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Maria Island, TAS

Historic convict settlement off Tasmania's east coast which is popular with bushwalkers.

Few tourists go to Maria Island consequently there are no shops and the main form of accommodation is camping. This is an island which has remained largely untouched by the twenty-first century. There is a twice-daily ferry during the summer months and people make the journey to inspect the convict ruins at Darlington or to enjoy one of the many walks which the island, now a national park, offers. This is accessible Tasmanian wilderness where Cape Barren geese wander, wallabies and pademelons abound and the enthusiastic walker can get far away modern life.


Maria Island is located 86 km north-east of Hobart via the Tasman Highway. A ferry crosses from Triabunna twice daily, tel: (03) 6224 8333 for times or check https://encountermaria.com.au/timetable-pricing-luggage-check.


Origin of Name

Maria Island was named by Abel Tasman in December, 1642. Tasman had named the larger island (although he didn't know it was an island) Van Diemen's Land after Anthony Van Diemen, the Governor-in-Chief of the Dutch East India Company in Batavia. He named this small island, Maria's Eylandt, after the Governor-in-Chief's wife.


Things to See and Do

Ferry Service
The Maria Island Ferry service runs from Triabunna to Darlington on Maria Island seven days a week between December and April and four days a week for the rest of the year. It departs Darlington at 10.30 am from December to April and 11.30 for the rest of the year. For more information please contact (03) 6224 8333. Check out https://encountermaria.com.au/timetable-pricing-luggage-check to book and confirm times.

Darlington Historic Precinct
In 1825 a penal colony was established at Darlington on Maria Island. It was the second to be established in Van Diemen's Land. The aim was to ease overcrowding in Hobart Town. Fifty convicts, accompanied by a superintendent and a small party of soldiers, were sent to the island. It was a short-lived experiment. The colony was closed in 1832 and the convicts were moved to Port Arthur which had just been established. During their seven years on the island the convicts constructed a number of buildings and farmed the land. Today only the Commissariat Store and the prisoner's barracks, known as the Penitentiary, still stand. They were built of local stones and bricks. The convict station remained closed until 1842 when the number of convicts arriving in Van Diemen's Land reached a level where accommodation was urgently needed. Lieutenant-Governor Franklin arranged for the original buildings to be reopened. It was during this second period that the convict settlement expanded dramatically. A second convict station was established at Point Lesueur, over 800 convicts arrived on the island, and an extensive building program began.
This outstation only lasted for nine years. It was abandoned in 1851 and the island was handed over to a few farmers who availed themselves of the rich pastures and mild climate which were ideal for grazing sheep.
The remains of Darlington now comprise the Commissariat Store (1825) which you pass as you walk from the ferry to the complex and the Assistant Superintendant's Quarters (1849) which is on the hill beside the main complex. The main complex comprises the Penitentiary, Day Room and Chapel, Smith O'Brien's Quarters, Official and Roman Catholic's Quarters, the Convict Administration Offices, the Foreman of Works Quarters, the Coffee Palace, workshops, stores, Bakehouse and Clothing store, Sewage pond, solitary cells, Cookhouse and Bread Store, Mess Hall, and a cottage. There is a brochure available onsite. Check http://www.environment.gov.au/heritage/places/national/darlington-probation-stn. Of particular interest are the Commissariat Store, which is the oldest remaining building on the island and is made from dolerite and limestone, and the single storey Penitentiary which has twelve rooms.

The Coffee Palace
Convicts had been removed from the island in 1851 and it wasn't until 1884 that an Italian silk merchant, Angelo Guilio Diego Bernacchi, leased the entire island. The Australian Dictionary of Biography tells the story: "Bernacchi wished to introduce sericulture (the rearing of silkworms for the production of silk) to the colony and chose Maria Island, which enchanted him. In April the family moved to the former convict settlement of Darlington at the north of the island. Although many colonists were suspicious of the charming, persuasive Italian, the Maria Island Leasing Act was passed on 24 November 1884 granting Bernacchi a lease from 1 January 1885 for ten years at one shilling a year. The conditions included outlaying £10,000 and establishing sericulture and viticulture within twelve months. At the end of the first five years, if the lessee had expended £5000 he would be entitled to select 500 acres (202 ha) on the island as freehold at £1 per acre. If either industry were established by 1895, Bernacchi would be entitled to a forty-year lease at £300 per annum. He soon spent £1000 on improvements to Darlington, planting orchards and 50,000 vines from the de Castella vineyards in Victoria.

