Tantalizing Tasmania

Just below Australia’s mainland, the island state of Tasmania sits like a precious stone. Only 1,500 miles from Antarctica, Tassie as locals call it, has a storied Colonial past with whaling, sealing and penal labor, and a lovely present boasting cool climate wines, an entrepreneurial spirits scene and a thriving restaurant culture. Its plethora of mesmerizing natural wonders and crystal clean air and water point to a future that locals and travelers alike can look forward to with unabashed optimism.

In 1642 Dutch explorer Abel Tasman discovered the island naming it Van Dieman’s Land. Between 1803 when the British annexed the island and 1853, about 76,000 British convicts were sent there to populate and construct. Renamed Tasmania in 1856, the population today is about 520,000, with most living on the eastern seaboard. An island state, it’s an exciting, off-the-beaten-track destination with much to offer.

Happily in Hobart

Passing the mighty River Derwent in the quick jaunt from Hobart Airport, I arrived to this compact capital city. Easily maneuverable by foot, Hobart’s seafaring past is always front and center.

On the edge of Hobart’s waterfront, MACq01 is an Uber-cool Pike Withers-designed hotel that fully captures Hobart’s maritime essence. Its exterior is 80-percent over water and replicates the original whaling processing plant once located there. Its terrific Old Wharf Restaurant serves fresh local fare and The Story Bar – an enigmatic River Derwent-facing watering hole ­– completed the ideal location for exploring Hobart.

Each of the hotel’s 114 guestroom doors bear the history and photo of a local, including explorers, convicts and heroes. Mine was the colorful, quirky, bespectacled pharmacist, Wally Waskis, known as the “Bloody Swearing Chemist.” Inside the room under plexiglass was his violin and other accoutrements. To know Wally was to love him, and I could not possibly have felt more at home. As often happens on an island, I later learned that Waskis was the grandfather of one of my hiking guides.

At The Lounge at Frogmore Creek, a joint venture with Californian Jack Kidwiler, delicious Pirates Bay octopus carpaccio and Tasmanian salmon was paired with its excellent 2018 Chardonnay and 2017 Fume Blanc.

For many art lovers the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) put Tassie on the map. Built by gambler-collector David Walsh with no expense spared, saying it’s the world’s most provocative private art museum is a vast understatement.

Completed in 2011 after eight years, the majority of MONA is 50-feet underground, accessed by an enormous, Jurassic sandstone spiral staircase. Take the 30-minute “Posh Pit” ferry over from Hobart and spend an entire day. Whether you deeply love Walsh’s collection or get whiplash from severe head shaking, you will be entirely moved by Walsh’s massive undertaking, vision and contribution. 

With Gourmania Food Tours I sampled three Hobart restaurants in one evening. The first stop was Institut Polaire. Husband winemaker Nav Singh and his delightful wife, master distiller Louise Radman, gorgeously designed this chic spot. Cool chemistry is married to Philip Starck-like design and coupled with delectable Sud Polaire dry gins and vodkas, handcrafted wines under the Simha label, and artisanal small bites.

At the Glass House perched overwater, we were served fresh raw scallops, salmon sashimi and sweet heritage tomatoes with Burrata. Our final stop was the charming Henry Jones Art Hotel, a former jam factory. Its art-filled Landscape Restaurant was an ideal spot for a perfectly prepared grass-fed Cape Grim ribeye and good wines from its extensive list.

A great example of Egyptian Revival architecture, now a Heritage-listed building, is the Hobart Synagogue. Consecrated in 1845, it’s Australia’s oldest synagogue. Though tiny, it’s full of history and the the congregation still has sabbath services.

In nearby Salamanca, old warehouses and loft spaces house bars, cafés, galleries and artisan shops. The Saturday market closes the streets and Battery Park’s Jackman & McRoss Bakery renders a carb-free existence physically impossible.

