As the disembarkation point for the Spirit of Tasmania ferry service, there’s a tendency for visitors to rush through Devonport and head for the hills and hamlets of Tasmania’s stunning north.
However, those who choose to stick around and explore the island’s third largest city will be richly rewarded with an array of cultural and historical experiences. Butting up against Bass Strait, Devonport has a rich maritime backstory to dive into and plenty of opportunities for a recreational splash. You’ll also discover a vibrant local cultural scene and more than a few surprises in this welcoming regional hub.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Devonport.
Tasmania’s cultural credentials are extensive and many visitors will have the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart at the top of their holiday to-do list. Mona’s meteoric rise to fame has also raised the profile of satellite cultural facilities like the Devonport Regional Gallery. Located in the Paranaple Arts Centre in Rooke Street (along with the spic-and-span Devonport Visitor Information Centre), the gallery’s collection focusses on contemporary northern Tasmanian arts, crafts, and design. Don’t miss seeing the Robinson Collection of photographs — a cache of images taken by two local photographers over the course of five decades of the 20th century. It’s a unique look back at northern life.
With its relatively shallow depth and strong opposing currents, Bass Strait has long had a reputation as one of the country’s most treacherous stretches of water. Learn the history of some of the disastrous moments for 19th and early 20th century mariners at the Bass Strait Maritime Centre, which is housed in the former Harbour Master’s residence and extension — just a stone’s throw from the mouth of the Mersey River. The collection is beautifully presented and encompasses various model ships, a shipping simulator, and an array of historical artefacts.
It wasn’t just the tumultuous Strait that pioneering seafarers had to contend with; depending on the conditions, navigating Tasmania’s northern coastline was often no mean feat. The Mersey Bluff Lighthouse was constructed in 1890 to guide ships to the mouth of the Mersey. Its distinctive red and white stripes (a later addition) give it an almost fairground feel and make it an irresistible photo opportunity on a clear day. The lighthouse is located about 20 minutes’ walk from the Bass Strait Maritime Centre along the idyllic Bluff Road Coastal Reserve, and is not open to the public. Rug up in the cooler months; it’s super blowy out on that headland!
Only one Tasmanian has held Australia’s top job. Joseph Lyons served as the country’s 10th PM from 1932 to 1939, and died from a heart attack while in office. Home Hill — the Lyons family’s modest Devonport home — is located south of the city centre and is managed by the National Trust. It’s open to the public for small guided tours on selected days, so bone fide history buffs will want to book this well in advance. The house was built in 1916, and Lyons’ wife Dame Enid, the first woman elected to federal parliament, lived there for the rest of her life. It’s a fascinating time capsule and one that comes to life for visitors thanks to the Trust’s knowledgeable volunteer guides.
Anyone travelling with established or budding train spotters will love a visit to Devonport’s Don River Railway. While Tasmania no longer has any commercial passenger rail services (they ended completely in the 1970s following decades of decline), the island’s rail heritage is far from forgotten. Don River Railway is a labour of love for volunteers and home to a collection of fully restored locomotives and rolling stock from the past. One of the highlights of a visit here is a ride on the tourist rail service that runs alongside the Don River and through pristine bushland to Coles Beach seven days a week, every hour from 10am to 4pm (check the website for operational updates prior to your visit). The return trip is short and sweet at just 30 minutes.
Created from the island’s snowmelt waters, Tassie’s acclaimed whiskeys, gins and vodkas strut their stuff on the world stage. However, it may come as a surprise to learn that distilling liquor was actually illegal in the state right up until the 1990s! If you’re partial to a distilled drop, you’ll want to check out Southern Wild Distillery in the heart of Devonport. Book a ‘Ginterlude’, which includes a tour of the distillery, the chance to try their Dasher & Fisher range of gins (named after the rivers that provide the aforementioned waters) and a regional grazing platter. Local growers supply the various botanicals used in the distilling process.
Southern Wild Distillery is located in the Providore Place food and events pavilion on Oldaker Street, which also houses a number of eateries and a cocktail bar. There’s bound to be a dining option here to suit your taste. Special events like the monthly night market bring street food vendors, fresh produce/arts-and-craft stall holders and live entertainers together under the one all-weather roof. Refer to the Facebook page for dates and details.
Little penguins brave the big waters of Bass Strait for days on end before returning to their rookeries along the Victorian and Tasmanian coastlines. There are plenty of opportunities to see them in Tassie, including at Lillico Beach — just a short ten-minute drive west of Devonport. A purpose-built viewing platform provides a good view of the rookery, while ensuring the safety of the penguins and their chicks (avoid using flash photography as it can stun the birds and cause them to desert their nests). The platform is manned by Parks and Wildlife Service rangers and volunteers during summer and the breeding season.
First planted in 1986, the Tasmanian Arboretum at Eugenana (15 minutes’ drive south of the city) has a wonderfully established feel and is well worth a wander. Babbling waterways, shady groves, seasonal coloured foliage, winding walking trails and recreational lawns all work together to create a tranquil retreat from the outside world. The arboretum is home to an array of Tasmanian woody trees, conifers, and other native and exotic species, along with an estimated 80 bird species. You also have an excellent chance of spotting the notoriously shy platypus (just look for those tell-tale streams of bubbles rising to the water’s surface).
From the Arboretum, it’s just a ten-minute drive east to lovely La Villa Wines at Spreyton, but you’ll feel like you’ve been transported the odd 16,000 kilometres to Tuscany, Italy! Surrounded by plantings of pinot noir, pinot gris, chardonnay and nebbiolo vines, along with bountiful apple and pear orchards, the winery and cellar door has all the terracotta-coloured charm of a Tuscan villa (complete with a bell tower) and the wine styles draw on the owners’ experiences living and working in Italy and France. Check the website for cellar door opening times before you visit.
For more information, visit www.visitdevonport.com.au.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Devonport? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image: Tourism Australia/Graham Freeman. Additional images: Bigstock
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.