"In 1886 Bernacchi was naturalized and invited parliamentarians to inspect the island. They were welcomed with fireworks, brilliant Chinese and Venetian lanterns, and champagne banquets. The first grapes were picked in May. (Sir) Matthew Davies visited the island and was so impressed that he became Bernacchi's partner. The Maria Island Co. was floated in 1887 with a capital of £250,000 and Bernacchi as resident managing director. The company planned to establish a township and its intended interests included sericulture, wine-making, fruit-growing, farming, cement, limestone and marble, fisheries, and sheep and cattle fattening. Darlington, renamed San Diego, by 1888 was a boom town of about 250 people of a dozen nationalities. Buildings had been repaired and others erected, including a hotel and coffee palace."

Bernacchi was a dreamer who, recognising the mild climate and good soils, decided to turn Maria Island into a Mediterranean paradise. He planted 50,000 vines (one of his wines came third in the 1888 Melbourne Centennial Exhibition) and built a 30 room Grand Hotel and Coffee Palace. It is possible to inspect the Coffee Palace today. It is one of the largest buildings in the Darlington complex.


Other Attractions in the Area

Maria Island National Park
In 1972 the whole of Maria Island, an area of approximately 11,500 ha and a marine reserve of 1,878 ha, was declared a National Park. Today the island's main inhabitants include the Forester kangaroo (an introduced species), Bennets and Rufous wallaby, Cape Barren geese, pademelons, and a large number of migratory birds. Check out https://parks.tas.gov.au/explore-our-parks/maria-island-national-park.

Maria Island Walks
The Maria Island Ferry website lists eight "most popular" walks on the island. These are:

1. Tour of Darlington - about 2 hours. It is a short walk from the jetty, past the Commissariat Store to the main remains of the island's convict station. See the section above on Darlington Historic Precinct for details. There are maps at the Visitor Centre.

2. Painted Cliffs - a pleasant 2 hour return walk. Walk up the hill from the Darlington Historic Precinct and on to the Painted Cliffs which are superb examples of weathered sandstone. There are a number of unusual historic features (an historic Oast House dating from 1845) as well as opportunities to do a little bird watching. There are also fine displays of anemones and sea creatures in the pools near the Painted Cliffs. There is a very comprehensive brochure which can be downloaded at https://parks.tas.gov.au/explore-our-parks/maria-island-national-park/painted-cliffs.

3. Fossil Cliffs - a pleasant 2 hour return walk from the jetty around to Cape Boullanger and on to the Fossil Cliffs and back via Darlington Historic Precinct. It offers the walker spectacular views over 300 million year old cliffs dotted with fossils of shells, sea fans, coral-like creatures and sea lilies. There is a very comprehensive brochure with a good map which can be downloaded at https://parks.tas.gov.au/explore-our-parks/maria-island-national-park/fossil-cliffs.

4. Convict Reservoir - an easy 1-2 hour return walk which reaches beyond the Darlington Historic Precinct to inspect the reservoir (built initially by convicts some time between 1825-1832). It provides opportunities to observe the 40-spotted pardalote, birds like the scrub wren, ground thrush and grey fantail, the eastern banjo frog, wallabies and pademelons. There is a very comprehensive brochure with a good map which can be downloaded at https://parks.tas.gov.au/explore-our-parks/maria-island-national-park/the-reservoir-circuit.

5. The Bishop and Clerk Peaks - medium difficulty, 4 hour return walk. The Bishop and Clerk are dolomite columns at the northern end of the island. The route from the jetty goes via the Fossil Cliffs and Skipping Ridge. The summit is 620 metres above sea level. The top is often covered with clouds but, when clear, it is possible to enjoy superb views of Freycinet Peninsula. In season it is possible to see whales and dolphins. There is a very comprehensive brochure with a good map which can be downloaded at https://parks.tas.gov.au/explore-our-parks/maria-island-national-park/bishop-and-clerk.

6. Mount Maria - medium difficulty 8 hour return walk. This is the most challenging walk on the island. You start at sea level and Mount Maria, at 711 m, is the highest point on the island. There is a half hour of scrambling over rocks after passing through open woodlands and crossing a small creek. Mount Maria is a dolerite outcrop surrounded by scree slopes. On a clear day it is possible to see Mount Wellington behind Hobart. There is a very comprehensive brochure with a good map which can be downloaded at https://parks.tas.gov.au/explore-our-parks/maria-island-national-park/mount-maria-track.

