Hello, possums

'¦ and wallabies, and Tasmanian devils, and ancient pines and the majestic Cradle Mountain. Tasmania is a place where the great outdoors lives up to the name

A NATURAL raconteur, my fishing companion Steve Alexander is the spitting image of Bill Oddie '“ only tougher-looking '“ wearing khaki shirt and shorts and a red baseball cap. "Just watch out if you go for a squat in the scrub. A few years back a lady doctor from Melbourne was bitten on the bum by a snake and died." Not very comforting words when you are stuck in the middle of the Tasmanian wilderness, with no public conveniences around for miles.

"Apparently she was shy and didn't tell anyone. But I can tell you without a doubt why she died '“ back then people thought you had to suck the poison out. Hell of a place to put a tourniquet, hey!"

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Fly-fishing is a popular activity in Tasmania. Keen to try, I have enrolled in a two-hour crash course with Steve, an expert angler who is also the activities manager at Cradle Mountain lodge, in the north-west of Tasmania and on the outskirts of the World Heritage Cradle Mountain National Park.

Tasmania is the last port of call before you hit Antarctica. A penal settlement for British criminals in the early 1800s, the small island is full of surprises. There are Aboriginal sites dating back 35,000 years; it's said to have some of the purest water and air on our planet; it boasts the largest collection of marsupials; and '“ not many people know this '“ it is the birthplace of iconic Hollywood actor Errol Flynn.

Cradle Mountain Lodge is famed for its focus on ecotourism. Nestled on the edge of one of the world's last temperate wilderness areas, its 86 timber cabins are scattered over 16 hectares of bushland. Rustic on the outside, these cosy rooms have a contemporary feel with modern fixtures, large fireplaces and picturesque views over ancient forest.

The lodge's Waldheim Alpine Spa, which just happens to be one of the best in Australia, specialises in treatments using unique Tasmanian body care products. But there's no escaping the wildlife, even in the midst of all that pampering. Earlier this year a Tasmanian devil '“ a notorious scavenger '“ made its home under the spa complex and competed with the aromatherapy scents with the wrong kind of pong, leading to its removal.

The lodge's Highland restaurant serves exquisite dishes prepared by head chef Jane Therese Mulry '“ a protge of Marco Pierre White. Tasmania is famous for the quality of its fresh local fish, so I order the delicious Taste of Cradle, a selection of salmon, Tasmanian oysters and tuna carpaccio with celeriac remoulade. Pre-dinner, I'd selected my wine from the restaurant's big walk-in cellar, which is full of top-quality home-grown merlots, pinot noirs, sauvignons and rieslings. Visit next month and you can enjoy Tasting at the Top, a four-day festival of indulgence in Tasmania's finest food and wines, hosted by the lodge.

I don't have to venture far to spot local wildlife, being ambushed by a convoy of peckish marsupials on the way back to my room after dinner. An overweight wombat crosses in front of me, followed by three skittish wallabies and an overly curious bushy-tailed possum, which trails me home and is rewarded with a few chopped apples.

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It is a chilly morning when I set off with Steve for a canoe trip around Dove Lake, a 15-minute drive from the lodge inside the National Park. As we drive along a windy single-lane road, he points out a 'turbo chook', a chicken-like bird that is said to be able to clock up speeds of 30km per hour. "But I know for a fact that's not true," he says. "If you come up behind them in a big land cruiser you can get them up to 40 at least! They just need the right sort of encouragement."

A heavy blanket of fog lingers above the still waters of the lake. Steve says it's so deep and cold you'd get hypothermia within four minutes if you fell in. His words of wisdom ringing in my ears, I stick close to the shore, and have just about mastered the art of paddling in a straight line when we reach the top end of the lake. Our canoes come to rest at last on a soft bank. We get out and enter the forest, an enchanted spot that looks like it could be home to Hobbits.

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Steve has packed hot coffee and cookies, but the screeching of birds high up in the canopy drowns out our attempts at conversation.

By the time we return to our canoes the cloak of fog has lifted, revealing a spectacular view of Cradle Mountain as it rises 1,545m into the sky.

Tasmania has more than 2,000km of walking tracks and 18 national parks. At least 20 self-guided trails start from Cradle Mountain Lodge, and with everything from a 15-minute stroll to an all-day trek, there is something for every fitness level. Diehard bushwalkers will be thrilled with the network of long-distance walking tracks, among them the six-day Overland, three-day Frenchman's Cap and the seven-day South Coast walk.

Early one morning I leave my cabin and head along the King Billy track, a 2km-long boardwalk that rambles through age-old temperate rainforest. Some of these ancient King Billy pines date back 1,500 years. The light is low under the forest canopy, but now and then the sun breaks through the treetops and a spotlight of sunshine highlights the mossy forest floor.

For animal lovers, Tasmania is the stuff of dreams, with its abundant collection of weird and wonderful Doctor Dolittle creatures. You can't go far without a close encounter with a wallaby, a possum, a duckbill platypus or even one of those elusive Tasmanian devils. Every evening, driving tours leave Cradle Mountain Lodge in search of devils. They can only be found wild in these parts and are tricky to spot.

For a guaranteed close-up, I pay a visit to Devils at Cradle, a conservation and viewing centre close to the park entrance, hoping I won't meet any that live up to their demonic reputation. But apparently the devils are incredibly misunderstood. They got their name thanks to their spine-chilling screech and vicious temper, but experts take a kinder view, describing them as "curious, careful, absolutely uncompromising and incredibly pugnacious".

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But it's hard to forget that the world's largest carnivorous marsupial (the size of a Jack Russell terrier) has jaws like a pit bull and can crunch kangaroo bones as though they were crisps. At least you'll know when they're getting angry '“ their pink ears start to turn a deep, menacing red. The experts claim it's all for self-protection, but I'm not convinced'¦

Those who love the great outdoors, history, gourmet food and wine will be hard pushed to find a more rewarding destination than this. But remember Steve's wise words, and watch out if you go for a squat in the scrub.


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A seven-day package to Tasmania starts from 1,429 per person and includes return economy flights with Emirates from Glasgow to Melbourne, with connecting flights to Launceston, car hire, six nights' B&B and activities. For bookings or more information, contact Travelmood (0800 8408 305, www.travelmood.com). Travelmood can also organise Australian visas for 18 per person.