PORT ARTHUR was chosen as the site for a prison settlement in September 1830, as a place of secondary punishment for convicts who had committed serious crimes in New South Wales or Van Diemen's Land itself, men who were seen to have no redeeming features and were treated accordingly. In 1870, Port Arthur was popularized by Marcus Clarke's romantic tragedy, For the Term of His Natural Life. The public became fascinated by its buildings and the tragedy behind them, and soon after the prison closed, guided tours were offered by the same men who had been wrecked by the regime. In the 1890s the town around the prison was devastated by bushfires that left most buildings in ruins. A major conservation and restoration project began in the 1970s – ongoing restoration reopened the Model Prison to visitors in 2008 – and today the Port Arthur Historic Site covers a huge area (Tel:03/1800 659 101 or 03/6251 2300, Web: www.portarthur.org.au ; daily 8.30am–7pm; office 8.30am–11pm; $28 for a 48hr pass – two-year ticket $34 – including 40min guided tour and 30min harbour cruise). There's also a cruise on the MV Marana to explore the boys' prison at Point Puer (2hr; $12; daily except Aug) and another to the Isle of the Dead (1hr; $12; daily except Aug), Port Arthur's cemetery from 1833 to 1877, where you can view the resting places of 1100 convicts, asylum inmates, paupers and free men. The same company also runs a Tasman Island Wilderness Cruise (subject to demand and weather) from Port Arthur Jetty to see the island's sheer cliffs and its sea birds and fur seals (Tel:1800 659 101; call for morning times; daily Dec– May; 1hr 30min; $70).
The Port Arthur Historic Site houses more than sixty buildings, some of which – like the poignant prison chapel – are furnished and restored. Others, like the ivy-covered church, are picturesque ruins set in a landscape of green lawns, shady trees and paths sloping down to the cove. The beautiful setting makes it look more like a serene, old-world university campus than a prison, and indeed, the benign feeling of the place seems to have a capacity to absorb tragedy: another horrific chapter in Port Arthur's history occurred in April 1996, when the massacre of 35 tourists and local people by a lone gunman made international headlines. The café where most of the people were killed has been partially dismantled and a memorial has been built – a garden and reflecting pool laid out around the remaining walls. Visitors are requested to act sensitively and not ask the staff about the tragedy.
If you're staying overnight in Port Arthur, join the nightly lantern-lit Historic Ghost Tour (1hr 30min; $20; bookings Tel:03/6251 2310), which features lovingly researched and hauntingly retold tales of the settlement's past as you wander through the ruins.
There are various places to stay on the outskirts of Port Arthur. The Comfort Inn Port Arthur (Tel:03/6250 2101, Web: www.portarthur-inn.com.au ; Price: $101–160), overlooking the ruined church, is dated and pricey for its small rooms, saved only by the superb location and its on-site bar – albeit open to the public – and reasonable counter meals. Nearby Port Arthur Villas (Tel:03/6250 2239, Web: www.portarthurvillas.com.au ; Price: $101–160) represents better value, with the amenities of a motel and kitchens in the units. Both are just across the road from the site on Safety Cove Road. Otherwise, there are bunkhouse rooms and camping (including an excellent enclosed camp-kitchen) at Port Arthur Caravan and Cabin Park 1km north of the site at Garden Point (Tel:03/6250 2340, Web: www.portarthurcaravan-cabinpark.com.au ; camping $20, dorms $20, en-suite cabins Price: $76-100).
At the Port Arthur Historic Site visitor centre, you can eat by day at a cafeteria-style café (daily 9am–5pm) or spend more at the good Felons Restaurant at night (dinner only); both are licensed. A better bet during the day is Eucalypt (Wed– Mon 8am–5pm; licensed) by the site turn-off, which prepares gourmet baguettes and burgers. In Taranna, 10km before Port Arthur on the A9, The Mussel Boys Café (daily; licensed) serves superb fresh seafood – try the mussels in a dill coconut broth. Though you can sit outside on the veranda and enjoy the water views, the menu offers restaurant food, with dishes priced at $18–28.