrace. Through the sliding glass doors, a crackling fire, freshly baked banana bread and steaming drinks await.
This is our introduction to the Freycinet Experience Walk – a guided hike along Tasmania's bewitching east coast and one of the 10 Great Walks of Australia. Famed for its ancient forests, pink granite Hazard Mountains, stunning beaches and plentiful wildlife, it's no wonder that hikers flock from all over the world to traverse this scenic "bushwalking" trail.
"Freycinet is addictive," says our guide. "It should come with a warning label."
Over four days, we're trekking the entire length of the Freycinet Peninsula – more than 30 kilometres of trail connected by coves of secluded beaches, coastal forest, and the glistening Tasman Sea. The showstopper attraction for many bushwalkers, however, is the iconic Wineglass Bay, arguably Tasmania's most photographed view and consistently voted one of the world's best beaches.
But this isn't your dad's camping trip – instead of tepid tents and canned beans, we're staying in a luxurious ecolodge equipped with king-sized beds, hot showers, and a cozy library for reading books by the crackling fire in the cooler months, and supping on a smorgasbord of Tasmanian fare prepared by a private chef.
All of the Great Walks of Australia, including Freycinet, are physically demanding, sometimes scaling steep hills and briskly traversing miles of track in a single day. But you certainly don't need to be a fitness guru to make it to the trail's end, especially when accompanied by Great Walk's expert guides and much of the essential equipment (day packs, hiking poles, rain gear) is provided.
"If you can comfortably walk 10 kilometres in your active wear on a Saturday morning, you will be fine," says Gina Woodward, executive officer of Great Walks of Australia.
"You don't have to carry things or rough it – just enjoy nature," a fellow bushwalker says. "It's a warm bed and good cooking."
On our first day, a fishing boat shuttles us down the peninsula for an invigorating climb on Schouten Island. We huff and puff for an hour, scaling boulders and jagged terrain, to reach the summit of Bear Hill. Catching my breath, I'm sucker-punched by the eye candy: waters swirling with turquoise, azure and sapphire blues and endless shorelines fringed with white sand. In the distance, our little ship bobs on the water's surface, a speck in the sea.
Back on the boat, the captain has caught and cleaned a dozen flathead for our supper, now chilling in a bucket. Revving up the engine, he tells us to watch the waves.
"You might see dolphins or whales," he says. "Someone saw a great white last month."
Instead of killer sharks, we spot something much cuter: a posse of seals lazing on the rocks. The boat slows and gets closer to our furry friends, who appear so Zen that they barely budge.
Arriving back at the lodge, we're greeted with a "light snack" of Tassie wine and cheeses, hot sticky cinnamon buns, crispy sweet corn fritters with smoked trout, and a perfect platter of oysters newly plucked and shucked from the bay. It's just the beginning of the feeding frenzy, as the chef readies a fried flathead feast in the kitchen.
"Oh lord, I can smell the sea off those oysters," one hiker says, patting his belly. "And I came here to lose weight!"
The gluttonous feast sends us into a food coma for the night. I awake at dawn, just as pinkish and orange hues streak across the sky, and slip down to Friendly Beach for a solitary moment. It's deserted at this early hour, with only wallaby and wombat footprints scattered in the sand, and waves lapping the shore. It's tempting to stay all day, but I can't linger for long.
"Today is our longest day," Maguire says, as we get geared up for the hike. "We're walking 12 kilometres to Wineglass Bay."
The captain drops our gang at Bryan's Beach, where we trek across an endless string of secluded coves and pristine beaches, and eventually, onto a trail snaking into the Tasmanian forest. Along the way, Maguire tells tales about the indigenous inhabitants who long called this land home.
"Middens are strewn around the coast," Maguire says. "Burnt-out shells and other remnants from the tribes."
For at least 35,000 years, the Great Oyster Bay and Big River peoples fished, foraged and hunted in this coastal area. However, European settlement in the 1800s wreaked havoc upon them, bringing disease, ecological devastation and war that largely eradicated Tasmania's indigenous population within a few decades.
After an hour of forest-walking, the trail spills onto a windswept beach overlooking glittering waters and towering peaks. A handful of beach bums lounge on towels, soaking up the sunshine.
"We made it," Maguire says. "Next, we'll hike to the lookout, but let's eat and rest first."
After a picnic in the sand, I peel off my sweat-stained clothes, kick off my shoes and plunge into the crystal-clear waters. The chilly water bites at first, but eventually, relaxation ripples throughout my body.
