There are some places in the world where you can go to escape the trappings of modern life. Maria Island is one of those places. This island is off the east coast of Tasmania. 17 km off the coast in fact, but it can be seen in full glory from Orford. Orford is my little piece of the world now. We look out at this paradise every day, watching as its own weather system ebbs and flows. And, until now, we had never been to the island.
A Little About Maria Island
Maria Island is a place with a varied history, from convict to capitalism, but don’t be put off by that capitalism comment. That’s why it’s history – it failed miserably. It was if the island spoke back to say, ‘I won’t be exploited’.
There is raw, natural beauty in abundance here. It is a National Park, which means it’s managed by the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife. They’ve done a remarkable job in preserving the history and making it accessible to visitors, yet keeping the natural world, well, natural.
You cannot drive to Maria Island. The only way to get to the island is by boat or ferry (more on that later), although there is an airstrip, so private planes or tour flights can land. There are some vehicles on the island, but they are Parks and Wildlife Staff vehicles, to manage the island. (I’m still trying to work out how they get the vehicles to the island – maybe flown in?)
There are also no shops on Maria Island. That includes no cafés for coffee (gasp!). No gift shops. No supermarkets or quick markets, in case you forgot to pack something. There’s limited electricity and limited cell connection. It’s remote and it feels that way. Which is the point. It’s the place to escape life for a while. Get back to nature and the simple things in life.
Before I continue on, I feel the need to educate you on how this beautiful place is pronounced. Maria Island is not pronounced like the girl’s name from the Sound of Music. Rather, it’s of Dutch origin. So it’s pronounced like it should be spelled Mariah, you know, like that pop singer with the awful screeching-sounding voice.
Now you know that little nugget, let me give you some information to make your visit amazing.
How to get to Maria Island
Many who travel to Tasmania either have their own car, or rent a car when they come to Tasmania, so I’m writing this with that in mind.
To get to Maria Island you must first drive to Triabunna on the East Coast, then catch the ferry over to the island. There is free parking at the marina, but be aware of the 3-hour spaces. There’s plenty of longer term spaces and it is safe to leave your car overnight (or a few nights) here.
The ferry takes 45-minutes through Spring Bay, past the salmon farm and Spring Bay Mill, through to the open passage from Spring Bay to the Tasman, then onwards to the island. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a whale (in season), or possibly a seal or dolphin.
Getting to Maria Island is not cheap, I’m not going to lie. Personally I feel it’s an outrageous, exploitive amount of money. But, if you spend the night on the island, it’s a little easier to swallow.
It’s $45 return for the ferry for adults. Click here for more.
Note: You do need a Parks Pass to visit Maria Island. You can buy one at check-in in Triabunna at the Parks and Wildlife Office, or when you book your ferry. If you already have an annual pass, you simply need to show proof at check-in. A confirmation emails works, if you bought your pass online, or the card they send works fine too.
From the jetty, Darlington is about a kilometre walk. So how do you get all of your stuff to either the penitentiary or the campsite? There are luggage carts you can use from the ferry to transport it. They are handy if staying multiple days. They are free to use. You just need to return them after you unload.
You can stay on the island. (To book, go here.) The maximum stay is seven days. There are two options: Stay in the penitentiary or camp at one of the designated campsites.
Staying in the penitentiary is a unique experience.
These rooms are where the convicts were housed in the 1800’s. The rooms are large, hold up to six people, with three bunk beds with cushy mattresses lining one wall. You do need to bring your own sleeping bag (or similar) and a pillow (if you require one). In the middle of the room is a picnic table and on the other walls, are shelves for storing bags etc. But best of all, there’s a potbelly stove in the centre of this wall which, given how cold it can be in Tasmania, even in summer, the heat is welcomed.
There is a laundry where you can hang wet clothes at Darlington. When we arrived, people were using the laundry to air out their wet tents before packing them up, as it had rained the night before. For the most part though, the laundry is primarily used to store luggage before and after check-in (which is the usual 10 am check-out, 2 pm check-in).
