LAUNCESTON is dominated by the Tamar River, and approaching from the north down the Tamar Highway presents a lovely sight, with grand Victorian houses nestling on hills above the banks. An approach from the south on the Southern Outlet dual-carriageway gives a slightly more accurate picture of Tasmania’s “northern capital”, however: the state’s second-largest city, with a population of around 104,000, has acquired a sheen of café society but remains in truth an oversized provincial town.
Despite being the third-oldest city in Australia, first settled in 1804, Launceston has hung on to little of its colonial Georgian architecture. What the city has in abundance is fine Victorian architecture: the city prospered as the hub of regional mineral exploration in the 1870s and 1880s, and a number of public buildings remain from the boom.
Launceston’s real attractions, though, are its natural assets. It’s situated at the confluence of the narrow North Esk and South Esk rivers, and the superb Cataract Gorge, where the South Esk has carved its way through rock to reach the Tamar River, lies only fifteen minutes’ walk from the centre. Yachts and motorboats ply the 50km of river, and the surrounding countryside of the Tamar Valley, with its wineries, strawberry farms and lavender plantations, is idyllic. Beyond the eastern suburbs, bush-covered hills fold back into the distance to Ben Lomond, a popular walking (and skiing) destination just an hour’s drive away.