A trip to the Apple Isle had been on the cards for moons, so finally The Starfish flitted east to see the devils, wombats, pademelons – and how our GST was being spent.
Unfortunately there are still no direct flights from Perth to Tasmania (discussions are underway), so it meant a few dreary hours in the fast-foodie holding hall at Tullamarine, then a hop over Bass Strait and south across the beauteous landscape to old Hobart Town.
Landing late arvo, we grabbed a rental car and zipped into the city, pulling up at the Battery Point Manor.
Battery Point is historic Hobart at its best. The residential neighbourhood has beautifully preserved heritage buildings, going back 200 years, which can be seen everywhere you turn.
(It’s a pity the same can’t be said about many other Australian municipalities, where we bulldoze our already limited heritage with idiot abandon.)
We had a vast room at the well-priced Manor with views over the rooftops and harbour, and after settling in ventured out into an unusually balmy Hobart evening, strolling around the waterfront to the docks.
Soon we were buying an armload of fish n’ chips at Flippers on Constitution Wharf, located a bench, then had most of our fishy repast filched in a frenzied, Hitchcockian dogfight with every Pacific gull in the South Seas.
Afterwards we toddled home through historic Salamanca Place with its fine restaurants, old taverns and artsy shops, bookshops and chichi boutiques.
The place was full of go, a sign that the much-mooted Hobart renaissance was not just marketing twitter concocted by Tourism Tasmania. Taz is currently enjoying a conspicuous revival. The number of tourists, particularly from Asian countries, is impressive.
Breakfast next day was a treat around the corner at the popular local café Jackman & McRoss – Bakers of Fine Breads, Cakes and Pastries.
Then it was off to see Hobart from above. We navigated the jalopy up the eastern flank of Mount Wellington, which looms over the city and offers spectacular 360-degree views of the surrounds.
A visit to the mountain is pretty much obligatory for Hobart sojourners and is well worth the effort, unless it is winter and the weather is grim.
In 1836, during his celebrated voyage aboard the Beagle, Charles Darwin took a passing interest in Mt. Welly.
“Hobart Town stands at the base of Mount Wellington, a mountain of little picturesque beauty,” bemoaned the so-called Father of Evolution. (Arguably this title should have been bestowed on the lesser-known Alfred Russel Wallace, but he was silly enough to show Darwin his notes.)
Despite his world-weary appraisal, C.D. made two attempts to climb the mount. On the first attempt he reported, “We were foiled by the thickness of the wood.”
On his second attempt, the finicky naturalist turned his chagrin from the annoying topography and dense trees to the hired help.
“Our guide was a stupid fellow, and conducted us to the southern and damp side of the mountain where the vegetation was very luxuriant, and where the labour of ascent was great.”
Despite the griping he made it to the summit in the end and had a great time.
That afternoon we took a stroll around town, visiting the picturesque parks and places of historic interest. There’s more than a spot of Mother England in the early urban planning of Hobart, and the likes of St David’s Park are a salute to London’s open spaces with gazebos, statuary and lush manicured gardens.
While featuring a handful of fine period buildings, the Hobart CBD itself is akin to many Australian cities: rather dull, dated and uninspiring, primarily due to town planners’ customary pursuit of utilitarian functionality.
It’s the suburbs and surrounds that justify the state slogan, “Island of Inspiration,’ and not the rather naff downtown malls and thoroughfares.
We did make an attempt to visit the Royal Tasmania Botanical Gardens, but misjudged the walking distance on our tourist mud map, and almost expired in open parkland in the exceptional 35° C October heat, so that floral fantasia awaits our next visit.
Parched and puce back in historic Salamanca Place we popped into the funky Retro Café, and sucked down a few gallons of water and a coffee or two. (The idea of ‘retro’ is big in Tasmania, as we were to find out on our coming trans-isle excursion.)
The best day to visit Salamanca is Saturday when the weekly market is in full swing.
