Port Arthur (Photo:Mo Wu/Shutterstock)
Port Arthur (Photo:Mo Wu/Shutterstock)
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Cruise Critic Staff

Port of Port Arthur

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.

Shore Excursions

About Port Arthur


Pro

Entry fee to the Port Arthur Historic Site is included in your cruise fare

Con

The former convict settlement is also the site of Australia's worst mass shooting in 1996

Bottom Line

An intriguing, eerie setting of tragic history juxtaposed with a beautiful bay


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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.

Port Facilities

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.

Good to Know

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.

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.

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.

Food and Drink

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)

Shopping

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.