There are plenty of reasons to book those flights to Tasmania right now. Here are seven of the Australian island’s star attractions.
These are some exhibits you’re likely to see at the Museum of Old and New Art: a man who sits still for 6.5 hours daily to display his tattooed back, which he’s sold to an art collector; an enormous display of 1,600 small Aboriginal paintings that from afar form a large snake; an ordinary dinner bowl swimming with two pet fish, a pointed kitchen knife laid suggestively in the water; hundreds of sculptures of female private parts; a machine that turns food into excrement. It doesn’t smell nice.
It’s certainly sensory overload, perhaps discomfitingly so. The labyrinthine museum, commonly called MONA, is also underground, giving viewers a feeling of disorientation. The atmosphere contrasts starkly with its above-ground setting: it’s surrounded by sea, grassy hills and rolling vineyards.
It’s also the first of a list of reasons people are flocking to this island just south of Melbourne.
With its juxtaposition of provocative and dark, serene and bright, MONA has made a huge impact. The museum can take credit for the surge in the popularity of Hobart, and indeed the state of Tasmania, which lies just south of the Australian mainland. ‘They call it the MONA effect,’ says Sarah Shields, a public relations specialist for Luxury Lodges of Australia. ‘David Walsh built the museum and it’s been a revelation for tourism for Tasmania.’
Walsh, MONA’s founder, is an unlikely local hero. An eccentric maths genius who made his millions through high-stakes gambling, he started collecting art – with an inclination towards themes of death and sex – and decided to put the collection in a 1950s building, which was overhauled and reopened as MONA in 2011. It’s a 25-minute ferry ride from downtown Hobart to get there. Curiosity took hold around the world, and art fans headed a little farther down under.
And what those museum-bound visitors encounter is so much more: a heritage-filled capital, rich wilderness, and great food and wine. The reality of Tasmania – which served as a British penal colony in the 19th century – utterly upends its less-than-positive image among many on the mainland. ‘There’s a misconception in Australia that Tasmania is wet and cold, but it’s not true,’ Luke Monks, a manager at Moorilla Winery, adjacent to the sprawling MONA property (and also owned by Walsh), tells me on a blue-skied day in March. ‘The east coast of Tasmania is one of the driest parts of Australia – perfect for winemaking. Don’t tell anyone.’
2. Art, history and heritage
The secret’s out. In Hobart, booming tourism has led to a thriving food and gallery scene, accompanied by a clutch of quirky high-end hotels. A row of refurbished factory buildings from the 1800s has been gorgeously preserved, now standing as handsome hotels and restaurants. One of those is the Henry Jones Art Hotel, a former jam factory that in addition to providing accommodation also showcases paintings (they’re mostly for sale, too) by local artists in its corridors, guest rooms and galleries. The hotel’s bricks and beams are mostly original, with seeping jam stains – and, many claim, sometimes a sweet fragrance – recalling its previous use. ‘A hundred and fifty years of heavy use of whaling and jam making, and 30 years of neglect: you can’t replicate that. It is absolutely organically authentic,’ says Greg Ball, history liaison at the hotel.
Heritage is easily found across the city, where Victorian houses abut art deco office buildings and gothic gargoyles. Salamanca Place is a hive of live music and gallery openings, but its main complex originally existed as a row of 19th-century warehouses. Even the new Macq 01 hotel, a four-storey marvel of wood and glass perched on the harbour, celebrates Hobart’s history, billing itself as a storytelling hotel. Guides take guests on fascinating tours of Hobart and of the hotel itself, which hides artefacts and narratives about historic figures in its hallways. ‘People say time stands still in Hobart. It doesn’t stand still but it does linger,’ says Justin Johnstone, who has the lofty title of master storyteller at Macq 01.
3. Its amazing coastline
But Hobart, in Tasmania’s southeast, is often just the gateway to the rest of the state. For many tourists, exploring farther means heading north on the Great Eastern Drive, one of a dozen self-drive itineraries devised by Tasmania’s tourism body. It hugs the eastern coastline, passing wineries, lookouts onto the ocean, rivers and lots of grazing sheep. To break up the journey, spend a night or two at Avalon Coastal Retreat, located 90 minutes from Hobart. This stunning glass lodge facing the ocean serves as a peaceful stopover point on an east coast roadtrip. There’s a beach a short stroll downhill, but it’s just as well to stay in with the fireplace going. The house is self-service, with a well-stocked fridge for cooking, giving guests privacy – unless you count the wallabies that forage the grounds.
