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"Tasmania, of course, gave up any idea of seceding from Australia; perhaps because it has, in fact, already seceded. It did not do so politically -- Tasmania seceded first of all geologically."
--George Mikes, Boomerang: Australia Rediscovered, 1968.
Hobart, the southernmost city in Australia and capital of Tasmania, is a great place to start your tour of this Island-state. One hour from Melbourne (and two from Sydney) by the modern jets of Quantas or Ansett, it lies south of Melbourne across the Bass Strait and is a world away from the Australian mainland's bustle and drive. Hobart, by contrast, is relaxed, laid-back, and extremely interesting in its own way. It is also a marvelous city to visit, but make sure that you have a Saturday in Hobart in your itinerary.
Around 7am each Saturday morning the parking area around Hobart's Salamanca Place undergoes a metamorphosis. The 150-year-old convict-built bluestone buildings, once warehouses for the cargoes of the great sailing ships that shuttled half-way across the world to-and-fro from distant England are now art galleries, boutiques and restaurants. On Saturdays there is a festive, holiday mood as they prepare for this small city's major weekly event -- the Salamanca Street-Market.
Tasmanians who make their living from arts and crafts arrive with vans filled with handiwork and set up stalls along those of entrepreneurial housewives who have spent the previous night 'slaving over a hot stove' baking cakes and making sandwiches for sale here. Street musicians and the odd 'characters' who add color and music to the market seem to arrive out of nowhere. You will also see a number of unlikely-looking Asian migrants who are now an integral part of the Salamanca market community.
These are the women from the families of Hmong tribespeople who arrived as refugees from their village on the Thai-Laotian border some years ago. Decimated by the Viet Cong for being on the side of the Americans during the Vietnam War, they looked for a place far away from the conflicts of that part of Asia, and one where they could re-settle in peace and quiet. Hobart fitted these parameters.
In the process of building a little community, they have re-created their village life-style and can follow their beliefs, speak their ancient language, and engage in the farming which has been a Hmong tradition over the centuries.
They grow some of the finest produce in Tasmania, and sell this, freshly picked, at their stalls at this market each week. Their vegetable stands are a major drawcard for the housewives and gourmet cooks of Hobart.
But whether operated by native-born Australians or 'New-Australians', as immigrants are called in Australia, the stall-holders are all worth visiting. There are stands with woodwork, stands with home-baked bread and cakes, stands with bric-a-brac, stands with flowers, stands with home-made jams, one that sells exquisite handmade chess sets, and even a stall with crazy hats. Some stallholders take their marketing very seriously, others arrive armed with bottles of chardonnay in hand and, between sales, seem to have as much fun as the throng of shoppers.
The market is a bustling highlight till 3 pm. Then the crowds leave for home, stallholders pack up unsold merchandise, and Salamanca Place returns to its staid role as a downtown, harbourside parking lot.
Hobart has an air of gentle dignity about it. With a population of around 200,000 one gets the feeling that living here provides a much more personal network of friends -- the sort of town where you meet friends and neighbors each time you walk down the street. And for the tourist, Hobart is also a delight.
This picture-book city is set on a beautiful deep-water harbor at the mouth of the Derwent River. At the turn-of-the-century this was one of the world's busiest whaling ports, and Australian, Asian and other fishing fleets, are still based here.
Today you are more likely to find Japanese and Taiwanese fishing fleets, or expedition ships heading for the research stations dotted around the Antarctic.
Streets, houses and gardens are overshadowed by nearby Mt. Wellington which looms 1270 meters (approx. 3,700 feet) over the city. Generally, Hobart is quiet and relaxed but each January the whole town and especially the area around Constitution Dock (where sailing ships once tied up) is a hub of excitement. TV cameras whirr and champagne flows as every ocean-going sailing yacht in the Pacific seems to arrive at the end of the 'Sydney to Hobart' yacht race.
If you have enough time to do it, Hobart is an ideal place to explore for 3 or 4 days. Available accommodation ranges from excellent motels to the luxurious Wrest Point Hotel, arguably the finest hotel in this city. This 5-star waterfront complex includes an excellent casino, and is extremely popular with overseas visitors.