7. French's Farm and Encampment Cove - an easy 6 hour return walk. The Parks and Wildlife Service brochure explains: "During geological history Maria Island has probably, at one time or another, been two separate islands, but today the two parts are joined by a sandy spit or bar, termed an isthmus. An overnight walk staying at either French’s Farm or Encampment Cove is the best way to enjoy the beaches of The Isthmus and gives you an opportunity to explore the ruins at Point Lesueur. The 3 hour walk to French’s Farm can be made via the inland track, which takes you through shrubby forest, or, by the coastal route." There is a very comprehensive brochure with a good map which can be downloaded at https://parks.tas.gov.au/explore-our-parks/maria-island-national-park/encampment-cove. It provides detailed information about the convict ruins at Point Lesueur.

3 and 4 Day Walks on the Island
There are also organised 3 and 4 day walks on the island. For more details check out http://www.mariaislandwalk.com.au/



* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the island was home to the Tyreddeme First Nation people for tens of thousands of years.

* The first European to sight Maria Island was Abel Tasman in December 1642. He named the island, Maria's Eylandt, after Anthony Van Diemen's wife.

* The explorer Marion de Fresne explored the island in 1771 and two years later Tobias Furneaux reached the island when he became separated from the expedition of Captain James Cook.

* The first Englishman to land on the island was Captain John Cox who arrived in 1789, anchored at Shoal Bay, and made contact with the local Aborigines.

* In 1802 the French explorer, Nicholas Baudin, spent five days investigating the island.

* As early as 1805 sealers were operating at Oyster Bay.

* James Kelly explored the island in 1816.

* The first European 'settlers' on the island were whalers and sealers who exploited the local Aborigines while killing vast numbers of the local seal population.

* In 1825 a penal colony (the second on Van Diemen's Land) was established by Governor George Arthur "for convicts who committed offences in the colony, but whose crimes were not of so flagrant a nature that they should be banished to Macquarie Harbour‟. It was also to ease pressure on the convict facilities at Hobart Town.

* In March, 1825 Governor Arthur sent 50 male convicts, accompanied by a superintendent and a small party of soldiers, to the island.

* By 1828 there were 145 convicts on the island.

* In 1831 quarrying for lime started. Sandstone was cut at Point Lesueur.

* The penal colony closed in 1832 due to the frequency of escape attempts and the establishment of a larger prison at Port Arthur.

* By 1833 George and Charles Meredith were operating a whaling station at Darlington.

* In 1834 the island was leased to Charles Seal and a Mr Goffe.

* The reputation of the island during this period was of sealers, whalers and bad smells. Lady Franklin visited in 1838 and commented "The smell of the whale blubber and the still worse smell of putridity from the sea-weed made our walk along the sands to and from the dwelling house anything but agreeable."

* The island probation station was reopened in 1842 with convict stations at Darlington and at Point Lesueur.

* By 1844 there were 627 convicts at Darlington.

* By 1847 wheat, potatoes, hops, turnips, flax and vegetables were being grown and 367 acres were under cultivation. There were also 2,300 sheep on the island.

* The convict probation stations were closed for the last time in 1851.

* Between 1851-1884 a small number of farmers arrived to take advantage of the good sheep pastures and the mild climate.

* In the 1870s Chinese abalone fishermen were using the island as a base.

* In 1884 an Italian silk merchant, Angelo Guilio Diego Bernacchi, leased the entire island to develop wine growing and sericulture (silk farming). He planted 50,000 vines and built a 30-room Grand Hotel and Coffee Palace.

* At the 1888 Melbourne Centennial Exhibition one of Bernacchi's wines came third.

* In 1888 Bernacchi renamed Darlington, San Diego. That year his 30-room Grand Hotel and Coffee Palace were opened.

* In 1892 the project failed and Bernacchi's company went into liquidation.

* By 1923 more than 150 men were employed on the island to extracting cement for the National Portland Cement Ltd.

* The cement works were opened in 1924. Like every other activity on the island, the cement works was short-lived.

* By 1930 the cement works lay silent and the farmers had, once again, quietly assumed economic pre-eminence.

* In 1968 the first ranger was appointed to the island.

* In 1972 the whole island became a National Park.

* Sheep grazing ceased in 1981.


Visitor Information

There is a Visitor Information at Maria Island Gateway, Triabunna (adjacent to the wharf), tel: (03) 6123 4040.



There is accommodation in 9 rooms with 6 bunk beds in each room in The Penitentiary. Otherwise there is camping on the island. Check out https://parks.tas.gov.au/explore-our-parks/maria-island-national-park/maria-island-penitentiary-accommodation for details or tel: (03) 6257 1420.



There is no food available on the island.


Useful Websites

There are a number of useful websites. The Maria Island National Park site - https://parks.tas.gov.au/explore-our-parks/maria-island-national-park - has information about accommodation and things to do; and http://www.mariaislandwalk.com.au/ offers a four day organised walk on the island.

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