Visualize where Tasmania sits on the map: the southernmost, most down under state in Australia, it is often called the last watering hole before the South Pole. White sand beaches, a museum with jaw-dropping architecture, high end resorts, World Heritage sites, Georgian architecture, excellent local cuisine, an A-list wine scene and vineyards and landscapes filled with cherry trees. Plus, of course, Australia's national drink, the "flat white." It seems fair to say that few places could offer all of this while being geographically perched on the edge of the civilized world.
But tourism in Tasmania has only come of age in the last few years. MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art that opened in the capital city Hobart in 2011, and it has been the game changer. An example: the country's population caps out at 500,000 people, and museum attendance brought in 1.4 million in its first four years. Today, Tasmania is on the lips of trendsetters from Los Angeles to Paris and has become a weekend go-to for Sydney-ites. The island state plays host to the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival and The Count Basie Orchestra, further atesting to Tasmania’s place on the international cultural calendar.
I delighted in discovering parts of Tasmania on a six-day trip in February, at the end of their summer. The best way to organize an itinerary is to travel from south to north (or vice versa), either starting or ending at the cushy resort in the northeast to unwind and take in the stunning nature. Keep in mind, however, that Tasmania is only about the size of Switzerland and backtracking isn't too tricky—I doubled back at one point via seaplane.
No one in this part of the world calls the island state “Tasmania.” Her common name reflects the Australians bent for mercilessly shortening words (breakfast is "brekkie," university is "uni"). It’s “Tassie.” Like a local, say it with affection.
(mona.net.au) has been called “a subversive Disneyland.” It certainly invites controversy with changing exhibits that have included a horse on a meat hook. The cliché question, “what is art?” has never been more apt. I was knocked out by the total experience.
The MONA ferry is the best way to get to the museum and there is a bar on board that serves delicious grilled sandwiches and sweets. The arrival at MONA reveals nothing of its character; it reflects a kind of gleeful “why not?” or “because I can” attitude that characterizes David Walsh, the museum’s founder and creator, who financed the project with his gambling winnings.
The three-level, underground exhibition area covers 64,500 square feet (over 60,000 tons of earth and sandstone were removed before construction could commence) and reminded me of a Las Vegas mall, offering visitors no sense of whether it is day or night. Plus, the first eye-catcher is a huge bar. Spaces unwind like a labyrinth, normal rooms lead to video areas, tunnels and walls of caramel striated sandstone reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark. “MONA is very difficult to navigate,” Walsh once said, “and that’s the point.” There are no identifying labels for the artwork because he didn’t want people reading and not looking. It is ironic that instead, everyone stares incessantly at the museum’s O, a custom-made touch screen device.
The Source offers upscale dining with white tablecloths and such creative treats as seaweed butter and tomato gazpacho with mustard ice cream. The Moorilla Wine Bar serves heirloom tomato salads, poached chicken with crisp prosciutto and barbecued corn on the cob with chili and lime butter.
The open-air market sets up next to the Georgian sandstone buildings that served Hobart in the days of maritime glory and the robust whaling industry. On the way to the market, make a point to see Battery Park, workers’ cottages and grand, stone mansions. The area is often cited as the most intact colonial-era suburb in Australia.
Some highlights of the market include eating just-picked blueberries, bratwurst sandwiches with sauerkraut and baked potatoes. Be sure to check out Wendy Jones for stylish totes, and Made in Tasmania for merino wool items (madeintasmania.co) and Rebecca Roth Gallery for cool resin bracelets (rebeccaroth.com.au). A good stop for a cappuccino and snack is at the Tricycle Café (Kellys Steps, 77 Salamanca Pl.).
Different aircraft opens up Tasmania’s bounty. Guests of Saffire Freycinet (saffire-freycinet.com.au) can get there from Hobart via helicopter or the less expensive option, fixed-wing craft. From the resort, I recommend a fixed-wing plane cruise over famous Wineglass Bay. The seaplane landing on the Gordon River in the western wilderness nabbed the most unforgettable journey title for me. The pilot of the 1961 De Havilland DHC 2 made three sharp, banking turns down into the canyon and landed near a tiny beach. He got out of the plane, unzipped his pants at the knee so they became shorts, threw off his shoes and pulled the plane ashore. Once the engine stopped, I was reminded of the adage, "quiet enough to hear the silence."