Rather than a hotel-stay excellent boutique accommodation is often preferred by many people. One fine example of this is the Hampden Apartments at 27 Hampden Road, Battery Point. These offer attractive and spacious fully-serviced apartments in one of Hobart's best and most central locations at hotel-room prices. If they are booked out, try the delightful and very upmarket B and B with the rather strange name of Islington Elegant Hotel. This refers back to the two ladies who, from London's Islington, built this charming house in the l840's. This was an earlier project of Mr. Hayden Oxley, the gifted interior decorator who now owns the Hampden Apartments.
Restaurants in Hobart provide exciting, palate-pleasing options. They range from Dear Friends (Brooke Street), voted Tasmania's best restaurant, to other excellent venues like the Atlas Restaurant (Elizabeth Street), Ali Akbar (also Elizabeth Street), the Battery Point Brasserie (Hampden Road), and The Drunken Admiral (Old Wharf).
You will also enjoy Mikaku (Salamanca Place), Panache (Salamanca Place), Prosser's on the Beach (Beach Road), Vanidols Thai (Elizabeth Street), Pasha's Turkish (The Gasworks), and Ristorante d' Angelo (Hampden Road), to name just a few of Hobart's best. Ask your concierge to tell you about the specialties of each of these. Bookings are essential, and once there make sure you also try the excellent Tasmanian wines. The island wineries are relatively new and mostly small. They are run by very enthusiastic and capable winemakers, and you are sure to enjoy the fruits of their labors. But more about this later.
Visiting gourmets should also not miss the Wursthaus Kitchen deli at 1 Montpelier Retreat, Battery Point to get an idea of the excellent range of food and wine Hobart has to offer.
Spend a little time inspecting the Gasworks complex. Here is a good example of what flair and imagination (and a substantial investment) can do in recycling an old, redundant gasworks. Affable but sadly, frugal, owner-manager Robert Hosking has purchased an ancient but magnificent copper still in which one of Australia's only two whiskies is produced, along with a vast range of liqueurs and other alcoholic products. These are now finding a popular niche market throughout Asia as well as Australia. But don't expect any free samples. Even visiting Journalists (or at least this one) don't seem to get these. Nor were we offered a tasting of their delicious-looking chocolates, so we can't report on the quality.
The Gasworks complex also includes Pasha's, one of Australia's finest Turkish Restaurants which, once the problem of slow table service is overcome, should be right in the 'don't miss' category. Antique collectors will also enjoy browsing through Traditions Antiques which adjoins this restaurant. Not all the merchandise here is truly antique, but there is a marvelous selection of traditional decorator items that may well find you reaching for your wallet.
Serious collectors however will want to visit the Salamanca Gallery at 67 Salamanca Place where co-owners Geoffrey Thomas and Kevin Murray will show you what is arguably one of the finest selections of Australian paintings and antique silver to be found on the island.
Shopaholics will also be delighted with stores like Stuga Quality Handknits at 33 Salamanca Place, the Spinning Wheel which sells knitwear, jewelery and handicrafts at 69 Salamanca Place, and the Despar Gallery at 49 Salamanca Place. Another gem is the Handmark Gallery at 77 Salamanca Place which has a great range of original pottery, hand-woven items, glass-blowing and silversmithing from leading Tasmanian artists. Nearby is the Hampden Gallery at 44 Hampden Road which offers original paintings by leading Tasmanian artists.
Those interested in history and Georgian architecture might like to take one of the many walking tours that are available in Hobart. These vary seasonally so the best idea is to ask your hotel to check out which are currently operating.
Having an extra day in this area, we wanted to see some of the island's prettiest scenery, and were told that we should drive down the Huon Valley on the fringe of the South West World Heritage area. The road revealed lush meadows with some of the most contented looking livestock to be found anywhere. We also passed amazing fruit orchards where trees were often espaliered to catch just exactly the right angle of sunshine for optimizing fruit quality.
At the entrance to some orchards we noticed unattended honesty stands where big bags of juicy apples (and other fruit in season) are left for motorists to collect, leaving payment for this in boxes placed there for the purpose. What a pleasant irony to think that, in this day and age where apples and money boxes would be stolen within minutes in most countries, the descendants of Australia's original convicts have turned out to be the most honest of all!!! Along the road you will see a sign announcing the Apple Museum. Don't miss it! It will show you how important apples were to the Tasmanian economy, especially in pre-European Union days when Britain bought vast tonnages of Tasmanian chilled apples to supply the U.K. market in the period counter-cyclical to the British apple season. Today, the Tasmanian apple market is again healthy, this time supplying Asia's premier grade markets.