Stallholders proffer goodies from around Tasmania, including fresh fruit and vegetables, gourmet produce, plants, clothing, jewellery, books, music, toys, arts and crafts.
The next morning we set off for the celebrated Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) up the Derwent on the Berriedale Peninsula.
We made the journey aboard the funky MR-1 Mona catamaran, a grey-tone camouflaged craft that transports travellers from the Brooke Street Pier to MONA in about 25 minutes.
Of course, nothing about MONA is what you would call normal, including its martial ferry.
“Choose from two different travel options,” says the promo for the MR-1. “Purchase a standard ticket to sit on sheep, frequent our onboard bars and admire our spunky staff in their spunky boiler suits.
“Or, upgrade to the Posh Pit and escape the riff-raff. Enjoy complimentary drinks, canapés and inflated egos in our exclusive lounge, bar and private deck. There’s table service too; rattle your jewellery for attention.”
MONA is the largest privately funded museum in Australia and is the brainchild of wealthy gambler-turned-art collector David Walsh.
His taste in art is decidedly eclectic and what he has done with this extraordinary attraction is exceptional.
The single-story MONA building, opened in 2011, appears at street level to be dominated by its surroundings, but its interior has a spiral staircase that leads down to three larger levels of labyrinthine display space built into the side of the cliffs.
There are no windows and the atmosphere is intentionally ominous. The various galleries present antiquities as well as modern and contemporary art from Walsh’s collection.
The wry and quirky Walsh has described his museum as a “subversive adult Disneyland,” but even this is being rather unadventurous.
For example, there’s a contraption that accurately replicates the entire process of human digestion, concluding with a ‘number two’ plopping into a beaker every afternoon.
There’s also a couple of prone mechanical human skeletons demonstrating the ins and outs of the missionary position for the voyeuristic public – and what seemed to us an inordinate number of chuckling schoolboys.
The displays and collections are frequently updated and the facility also hosts the annual MOFO and Dark MOFO festivals that showcase large-scale public art and live performances.
We had a ball moving between the subterranean galleries and decided it would take several visits to really appreciate this sometimes bizarre but enthralling Hobart facility.
Then it was back on the cat, mounted on sheep, for the return voyage down the river.
Back in town that evening, we headed out to the trendy Templo restaurant for dinner.
This culinary hot spot is a small 20-seat neighbourhood restaurant tucked away in the back streets. It is seriously de rigueur and you pretty much need to book months in advance to get a table. Luckily we did.
Not everyone gets their own table, so we were again lucky to jag a spot in the window. The intimate eatery prides itself on “shared food, unique wines, communal dining and good times” – and delivers on all points.
We worked our way through a delicious degustation menu. Coupled with a glass or two of excellent Tasmanian Pinot, it was a gastronomic night to remember.
There was plenty more to see in Hobart, but with just a week to spare, we needed to hit the road and see a bit more of the island. While small in comparison with the mainland, Tassie is still a fair chunk of land and takes a goodly time to explore properly.
Early next day we crossed the Derwent at Granton, and pushed north up the Mildland Highway.
This route features some of the oldest and most historic rural towns in Tasmania and has always been the primary road between north and south Tasmania.
But there is more than just gorgeous Georgian to this old carriageway – much more.
Feeling a tad peckish we decided to stop at Oatlands for a spot of breakfast where the outwardly unremarkable TKO Café was open for biz.
We certainly didn’t expect to run into Errol Leslie Flynn, one of Tasmania’s most famous sons (he grew up at Battery Point from whence we had just come), or the rest of Golden Era Hollywood at the TKO. To our astonishment, the cafe is packed to the rafters with memorabilia paying homage to Tinsel Town and the mischievous silver screen swashbuckler. There are pictures, posters, bric-a-brac, vinyl records, reels, projectors, rigs, lights, cameras and plenty of action!
