Australia’s smallest state enchants with its raw, natural beauty and island vibe.
Words: Chitra S. Photography: Adam Lee
“Oh, so you’re going down under Down Under,” said a friend when she heard I was visiting Tasmania, which has long been overshadowed by the larger Australian states and their vibrant cities.
Approximately 68,000 square kilometres in size, Tassie as it’s affectionately known, lies across the southern coast of mainland Australia. Having heard of Tasmania’s spellbindingly beautiful natural landscapes and rugged charm, I was all geared up to experience the draw of this heart-shaped island.
It’s almost the end of summer when I arrive in Tasmania, and my guide Diane Hollister eagerly bounds up to me, giving me my first taste of Tassie hospitality. My first stop is Hobart, Australia’s second white settlement after Sydney.
Hobart’s appeal lies in its laidback charm. High rises are few and far between and many of the original buildings have withstood the ravages of time. Bright spinnakers billow in the harbour, and fishing punts and waterfront restaurants serve up the day’s catch. Across the docks on Hunter’s Street, Georgian buildings stand proud as a testament to the city’s rich colonial heritage.
The old and the new exist in perfect harmony here. At Salamanca Place, sandstone warehouses from the days of the early settlers have been turned into hip galleries, artists’ studios, bars and swanky dining establishments while maintaining the original façade. Every Saturday, Hobart hosts the colourful Salamanca Market – one of Australia’s best outdoor markets.
A short drive away is Battery Point with rows of cottages and mansions built in the Georgian and Regency styles. Perhaps the most charming is Arthur Circus, a ring of cottages huddled around a village green, built during colonial times to house shipmen and merchants. Hollister points out a Widow’s Walk atop an old mansion-turned hotel where once, the wife of a mariner would’ve awaited the safe return of her beloved.
Hobart is also home to a burgeoning arts scene. Two years ago, MONA (Museum of Old and New Art), the brainchild of hometown boy David Walsh opened its doors. MONA is Australia’s largest private museum and home to a collection of ancient, modern and contemporary art. Notorious for amassing a fortune on professional gambling, Walsh is known for his eclectic taste. Stepping in, I’m transported to a subterranean labyrinthine gallery with exhibits that push the envelope.
Guests are presented with an iPod Touch like device that offers quirky notes on the exhibits. Since its opening, word of Mona’s mischief has spread and the museum has welcomed over 700,000 visitors (more than Tasmania’s entire population) lured by the promise of new art that shocks and delights in equal measure. Installations range from the innocent to themes of sex and death. Among notable installations are Bit Fall – a waterfall that spells out the most Googled words of the day and the curious and (stinky!) Cloaca: A work of art that consists of pipes and glass tubes that reproduce the inner workings of the human digestive system.
After my fill of art, I have my first encounter with Tasmanian wildlife. At the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, rangers care for some of the island’s most precious treasures. Wandering around the park with a ranger, I get up close and personal with a Tasmanian devil – Earth’s largest carnivorous marsupial. It’s almost impossible to see a Tasmanian devil in the wild as disease in the form of facial cancer has led to their decline, and you’ll only get close to one in parks like Bonorong.
A diminutive devil bares its teeth at me, as if to challenge me to a battle of strength, and I’m glad that I opted to stay outside the pen. Devils are fearsome creatures that can chew through bone and it’s for this purpose that rangers protect their feet by wearing steel-capped boots. The park operates Tasmania’s only 24-hour wildlife rescue service and is a temporary home to baby wombats, many of which were rescued from bush fires and road accidents. Cradling a baby wombat in my arms, I see firsthand what makes the wombat so endearing. Be warned though, as cuddly as they look, these are wild animals, so resist the urge to touch wild ones.
The next day, I head for the East Coast. Known for its pristine forests and wind-swept coastlines, Tasmania is a nature lover’s dream. Much of the island is covered in protected parkland, and the Freycinet Peninsula is home to some awesome sights. En route, we stop by Port Arthur, a penal station established in 1830 to house repeat offenders and hardened criminals. The penal settlement closed in 1877 and what’s left is a collection of buildings, among them are the main penitentiary, the commandant’s house and a separate prison for solitary confinement. The site is worth a stop, especially for history buffs keen to learn about Tasmania’s colonial past.