Heading south: Mt. Wellington, Kettering, and Woodbridge

Passing curtains of eucalyptus trees then alpine gum trees resembling banzai-sized eucalyptus, Mt. Wellington is 30-minutes from Hobart. At the pinnacle, almost a mile above sea-level, are incredible views of boulder-hugging shrubs, colorful lichens, Jurassic dolerite, Hobart and the Tasman Sea.

At Kettering’s Raptor Refuge, by appointment only, guests learn about these graceful creatures and the incredible work Craig Webb and his team have done to educate the public and rehabilitate and protect their charges. Driving through tiny Woodbridge became hilarious as annual scarecrow competition entries were perched along the winding country road. Favorites included Ms. Glamour in fuchsia silk evening gown, Officer First Responder in full emergency gear and a morbidly obese Trump.

It also became delicious when stopping at Grandvewe Farm Sheep Cheesery with its “5-star ovine accommodation.” Using sheep whey byproduct, Hartshorn Distillery was born there creating artisan vodkas.

Cygnet’s Cannery Kitchen & Bar, formerly an apple processing plant, serves Sailor Seeks Horse label wines. With 20-acres under vine, owners Gilli and Paul Lippscomb annually produce 1,500 cases of crisp Chardonnay and elegantly intense Pinot Noir.

Rising like a Phoenix amid the verdant countryside is Ranalagh’s Hill Vineyard & Winery. Its modern architecture looks brand new though built in 2002.  Owners Terry and Rosemary Bennet have 32-acres, producing 3,500 cases annually. The 2018 Pinot Noir was seductive, age-worthy, and unsurprisingly, won top gold at the 2019 international cool climate wine show.

Heading northeast: Richmond, Maria Island, and Bicheno

The charming little Georgian hamlet of Richmond has cafes, antique shops and period architecture. It also has Australia’s oldest still used bridge built in 1823 by convict labor and its oldest Roman Catholic Church, St. John’s, completed in 1836-37. A more perfect lodging could not be imagined than Richmond’s Prospect House, an 1830’s convict-built estate on a tree-lined property. Refurbished with all mod cons, yet retaining old world charm, it has excellent dining and hospitality second to none.

A ferry brought me from Triabunna to Maria island National Park. Historically it has served as a whaling camp, convict station and cement company base. Today, sweeping bays, intoxicating rugged cliffs and abundant wildlife provide a nature wonderland for walkers, mountain bikers and campers. Wombats – koala cousins – calmly roam Maria Island resulting in abundant square-shaped droppings to navigate. Habituated to visitors, wombats and pademelons are relaxed and photo-ops were plentiful.

Facing the Tasman Sea, Bicheno’s extreme sea conditions and storms are a typical part of fishing life. Full of charm, this delightful beach community is a great spot to relax and stay in an excellent self-catered cottage.  On prime real estate, viewing a natural harbor gulch just above Island Marine Reserve, Bicheno’s Lobster Shack serves delicious rolls and lobster tails. Here crested terns fly en masse from South America to hatch their chicks. Nature’s magic continues at the nearby Blowhole and Whaler’s Lookout. On clear nights, the southern cross is visible.

Freycinet National Park has Tassie’s greatest icon: Wineglass Bay. Seeing this gem requires a 45-minute trek up alongside massive granite boulders, many with pink-tinged Feldspar and Orthoclase, to the turnoff. Then 1,000 steps down and 1,000 steps back up to the turnoff. Aching calves notwithstanding, it’s breathtaking.

Ending my glorious Tassie week, I stopped at  Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary for a final koala fix, saw Tasmanian devils, elusive echidnas – platypus-related ant-eating marsupials – and fed habituated Forester kangaroos.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, drink the wild air.” In Tassie you can easily do all that, along with great accommodations, food, and wine as your constant companions. Happy Travels!

Tassie and the rest of Australia fully reopened to fully vaccinated U.S. travellers on February 21, 2022. The journey this story was based on occurred two weeks before the lockdown, however all businesses mentioned herein have fully reopened. 

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