Frankly, the excess and adoration of all things Errol and La-La Land verged on the unsettling, particularly before morning coffee in a small Tassie town. You’d expect the same in a cheesy LA museum, but in an Oatlands pub?
Even a trip to the TKO loo was an odyssey down memory lane with the Gents decked out like a ‘50s Sunset Boulevard garage. Jacqui reported similar startling nostalgia in the Ladies.
It was only when a family, well, an Addams Family, came in for fodder and almost sat on top of us that we decided to politely exit stage right and explore the rest of town.
Like Hobart, Oatlands has preserved its heritage buildings with great pride and the town makes for a delightful pit stop for Georgian colonial architecture buffs.
Its most famous edifice though is the Callington Mill, a working windmill built in 1837.
After sitting dormant for decades, the old grinder was restored to its former glory in 2010 and its sails are turning in the wind once again, producing quality flours. It is the only working example of its type in the southern hemisphere.
Further up the road we pulled in at Campbell Town to have a squiz at its impressive Red Bridge, built by convicts in 1838, the town’s most famous attraction.
“Stranger, when you behold this bridge, you behold the very soul of our town,” says a plaque. “For encapsulated into every brick is the toil, the sweat and the long forgotten artistry of our ancestors.”
His Majesty’s prisoners obviously did a good job. The bridge is the oldest in Australia still in use on a major highway.
We popped into the local bookshop, housed in the convict-constructed Fox Hunter’s Return. Now copies of Harry Potter and Maggie Beer cookbooks grace the rooms where convicts were once locked in holding cells.
Another local attraction is the Convict Brick Trail. This single run of bricks embedded in the pavement crosses the centre of town and is dedicated to the nearly 200,000 convicts who were transported to Australia for a century, starting in 1788. Over 70,000 ended up in Tasmania.
Each brick in the trail has a convict’s name, age, ship, arrival date, crime and length of sentence.
“Today it is estimated that 80%, or four out of every five Tasmanians have a little convict blood in their veins,” a sign proudly proclaims.
Checking if my wallet was still intact we headed back to the car and continued north. About 15 minutes later we ran into hundreds of Rebels Australia motorcycle club members heading for Hobart on their annual tour. Quite a sight.
A twitchy local constabulary shadowed the burly bikers and we stopped at the local Caltex for some happy snaps with the leather-clad wild ones. They seemed to be mostly taking selfies and chatting about their deep love of ‘needlepoint’.
Onwards we travelled. Naturally, we had to stop in Perth, another lovely little historic town about 15 kms south of Launceston.
The town features a few impressive churches and streets lined with charming 19th century cottages and homes.
The Tasmanians are great gardeners (pretty much anything grows throughout the island) so it’s a green thumb’s paradise, and always a fun to check out the back streets.
Then it was west over to Longford for the a quick look around and light lunch at J.J.’s Bakery and Old Mill. We ambled around the lovely grounds of the Christ Church Anglican church before pointing the grill west toward Deloraine.
Quite by chance we stopped in at the Cruzin’ in the 50’s Diner at Deloraine seeking coffee for the run up into the high country. This turned into another extraordinary sojourn in retro overload.
It was all Betty Boops, jukeboxes, an Elvis or two, booths, old gas station bowsers and signs, Formica tables, chrome, posters, musical instruments, checked floors, Buddy Holly bursting from the speakers…in fact, 50s to the core.
We rested by the river in Deloraine surrounded by curious ducks and geese, then hit the road again, making sure to stop in Sheffield, known as the Town of Murals.
It’s pretty hard to find a wall that isn’t festooned in fresco in Sheffield, many of them beautifully painted and telling stories about the town’s history – and just about everything else.
Then we skirted the lower slopes of majestic Mount Roland and started the winding drive through beautiful forested highlands toward Cradle Mountain and our log cabin in the forest.
Watch out for Cradle Mountain and the second half of our Tassie excursion in the next Starfish.