While driving, Hollister spots a pair of black cockatoos soaring above us and tells me a sighting of these birds brings rain. Laughing it off as an old wives’ tale, I am dumbfounded when a storm rolls in just as we arrive in Freycinet. Hollister had planned to show me the Hazards – pink-tinted granite mountains that are now shrouded in a cloudy mist. Fortunately, from a lookout point, I steal a glance at Wineglass Bay – a much-photographed crescent of white beach and turquoise waters. The park also offers activities for the adventurous including bush walking, rock climbing, quad biking and kayaking.
The next leg of our journey takes me to the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, which encompasses 161,000 hectares of pristine wilderness and is part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. We visit Dove Lake first. Known for its picture-perfect beauty, the glacial lake framed by the jagged crags of the imposing Cradle Mountain takes my breath away. The park’s wild landscapes can be explored on foot and among the more popular paths here is the two-hour Dove Lake loop trail.
Farm to table
Blessed with soil so rich and fertile, it is no wonder that a big part of Tasmania is farm country. A true foodie paradise, the island boasts the freshest produce from organically farmed vegetables and fruit to mouthwatering cheeses, meat and seafood. While a new breed of fine dining establishments advertising starred chefs have popped up in recent years, making the most of the island’s beautiful produce, the true heroes of Tassie’s culinary scene are the hardworking farmers and small food business operators who’re devoted to harvesting and plating up only the best produce.
At the Freycinet Marine Farm, I am introduced to Julia Fisher, who runs an unassuming oyster shack on the Freycinet Peninsula. In spite of a listing in the Australian Traveller 2012, there’s nothing froufrou about this place and the setup is simple with just a small kitchen and picnic tables on the deck. Fisher tells me that farm gate produce is something she is passionate about. “We don’t want to change our concept or add complicated dishes. It’s all about doing justice to the oysters and mussels that we harvest daily – simple and fresh flavours.” I wholeheartedly agree as I savour freshly-shucked oysters.
Also located on the East Coast, Kate’s Berry Farm is a cosy hillside café that offers delectable desserts and comfort food. Run by Kate Bradley, the café has attracted a steady stream of customers just by word of mouth. Originally from Melbourne, Bradley fell in love with the island over 20 years ago and promptly made it her new home. “I just came here, bought a piece of land, built my house and started growing berries,” she says as I bite into a scrumptious berry pie. Starting out by selling jam from home, Bradley’s little business has expanded tremendously but retains its rural charm.
In the small town of Evandale near Launceston, I meet Tim Barbour, the entrepreneur behind Tasmanian Gourmet Sauces Co. Barbour specialises in making all-natural jams, relishes and sauces. “It started out as a hobby business but now we produce 2,000 bottles a day,” he says as I sample strawberry chilli jam and whiskey marmalade. It’s impossible to go hungry in Tasmania as there’s always a little café up the road or a farm where you can sample the creamiest cheese. Even more amazing is the inexhaustible passion of its proprietors who believe in providing only the best for their customers. I leave Tasmania with a heavy heart and vow to return to take in more of the island. Though Tasmania may be literally down under Down Under, its isolation works in its favour, lending the island a unique identity and charm of its own. From its rare natural treasures to its evolving food movement and a new-found urban cool, Tassie is truly the place to be!
GETTING THERE Tasmania is easy to reach with connections from major Australian cities to Hobart and Launceston. AirAsia X flies daily from Kuala Lumpur to Melbourne, Sydney, Gold Coast and Perth. Go to www.airasia.com for details.
The Town of Murals gets its moniker from the beautiful art that adorns the walls of many of the town’s buildings. More than two decades ago, the town was facing the threat of economic decline and decided to commission a series of public murals to attract visitors. Serving as an outdoor gallery that offers a pictorial history of the region, the murals have transformed the town and are worth a detour en route to Cradle Mountain. www.sheffieldmurals.com
Explore the Tamar Valley Wine Route in the heart of northern Tasmania for a taste of some of the _ nest wines on the planet. The cool climate here makes it a hotbed for exquisite wines with a unique taste pro_ le. More than 30 wineries dot the route, so be sure to bring along a designated driver and allocate plenty of time to sample its award winning varieties including sparkling wine, Riesling and Chardonnay. www.tamarvalleywineroute.com.au