Finding the art in Hobart

In this week's Lonely Planet 'Great Escape', Tasmania's capital city reveals a new cultural confidence that sits happily alongside its rugged reputation

A pod of dolphins, ducking and diving in the bow wave, escorts your sleek motorboat from Hobart's waterfront along the Derwent River. Your destination is the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona), a privately owned gallery that opened on the outskirts of the Tasmanian capital in 2011. After disembarking, you take the glass-walled elevator into Mona's depths. As you arrive at the base of a three-storey chasm, your first sight is of a bar, complete with a neatly dressed bartender. Your next is of New Zealand artist Julia deVille's Cinerarium, complete with a neatly stuffed raven watching over an urn of human ashes.

Not long ago the idea of contemplating mortality in a subterranean gallery in Hobart would have been met with incredulous laughter. Hobart has long been the sort of place where outdoorsy types mountain-bike in the morning, kayak in the afternoon, and wind up having a glass or two of the city's own brew, Cascade.

Logging trucks still rumble through the business district, a clue to the island state's controversial source of income. But these days, Australia's poorest state prompts fewer jokes and more envious glances among mainlanders. For Hobart, at the southern tip of Tasmania, is transformed.

The catalyst arrived in the shape of a millionaire gambler. David Walsh is the mathematically gifted son of a single mother from Glenorchy, a down-at-heel suburb of Hobart. The art-loving entrepreneur spent A$100m (£67m) of his winnings amassing a collection of art, and almost the same again on building the museum to house it. Walsh's curators describe him as omnivorous: Neolithic arrowheads and Roman, Greek and Egyptian antiquities, are arranged beside provocative modern art and key pieces by Australian artists Brett Whiteley and Sidney Nolan. The result is the southern hemisphere's most exciting art experience.

The Perfect Getaway

Start the day at the Pigeon Hole café and bakery, on a hill overlooking West Hobart. The former butcher's shop, fitted out with vintage furniture, is where Mona's architects and Hobart's off-duty chefs grab a coffee and something to eat from a simple menu. Then take the boat (or bus, or bicycle) to Mona. Walsh describes his project as a "subversive adult Disneyland". Rather than a thread to follow through his labyrinth, visitors are handed an iPod loaded with exhibit details, idiosyncratic commentary and the option to "love" or "hate" pieces. Digest the day's sights (be warned: some of Mona's content can provoke forthright debate) over a glass of chilled riesling at Moorilla, Walsh's on-site winery.

The island, says Delia Nicholls, Mona's curator, has always been regarded by the rest of the country as a "beautiful backwater". But it is now enjoying new-found cultural cachet, for which Mona is not solely responsible. The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, which fascinated Walsh when he was a boy, completed a major redevelopment in 2012; the grand 19th-century waterfront building now has an impressive contemporary entrance and foyer. Go in to get to grips with the island's natural and cultural heritage.

After a day doing Hobart's museums, drop into Garagistes, a stripped-out, one-time car workshop on the edge of the CBD, for a glass of wine. Inside, all is cool, dark and airy. Trestle tables are lined up perpendicular to an open kitchen, from where chef Luke Burgess, formerly of Noma in Copenhagen, sends out platters such as veal sweetbreads spiked with sour cherry, and buckwheat, lettuce hearts and nasturtium leaves, each designed for sharing.

It's quite a jump from pulp mills and half-hewn old-growth forests to state-of-the-art museums and boutique bakeries, but Tasmania is mid-leap.

Plan It

Most international flights to Hobart arrive via Melbourne or Sydney. Reserve a couple of nights at the Henry Jones Art Hotel, a former warehouse on the harbourside, or the Islington Hotel in South Hobart, both of which have their own art collections on show (spot work by Matisse and Hockney at the Islington). Boat trips to Mona can be booked at a kiosk on the harbour, where you can also hire a bicycle to ride out to the gallery.

Detour

Hobart hasn't shed its adventurous side, and the opportunities for cycling, kayaking and hiking within the city's boundaries are better than ever. In 2011, a 10km purpose-built track for mountain bikers opened on the flanks of Mt Wellington. The North–South Track descends to Glenorchy Mountain Bike Park; operators such as Vertigo MTB offer rental bikes and shuttle services back to the city. On the waterfront, Freycinet Adventures takes first-time kayakers on tours of Hobart's harbour or more experienced kayakers on multiday explorations of the spectacular coastline. Hobart's natural setting – fringed by hills, forest and some of the clearest water in the world – is as uplifting as any artwork.

ESSENTIAL EXPERIENCES

* Arriving at Mona on the gallery's motorboat to absorb Hobart's natural setting.

* Spending a Saturday morning at the craft and food market in Salamanca Place before devouring freshly fried seafood and chips on Constitution Dock for lunch.

* Eating at Garagistes, a great no-reservations restaurant. Wait at Sidecar, a tiny bar just nearby.

* Hiring a mountain bike and conquering the North–South Track down Mt Wellington.

* Tasting Tasmanian pinot noir at the Frogmore Creek cellar door, 15 minutes from the city.

* Visiting the recently revamped Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

* Feasting on art, music and performance at Mona Foma, the citywide summer festival.

Location: Tasmania, Australia

Best time of year: November to April

Ideal time commitment: A weekend

Essential tip: Have a glass of Moorilla's wine or a Moo Brew beer after the art

Budget $$

This is an extract from 'Great Escapes', published by Lonely Planet (£29.99). To order a copy, go to: shop.lonelyplanet.com

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