TRAVEL: The mania for Tassie

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Hobart is Tasmania's capital city and the second oldest capital in Australia, after Sydney. Located at the entrance to the Derwent River, its well-preserved surrounding bushland reaches close to the city centre while beaches line the shores of the river and estuary beyond.

We know the apple isle has a lot to offer discerning  travellers but, as Sue Williams discovers, there’s always another pleasant surprise just around the corner.

It was only when we went to pay the cafe bill that we discovered something was oddly amiss.

Until that point, all had been going to plan. We were having a long weekend in Tasmania and, on our second morning, had just devoured a giant breakfast of eggs royale – a slab of salmon, a mound of wilted spinach and perfectly poached eggs – and a plate of light-as-air ricotta hotcakes smothered in chocolate fudge and raspberries.

Finishing off with a series of coffees in the half-cafe, half-laundromat Machine Laundry Cafe, we’d then mused how amazing the food was in downtown Hobart, how friendly the service and how delightfully quirky the eating houses.

But when we finally dragged ourselves to our feet to get on with the day, the barista broke it to us. “No, sorry,” he said. “Your money isn’t any good here.” We looked at him blankly. Last time I visited, Tasmania was still part of Australia. What had happened since?

His face broke into a laugh. Another customer had insisted on paying our bill as he’d paid his. Overhearing our conversation, he’d apparently been so pleased we were loving Hobart, he’d simply wanted to improve our day still further.

And there you have Tasmania. It can be so charmingly friendly, well-mannered and beautifully quaint, it sometimes feels a world away from big city Sydney and Melbourne. But at the same time, it’s far closer than you’d think.

A long weekend, in fact, Friday to Sunday, is ample time to cover a few of the major highlights – whether or not they include a free breakfast – and leave you hungry to come back for more.

The schedule is simple: fly to Hobart on a Friday morning, be whisked out by ferry to the marvellous MONA for the day, and ride back to Hobart just before closing. Eat at one – or even two – of Hobart’s world-class restaurants (I went for dessert to a second venue), and stay the night.

The next morning, Saturday, wake up and go for breakfast at another of the great cafes, cooking some of the freshest local produce I’ve ever tasted. Then wander through the city’s historic Salamanca Market, have a coffee and pastry at an award-winning bakery like Daci & Daci, then pick up a hire car and drive over to the fabulous Freycinet Peninsula. Explore, stay in one of the two lodges, according to budget, and Sunday morning drive back to Hobart for the flight back home.

It’s so quick and easy, I’m amazed I had never thought of it before.

Of course, the MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, is something every Australian should visit at least once in their lifetime, and preferably many more times.

The 30-minute ride on the camouflaged ferry from Hobart city up the River Derwent to the Berriedale peninsula is a great warm-up for the main event, with seats in the shape of sheep, art installations galore and bars full of birdcages and chandeliers.

On arrival, the MONA easily lives up to its CNN tag as one of the most far-out museums in the world, with its founder, collector David Walsh, famously describing it as a “subversive adult Disneyland”. And with collections as diverse as a pongy installation mimicking the human digestive system producing one excretion a day, a row of plastercast vaginas and seminal works by Sidney Nolan and Brett Whiteley, it truly provides a rollercoaster of an experience.

You can eat at MONA’s restaurant The Source, or stay the night there, but I preferred to ride back to Hobart and dine at one of the myriad great restaurants, like Smolt, Henry’s, Monty’s on Montpelier or Remi de Provence. Most boast about using local ingredients and yes, it really is top quality.

Saturday morning, the local outdoor markets set among the glowing sandstone of old historic warehouses are in full swing, with more than 300 stalls selling everything from organic vegetables to beanies in every hue imaginable, wooden carvings, and local handicrafts, to the tunes of a dozen buskers.

After a good walk and shop and breakfast, it’s then off for the two-and-a-half-hour drive to the Freycinet Peninsula. It’s well worth taking a short detour along the way to the historic town of Richmond just to the north of Hobart. The extremely well-preserved 1825 Richmond Gaol, with its haunting convict tales, is a major attraction, along with the convict-built Richmond Bridge, said to be still haunted by the spirit of a cruel overseer killed by his workers.

The tiny town of Coles Bay is the gateway to the spectacular scenery of the Freycinet Peninsula and the beautiful curve of Wineglass Bay. There are some bracing walks along the wildflower-covered coast to stunning scenic lookouts, with some of the freshest air you’ll ever breathe.

Tucked away in the wilderness is the Freycinet Lodge, overlooking the glassy waters of Great Oyster Bay or, for a real splurge, there’s the nearby luxury lodge Saffire Freycinet, with its spectacular views of the ocean and the Hazards Mountains.

Both feel a long, long way from apartment-life in a city, but the joy is, they really aren’t. If you leave after breakfast on the Sunday morning, you have plenty of time to drive back to Hobart, ready for the flight back to reality.

And hopefully as refreshed and rejuvenated as any long weekend away can deliver … and possibly even revitalised too by the kindness of Tasmanian strangers.

THE PERFECT TASSIE LONG WEEKEND

FLY: Qantas, Virgin and Jetstar all fly Sydney and Melbourne to Hobart, and back.

EAT: Machine Laundry Cafe, 12 Salamanca Square, Battery Point, Hobart (03) 6224 9922; Smolt Restaurant, 2 Salamanca Square, Battery Point, Hobart (03) 6224 2554; Monty’s on Montpelier,  37 Montpelier Retreat, Hobart, (03) 6223 2511; Daci & Daci, 9-11 Murray Street, Hobart (03) 6224 9237.

STAY: The Henry Jones Art Hotel, 25 Hunter Street, Hobart (03) 6210 7700; Freycinet Lodge, Freycinet National Park, Coles Bay Rd, Coles Bay (03) 6256 7222; Saffire Freycinet, 2352 Coles Bay Road, Coles Bay (03) 6256 7888.

SEE: MONA, 655 Main Road, Berriedale (03) 6277 9900 – make sure to book admission tickets and the ferry in advance www.mona.net.au .

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