Traveller's Guide: Tasmania
Once the butt of jokes from 'mainlanders', the island state has reinvented itself as a wilderness escape, with capital city Hobart adding cultural appeal
Saturday 21 September 2013
My, hasn't Tasmania grown up? In the mid-1990s, Aussies talked about the hour-long flight from Melbourne as if it were crossing continents. Even a decade ago, Tasmania was seen as the ill-starred runt of the Lucky Country, shackled to its past while Australia sped into a shiny future of shopping malls and suburbs. It was an economic basket case, the butt of every joke.
It is only in the last few years that "mainlanders", as Tasmanians call all other Australians, have realised the joke was on them.
Now remoteness is the trump card that makes Tassie the real deal in a homogenised world. For many visitors that means Tasmania's pristine wilderness. The World Heritage Area that occupies a fifth of the state has been expanded in this, its 30th anniversary year, to include rainforests in the south-west. The famous bits of this minor Middle Earth are accessed from Strahan or Cradle Mountain, both gateways to ice-clawed peaks and primeval rainforest. Or as the World Wildlife Fund described it "a world beyond human memory… a living link with the ancient super-continent Gondwana".
The catch of staggering frontier beauty used to be frontier facilities. However, Tasmania has upped its game, with fine accommodation and cuisine. Today, it is a destination where sophistication sits comfortably with the wild environment.
Capital city Hobart is powering the rebrand. It's still the same laidback, likeable port. But as the home to Mona it's also the coolest little capital in Australia. Opened to critical acclaim in 2011, the iconoclastic art gallery was awarded as Australia's premier cultural attraction this year, trumping some old opera house in Sydney.
In the vicinity is Tassie in microcosm. Drive for two hours from central Sydney and you'll be snarled in suburbs. From Hobart you'll be pottering around the travellers' smorgasbord of south Tasmania, stuffed with fine-food producers and restaurants in farming villages such as Cygnet and Woodbridge. Or you could drop off the radar on Bruny Island, the city's favourite getaway.
Go east and you could be on the Tasman Peninsula, home to Australia's finest convict sight – Port Arthur Historic Site (00 61 3 6251 2310; portarthur.org.au; 9am–5pm; A$30/£19), another World Heritage site – and its highest seacliffs, best appreciated on a walk to Cape Hauy or astonishing cruises along a coast.
It would be tempting to base yourself in Hobart. Yet a Tassie tour is Australia's great unsung road-trip. Perhaps it lacks the epic distances of the mainland – nowhere is more than six hours away – but nor is it the bore-athon they can become. The east coast is a classic Aussie beach-and-bush playground without the classic crowds. Must-sees are Maria and Freycinet national parks, the latter home to the improbably perfect Wineglass Bay and the sugary sands of the Bay of Fires. Cut inland and you're in pinot noir terroir in the Tamar Valley. Just a few hours beyond that is the wild west: Cradle Mountain, Strahan and Stanley, a lovely village at the edge of the world.
You could swing around the lot in a week. But what's the hurry? Tassie doesn't lend itself to fast travel – and that's part of its charm. So, slow down; savour the landscapes, food and activities.
Were it not highly un-Tasmanian to boast, they might say Tasmania was having a moment. Now it's easy to find yours: Tasmanian Odyssey (01534 735449; www.tasmanianodyssey. com), the UK's first Tasmania specialist travel agency, has just launched, with accommodation and experiences curated by one of the most knowledgeable hands around.
Where the wild things are
Some of the strangest limited-edition creatures on the planet occupy the island: wallabies, wombats, platypus, pademelons, assorted possums and quolls, and, of course, Tasmanian devils.
The experiences that stay with you for life are provided by private guides. Craig Williams (00 61 3 6352 2263; pepperbush.com.au) runs gourmet safaris in the north-east. For 2013, he launched his Puggles and Bubbles tour – you'll spot platypus over breakfast then taste wines in the Tamar Valley. Combine it with his Quoll Patrol dusk trip for two days of animal magic; Tasmanian Odyssey offers both with B&B accommodation for £650pp.
Even Ray Mears was bowled over by Geoff King when they met this year. Geoff runs the only wild devil-watching trip in Tasmania (00 61 3 6457 1191; kingsrun.com.au; A$100/£63) from a property near Arthur River.
