Port Arthur Cruise Port

Port of Port Arthur: An Overview

Port Arthur nestled on the southern tip of Tasmania's isolated Tasman peninsula around 60 kilometres from Hobart, is home to about 500. The allure for cruise ships is not to visit the tiny town but, instead, to see one of the world's largest and best preserved 19th-century penal colonies. As one of the Port Arthur Historic Sites, this impressive open-air museum comprises 30 buildings, ruins and restored period houses and is encircled by brooding hills on a cove that leads out to a large harbour and the chilly waters of the Southern Ocean beyond. The settlement has undergone a major restoration and facelift and has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site; it's also one of Australia's most significant places of heritage and one of Tasmania's top attractions.

Port Arthur is undoubtedly a spooky place with a long reputation for horror, not only as a penal colony, but also for an infamous modern-day massacre. On April 28, 1996, a single gunman arrived at the site and started shooting, killing 35 and injuring 23. Port Arthur was originally named for George Arthur, the lieutenant governor of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), and the town dates to 1830 when it started as a small timber station. It quickly became important within the penal system of the colonies, a settlement hacked out of the bush and built on convicts' backs. Men, women and even children, many hailing from rural areas or the big city slums of Great Britain who had been convicted more than once for crimes including stealing were punished by being unceremoniously transported to the Australian colonies. Ironically, these unfortunates were probably better fed and clothed in Port Arthur than where they'd come from. But it was a hard, isolated life, and they were prisoners set to work as loggers or housemaids.

In the first decade of its existence, Port Arthur was a hive of industry, including ship building, shoe making, smithing, brick making and timber. Then, in the 1840s, when the convict population passed 1,100, there was a consolidation of these industries with the penal nature of the facility. In 1842, a huge flour mill and granary and a hospital were added to the lineup of buildings. In 1848, the first stone was laid for the "Separate Prison," where repeat offenders were housed. This marked a shift in punishment philosophy from the notoriously harsh corporal punishment to psychological and physical isolation. Over time, the settlement expanded geographically, too, as its boundaries and convicts pushed out into the encircling hills to extract more valuable timber.

Relocation of convicts ended in 1853, which eventually led to fewer transportees arriving at Port Arthur, but the settlement remained one of the few secondary punishment stations in Tasmania and continued to receive men sentenced to prison. In 1857, the old flour mill and granary was converted into a large penitentiary and 1864 saw the beginning of construction on the last great project at the site -- the Asylum. The settlement's turbulent and colourful life began to wind down in the 1870s as the number of convicts dwindled, and those left behind were too old, sick or insane to work; it finally closed in 1877. The Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority has overseen the settlement since 1987, along with the Coal Mines Historic Site, near Saltwater River about a half hour's drive from Port Arthur, and the Cascades Female Factory Site in South Hobart. Today, the Port Arthur site has beautifully restored buildings, English trees and manicured gardens, giving it a picturesque quality.

Hanging Around

General entry to the Port Arthur Historic Sites is usually included if your ship stops there; it's the main attraction and takes around half a day to see everything comfortably. The actual town of Port Arthur is little more than a cluster of private homes with a few minor services.

Don't Miss

Separate Prison: In 1848, flogging gave way to solitary confinement at the Separate Prison. Constructed in 1950 in the shape of a cross, each of the four wings comprises a central corridor flanked by rows of tiny, solitary confinement cells. This is where prisoners spent their days sleeping, waking and eating, each cell separated by a thick sandstone wall for the ultimate silence. They had brief access to a narrow exercise yard with high, imposing walls, its sliver of sky the only link to the outside world. As you enter the prison, a recorded voice reads out the rules and regulations that were in place for each man imprisoned there, and as you walk around, your steps echo eerily. It's a haunting place where one prisoner repeatedly trashed his cell in protest at his treatment and another slowly went insane.

Manicured Gardens: Port Arthur isn't a thoroughly bleak place. It is home to lovely manicured gardens. One of the most impressive is the stunning formal Government Garden, which was enjoyed by the women and officers who lived at Port Arthur and is a peaceful, vibrant space lined with ornamental trees and colourful flowering plants -- including belladonna lilies, common foxgloves, lion's tails and ginger lilies.

Museum Houses: A number of museum houses have been painstakingly restored, including Trentham Cottage, a typical post-convict cottage, and Smith O'Brien's Cottage, which housed one of Port Arthur's most famous political prisoners, Irish Protestant Parliamentarian William Smith O'Brien. The best preserved, and offering the best insight into life at Port Arthur, however, is the Junior Medical Officers House on Civil Officers Row, where most of the building and its fittings remain intact. It dates to 1848 and is open at 10.30am, 12.30pm and 2.30pm for viewing inside.

Convict Church: Constructed around 1836, the timber and stone Convict Church is a lasting tribute to the convict builders. It's built on a bluff to overlook the entire settlement and was capable of accommodating more than a thousand people. The church was never formally consecrated because the convicts had different religious beliefs, but it was part of the authorities' plan to reform prisoners through religion.

