Not so long ago, Tasmania was a fantastical land, floating untethered somewhere in the mist and maelstroms of the Southern Ocean, and in the imagination of fearful sailors. Whispered to be inhabited by Brobdingnagian-sized humans and ranged over by unknowable “tigers” and “devils”, its very name – Van Diemen’s Land – sounded scary. Even more recently, in the mid-1800s, you wouldn’t have cared much to visit, given that most inhabitants were there at Her Victorian Majesty’s pleasure.
Now, however, it is a place of olive trees and truffles, peopled not by giants or long-distance detainees, but by escapees from the Australian humdrum – painters, sculptors and artisanal fruit producers who tend vines and heritage apple and pear trees. They come for the cleanest air in the world, and the slow food. Hobart, Tasmania’s diminutive capital, just over an hour by air from Melbourne, offers a low-key city experience in the best Australian tradition: sunny, easy waterfront life, with superlative food and wine.
The city’s waterfront setting lays its past bare. Hobart’s lifeblood was maritime trade, first as a whaling station, then a port in the path of the Roaring Forties wind that drove the trade route to the Far East, and later as an exporter of fruit and produce. The waterfront is now in a state of flux; higgledy-piggledy as industrial hulks convert to the leisure and glassy luxury of apartments, galleries and restaurants.
Its cultural profile is likewise advancing. The destination people are journeying thousands of miles to see is MONA, the extraordinary Museum of Old and New Art, which opened last year on Moorilla Estate in the northern suburbs. Housed in a purpose-built space – constructed on, around and inside a sandstone point – MONA is the collection of local gambler extraordinaire David Walsh.
The exhibits are eccentric, playful and wide-ranging: Erwin Wurm’s Fat Car, an obese Ferrari, bulging out of its skin; Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca, the ripe-smelling recreation of human digestion in suspended chemistry bottles; and Sidney Nolan’s monumental Snake – all 1,620 panels of it. MONA is so personal it defies classification, but underlying it is a deep-rooted fascination with the construction and workings of the world. It’s fun.
In fact, MONA is a whole complex, with a vineyard, brewery and restaurant, which looks across the River Derwent. And rooms; the MONA Pavilions are the most stylishly – and starkly – presented in the city (also the most engineered, with their cantilevering and top technical specifications). It is quite possible to base yourself out at Moorilla, and take their ferry or the cycle path to central Hobart.
Most of the city’s best accommodation has gone the waterfront-chic route. The Henry Jones Art Hotel is set in a former fruit and jam factory; inside, its rough-hewn sandstone walls and corridors now sing and shout with artworks, all by Tasmanian artists (and most available to purchase). The hotel has lively passing life, as well as comfortable rooms in a mix of rich colours and exposed stone. The one to have is the H Jones Suite, set in the panelled former boardroom.
If it is a view of the harbour you want, the finest is from the suites at the Lenna. The main hotel is a bit workaday, but you can live independently in its lovely glass-sided penthouses; the view from 51 is truly spectacular – from Sullivan’s Cove and the bay round to Mount Wellington, the city’s characteristic backdrop.
But the most sympathetic place to tuck yourself away is The Islington. Initially unprepossessing – seeming stone self-importance set behind a suburban fence – it has been modernised with steel and glass and has an unfusty atmosphere, all low-key, carefully steered indulgence. It also is an “art hotel”, its rooms full of the owners’ private collection, including Picasso, Leopold Survage, David Hockney and Tasmanian work. The main house has traditional rooms, and the garden rooms, with a first-rate mountain view, are more modern.
Exploring Hobart begins back at the harbour, at Salamanca, a row of sandstone warehouses now home to galleries and bars. It also houses the famous Saturday market – go for the fun of the crowd, rather than major purchases. The island’s history is etched into the very stone around you here; the chisel marks in the biscuit-coloured blocks are the work of the convicts sent to populate the place. Each had his signature strike.
From Salamanca, it’s a hop up the stone steps to Battery Point, Hobart’s oldest and most elegant suburb. Start at Arthur Circus, a delightful collection of cottages around an oval lawn, and walk. They say Tasmania has retained more of an English character than the rest of Australia; you will see it here in the self-appointed Georgian grandeur standing hard by strict Victorian boarding houses and diminutive brick cottages. And yet all have a Tasmanian twist, with a veranda here and a flourish of gingerbread filigree there. Stop for coffee at the Jackman & McRoss Bakery, where well-to-do Hobartians, in their sports gear, linger over the papers and a macchiato.
Hobart doesn’t do good shopping, full stop; if your goal is to score fine fashion or directional jewellery here, you’ll leave disappointed. But with scores of resident painters and sculptors, there is art. First, it’s worth a brief visit to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, where you should look at the amazing footage of the extinct Tasmanian “tiger”. Then head for the works by Glover. A contemporary of Turner, he migrated from England in his 60s and applied the burgeoning interest in landscape to Tasmanian scenery, with its exotic scrub, trees and animals.
Next, get to the galleries – which you can do on Hobart’s free-to-use Artbikes. Back at Salamanca are the Colville Street Art Gallery, which holds monthly displays of local and national art, and Handmark Gallery, which exhibits many Tasmanian artists through revolving shows and stock on view. Handmark owner and director Allanah Dopson happily arranges studio visits with her artists.
Inland, in North Hobart, the city’s second centre of gravity, the Bett Gallery has also taken clients on studio visits for years. Interestingly, it has a wide-ranging collection of Aboriginal art, sourced from the Tiwi Islands and Arnhem Land (Aboriginal artists in Tasmania tend to produce shell necklaces and basketwork, rather than painted works).
Fortification is available close by at Sweet Envy. Owned by Teena Kearney and Alistair Wise – formerly Gordon Ramsay’s pastry chef – it has a magnificent range of sexy-looking cakes and brews a fine cup of coffee. Or perhaps you should hold out for lunch, which must surely be fish – Tasmania’s chefs have first call on a catch that takes hours even to reach Sydney and Melbourne – perhaps at Blue Eye, set under a renovated portside silo next to Salamanca. You’ll need sunglasses; the startling southern light floods in, glancing off glasses and cutlery – even the batter glows.
Dinner is instead best left to a handful of excellent restaurants around the city, which, in season, serve pink-eye potatoes and local Jerusalem artichoke (some picked from their own gardens). Savvy Sydneysiders fly all the way south to enjoy Garagistes, which is informal and very, very cool. Restored beams overhang the subdued charcoal walls and light industrial music pumps subtly through the former garage space, furnished with large communal tables. The chef did a stint at Noma in Copenhagen; his menu changes daily and is as varied as grilled calamari with a raisin purée and the silkiest tartare of wallaby, and there are equally idiosyncratic French wines (and cheeses).
The more formal Restaurant 373 is in a charming dining room on lively Elizabeth Street in North Hobart. You feast on exotic produce sourced from around the island (the kingfish simply melts into its salsify purée) and served in an atmosphere of Serious Dining, starched linens and all. It also stocks Tasmania’s finest wines; make sure you sample the D’Meure and Domaine A.
South of Hobart, in Woodbridge, a town set between Tasmania’s fertile fields and fishing grounds, is The Stackings (part of the Peppermint Bay complex). In a modern glass-walled structure looking across to Bruny Island, it offers three- and five-course menus that lead on Bruny’s famous abalone and Scotch beef from Cape Grim (the island’s north-western point).
The summer months are your best bet on many levels: the produce in season, the days long and the southern sun dazzling. Go before this magical island recedes into the maelstroms of the Southern Ocean.