4. The ultimate luxury resort
The ultimate destination, another hour north, is Saffire Freycinet, Tasmania’s most exclusive resort. Its main building’s undulating form stands amid Freycinet National Park, a peninsula that draws hikers and snorkellers seeking Tasmania’s top selling point: pristine wilderness.
Each of Saffire’s 20 stand-alone suites are set up with a wraparound floor-to-ceiling window facing the bush. The idea is that guests could be having a cup of tea or reading a book while looking out for kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, wombats and, of course, Tasmanian devils. The state animal is difficult to come by nowadays: a rare form of transmissible cancer has wiped out 80 percent of the population over the past two decades, with researchers struggling to develop a vaccine. But the protected species’ numbers first started dwindling centuries ago when humans shot at them. ‘English settlers saw beady little eyes in the dark and even heard screams. To them they thought it was the devil,’ says the resident wildlife guide, Paul Jack.
5. Bountiful nature and wildlife
Saffire has a sanctuary on-site housing six of the creatures, which guests get to observe at feedings: they’re cat-sized, mostly black, with rat-like faces and a menacing zombie-movie screech, which they unleash on each other during casual encounters. The devil connection makes sense – although it’s more bark than bite. ‘They’re actually antagonistic animals, so they use grunts and growls to communicate,’ says Jack. ‘So it’s all about bluff.’
A boat tour organised by the resort follows the national park’s coastline. Much of its towering cliffs notably consist of pink granite, which was once quarried for its attractive colour; I’m told that the first five storeys of New York’s Empire State Building are made of this stone from Freycinet. Quarrying was eventually halted because of environmental concerns – all the better for visitors seeking unspoiled nature. It’s a story that reflects much of the state’s past and present. ‘Tasmania really started out with a brutal history, and then transitioned to industries like mining and logging, but has done a full flip to eco-tourism,’ says Martin Cameron, my guide on the boat.
The tour also offers a thrilling view of life above water. Sightings of seals on the rocks and dolphins in the waves are practically guaranteed. Bird lovers will easily spot Pacific gulls, unwieldy pelicans, albatrosses with their three-metre wingspans and Australasian gannets that plunge deep into the water for fish. Cameron keeps his eyes peeled for the white-bellied sea eagle, a species revered by indigenous people that has become rare in the area.
6. The freshest food
One of Saffire’s most popular activities is related to a clear highlight of Tasmania: food. The state is especially known for its oysters, and Saffire guests can head out to an oyster farm located in a bay. Here they get to know the farming process – which basically involves moving the oysters to areas of stronger and weaker currents depending on their life stage – and eat them straight out of the water. The staff bring champagne, too.
In fact, much of the day at Saffire is spent eating. And guests at the restaurants are always positioned to face out the window. The Hazards mountain range glows reddish at sunset if the weather conditions are just right. But nature will do what it wants – and we get to enjoy the show.
7. Family-friendly activities
Travelling with kids? Here are the top activities in Tasmania everyone will enjoy
Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary
Located half an hour north of Hobart, Bonorong rehabilitates injured or sick wild animals, giving visitors the chance to interact with them on its sprawling grounds. Animals here include kangaroos, koalas, wombats, Tasmanian devils and several bird species. bonorong.com.au
Par Avion Wilderness Tours
See the island from above on a high-end helicopter tour. Some flights are short and for enjoying the scenery, while others take passengers to sample food and wine, or involve wilderness exploration on land. This company covers all parts of Tasmania. paravion.com.au
Wineglass Bay Cruises
A cove with gentle turquoise waters and a pristine beach, Wineglass Bay is the most famed spot of Freycinet National Park. Get there via an eco-cruise while learning about the area’s history and sights. wineglassbaycruises.com
Tourism Tasmania & Kathryn Leahy
Held every Saturday at Hobart’s Salamanca Place, this lively market near the waterfront hosts vendors selling locally made products including manuka honey, craft gin, artisanal chocolate and wooden home wares. salamancamarket.com.au