Combining incredible nature experiences with a rich history, Maria Island is the perfect example of how Tasmania is a destination for everyone. This island off the Tasmanian East Coast is a national park but is also home to the Darlington Probation Station, one of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Australian Convict Sites.
Maria Island consists of a northern and a southern part connected to each other by a narrow isthmus. To get here from Hobart, you need to take the Tasman Highway, also called the A3, to Triabunna, some 84 km to the north-east of the Tasmanian capital. At Triabunna, you can then catch a ferry to the island. The ride takes about half an hour.
Maria Island received its present name in 1642, when the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sailed the waters around Tasmania and named the small island after the wife of Anthony van Diemen, who was the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies at the time. The Tyredemme, a band of the Oyster Bay tribe, used to visit the island regularly. Later explorers and whalers came into contact with these Aboriginal people. The French zoologist René Maugé, who was a member of Nicholas Baudin’s 1802 expedition, was buried on the island, at a place known ever since as Maugé Point.
In the early 1800s, sealers and whalers operated in these waters and on the banks of Montgomery Creek, at Whalers Cove in the southeast of the north island, you can still see the remains of a whaling station.
In 1825, a penal colony was established at Darlington on Maria Island. The first group to arrive consisted of 50 male convicts and some soldiers to guard them. The convicts were people whose crimes weren’t serious enough for them to be sent to the notorious Macquarie Harbour settlement. However, they were soon put to work on the island: felling timber, making bricks, quarrying sandstone and lime and making shoes, blankets, cloth and pottery. Their cultivation of hops may have been the first time this was done in Tasmania. The Commissariat Store was built in 1825 and the Penitentiary in around 1830 and both these buildings still stand. The Penitentiary now provides basic accommodation but you’ll need to bring your own bedding, lighting, cooking gear and food.
The penal station was closed in 1832, partly because the prisoners kept escaping, often in bark canoes or on rafts. The land was then used for activities such as sheep grazing while whaling also continued. Several whaling stations operated on the island, among them one at Darlington.
In 1842 Maria Island’s second convict era started: The Darlington Probation Station was opened that year and three years later another one was opened at Point Lesueur. Both these stations operated until 1850 with the inmates mostly doing farming work. There were some rather exotic inmates here: for example, five Maori as well as two Khoi from the Cape Colony. One notable inmate at the time was William Smith O’Brien, leader of the Young Ireland movement. He was sent to Van Diemen’s Land in 1849 for high treason and on Maria Island nobody was allowed to speak to him other than the officers. He tried to escape from the island and was sent to Port Arthur. The cottage where he lived during his time on Maria Island has been preserved.
When the probation stations were closed down, much of Maria Island was given over to agricultural leaseholdings. Whaling had ceased by then. A boom time arrived in 1884, when Diego Bernacchi, a colourful Italian entrepreneur, started silk-farming and wine-growing enterprises on the island. A school, post office, shops and other businesses followed and Darlington was even known as San Diego for a while. The Grand Hotel was built in 1888 but today only the ruins remain.
By the end of the century, Bernacchi’s businesses had failed. However, in the early 1920s National Portland Cement opened a cement works on Maria Island and a new industrial boom followed. Farming continued too but after the cement works closed in the 1830s, many people left the island.
The Maria Island National Park was proclaimed in 1972. Today the park covers the entire island as well as the surrounding coastline. There are several walking and biking tracks and camping is allowed on the island as well. However, there aren’t any shops on Maria Island, so you’ll have to bring all your own supplies.
The island is used as a refuge for several endangered Tasmanian species, from Forester kangaroos and Bennetts wallabies to pademelons and Tasmanian devils. There’s a wide variety of birds to see too and the local marine life includes whales and seals. The waters around the island provide excellent snorkelling and diving, with several shipwrecks to explore.
To visit the Maria Island National Park, you need a valid Parks Pass. You can buy this at a National Park Visitor Centre, a Tasmanian Travel Information Centre or a Service Tasmania shop, all of which have branches in Triabunna. You can also get your Parks Pass online or on board the Spirit of Tasmania ferry.