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Lush Tasmania Is Australia's Counterpoint

After the hot, dry red of Australia's center, Tasmania is like a tall glass of cool water.

From Cradle Mountain's silent, jagged peaks to Freycinet National Park's contemplative beaches, Australia's island of Tasmania feels like a different, more restful country than the mainland.

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The only thing not restful is deciding whether to orient a visit around history or nature. The island has plenty of both, but to explore either takes time.

My focus was nature, and I had one week to see the island. Starting from Launceston, Tasmania's second-largest city, I picked up a rental car at the airport and traveled around the island in a roughly counterclockwise circle.

Day 1: Launceston. The choice here is between the Penny Royal Powder Mill (a Disneyland-like renovated mill and gunpowder factory) and the Cataract Gorge that's right behind it. I chose the gorge. Entering it is like turning a corner in an English village and finding Colorado. A river runs through a narrow, rock-ribbed canyon that you can hike around or cross in an aerial tram.

Devonport. Tourists gather at dusk in bleachers here to see small fairy penguins make their nightly dash from the ocean to burrows in the sand. This particular night must have been too bright, because we spotted only one confused loner who made the scramble when it was nearly dark.

Day 2: Keen to get to the famed Cradle Mountain early to do some hiking, I almost skipped the town of Sheffield. But it's quite a sight: The whole town is filled with murals! In 1968, Sheffield decided to honor its pioneer ancestors by painting their likenesses on the sides of old buildings. Now it's called the ''Town of Murals.''

Cradle Mountain. The dolomite-capped peaks of Cradle Mountain jut from hilly terrain. From a distance, the mountain looks like a crown. It's only when you're up close and surrounded by the peaks that the resemblance to a cradle emerges.

While many visitors climb Cradle Mountain, I opted for a day hike. Dove Lake, at the base, is a favorite spot to take photographs of the mountain's reflection.

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The Cradle Mountain Lodge provides perfectly fine lodging right at the base of the mountain, but I chose the more intimate Lemonthyme Lodge about 45 minutes away. Both places turn on spotlights after dark and put out fruit to attract padymelons (a type of small kangaroo), wombats, and possums. Some of the animals climb right up on the verandah.

Day 3: Strahan. Across to the west is this former fishing village, the gateway to the Franklin and Gordon Rivers. Now World Heritage-listed, the Franklin River was almost dammed in 1982, but was saved as a result of a determined blockade by environmentalists.

The town is rapidly losing its rough-hewn character since a developer started buying up the place. Locals say he's killing the town's identity. Fishing boats, for example, are finding it harder to secure wharf space because of the new large tourist boats.

The gussied-up Franklin Manor is a trendy place to stay, but the Strahan Motor Inn's restaurant overlooks a placid bay. While waiting for dinner, patrons can sit in the lounge and, as the sunset fades, watch fishermen unload boxes of pink ling (a fish) into a truck.

Another way to see the area is by air: The scenic flights circle over the sea, rivers, inlets, mountains, and islands.

Queenstown. Because logging, fishing, and mining are the main occupations here, environmentalist thought is not appreciated - so keep it to yourself. That's evident in this town that, unlike others, hasn't scrubbed itself up to attract tourists. The hillsides, denuded of trees, are an odd tawny color, thanks to acid runoff from a copper mine. While Australian law requires mining companies to restore the areas when mines are closed, the town council here voted not to replant trees after one mine's closure: If they replanted, the tourists wouldn't come to see the uniquely colored hillsides.

The restored colonial village of Hamilton was worth a brief visit. Of interest here are the Cascade Hotel and the little sandstone cottages with women's names, old timber doors, and lace curtains.

Day 4: Hobart (the capital). It's ideal to arrive on a Saturday to see the famous outdoor Salamanca Markets. Noteworthy, too, is the Tasmanian Art Gallery and Museum, which has exhibits on the lives of women convicts in the Female Factories - something the real convict destination, Port Arthur, doesn't have. A drive to the top of Mt. Wellington, right in town, caps off the day with a look at the city and the water.

Day 5: Port Arthur. The primary tourist attraction of Tasmania, the ruins of a 19th-century prison, is a 90-minute drive from Hobart. Two good stops along the way are the historic town of Richmond, with its old prison, and the Tasmanian Devil Center.

Port Arthur, the prison where thousands of criminals were transported from England, is at the end of a long isthmus. It's hard to imagine that this now-bucolic place was once filled with misery. Large trees shade the elegant ruins of a church. The brick ruins that dot a green, sloping hillside seem quite tame. But inside the ruins, educational videos tell of cruel floggings and solitary confinement.

Day 6: Freycinet National Park. I did a half-day walk around the gorgeous Wineglass Bay (the most beautiful beach I've seen), through marshes, and up hills. It was a lovely end to a week's quick view of this cool green island.

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