Alternatively, there are three campsites: Darlington, Frenchs Farm and Encampment Cove.
Camping fees are only required for the Darlington campsite (but remember, you still need a Parks Pass to be on the island). The campsites (at Darlington) are spacious and there are picnic tables available. You can have a campfire in the fireplaces provided at Darlington and Encampment Cove, just not when there is fire ban. (Check the Parks site to check this before going to Maria Island.) Frenchs Farm is fuel stove only.
Firewood is provided for both the penitentiary pot belly stoves and the camping areas. If you need more wood, more is available at the entrance to the camping area. There’s even an ax available to make your own kindling from the provided wood because gathering your own is prohibited (it is a National Park after all).
Mess Hall / Camp Kitchen
This was the surprising part for us. We weren’t expecting what we found in the Mess Hall.
Firstly, there’s electricity in the Mess Hall. There are a limited number of outlets for charging devices. And, there are industrial stoves for cooking. There are limited pots and pans provided, along with kettles to boil water. (Which you will need to do if you are sensitive to untreated water, as there’s no treated water on the island). We took our jetboil camp stove because we didn’t think there’d be an opportunity to boil water otherwise.
These cooking facilities were not listed in any of the information we found online.
Also in the mess hall are huge tables for eating, another potbelly stove to keep the place warm in cold weather, and a ping pong table (although you’ll need to bring your own ping pong ball and paddles). Lining the walls, and at one end of the Mess Hall, are displays of what you can find at Maria Island, which we found very informative.
At the Darlington Campsite, the Camp Kitchen is new (as of publication, Nov 2020) and it’s one of the loveliest camp kitchens I’ve ever seen. There is a fireplace in the middle of the large enclosure and on both ends, huge gas barbecues, washing up facilities, and lockers. I’ve never seen lockers at campgrounds and found this to be a really useful addition. Because, when you’re out hiking, who wants to carry all the valuable stuff that you don’t need?!
There are limited toilets on the island – one is located at the Jetty, one at Darlington, then two much further south at Frenchs Farm and Encampment Cove. The main one is in Darlington.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are going for any walks, use the toilets before you head out. Ladies, but if you need to go in the bush, please remember to bury waste 15-20cm deep or carry it out. I always carry toilet paper, doggie bags and sanitiser when hiking. Please consider doing the same.
Easy Walks Around Maria Island
This is where Maria Island shines. The walks are diverse and there’s something for everyone, no matter what your fitness level.
Darlington is a lovely place to explore. It’s a kilometre from the ferry, but it’s generally flat and the road is smooth gravel. You pass the Darlington Bay Beach, the Information Centre, go over Bernacchi’s Creek, then arrive at the township of Darlington. I say township as it would have been bustling back in the day.
Darlington is a cluster of fascinating old convict buildings. If staying in the penitentiary, this is where you are based. This is also where you find the Parks office, the Mess Hall, the Coffee Palace (it’s a museum, don’t be fooled), and the Chapel.
From here, you can walk up the hill to Mrs Hunts Cottage, which provides beautiful views of Darlington, Darlington Bay Beach, and has a fantastic porch to sit on to watch the wombats and kangaroos graze in the surrounding grasslands.
Painted Cliffs is a must see, but only at low tide.
When you check in at Triabunna, ask when low tide is for the Painted Cliffs. It’s a lovely 4.3 km return walk from Darlington to the Painted Cliffs. Make it a circuit, with a return to Darlington through the bush to see Oust House (a hop kiln used for drying hops). Oust House on Maria Island is one of the oldest oust houses in Australia dating from 1844-1845. There’s no signage at Oust House, but you can see the remnants of the building. Besides, the walk through the bush is lovely.
To get to the Painted Cliffs from Darlington, you go past the Parks Office, past Mrs Hunt’s Cottage on the hill (worth a look inside too!), around Magistrates Point, then down to Hopground Beach where the Painted Cliffs are at the very end.
