How Hobart is emerging as a destination for lovers of food, art and echidnas

Tasmania's once-parochial capital is a sleepy city with beauty and brains, says Susan Griffith

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The Independent Travel

Collaring her agitated Labrador, the woman ahead on the sun-drenched path crouched down, urging patience. Puzzled, I stopped behind her and she gestured to a hedgehog-like animal waddling up from the stream. The comical creature, an echidna, nonchalantly crossed in front of us and struggled ineptly up the bushy bank opposite, something you don't expect to see less than half-an-hour's walk from a city centre.

Hobart really feels like a place apart; its remoteness means that independent cafés, artisan bakeries, and makers' studios flourish. And you know you are a long way from the centre of things when an Antarctic ice-breaker is moored in a city's harbour. In some ways, Hobart is still like a sleepy market town, defined by the natural beauty of its setting astride the sparkling estuary of the River Derwent and presided over by Mount Wellington. Behind vibrant Salamanca Place near the wharves, Kelly's Steps lead south into tranquil and historic Battery Point, where the architecture and exuberant cottage gardens are more reminiscent of Harrogate than Bondi.

Hobartians are always ready to strike up a conversation with visitors about the topics of the moment, namely food and art. Tomorrow the locals will no doubt be at their friendliest when they celebrate Australia Day with a Big Aussie Breakfast on the Bellerive riverfront boardwalk.

The annual Taste of Tasmania summer food festival, which celebrates the city's metamorphosis into a culinary destination, finished a few weeks ago and has left the people and restaurants of Hobart more excited than ever about their produce. Temptation can be found wherever you look, from the waterfront restaurant Fish Frenzy, serving up fabulous fish and chips, to foodie Elizabeth Street where, for example, the raucous Republic pub offers delicious char-grilled octopus with a salad of orange, candied walnuts and bocconcini.

Four years ago the dazzling Museum of Old and New Art exploded on to the international art scene. Locals maintain that Mona is the most exciting thing to have happened in Tasmania since an escaped convict was accused of cannibalism in 1822, and visitor numbers to Hobart have soared since raffish local dynamo-cum-visionary David Walsh opened this extraordinary and confronting private gallery.

Unpack

Opposite St David's Cathedral, Hadley's Orient Hotel (00 61 3 6237 2999; hadleyshotel.com.au) had already been around a long time when it assigned a "miserable little room" to the scruffy-looking explorer, Roald Amundsen, who had just returned from the South Pole in March 1912. After a sympathetic restoration last year, the hotel was relaunched in November and has recaptured its old-world comfort and elegance. The current price of A$184 (£99) for a double room, and a hot breakfast represents terrific value.

Think local

The Rivulet Track is one of the most enjoyable urban walks I've ever done. The cascade that gave its name to the 1824 brewery at the top of the walk has slowed to a gentle stream, its banks draped with blue periwinkle and gorse. You might see an echidna, as I did, or even a platypus. A proposal to tame the 2km path by concreting it was temporarily knocked back by local opposition in November.

The walk passes the fascinating Cascades Female Factory Historic Site (00 61 3 6251 2310; femalefactory.org.au). With few remains extant, a guided tour (A$15/£8.50) brings to life the ordeal of the colony's women convicts. A little further on, you can end the walk with a glass of Bright Ale in the gardens of the Cascade Brewery (00 61 3 6224 1117; cascadebreweryco.com.au).

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Eat

Monsoon Café (00 61 3 6224 4101; monsoonthaifusion.com) opened last year in a pretty Battery Point bungalow. Staff flit between packed wooden tables, serving Thai fusion dishes such as abalone dumplings, hot duck salad, and aromatic vegetarian curries; most mains cost A$23-$30 (£13-£17).

Latin American cuisine is the starting point for the inventive cooking at Hobart's stylish restaurant, Frank, which opened in November. The plate-glass windows at 1 Franklins Wharf (00 61 3 6231 5005; frankrestaurant.com.au) invite diners to ogle the waterfront while tucking into shareable dishes like charcoal-grilled short ribs with chimichurri and salsa picante.

Drink

Last year's first prize in the World Whiskies Awards went to Sullivan's Cove single malt, distilled on Hobart's north shore. A good place for an enthusiastic initiation is the Lark Distillery Cellar Door & Whisky Bar (00 61 3 6231 9088; larkdistillery.com.au) near the waterfront. You can have a half-day whisky tour for A$75 (£40) or sip a beer on the patio and listen to the country roots house band.

Spend

Every Saturday from 8.30am to 3pm, up to 300 craftspeople and food producers set up stalls in Salamanca Place (salamanca.com.au). This cheery open-air market attracts local kids browsing the fossils at Lunaris Gemstones, foodies sampling Bruny Island cheeses and tourists chatting to a wilderness photographer self-promoting his book. Many of the handicrafts are made from hardwoods found only in Tasmania. Turned Huon pine bowls make wonderful souvenirs.

Don't miss

The hyper-imaginative Museum of Old and New Art (00 61 3 6277 9900; mona.net.au; 10am-6pm, closed Tuesdays; (A$20/£11) is built into a bluff over the Derwent River. The best way to arrive is by ferry; tickets for the 25-minute trip are A$20 (£11) from a kiosk on the wharf. An iPod guide leads you round the art, after which decode it all over a glass of pinot noir in the clifftop café garden.

Getting there

The main gateway to Tasmania is Melbourne, accessible direct from Heathrow via Dubai with Qantas (0800 964 432; qantas.com.au) and on many other airlines with a single change of plane; Emirates (0344 800 2777; emirates.com) has the widest range of departure points in the UK.

Frequent onward 100-minute flights from Melbourne are available with Qantas, Jetstar (00 61 3 9645 5999; jetstar.com), and Virgin Australia (0800 051 1281; virginaustralia.com).

More information

hobarttravelcentre.com.au

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