When you come to Tasmania by ferry from Melbourne, Devonport will be your introduction to Australia’s island state. This city, home to about 25,000 people, is the southern terminus for the Spirit of Tasmania ferry.
Devonport lies at the mouth of the Mersey River, about 100 km northwest of Launceston and a little under 280 km from Hobart. To get here from either of Tassie’s two largest cities you simply need to drive along National Highway 1, which is also called the Midland Highway until Launceston and then becomes the Bass Highway.
If you take the Tiagarra walk along the Mersey Bluff, you’ll find evidence of the original Tommeginne-speaking inhabitants of the area. In fact, the Aboriginal rock carvings found here are among the best preserved in Tasmania. There are two shell middens too.
European settlers at first didn’t pay much attention to what would become Devonport, since a sandbar blocked the Mersey River, making it too difficult for larger ships to sail up the river. It was only in 1851 that a proper settlement was established on the Mersey’s eastern bank. However, coal was soon discovered and the new arrivals quickly followed.
By the middle of the decade there were two settlements at the mouth of the Mersey River: Formby on the western side and Torquay on the eastern side. In 1854 Torquay got a timber mill and the next year the first shipyards followed. By the end of the decade this town had roads, a police station, a magistrate, several hotels and stores. Formby across the river was tiny and sleepy by comparison.
During the next few decades, the shipping industry grew and the Bass Strait Maritime Centre now offers a fascinating, fun and hands-on insight into what it used to be like to sail these waters. The oldest building in town is the Marine Board building, which dates from 1892. In 1889 the Mersey Bluff Lighthouse with its distinctive vertical red stripe was completed. Four years earlier the railway had been extended to Formby and the result was that the little settlement quickly became the larger and more important of the twin towns. In 1891 the public voted to combine Formby and Torquay into one town, which they would call Devonport. The Victoria Bridge, constructed in 1901, joined the two sides of the new town.
Throughout the 20th century Devonport continued to grow and prosper, becoming one of the most important industrial, agricultural and transport hubs in Northern Tasmania. There are plenty of attractions too: Apart from the Bass Strait Maritime Centre, the lighthouse and the many interesting walking trails, Devonport also boasts stunning beaches and water-based activities like kayaking and fishing. The Tasmanian Arboretum is a popular spot for a walk in the woods and for seeing platypus. Home Hill, now a museum, was the home of the only Tasmanian to be Prime Minister of Australia, Joseph Lyons, and his wife, Dame Enid. Dame Enid was the first woman to be a member of the House of Representatives and the first woman to be a Federal Cabinet Minister.
An attraction not to miss, especially if you have children, is the Don River Railway with its huge collection of steam locomotives and vintage trains. Here you can go on an old-fashioned train ride along the Don River.
Devonport has no shortage of things cultural either. The Devonport Regional Gallery is the place for enjoying the visual arts but if it’s the performing arts you prefer, the best time to visit is in July, when the city hosts the annual Devonport Jazz festival.
Devonport makes a convenient base from which to explore the north coast of Tasmania and has many accommodation options for every budget.