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Act like a kangaroo to explore Tasmania

New hop-on, hop-off bus lets backpackers crisscross the island at a leisurely pace.

November 24, 2002|Lucy Izon | Special to The Times

It will be easier for backpackers and budget travelers to explore Tasmania -- Australia's only island state, which was once an isolated and notorious penal settlement -- when a hop-on, hop-off bus service starts Dec. 1.

Tasmania attracts visitors who want to explore the historical ruins of Van Diemen's Land, as it used to be called, and wilderness regions where unique wildlife evolved (such as the Tasmanian tiger, which became extinct only in 1936, and the Tasmanian devil, which has extraordinarily powerful jaws).

Don't be misled by Tasmania's size. It looks small in comparison with Australia, but it is as big as Scotland and requires more than a couple of days to visit. And the new backpacker bus service from Adventure Tours Australia, 011-61-8-8309-2277, www.adventuretours.com.au, can help travelers get around the island, especially if they have at least 10 days to spend.

The guided hop-on, hop-off bus service, which costs about $220, will link the main cities of Hobart, Devonport and Launceston with wilderness areas in the north and southwest corners of the island, including Cockle Bay (the southernmost tip of Australia) and the Arthur River (for canoeing).

There will be four departures of the 24-passenger minibuses each week, with stops at budget accommodations, activities and popular tourist sites. Passengers can get off where they choose and take up to 30 days to complete the route.

By taking the bus you can explore rain forests and rugged mountain regions, and take breaks in the cities. Hobart, the state capital, has a natural harbor so deep that it accommodates aircraft carriers. The best time to visit is Jan. 1, so you can join the party for the final celebrations of the Sydney-to-Hobart sailing race. At least 60 yachts are scheduled to set off from Sydney Harbor on Dec. 26 for the 630-nautical-mile race to Hobart.

The most popular way to reach Tasmania from Melbourne is on the 400-cabin oceangoing ferry, the Spirit of Tasmania, a 14 1/2-hour sailing. It travels four times a week (usually overnight) between Melbourne and Devonport. Student fares are available for the dormitory rooms. The ferry also can carry 300 vehicles. For details, log onto www.spiritoftasmania.com.au.

When you are back in Melbourne, you can explore the local wine region on a tour for backpackers. Backpacker Winery Tours picks up travelers in downtown Melbourne and takes them for a day of tastings to four wineries in the Yarra Valley, with lunch included, for about $44.

For details, contact 011-61- 3-9877-8333, www.backpackerwinerytours.com.au.

If Sydney is your gateway to Australia, there are two new centrally located hostels.

Wakeup! (which belongs to the world's largest privately owned backpacker accommodation chain) and Big offer budget lodgings. Both are near Sydney's central railway station.

Wakeup!, 509 Pitt St., 011-61-2-9288-7888, www.wakeup.com.au, can house more than 500 travelers in dormitory, double and hotel-style rooms. It offers a bar, a cafe, an Internet cafe and a movie-viewing room. Beds in dormitory rooms start at $14 per night; double rooms start at $44.

Big, at 211 Elizabeth St., 011-61-2-9281-6030, www.bigonelizabeth.com, is designed to combine the friendly atmosphere and inexpensive pricing of hostels with some of the comforts of a boutique hotel, such as a street-front cafe, a rooftop terrace, free Continental breakfasts and a large kitchen in which guests can prepare their meals.

The hostel provides free transportation to popular Bondi Beach.

Its 10 dormitory rooms have four to eight beds, which cost from $16.50 per person, per night. The 27 double rooms start at $65. Family rooms are also available.

*

Lucy Izon is a Toronto-based freelance travel writer and author of "Izon's Backpacker Journal."

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