The Penitentiary: This landmark ruin is regarded as one of the most recognised structures in Australia. It was constructed in 1843 as a flour mill and granary and in 1857 was converted into a penitentiary to become home to more than 480 convicts who lived in a combination of dormitories and separate apartments. The building was gutted by fire in 1897 and lay derelict until a conservation program began in the 1960s. During 2014, it received more conservation work to ensure its survival.

Coal Mines Historic Site: This was first mine in Tasmania. It was established as a much needed source of coal, doubling up as a place of punishment for the worst offending convicts. During its busiest years, around 600 prisoners lived and worked there with their jailers and families, and visitors can explore the ruins of houses, barracks, offices and punishment cells.

Eaglehawk Neck Historic Site: This place offers a unique glimpse into the security system in use throughout the Tasman Peninsula during the convict period. It's also home to the infamous dog line, a security line of lamps and fierce dogs that ran across the neck to prevent prisoners from escaping.

Tasman National Park: Tasman National Park is famous for 300-metre high soaring sea cliffs and rock formations, as well as the Port Arthur Historic Sites. It's an area of dramatic beauty and home to a range of wildlife and marine life, including brushtail possums, Australian fur seals, penguins and the endangered swift parrot. Stunning natural attractions include Remarkable Cave, the Tessellated Pavement, Waterfall Bay and two of Tasmania's most visited attractions, the Tasman Arch and the Blow Hole. If you're feeling adventurous and active, you can go hiking along bush tracks to discover secluded beaches and enjoy panoramic cliff-top views.

Getting Around

The only way to easily get out and see other parts of this region of Tasmania is by taking an organised tour from the ship or by planning for a driver to pick you up from Port Arthur Historic Sites for private touring. Options for shore excursions include taking an eco-cruise, visiting the Norfolk Bay Coal Mines Historic Site or getting up close and personal with Tasmanian devils at the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park.

Lunching

The only convenient dining options are located in the Port Arthur Historic Site. Many passengers choose to return to the ship for lunch.

The Port Cafe: The menu includes coffees, teas, cakes and other snacks. (Open daily, 9 a.m. until late; Port Arthur Historic Site Visitor Centre, Port Arthur; 03 6251 2310)

Museum Coffee Shop: Located in the Asylum Building, this cafe serves hot and cold drinks, wine and light meals. It received a Silver Award in the Tourism Restaurants and Catering category at the Tasmanian Tourism Awards 2013. (Open January to April, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; May to September, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; October to December, 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Port Arthur Historic Site, Asylum Building, Port Arthur; 03 6251 2310)

Where You're Docked

Ships anchor in Carnarvon Bay, within sight of the main Port Arthur Historic Site, and they use tenders to transport passengers to a landing pier.

Watch Out For

Bring plenty of sunscreen and a hat because the sun can be very strong in Tasmania in the summer even at moderate temperatures. Also, wear sturdy walking shoes and carry a light jacket and umbrella, even in summer, because the weather can change suddenly and rain is always a possibility.

Currency & Best Way to Get Money

Currency is the Australian dollar. There is an ATM in the visitor centre, and the facility accepts foreign currency, travellers' cheques and all major credit cards. For updated currency-conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.

Language

Australians speak English with an "Aussie" accent, and in Port Arthur, the language is much the same as you'll find anywhere else in the country. The majority of tourists will be from other parts of Tasmania or "Tassie" as it's often called.

Best Souvenir

The town isn't a place for shopping, but you can buy souvenirs from the gift shop, including books about Port Arthur and Tasmania and their history, as well as a variety of arts, crafts, jewellery and handmade gifts.

For More Information

On the Web: Port Arthur Historic Sites and Port Arthur and Tasman Tourism Association

Cruise Critic Message Boards: Australia and New Zealand

IndependentTraveler.com: Australia, New Zealand and South Pacific Travel Guide

--By Joanna Hall, Cruise Critic contributor

  • Port Arthur: Noordam
    Dragonboat
    This is a tender port and you take a 10-15 minute ride in from your cruise ship. This is the first prison that the British set up in Australia, and has a very interesting history. No pre-booked tour is needed, just go at your own pace. When we ... Read more
  • Port Arthur: Noordam
    Pops 1953
    Fabulous stop in Port Arthur to experience the history of this lovely place. The Port Arthur Historic Site explains how the convicts and their guards existed and the significance of this small port and the part it played in the settlement of the ... Read more
  • Port Arthur: Queen Mary 2 (QM2)
    Dracken64
    Port Arthur is a serene and beautiful stop. You can go and just walk around the historic site yourself or if you choose, select a number of tours that you will pay for. ... Read more
  • Port Arthur is one of Australia's historic convict sites. It has been beautifully looked after. It is located in a very scenic part of Tasmania and offers guided tours. I find it a lovely spot to walk around. There a boat tours as well. It is about ... Read more
  • Port Arthur: Pacific Eden
    Jools1969
    We chose to walk around by ourselves and spend as much time as we wanted looking at everything this very historical site has to offer ... Read more
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