The rock pools here are lovely to explore, but the ‘money shot’ are definitely the cliffs. But note, they can ONLY be viewed at low tide.
Hopground Beach on Maria Island is beautiful too. A nice spot to dip into the water, and prime for snorkeling!
Fossil Cliffs Circuit
A longer, but still easy walk, is the Fossil Cliffs Circuit. I will warn you, there are some steeper hills here, and unfenced cliff faces on this circuit. But the views!! They are amazing.
To find this trail behind Darlington, walk past the Parks Office, turn left and walk along the back of penitentiary building. Again, it’s a nice trail all around the circuit, taking you past the Twelve Apostles (what were convict-built cottages) the Engine House and Brick and Lime Kilns (worth a look), then through the grassy Brickfields Valley, up the hill to where you come to the spectacular Fossil Bay. Getting here, you’ve just walked across the tip of Maria Island.
If it’s whale season, take a moment. You may see some whales breaching. We saw four on our visit.
Bishop and Clerk is to your right. That’s an expert walk for the eager. (More later). But if you want spectacular views, go to the top of the first grassy section of this trail (see the above photo for the types of views you’ll get). You can see over to Freycinet and Coles Bay from here. But fair warning: that hill isn’t for those with young ones or a heart condition.
Continuing on the Fossil Trail Circuit: Turn left up and hike the hill (there is a bench halfway up), and you’ll find more stunning views. I think these are just as good as the ones you’ll find at Freycinet, to be honest. When you descend the hill, you’ll find the trail going down to the Fossil Quarry and along the Fossil platform. If you go down to the platform, read the sign, there’s a love letter worth a read. Explore the rocks and you’ll understand why the 20 million-year-old fossils are worthy of the protection.
Following the trail, you’ll pass the airstrip, and probably find a bunch of kangaroos hanging out near the tree line, to your left. The cemetery is worth a look, as is the Millers Cottage. The Convict Barn is okay, but a big smelly from the wildlife using it as a refuge.
Further along, you’ll find the remnants of the Grand Hotel (remember that commercial failure I talked about?) as well as the Religious Instructors House, which looks over the bay and Darlington, with some grand views. You can get a sense of what life was like back then in this spot.
More challenging walks around Maria Island
Bishop and Clerk
For the eager, this is a great 12 km return walk, taking you up 599 m.
Note: For this walk, and all of the longer walks, you must register your walk at the Ranger’s station in Darlington. If the office is closed closed, the box is outside the door to the right.
The Bishop and Clerk trail takes you up to the ridge line, with breathtaking views from the top. I’ll be honest here and say we stopped at the scree scramble. We got as far as the base with about 100 m to go, but the rocks were too precarious, and we were already tired from overdoing it two days before. I didn’t feel confident enough to navigate the extensive field of boulders. Up, but more so, coming down.
Having said that, it’s a gorgeous bush walk to there. It’s strenuous at times. I recommend walking poles if you have sketchy knees.
You start the walk at that steep grassy hill I mentioned, then walk through a lush piney forest, up through a trail of Tasmanian Daisy Bush, then a narrower, steeper trail, that takes you to that scree. As you walk through the daisy bush area, the views out to the sea are beautiful.
As we descended, the cliché saying came to mind: It’s not about the destination, but the journey. Because the bush walk alone was worthwhile.
LOCAL TIP: For similar views than what you would see from the top of Bishop and Clerk (I’ve seen photos of the views), you can see them from Thumbs Lookout, behind Orford. So, if you don’t make it, make a stop into Orford on your way home.
It’s important to note, you need to be prepared for all weather conditions on this walk. The weather can change in minutes. Maria Island has it’s on ecosystem.
Mount Maria is another expert walk. I wouldn’t do both on one overnight trip. Pick one. I haven’t done this walk (yet) so I won’t comment on it.
There you have it. I hope that info is helpful to you, in planning your trip to Maria Island. I’d love to hear about your own experience!
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