A friendly Tasmanian had phoned the Port Huon Resort and arranged for us to take their two-hour cruise of the sheltered inland waterways on this Resort's modern motor vessel, giving us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of an industry that has become very important to Tasmania.
In the 1970's, Norwegian experts were brought to Hobart to start raising top quality Atlantic Salmon under the ideal conditions found there. This industry has done so well that Tasmanian Salmon is now achieving premium prices and can be found on the tables of some of the finest restaurants throughout Asia as well as Australia.
Today the island of Tasmania has much to offer, but it was a long time before its potential was realized. The first Europeans to set foot here were a group of Dutch explorers under the command of Abel Tasman who landed on Australia's southern island on December 2, 1642. But Van Diemen's Land, as it was then called, was so remote that there was little interest in it (or the rest of Australia for that matter) until Britain lost the American War of Independence.
Until then, England had practiced population control by exporting petty criminals and political dissenters to its American colonies, but once these would no longer take them a new, appropriately-remote place for relocation of those (mostly) petty criminals had to be found. Someone in London remembered Captain Cook's reports from when he discovered the East Coast of Australia in the 1770's and this lead to the penal colony of New South Wales being established at Sydney (then called Botany Bay) in 1788.
The new colony's authorities found that they needed to separate the most difficult-to-handle convicts, and decided to relocate them to Port Arthur, on the island of Tasmania, some 660 miles (1,062km) to the South West of Sydney. Today, what remains of the penal colony's buildings at Port Arthur are a major tourist attraction an hour or so by car from Hobart. (There was also one near Strahan on the West Coast of Tasmania and we were to see that when we visited the West Coast. But more about that later.)
After serving their terms, the convicts were eventually released. At the same time, the British Government announced free land grants to Britons prepared to emigrate. Many came, intermingling and inter-marrying with the ex-convict farmers, and as the East and North coast of Tasmania bore a striking resemblance to Southern England, they re-created farms and hamlets in the style of their old homeland.
Eastern and Northern Tasmania's rich soil and abundant rainfall are ideal conditions for growing some of the best, pollution-free produce, and it did not take Tasmania long to establish a reputation for outstanding farm products that ranged from apples to wine and beef to cheeses. Today you will find the premium-quality of Tasmania's farms in everything from Atlantic salmon and ocean trout to cheeses that even the French talk about in superlatives. Equally surprising is the fact that Japanese seaweed products, rich in iodine, are quite likely to be made from seaweed harvested in Tasmania.
The picture-postcard-pretty farms of North and East Tasmania perfectly complement the magnificent, rugged mountains and rainforests of the National Parks that cover most of the island's West and South West. This combination makes this small but lovely island an idyllic tourist destination.
Though Tasmania has roughly the same area as Switzerland and is a separate State in the Australian Federation, it only has a population of 460,000 people, so giving everyone plenty of 'Lebensraum.' Other enticing aspects are the climate which is warmer than that of Madrid, the Hobart rainfall which is half of Sydney's, and the island's sunny days which numerically exceed those of Melbourne.
The island's flora and fauna are also fascinating. Within 2 hours by car from Hobart one can find some of the finest imaginable stands of temperate rainforest which will never be cut down, as it is now in the World Heritage List of 'untouchable' National Parks. Only three major stands of this type of rainforest remain -- one is in Chile, one in the South Island of New Zealand, and the third here in Tasmania.
Sadly the Tasmanian Tiger, an animal that looked something like a very large, lean dog with zebra-like stripes on its hindquarters, has died out (though unconfirmed sightings are reported at regular intervals, especially just after Tasmanian pubs and bars close in the evenings). These animals were prolific in Tasmania until, with the advent of farming, it was found that they constantly raided the livestock, killing lambs, chickens and calves. The Tasmanian Government put a bounty on these animals, and at the turn of the century they were virtually extinct.
