Finding Tassie on Australia's greatest boat trip

Finding Tassie on Australia's greatest boat trip

The Spirit of Tasmania ferry bridges the divide between the mainland and the island state
Spirit of Tasmania
The Spirit of Tasmania II noses into the Bass Strait for another crossing.

We all know it -- the quintessential Australian trip has to feature rough terrain, horseflies and endurance-sapping drives in the hot, arid climate. Or does it?

If you’re more inclined to relax and take in the beauty of nature, rather than striving to conquer it, we suggest you look to that overlooked stretch of ocean between mainland Australia and Tasmania -- the Bass Strait.

My journey begins by boarding the Spirit of Tasmania, one of Australia’s largest ferries, at Port Melbourne. Since its first commercial crossing in 2002, the Spirit has proved a local favorite for covering the 429 kilometers between the island state and the docks of Melbourne.

If stood on its end, the 194-meter-long Spirit would dwarf the Sydney Opera House and, sitting at scale-busting 29,000 tons, it possesses the same heft as 2.9 million slabs of beer, to use an oh-so-Aussie yardstick.

In economic terms, the Spirit’s value lies in its capacity to move not just passengers, but also animals, vehicles and freight between the two states.   

What’s equally important for the human traffic is that the 11-hour crossing allows for some catching up on that nagging book.

And remember to bring one, because between staring into the great blue abyss for long stretches and wondering what’s on the menu, there’s a lot of time to kill aboard the Spirit.

What to do

Spirit of TasmaniaJust like on a plane, except there's a little more legroom.

Books aside, the Spirit comes with plenty of entertainment options, such as a kids’ playroom, game arcade and cinema. For adults, there’s a gaming lounge and regular live music in the main bar.

The entertainment deck sports that casino-style snazzy look with flashy flooring, decorative wall paneling and plush furnishing.

Even more striking than the visual buzz of the décor is the teeth-chattering cold air-conditioning inside overcompensating for the scorching heat outside.

To defrost, I take the elevator to the top deck. By contrast, it’s hot, humid and less crowded. Drowsy and laid-back, this deck is where many choose to crash on the floor on appropriated dining-room chairs.

It has, however, the distinction of affording great, unobstructed views. Outside, I watch the approaching water turn cobalt blue, then granite black before being whipped into foam.

Stay a while?

Spirit of TasmaniaClear, blue water all the way to the sky. The view from the Spirit's stern.

The question eventually arises in my mind -- would I want to live on a ship? There’s a legend onboard about a pensioner who attempted to live on the Spirit indefinitely. The daily cabin rates proved to be more affordable than a retirement home, it goes.

Said cabins are comfortable, relatively quiet and seemingly undisturbed by the rumble and grunts of the ship’s mechanisms below. The top-end Deluxe Cabins are prized for their forward-facing view over the ocean.

The dining options, at the Leatherwood Restaurant ant the Captain’s Table snack bar, are gastronomically and economically par for the course.

When the ship finally docks at East Devonport, Tasmania, it strikes me that it’s no wonder Tasmania trails into the picture more as an afterthought whenever the map of Australia comes to mind.

The huge divide between the two land formations wedges apart any sense of association between them. It’s the boat voyage across that drives home how invaluable the Spirit’s service is in bridging this gap.

Now that I’ve braved the seas to safely reach Tasmanian shores, all that’s left is to continue on with the classic Australian trip and battle Tassie’s rugged rainforest country, the insects and the often chilly temperatures -- at least that part’s novel.

Getting onboard: One-way passenger fares change according to season, but range from approximately $127 to $547. Pets and vehicles cost extra. Reservations: +61 3 6421 7209. Website.

The twin Spirit of Tasmania I and II ships ply the route between Station Pier, Waterfront Place, Port Melbourne, Victoria and The Esplanade, East Devonport, Tasmania. Crossing times vary between 9 and 11 hours, depending on the time of departure.