Travel back in time to Tasmania's "inescapable prison", the World Heritage-listed Port Arthur.
By Jennifer Ennion
A visit to Tasmania isn't complete without touring the site of one of Australia's most infamous prisons, the World Heritage-listed Port Arthur. Separated from Tasmania by a narrow neck of land, Port Arthur was once known as the "inescapable prison", housing hardened criminals subject to harsh punishment. Today, the convicts and guards are gone, but the stories – set in an equally dramatic landscape of craggy cliff faces and the remains of more than 30 buildings – remain.
- The fascinating guided walking tour
- Visiting graves on the Isle of the Dead
- The opportunity to hunt for ghosts
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Top things to do at Port Arthur
Become a history buff
With lush green lawns and a quiet air about it, it's difficult to imagine Port Arthur as a brutal prison that held more than 1000 convicts at its peak, but during the 40 minute introductory guided walking tour (included in the cost of your ticket), you'll hear stories of the past come to life. Examine the site's many buildings, ruins and restored houses, built by the criminals who were housed in prison buildings from the 1830s until the 1850s, and pick up an iPod Audio Tour from the visitors centre to listen to captivating tales as you wander the site. Also included in your ticket price is a 25 minute harbour cruise – during which you will get a different perspective of the site and learn about life as a convict from live commentary – and access to the Convict Water Supply Trail (see below).
Learn about convict engineering and industry
Follow the Convict Water Supply Trail, an ambitious engineering project involving convict-built reservoirs, aqueducts and water wheels, built in 1843. The site was originally intended as a flour mill but in 1857 it was converted into a penitentiary. You can also explore its Catholic chapel, dormitory rooms, mess room and library. It's difficult to imagine how hard life would have been for the poor souls who forged a life here, but seeing this site offers insight into the extreme toil that would have been required to source building materials and construct safe, solid structures. Afterwards, head to the dockyard, where more than 70 convicts worked building boats for private and government customers.
Cruise to the Isle of the Dead
For many prisoners, the only escape from Port Arthur was death. As a result, authorities turned a tiny island in front of the site, now known as the Isle of the Dead, into a graveyard for those who died inside the prison. You can cruise there on a guided tour and learn about the convicts, soldiers and civilians as you wander around the 1646 graves. The tours run several times a day, except on Christmas Day.
Go beyond the grave
Could Port Arthur be haunted? One thing's for sure, you'll scare yourself silly during the site's lantern-lit ghost tour. For 90 minutes you'll have exclusive night-time access to Port Arthur's grounds and buildings, and hear legends of cells with ghostly screams and empty rocking chairs that move. The ghost tours depart at 8.45pm and 9pm each evening and are suitable for families. If you want to step the fright factor up a notch, join the adults-only Paranormal Investigation Experience. On this tour, which occurs on the last Saturday of each month, you are encouraged to hunt for paranormal activity with investigative equipment.
Journey to Point Puer Boys' Prison
Take a trip to Point Puer Boys Prison, the British Empire's first prison for boys, located across the harbour from Port Arthur. Around 3000 lads between the ages of nine and 16 served sentences at the prison between 1834 and 1849. Join a daily guided tour and walk among the remains of prison buildings as you learn about the lives of the boys and the harsh punishments they received.
How to get there
On the beautiful Tasman Peninsula, Port Arthur Historic Site is about 100 kilometres (60 miles) southeast of Hobart. A popular tourist attraction, it is easily reached by car in 90 minutes or take one of the regular coach services from the city. Entry costs AUD $37 per adult and AUD $17 per child; family and concession passes are available.