Very much alive is the Tasmanian Devil, an evil tempered, snarly black creature the size of a large cat which has few, (if any) lovable qualities. Other more affection-generating native species are the wallaby, related to the kangaroo but with smaller ears, a species of small kangaroo and the amazing platypus. This two-feet long fur-covered animal lives in the water when it is not in its burrow, is almost blind, eats its own weight in yabbies (crawfish) and worms, has the bill of a duck, webbed feet, lays eggs and suckles its young.
Another animal found here is the wombat, a nocturnal burrower that has an unwarranted reputation for stupidity. And there are possums! Lots and lots of possums!! These animals, seemingly cute at first, but with habits that make householders despair if they proliferate near their homes, grow to the size where one hotel employee jokingly said that she was afraid of being pack-raped by them each night.
The possums in Tasmania grow to the size of a largish dog and are incredibly cheeky. If you should accidentally open your door when one is sitting on your porch, the chances are that it will try and run into your house rather than away from you. And if it gets inside, it will only take about five minutes to make your abode look like a scene from Mission Impossible just after someone has pressed the destruct button. If you think I'm kidding, talk to Tasmanians about it. There is hardly a person who hasn't got some horror story about the destructive competence of possums which have managed to get into their or their friends' homes and trash them faster than an Olympic runner can cover a hundred yards !
We had decided to drive up the East Coast to Freycinet then head inland to Ross and North to Launceston. There we would spend the day exploring the wineries and other attractions of the Tamar Valley, then go west into the wilderness area, starting with Cradle Mountain. This is the start of one of the great wilderness walks, where those younger and fitter than ourselves hike through some of the most splendidly rugged scenery in the world. The track emerges at Lake St. Clair.
On departing from Hobart on our journey around the island, we first headed up the Derwent River to Bridgewater then drove to Ross, a delightful little country town that had charming shops, including a bakery with some of the best pies we had ever eaten.
Pies were a very Australian snack dish right up to the period following WWII. They were available at every 'milk bar', the Australian synonym for corner-store. Most were such that it was wiser not to ask what was in them. Offcuts of meat of every kind, the occasional bit of potato or vegetable and a mix of fat and mystery gravy made sure that one would need to drown the pie in tomato sauce which Mr. Heinz was now making here.
Then, as European chefs arrived in the post-war immigration, Australians discovered 'real food', and the meat pie went into unlamented hibernation. It has now re-emerged, thankfully the same shape being the only common denominator between the earlier and current variety, the latter being in most instances edible, and in more than a few, a gourmet product. The meat pies we bought here came into that last category.
As we drove on we passed lovely farm country reminiscent of recently-visited Kent and England's Southern regions. Turning off at Campbell Town we then proceeded to Freycinet National Park. The East Coast is slightly more hilly but still relatively gentle to the eye --- except for the dramatic range known as the Hazards which rises like a jagged wall along the world-heritage-listed Freycinet Peninsula.
Freycinet Lodge is a 'must' for the discerning traveler. Stunningly located overlooking a truly beautiful and peaceful bay, Freycinet Lodge is as lovely as anything you would see along California's Big Sur. And the accommodation was also quite outstanding. The Lodge has all kinds of sightseeing and activity options and a great restaurant. This could be made perfect by hiring a staff trainer to fine-tune the service by the charming but, somewhat inexperienced youngsters looking after the table service. This was the only fault we could find with this outstanding Lodge. To sit on the balcony of the restaurant, a drink in hand, and watch the sunset is one of life's magical moments.
Then on to Launceston and more of the British type scenery. Those that have the time to do it should go via Bicheno, St. Mary's, St. Helen's and Scotsdale. We chose the inland route which, in hindsight, was perhaps a mistake. At least however, the road was excellent, and this is probably a good time to say something about Tasmania's minor roads and signposting in general. It is, to use an Australian term, a bloody abomination.
The Tasmanian 'A' roads are excellent -- as good as anything anywhere. The signposting, good in the rest of Australia is, to put it mildly, a pain in the butt. The Tasmanian roadmaking authority seems to take the view that if you're Tasmanian you'll know where places are anyway, and if you're not, stiff luck. This shows itself in the fact that even in Launceston and Hobart, street-name signs are far too frequently cunningly placed behind traffic lights so that it is totally impossible to read the former from across the street.