It's a much-needed reboot before the final haul. Ascending the steep "OMG" staircase, a symphony of groans and gasps emanates from our gang. Someone breathlessly mutters, "This better be dang spectacular."
At last, we see it: a sweeping vista of shimmering sapphire sea, lush hills and a perfect crest of white sand, shaped like a wine glass. It's enough to take our breath away, if we had any left. I watch swarms of tourists arrive at the lookout, snap selfies and dart back onto the bus – rushing off to the next attraction.
"And we saw it from all the way down there," Maguire says proudly. "Worth the extra steps?"
My thighs are on fire and armpits drenched from the uphill battle, and despite the miles of track, I'm definitely leaving this trip a little fatter. But as I drink in Freycinet's spellbinding scenery, I can only reply, "You bet."
If you go
A member of the Star Alliance, Air New Zealand connects to most major Canadian cities and features overnight flights from Vancouver to Auckland, with a connecting flight to Melbourne or Sydney. From there, you can transit to Hobart, Tasmania, on a 60-minute (from Melbourne) or 120-minute flight (from Sydney). Bonus: Break up the trip and do a stopover in New Zealand or even the tropical Cook Islands.
Freycinet National Park is just a 2 1/2 hour scenic drive from Hobart. The Freycinet Experience Walk provides transportation to and from Freycinet and Hobart as part of the package.
What to do
The Freycinet Experience Walk runs seasonally from October to April and groups are limited to maximum of 10 hikers. Rates start at $2,400 a person and include the costs of meals, accommodation, transportation and use of some hiking gear. The best time to hike Freycinet National Park is from December to April, when there are longer daylight hours and warmer temperatures. However, some locals favour November, when it "feels fresher and the wildflowers are amazing."
Posthike, take a few days to explore Tasmania, an isolated isle and former convict colony off Australia's south coast. Almost half the island is protected wilderness and it has the cleanest air recorded on Earth, making "Tas" a wonderland for outdoor lovers. It's also trending for its bountiful locavore food scene, fuelled by the abundance of fresh air, clean water and rich soil. Nicknamed "the Apple Isle," Tasmania's rich bounty will have you feasting on everything from truffles to fresh oysters to craft beer and wines. Fill your basket at Hobart's farmers' market or take a paddock-to-plate cooking class with chef Rodney Dunn at the Agrarian Kitchen, considered one of the world's best culinary schools.
Got bushwalking fever? The Freycinet Experience Walk is one of 10 Great Walks of Australia, a collection of guided luxury hikes that offer an invigorating wilderness retreat, but without scrimping on comfort. Bushwalkers stay in lavish safari tents, ecolodges and historic homesteads, and dine on exquisite cuisine during the journey. Some retreats offer massage services or yoga on the beach.
Each Great Walk spans several days and are physically demanding, briskly traversing miles of track in a single day. But it's worth the effort, leading to some of Australia's most iconic landscapes: from spotting rare Aussie wildlife on the untamed Maria Island, to hiking the rugged Victorian coastline to the coastal pillars of the Twelve Apostles, to trekking across the Australian outback in the Northern Territory.
The best part? All of the Great Walks fuse sustainability principles into every step of the journey: From the environmentally sustainable design of the ecolodges to the removal of waste by helicopter to not using plastic wrap on lunches, it's all about minimizing the footprint of bushwalkers. Rates range from $500-$600 a day per person, and you can take your pick of walks here: greatwalksofaustralia.com.au
Where to stay
Accommodation is included in the Freycinet Experience Walk package.
The Friendly Beaches Lodge is completely off the grid, using solar power and compostable toilets; but luxurious, with king-sized beds with duvets, a well-stocked library, wood-burning fireplaces and floor-to-ceiling windows. The ecolodge is used exclusively by the walking groups.
Posthike, those seeking the pinnacle of luxury should stay at Saffire Freycinet, one of the Luxury Lodges of Australia. It features 20 opulent suites, each with sweeping views of Great Oyster Bay and the Hazards Mountains.
For a wilderness retreat, stay a few days at Peppers Cradle Mountain Lodge, located on the edge of the spectacular World Heritage-listed Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, one of Tasmania's premier wilderness regions. After all that bushwalking, the resort has a superb alpine spa that will soothe your sore muscles.
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Australia. The tourism board did not review or approve this article.