An art in Hobart
Who would've thought a pooing machine and a wall of porcelain vaginas would prove so popular? Mona – the Museum of Old and New Art in Berriedale – has been a gamechanger for Hobart. It was always a creative city. Yet owner David Walsh's "subversive Disneyland", which unveiled its new exhibition, Red Queen, in June, has been the catalyst that transformed Hobart into the thinking person's holiday destination; a blend of arts and culture, food and wine that has lured mainlanders across the Bass Strait in droves (00 61 3 6277 9900; mona.net.au; 10am-6pm; A$20/£13)
Quite simply, Mona is a must-see of Tasmania. The building, like a Bond villain's lair, is as astonishing as the art within – witty and beautifully presented, whether cutting-edge installation, painting or Walsh's antiquities.
Make a trip of it and catch the Mona Roma ferry (A$20/£13) from the wharf, then stay at the Mona Pavilions, pictured. The modern houses on the River Darwent are each named after a different artist. Rates start at A$390 (£244) per night for two guests.
Get out more
Tasmania's World Heritage Area is packaged into national parks and crisscrossed by trails. The Overland Track and South Coast Track are the big two to tick off.
However, it was a campaign to save the Franklin River that inspired World Heritage status, so what better time to follow that dark ribbon on one of the finest rafting adventures on the planet? Tasmanian Expeditions (0800 074413; tasmanianexpedit ions.com.au) runs hiking and rafting trips. A nine-day rafting trip costs A$2,695 (£1,684).
Alternatively, head into the Tarkine, the largest unbroken tract of rainforest in Australia. Area specialist Tarkine Trails (00 61 405 255537; tarkinetrails.com.au) runs retreats and walks, for example a three-day journey costing A$1,349 (£843) full board.
Tasmania does adventure-lite, too. The Bay of Fires Walk, pictured, is hiking for softies (00 61 3 8392 2211; bayoffires.com.au; A$2,150/ £1,344). Your reward for two days' stroll up a gorgeous beach is the Bay of Fires Lodge, a glass-walled outpost of wilderness-chic.
Once it was the "Apple Isle", exporter to the Old Country. Now Tasmania, blessed by the purest air and rain on Earth and Australia's richest seas, is known for restaurants that compare to Sydney and Melbourne in everything except price.
Hobart leads the charge, with hip new restaurants such as Garagistes (00 61 3 6231 0558; garagistes.com.au) serving octopus cooked over coals with a nettle sauce. Or at Ethos Eat Drink (00 61 3 6231 1165; ethoseatdrink. com) dishes are curated from a menu of daily ingredients.
Tasmanians have also developed a taste for combining their great loves, food and walking. Hobart-born, New York-schooled chef Mary McNeill reveals the capital's foodie secrets on new Gourmania tours, pictured (00 61 3 4191 80113, gourmaniafoodtours.com.au; A$95/£59); and the Bruny Island Long Weekend tour (brunyislandlong weekend.com.au; A$1,480/£925) which provides three days of food, wine and walks in an emerging gourmet hotspot.
Of beds and bush
Farewell, death by doily. Tasmanian accommodation has outgrown the heritage cliches and now offers more sophisticated style.
Nowhere does it better than Hobart's The Islington, pictured (00 61 3 6220 2123; islingtonhotel.com), an effortlessly glamorous stay in a Regency house with doubles from A$395 (£247).
Yet to sample Tassie's rural soul, choose a country B&B, a niche of Tasmanian Odyssey. Two highlights are: Seaview Farm (St Marys; 00 61 3 6372 2341; seaviewfarm.net) a peaceful farmstay of views and all the magic off the east coast that's a bargain at A$95 (£59) a room; and Glencoe (00 61 3 6492 3267; glencoe ruralretreat.com.au) near Sheffield – which offers rural charm and French country style for A$175 (£109) .
And don't forget a tent. Over 40 per cent of Tasmania is national park or reserve and in most you'll find a bushcamp. They're basic, but the birthright of every Tasmanian is to sit beneath a star-filled sky without forking out a cent. No wonder they call this the Lucky Country.
The Tourism Tasmania website (discovertasmania.co.uk) is a mine of information for planning.
There are no direct flights from the UK. Connections to Hobart and Launceston are offered from Sydney or Melbourne. Qantas (0845 774 7767; qantas.com.au), its budget wing JetStar (00 61 3 9645 5999; jetstar.com) and Virgin (0800 051 1281; virginaustralia.com) provide the most frequent schedules.
Tasmania doesn't really do motorways. Notwithstanding sections of dual-carriageway on Highway 1 that links the three cities, Hobart, Launceston and Devonport, most routes are scenic single-lane roads. Even country lanes are in good shape, although dirt roads take over in the back-country.
Although travel by bus is possible – regional services around the cities are good – schedules reduce to one or two a week to remote destinations or stop entirely.
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