Marked by the legacy of explorers, convicts and the anguished fate of Aborigines, not to mention its wide open sea, wilderness and fertile fields, Tasmania is a complicated place. The British established their first settlement there in 1803, when estimates of the Aborigine population ranged between 5,000 and 10,000. The British undertook a systematic eradication program; one story recalls gifting local families with bags of sugar and flour laced with arsenic. Later, the British government sent over roughly 70,000 convicts, via Sydney. One explanation, among many, was the over-occupancy of jails in Britain. Numerous sentences were commuted to “transport” and once released, former convicts made their homes there and some sent for their families.
To get an idea of the colonial architecture and history, and those who built it, I recommend the five-hour drive from Saffire Freycinet resort to Hobart on the Midlands Highway.
Located on the Freycinet Peninsula, the Saffire Freycinet resort looks across a bay to the the Hazards, a series of granite block mountains that seem to form a wall and in some light, look like someone has thrown pink paint across them. Saffire is Tasmania’s best luxury retreat with spacious suites done in earth tones, lots of windows and terraces looking straight at the Hazards.
There are lots of activities, but you have to love a place that lists resting in a hammock as one of them. I did the short walk to the Lighthouse and Honeymoon beach with a guide, and there are boat excursions, massages and cooking lessons that enlighten you to such local ingredients as finger limes (citrusy but the inside pods burst in your mouth like caviar).
I walked on the beach one morning when the staff was setting up director’s chairs near the water for a picnic. People can swim here in summer, but the waters are not Caribbean-like. The cuisine at Saffire is justifiably lauded—with choices like roasted partridge, sweet corn fritters and spiced mint yogurt. One day, I wanted something more casual and went to the Freycinet Marine Farm (1784 Coles Bay Rd.; 61-362-570-140) where I sat outside on the funky deck at blue-painted, wooden tables and ate steamed mussels and oysters. “People have wine with their oysters at 9 am here,” said the kitchen’s oyster shucker. “Hey, they’re on holiday.”
The Islington in Hobart (islingtonhotel.com) is set in a private residence that was built in the 1840s. The hotel stands out as one of the most attractive, homey, snappily run boutique hotels I have experienced. About a five-minute drive from Salamanca, and just around the corner from Errol Flynn’s former home, the hotel is furnished with the owners’ antiques (nude torso sculptures, old French clocks and Art Deco chairs) and wonderful fabrics (from animal prints in cotton to red-and-white striped silk). The open kitchen/dining room is set in a glass conservatory, and served me excellent, simply cooked salmon. The most charming guest rooms open onto the garden.
The food and wine fervor that grips Tasmania today reminds me of the heyday of Alice Waters and the birth of “California cuisine.” Local, organic and farm-to-table reign. There are over 200 vineyards and boutique farmers grow a staggering variety of produce from black truffles to walnuts, wild abalone, hops, wasabi, honey, apples and potatoes with such evocative names as Pink Eye and Dutch Creams. Tasmania’s pollution-free coastal waters are home to many salmon fisheries.
Some well-known restaurants in town follow the trend of having tasting menus, so I opted to visit recently opened Frank’s (1 Franklin Wharf; 61-362-315-005), located right on the wharf. The space feels like downtown New York with high ceilings, an industrial simplicity and oversized windows. The menu has a South American twist, featuring dishes like local pork chops with avocado, pineapple and coriander salsa. The charred sweet potato served with goat’s curd (cheese) is not to be missed, along with the charred banana, almond and salted caramel ice cream.
I did a half-day loop from Hobart into the Huon Valley to see the mostly agricultural, winding coastline. The towns themselves are not much, but stops along the way make the journey worthwhile, as you can simply snack your way through the trip. I loved the Oyster Cove Store (2701 Channel Hwy., Oyster Cove; 61-362-674-340) on Channel Highway, an old-fashioned, bustling general emporium with fruits, jams and produce. Grandvewe (59 Devlyns Rd., Birchs Bay; 61-362-674-099), Tasmania’s only sheep milk “cheesery” has a café with lovely views of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel. The huge wooden barn at Willie Smith’s (2064 Huon Hwy., Grove; 61-362-664-345) is rustic chic and invites customers to stand at the bar or high-top tables and sample varieties of apple cider, accompanied by a cheese board or salmon rolls.
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