Burnie is smack-bang on the edge of Bass Strait, but the smell in the air isn’t of sea salt – it’s pine, wafting from the pulp mill in town and the huge pulp piles being loaded onto massive ships for export. This is Tasmania’s largest port for general cargo, and also the deepest, so you’ll often see massive cruise ships alongside cargo ships loading all kinds of freight.
When early settlers arrived here at Burnie the hinterland was chocked with rainforest as far as they could see. Over many years it was cleared for pastoral use, and with perfect weather conditions for forestry, pine plantations were established. When the original Burnie paper mill started operations in 1937, it was the town’s biggest employer and a dominant feature of the landscape. The mill is still there, though it closed in 2010, and a beachside walking trail shows you the amazing history of this 72 year-old town icon.
These days the pine is pulped (like sawdust), taken to the port, dried and then loaded onto specially made ships for export, then it’s turned into paper and returned to us – a bit weird but that’s economics these days. Logging trucks loaded with stripped logs ready to be milled have a constant presence about the place, too.
Since the paper mill closed, the town has rejuvenated itself for the tourist trade and has never looked back. There’s a 17km boardwalk that hugs the coast to allow unrelenting views out to sea and along the coast, where you can peel off anywhere for a bite to eat, beautiful coffees and attractions along the way.
A perfect place to start is on the western end of town at the huge Makers Workshop. While it looks like just another bland concrete building it’s actually the cultural hub for the town’s artists, innovators and award-winning makers. Tastebuds will go wild inside where some of the best cheese and wines of the area are displayed and available to try. There’s also interactive displays showing off Burnie’s paper mill history plus a dozen or so gift shops and artist exhibits to get lost amongst.
Just outside of here is West Beach where, during October to March, the penguin observation area allows you to see penguins coming back to their rookeries at night to sleep and feed their young. A great interpretive centre provides further insight into these crazy little creatures, and it’s free to visit.
The hub around Emu Bay is where the town comes alive with vibrant restaurants, cafes and shopping experiences that rival those of larger cities. You can enjoy beautiful fresh seafood and homemade delicacies or sit down for a coffee while the kids burn off some energy in the ocean-themed playground right in front of you. The huge octopus sculptures are a real highlight.
For history buffs, the Burnie Regional Museum replicates pre-1900s life with a working blacksmith, boot maker and printer shop, with everyone in period costume. It’s like a step back in time with displays of old gear, tools and even barbaric dentist tools that would make anyone squirm in the chair.
The town square is where you can see art deco style shops mixed in with modern and heritage buildings that thankfully have been restored and used. Even the old police station built back in 1905 has been beautifully restored with its iron lace and wide verandahs.
Nature lovers aren’t left out in Burnie. Within a 15km radius you can visit several stunning lookouts that give you overall view of this industrial city and its beautiful coastline, such as Wilf Cambell Lookout or the Towers. A ten minute drive south brings you to Guide Falls, a nice spot to spend a morning with a packed hamper. This natural waterfall drops over several tiers and is a photographer’s paradise.
On the way back to Burnie stop off at Hellyers Distillery and take a guided tour. The name Hellyer goes right back to 1827 when Henry Hellyer, a local explorer, took time out from his busy life as a bullock team leader to delve in the making of malt whiskey. These days the company imports the best of the best ingredients from overseas and even grow their own barley to craft their multi-award winning malt whiskey, certainly well worth the few dollars to enter. For an extra fee you can bottle and label your own whiskey complete with a waxed seal – what a way to impress your friends!
It was actually Henry Hellyer who first climbed the peak near modern-day Burnie and declared the fertile land suitable for a new settlement, kicking off a period of growth through agriculture, the discovery of tin and of course the port that today brings the many facets of Burnie together.
My advice? Don’t be put off by the industrialisation that greets you as you enter town. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how the town combines tourism and local industries, making for yet another beautiful place on Tasmania’s north coast.