Smooth sailing on the Spirit of Tasmania

Published in On the Road

“Any firearms or fruit?” asks the quarantine officer at Port Melbourne.

“Just muffins” we say, and he waves us on with a smile.

It’s a reminder to us that we are leaving mainland Australia, now bound for Tasmania, where some things are different. And of course that difference is one of the many reasons we mainlanders all love visiting Tassie.

Spirit of Tasmania ferry

We are on the Spirit of Tasmania II, having decided to take the car on the ferry from Port Melbourne bound for Devonport. It’s the first time for us on the ferry. It was a tricky decision as the price point between the ferry and a fly/drive package was about on par at the time of booking. But because we were taking lots of bushwalking and cold weather gear the ease of having our own car won out. Plus, who doesn’t love a good, old-fashioned ferry trip?

Another selling point was that the ferry also promised a more relaxed mode of travel than air travel. In fact, I start feeling a sense of the delights of slow travel as soon as we drive into Port Melbourne, with its long promenade dotted with beachside pubs and cafes. We eat a delicious modern Middle Eastern meal at a refurbished pub turned casual waterfront bistro, Mr Lawrence at the London, which turns out to be the meal of the entire trip.

Boarding officially starts at 5pm but the booking office advised that we didn’t need to start queueing with the car until after 6pm. When we join the queue there are plenty of other cars, 4WD’s, RV’s, minivans and motorcyclists and everyone seems hell-bent on enjoying the great outdoors, with vehicles crammed with camping gear and fishing rods. Gradually the queue inches forward, but while we wait most people take the opportunity to get out of the car to stretch their legs and click away at the photogenic Melbourne skyline bathed in golden twilight.

Gradually the queue lessens and it’s our turn to drive into the ship’s hull. The staff are expert at marshalling us and packing us in like sardines in the bowels of the ship (tip – make sure to remember what level your car is on).

We make our way to our cabin, which is small, as expected, but very clean and the bedding is a European style doona, which makes it feel bright and fresh. The shower could do with more heat, but I’m just being picky – any shower on a ferry is a bonus really.

As soon as we are on board (complete with muffins) it’s time to roam the ship.

There’s lots to explore, with a restaurant, gaming area, two cinemas, three bars, a tourism hub where staff can assist with information, last-minute accommodation and tours, National Park Passes and fishing licences. There is a Tasmanian produce tastings booth (on our voyage it was honey and whiskey), a reading room and a shop selling fast food and roadtrip supplies. Children are well catered for too with a kids’ jungle gym and games zone. The outdoor areas are extensive, with plenty of vantage points to look out to sea.

The staff are all very friendly, which is important as there’s many first-timers, like us, on board, as well as quite a lot of international tourists.

It’s been a hot day in Melbourne as we draw out of Melbourne, a lone jetskier follows us out through Port Phillip Bay and to the delight of passengers plays in the waves as we chug out of the bay.

I’d love nothing better than to toast the trip with a Tassie champagne, but I’m a bit worried about seasickness so reluctantly forego a Tasmanian sparkling and stick to lemonade from iconic Tassie soft drink brand, Cascade, before going to dinner.

I had heard anecdotally that the food service on board had recently improved. Certainly the food at Tasmanian Market Kitchen, the buffet eatery, was excellent and the staff were very helpful at explaining the various options and price structures. The buffet section had an impressive choice at reasonable prices – there was a choice of a hearty main or pasta dish accompanied by a selection of six salad and vegetable dishes as well as desserts and a Tassie cheese platter. For a little extra you could opt for a chef-plated signature dish – it’s hard to go past lamb shanks in red wine with garlic mash and gremolata on a dark night in Bass Strait.

As for nightlife, apart from the gaming area and cinema (an extra cost), most people relax after dinner in one of the bars. I head to the Terrace Lounge Bar to enjoy live music for a while (a toe-tapping jazzy guitar player) then curl up in the reading room but soon the cabin beckons – it’s been a long day – and I slide under the doona.

Overnight there’s a slight swell and I begin to regret the lovely dinner but soon get used to the rolling motion. Sleeping on a ship is really one of life’s joys!

As it turns out, so are early starts. Disembarkation is at 6.30am and breakfast is from 5.30am, however my advice is to have breakfast at Devonport, which has great breakfast options catered to the post-ferry crowd.

Most guests gather in the bar area to watch one of the TV’s, but I preferred getting out on deck in the morning and seeing the twinkling lights of Devonport and Tassie’s north coast spread before me in the pre-dawn fog.

Then all that’s left to do is to wait to hear the car disembarkation announcement, then it’s a clamber to the ship’s hull to drive off the ship, a quick check by Tassie’s bio-security and any vehicles deemed too dusty are washed by the officials. As vehicles snake out of the terminal carpark everyone is handed a Welcome to Tasmania kit and with no further ado we are off to explore the island!

Verdict: I loved the Spirit of Tasmania experience and would do it again. It had friendly and professional staff, good food and plenty of entertainment on board and small but comfortable and clean cabins. Thanks to the emphasis on Tasmanian staff and produce, you feel like you are in Tasmania the moment you get on board. And touring Tasmania in your own vehicle means more flexibility for bushwalking gear and camping and warm clothes!

Fact File

Spirit of Tasmania I and II were built in 1998 in Finland. They ships weigh 28,000 tonnes and measure in at 194 metres. Passengers and 500 vehicles can be carried on each ship. In 2015, the vessels underwent a major refurbishment, with fresh, modern interiors and tasteful new facilities.

Spirit of Tasmania I and II departs nightly from Station Pier in Port Melbourne and from The Esplanade in East Devonport and takes approximately 9 – 11 hours. For most of the summer as well as during high demand periods, day sailings are offered. Cars, caravans and campervans can be transported but it is advised to book ahead. Pets are also able to be transported.

Phone: 1800 634 906