LAUNCESTON is dominated by the Tamar River, and approaching from the north down the Tamar Highway, zooming through haystack-filled countryside, it's a lovely sight, with grand Victorian houses nestling on hills above the banks. Approaching from the south on the Southern Outlet, however, gives a slightly more accurate picture of Tasmania's "northern capital": the state's second-largest city, with a population of around 98,000, has acquired a sheen of cosmopolitan café society but largely remains an oversized provincial town.
Launceston's real attractions are its natural assets. It's situated at the confluence of the narrow North Esk and South Esk rivers, with the breathtaking Cataract Gorge, where the South Esk has carved its way through rock to reach the Tamar River, only fifteen minutes' walk from the centre. Yachts and outboard motors ply the 50km of river, and the surrounding countryside of the Tamar Valley, with its wineries, strawberry farms and lavender plantations, is idyllic. Beyond the eastern suburbs, bush-covered hills fold back into the distance to Ben Lomond, a popular winter skiing destination just an hour's drive away.