Travel to Tasmania promises pristine wilderness, pure air, untouched coasts and virgin forests. So why am I beginning this story on an industrial estate?
We’re a little way off the Tasman Highway on the other side of the Derwent river, northeast of Hobart. In this workmanlike milieu there are bodyshops, a fire training school, sausage enterprises – and the place we’re here to visit.
It’s a grey, two-storey building. Inside, there’s the kind of functional front office you’d expect, made more homely with a Persian rug, a leather sofa and framed awards. There are a lot of frames, a lot of awards and a lot of visitors from Australia and Asia. For this is the home of Sullivans Cove, the best single malt in the world, as voted by the World Whiskies Awards three years out of the past six.
It’s a small premises which doesn’t take long to tour with production manager Heather Tillott. We won’t go into the detail of what makes Sullivans Cove special: single spirit runs, slow dilution, the way they cut that spirit and treat the decanted liquid. Let’s focus on the stuff that makes the whisky: water and barley. They are, says Tillott, ‘pretty damn good’. In Tasmania, the raw material is as pure as it gets.
Sullivans Cove’s story is a very Tasmanian one. When I first started coming to this island in the last years of the past century, there were people who knew that the natural stuff of the place – the air, the water, the produce – was pretty damn good. But they were a niche bunch of foodies, travel writers and environmentalists.
Now the world, not just the whisky world, is taking serious notice. Visitor numbers for travel to Tasmania grew by 15 per cent in the year ending September 2018 – faster than any other Australian state. They come to Hobart, sure, and for the food; but also for bushwalks, farm visits and one-off experiences – like the Meadowbank winery tour.
I’ve been to plenty of wineries, but this was the first time I’d taken a seaplane to a tasting. From the choppy waters around Franklin Wharf, we soar high over the Derwent and the tawny hills to the northwest. Some 20 minutes later, we land on a lake so clear you can make a personal acquaintance with every pebble on the bed. We are flown by pilot son Henry Ellis and met by winemaker dad, Gerald. A steep and dusty 4×4 ride takes us over the hill to a barn and a table set with local cheeses, smoked fish and charcuterie and the fruit of the 50 hectares of vines that stretch out before you, looking incongruous in a setting reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands.
I’d been there a day and the Tasmanian Effect had already begun to set in. Your skin feels cleaner and more tingly, your lungs fuller, your neural pathways sparkier. It’s thanks to a combination of light, sun, rain and landscape. And air.
Cape Grim at the northwest tip of the island has not especially shared in the Tassie tourism bonanza. There’s not much to see: a scattering of houses, basalt cliffs, beaches and a weather station.
But it ought to be a site of global pilgrimage. For it was there in the early 1970s that the world’s cleanest air was documented. There is plenty of that air, too, as the Roaring Forties bash into the coast with record wind gusts reaching 176km/h.
Clean air tourism was already a Tasmanian phenomenon in Victorian times. ‘The air of Hobart town is perfect air,’ wrote the novelist Anthony Trollope, while another traveller noted that the difference between English and Tasmanian air was like comparing skimmed and cream milk.
Hobart now has a new place to enjoy its perfect air: the Macq 01 hotel, a long, sleek, Scandi-chic building with sweet little grassy balconies overlooking the harbour. The view is spoilt only by the Marine Board building, a squat, out-of-scale blot of 1970s concrete on a historic little harbourfront.
Macq 01 is a delight however; and its owners, The Federal Group, are one of the three forces that have transformed Tassie tourism in the past decade or so.
The group is run by the Farrell family, who made heaps of money from gambling, then diversified. In 2004, they converted a former jam factory into the Henry Jones Art Hotel – a blend of conservation and curation that was several years ahead of its time.
The second force is David Walsh. He also made heaps of money as a professional gambler, then diversified. He opened Mona – the Museum of Old and New Art – in the Hobart suburb of Berriedale in 2011. Post-crash Tasmania was struggling. Walsh’s audacious, outrageous collection perched in a dramatic coastal setting changed the game: first for Hobart, then for Tasmania. Even businesses on the far northwest see the ripple effect from a new, young urban crowd who travel to Tasmania for the challenging blend of art and nature.
Now he’s planning a Mona Hotel, which looks like a giant shopping trolley. (When challenged on how sympathetically it will fit in, his people say: what about the Marine Board building?)
For the third force, we have to drive a few hours north up the sunny coast (and yes, this coast is very sunny). This bit isn’t exactly new. Around 400 million years ago, tectonic activity resulted in two eroded blocks of granite joining via a sand isthmus. They then became the distinctive pink rocks of The Hazards on Freycinet peninsula. Coastal erosion created a perfect arc of white sand and turquoise sea: it’s called Wineglass Bay. There is no more Instagrammed spot on the whole island.
What Tassie needed was a hotel to complement its world-beating air and Global Top 10 beach. How about the World’s Best Boutique Hotel? The Saffire Freycinet has won that award. Opened in 2010, it’s a low, long structure designed to minimise the impact on its sandy bay and coastal eucalypt forest environment; and to maximise the opportunities to view said environment with a glass of local environmental product in hand.
We had to work for that glass of sparkling Pirie, having spent a busy afternoon with Rob ‘The Bee Man’ Barker and his hives in The Hazards. We’re in experiential travel heaven, with encounters with Tasmanian devils – the carnivorous marsupial that makes a scarifying screech – breakfast in an oyster lake and tramps to Wineglass Bay also on offer.
Me, I’d be happy just sitting outside the suite and gazing – stargazing, seagazing, treegazing and if I can plausibly convince you that it’s possible, airgazing too. If you can see the invisible anywhere, it’s Tasmania.
Need-to-Know Tips for Visiting Tasmania
HIT THE ROAD
Driving in Tasmania is easier than it is on the mainland. There’s less of a risk from huge kangaroos, emus and the like, though you should still avoid being on the road after dusk. Australia really doesn’t like people who break the speed limit: take the road signs seriously. Check out the offers from Cathay Pacific partner Hertz.
If you don’t have a car, there’s a good choice of excursions from the state capital, Hobart. The most popular take in the former penal colony of Port Arthur and the sea stacks, dunes and seal colonies of Bruny Island.
The Landscape Restaurant & Grill at the Henry Jones Art Hotel has some of the best cuts of beef we’ve tried in Australia. This is saying something. But fresh seafood is the real point here. There are lots of choices around Hobart Harbour. Go for Fish Frenzy: crowded inside, quiet and chilly out, with terrific local wines by the glass.
The Henry Jones Art Hotel was a game-changer for Tassie when it opened in the 2000s. The same group is behind the Macq01 Hotel, a converted warehouse on Franklin Wharf in Hobart. The rooms have neat, contemporary terraces overlooking the harbour and mountains and a storytelling theme throughout. History – colourful, tough, vivid – is everywhere in Hobart: the 19th century is never far away.
Saffire Freycinet celebrates its 10th anniversary this year: and to many of its fans it’s the finest luxury lodge in Australia. Its setting certainly takes some beating: within the Freycinet national park and a hike from the perfect turquoise and gold arc of Wineglass Bay.
Man Booker prizewinner Richard Flanagan began his career with two visceral, dense and extraordinary novels about his native Tasmania: Death of a River Guide and Gould’s Book of Fish. Author James Boyce runs a historical book stall at Hobart’s buzzy Salamanca Market. Dip into his 1835 to discover how Melbourne owes its existence to Tasmanians.