Best things to do in northern Tasmania with a family

Flying down rainforest tracks on mountain bikes at a million miles an hour, tearing through turn-of-the-century mining tunnels sans lights, or reveling in the quiet moments of picnics by a babbling brook and lazy nights by a log fire – northern Tasmania’s rich experiences can’t help but bond busy families together.

From scenery that blows your mind and food memories from the source to navigating world-famous biking trails in the wilderness, these quirky shared experiences make for an “at the moment” holiday to remember where requests for more screen time are easily forgotten.

Mountain highs

We fly from Sydney to Launceston and head straight to the local bike shop, Roll Cycles, for a fitting with the team from Blue Derby Pods Ride. Mountain biking is a serious affair here, after the nearby town of Derby was transformed from a derelict former tin mining town to the epicenter of world-class trails in 2015. The bike shop is bustling, and a map covering one wall demonstrates the breadth of trails constructed around its heart. A labyrinth traversing more than 100km and around 35 circuits caters to beginners such as me, with green trails for easy scenic riding, to the black diamond runs for extreme sports devotees. With names like Rusty Krusty, Ferns and Berms, Axehead, and Turbo Chook, each tells the history of the town and whets my kids’ appetites in adventurous anticipation.

Derby is a little over an hour’s drive from Launceston, winding through a patchwork of wineries, such as Clover Hill and Jantz, and the fields of crops and hops that dominate Tasmania’s food bowl. The network of free trails has changed the face of tourism in northern Tasmania, attracting professional riders and families alike. It’s not hard to navigate: a one-street affair furnished with quaint old mining cottages. “A little like a ski town,” says Steve Howell, our host, and co-owner of the Blue Derby Pods Ride. “A lot of people ride in and ride out from their accommodation.” The trails unfurl from a central point, alongside an excellent pump track that has my son all agog. The paths themselves are free, as is camping along the banks of the Ringarooma River. However, for novices like us, an experienced guide is essential to navigating the twists and turns to come.

Steve and Tara Howell opened the Blue Derby Pods Ride in 2017. It’s the only accommodation in the heart of the trail network, with four luxe eco-pods nestled in a secret location not even locals can find. The architecture is sympathetic to the surroundings and designed to leave no trace. Each modern pod sleeps two, with generous meals served in the central hub. The food is exceptional (made with top-quality local produce and artisanal charcuterie and cheese) and when the team meets us on the smooth polished stones of the churning Cascade riverbank with a picnic spread (and malted choc brownies) mid-ride, it’s just the pick-me-up we need.

It’s exhilarating and challenging. The kids love to test themselves and bubble over with excitement after exploring all day through the temperate myrtle rainforest. Flora and fauna are Avatar-Esque, and fungi-spotting becomes a family obsession. At night, we watch the vivid stars twinkle and play cards, gather on beanbags and regale the room with tales of standout tracks and stacks, enjoying a local brew or two. You can hear the nearby Cascade River ripple and bubble reassuringly in the distance, and everybody sleeps well.

“These trails have soul,” our guide Brendon tells us early on, and by the end of our stay, I understand what he means. It’s an authentic experience, uniquely Australian, with moments of clarity both simple yet rich, muddy boots and all. When you follow that dirt ribbon through, it’s easy to feel the flow.

The Blue Derby Mountain bike trails encompass some of the most stunning landscapes in Tasmania. Picture: Tim Bardsley-Smith
The Blue Derby Mountain bike trails encompass some of the most stunning landscapes in Tasmania. Picture: Tim Bardsley-Smith

Take the plunge

The Floating Sauna at Derby has become a cult drawcard. It was established two years ago by Nigel Reeves to cater to weary mountain bikers in need of rejuvenation. A simple but architectural triumph of two structures – changing room and sauna – it hovers over Lake Derby, once the heart of the old tin mine. A bike path stretches around the perimeter, but the scene is so quiet you rarely see a soul.

The sauna fits up to five, and each session lasts an hour, combining restorative hot and cold therapies – dry heat, before taking the plunge in the freezing lake (the water temperature is five degrees during our visit). We rinse and repeat at least five times. Aside from the hysterical squeals as we hit the cold water together, it’s cathartic and peaceful. With a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the glossy lake, wispy clouds, and the odd platypus, we all feel totally relaxed. Nigel tells us we’ll sleep like babies tonight, with the extreme heat and cold producing natural highs. “Countries like Finland have been on to the benefits for centuries,” he laughs.