And if that's not sadistic enough, you take your life in your hands when you travel along the island-state's gravel roads -- and all minor roads seem to be unsealed gravel. Here the authorities think that if you use these roads you will know every curve and danger spot, so why bother to put 'sharp curve ahead' or 'dangerous corner -- please slow down' signs along the roadway? They only cost money and tourists will soon find out whether they're safe or not.
Then, to add insult to injury, they grade the roads beautifully which lulls you into a false sense of security, and top the gravel with a coat of ballbearing-like surface gravel. Come to an unmarked corner and hit the brakes and you will find yourself gliding off-road in record time. The only reason I'm telling you about this, is that it happened to me. And it's not a nice experience! So, whatever you do, stick to sealed bitumen roads wherever possible and keep down to a boring but perhaps life-saving 40 kmph speed on any gravel road in Tasmania. If you do so, you will thoroughly enjoy the drive and all those nasty things I've said about the gravel roads will not apply. But also read your hire-car contract carefully. It may altogether exclude insurance on gravel roads.
But the signposting is about the only negative aspect that you will find in Tasmania. We could not help thinking how lovely this island state was as we drove the last few miles into Launceston. Before exploring this, Tasmania's second largest city, we had decided to drive straight through it and first explore the Tamar Valley Wine Route. Being a wine-buff (though my wife spells it whine-expert) I had tasted some of these wines and found them fabulous. Now it was time to see where they were produced. The three to five hour trip, on which you should pick up a free wine route brochure available at most hotels/motels and tourist offices, covers the splendid areas around Pipers River and the vineyards on the Western bank of the Tamar, the river that flows North from Launceston. It's an experience we can heartily recommend.
Wine making has been a post-WWll phenomenon in Tasmania, and it has been a very successful one indeed. The mainland wineries in Australia have huge acreages under vine, and produce enough excellent whites and reds to be making a real mark on world markets. In Tasmania, by contrast, suitable land is extremely expensive, so vineyards are necessarily small boutique producers, making very limited quantities of premium wines from predominantly cold-weather grapes -- Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, some Methode Champagnoise Bubbly, and even Zinfandel.
My recommendation would be to look at as many of these wineries as your blood-alcohol level after the tastings will allow. But leave room for the visit to three 'must-do' vineyards. Heemskerk which, having been established in conjunction with Champagne Roederer from Rheims, France, makes Jansz 'bubbly' which can hold its own against many imported champagnes. But my favorite wine here is the Sauvignon Blanc which has both dryness and a fabulous 'nose' that pre-announces great, full-bodied fruitiness.
Another excellent vineyard is Pipers Brook, one that produces consistently outstanding wines over a range of cool-weather grapes. I certainly enjoyed their wines immensely with many meals in Tasmania.
If you are American, you will want to call in at Marion's Vineyard not surprisingly the only one in the area to produce Zinfandel, made from the only truly American grape. This is because owners, Californians Mark and Marion Semmens, came here on a holiday in 1979, fell in love with this part of Tasmania, and decided to establish a winery. Call in, chat and try some of their superb wines.
Another vineyard with American and French connections is Clover Hill Vineyards, which also has an impressive pedigree. The current winemaker's father Andr» Portet, was Technical Director for Chateau Rothschild from l955-75 and subsequently had his own winery in France until his recent death.
His two sons, also outstanding winemakers, decided to emigrate. One brother, Bernard, now owns Clos du Val at Stag's Leap in California's Napa Valley. The other, Dominique Portet, settled in Australia, starting the now-famous Taltarni winery near Avoca in Victoria. He also wanted a good cool-weather site, and felt Tasmania would be the ideal location for this. This winery, also now owned by Dominique, is the result.
For lunch, many of the wineries have interesting little restaurants, but our recommendation is absolute. If you want to find out just how good the new wave of Australian cooking can be, and how attractively a winery and its boutique shop and cellar-door sales can be presented, just take a look at the creation of Sabrina Pirie at the Strathlynn Wine Center, 95 Rosevears Drive, Rosevears, on the wine route.
You will have a superb lunch, as good as anything in any wine region of the world, in an absolutely idyllic indoor or outdoor setting. Wash it down with a bottle of Ninth Island Pinot Noir, light and full of flavor, and you'll begin to understand just how well Australians live, and why they call this nation the 'Lucky Country'. But it's not luck. It's hard work, brilliant management and total dedication. And Sabrina is short on none of these.
Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.