The Floating Sauna Lake Derby is the perfect way to finish a mountain bike adventure, or simply to take in the beauty of nature. Picture: Jason Charles Hill
The Floating Sauna Lake Derby is the perfect way to finish a mountain bike adventure, or simply to take in the beauty of nature. Picture: Jason Charles Hill

Linger in Launceston

After a few days in the wilderness, we head back to Launceston. It feels good to check in to the warm, plush suites of Stillwater Seven. The converted 1830s flour mill is a heritage landmark overlooking the Tamar River. There are seven individually refurbished rooms on top, and the celebrated restaurant Stillwater underneath, run by chef and co-owner Craig Will. It’s a quirky set-up, brimming with Tasmanian hospitality – the enormous mini-bars in each room overflow with top local produce, and peering out the heavy loft windows on a freezing day feel like you’ve stepped into a classic Vermeer canvas. It’s an ideal place for adults and kids alike.

Stillwater restaurant at the historic Ritchie's Mill on the banks of the Tamar River in Launceston. Picture: Natalie Mendham
Stillwater restaurant at the historic Ritchie’s Mill on the banks of the Tamar River in Launceston.
Picture: Natalie Mendham

After a hearty breakfast, we cross the road to Penny Royal. From gold panning and gem fossicking to cliff walks, ziplines and rock climbing, this outdoor adventure attraction has it all (with tales and artifacts of convict capers to boot). It’s also just a short walk across the river to the entrance of the famous Cataract Gorge. This natural wonder offers easy to challenging hikes, and a walkway meanders along with cliff faces with a sheer drop to the frothing, gushing gorge. You can cross in a tiny chairlift that dangles daringly like a slim drop earring , with a playground and pool on the other side rewards for the brave.

An alternative place to stay in the central new Hotel Verge on Tamar Street. It’s also Tasmanian owned and operated, has 86 modern, spacious rooms, and is opposite Launceston City Park, which boasts a free monkey enclosure. The city’s best bakery, Bread & Butter, is around the corner, as is the renowned weekly farmers’ market Harvest Launceston. Nearby, the kids discover Kosaten – a Japanese sushi restaurant where you order on an iPad and food is delivered on a conveyor belt.

Kings Bridge over the Tamar River bording the spectacular Cataract Gorge. Picture: Emilie Ristevski
Kings Bridge over the Tamar River bording the spectacular Cataract Gorge. Picture: Emilie Ristevski

Take the Tamar food trail

It’s worth hiring a car for the day to follow the Tamar River. The rich volcanic soil makes this region fertile ground for wineries, hops, dairy, crops such as potatoes and fruit, and a network of fields open up around us. Stop at the Launceston Zoo or head towards Hillwood Berries or The Berry Patch to pick your own berries in season.

At Beauty Point, you’ll find Seahorse World, an aquarium dedicated to seahorse breeding (you can also hold a seahorse), and neighboring Platypus House. The highlight for the kids is launching with a handful of friendly echidnas – called Eddie and Edwina – who wobble between us and lick their bowls dry of tasty and paste. End the day with a sunset swim at Greens Beach, a quiet spot, and fish and chips from the milk bar. There’s no more Australian way for a family holiday to end on a high note.

The writer was a guest of Blue Derby Pods Ride, courtesy of Tourism Australia.

Lillico Beach at Davenport is home to a colony of Little Penguins. Picture:  Tourism Tasmania
Lillico Beach at Davenport is home to a colony of Little Penguins. Picture: Tourism Tasmania

Want more?

Hike Cradle Mountain

A 2.5-hour drive from Launceston, this Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area has fantastic treks, a Tasmanian devil sanctuary and even a luxury spa, plus a range of accommodation. 

Hit the snow

Ben Lomond, an hour’s drive from Launceston, has only basic facilities, but you can ski and snowboard here in winter. Plans are in place to develop it as a year-round destination.

Spot penguins

Bicheno on the east coast is famous for spotting furry birds (it’s two hours drive away), but Lillico Beach Conservation Area in Devonport is the local’s secret spot. It’s an hour’s drive from Launceston, and Low Head (45 minutes from Launceston) is also worth a stop.

This article originally appeared on Escape and do not necessarily represent the views of australiaexploring.com

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