GREEN AND PLEASANT ISLE
Tasmania is a jewel in our tourism crown, writes Pauline Webber
WHEN my son attended the scouts jamboree in Victoria last year I wasn’t a bit surprised to see the Tasmanian troops listed in the overseas visitors’ section of the newsletter. It seems even its mainland neighbour has trouble remembering the Apple Isle: so near, yet so far.
But this little afterthought of a state is a jewel. My one-week visit in early December is a succession of bright sunny days (with the odd shower to keep things clean), pleasant (mosquito-free) evenings, abundant fresh air, fine food, interesting ales, beautiful surroundings, traffic-free roads, relaxed locals and an almost total absence of the posturing that has become part of life for big-city mainlanders.
THE HUON TRAIL
THERE’S a big woolly sheep sitting on the Huon Valley. Tasmania has made me quite a connoisseur of early morning fogs but this is the most delectable yet. Behind the wheel I feel like an airline pilot beginning my descent. This fertile region, only an hour’s drive southwest of Hobart, is well known as a food lover’s heaven and I have come to sample the produce of its orchards and vineyards, its providores and restaurants. By the time I turn southeast away from the river towards the little town of Cygnet and the sea, the sheep has up and shuffled off, exposing a hot sun tempered by a stiff breeze from the D’Entrecasteaux Channel.
Holiday houses hug the coast but they can’t mar the sensational views across the water to Bruny Island and beyond. Tiny Woodbridge village has a post office, a fine general store and beautiful old timber town hall. A kilometre beyond is Peppermint Bay, a cafe, restaurant and providore complex sprawling across a grassy headland. From the terrace, I can see the car ferry chugging from Kettering to the island.
I make short work of good coffee and featherlight scones with homemade berry jam and clotted cream, then spend a while wandering in the Peppermint Bay gardens. There are vegetables, herbs and tanks of fish to supply the restaurant, and sculptures squat among the trees on the lawn, legacies of an annual art event held at the complex.
It’s only as I’m driving off the ferry that I realise Bruny Island deserves a whole day, if not several days. This island, once home to Truganini’s people, is really two land masses joined by a long, narrow isthmus. It’s a mix of farmland, national park, golden beaches, protected bays, small townships and, at its most southerly point, soaring cliffs and Cape Bruny lighthouse. Fairy penguins can be seen at dusk at the Neck reserve, at the northern end of the isthmus, which also affords spectacular views. I stop to buy a dozen oysters from a van near the beach. With bread picked up at Adventure Bay, they make a fine picnic lunch. I go as far as the lighthouse but then have to dash back to catch the last ferry of the day.
The road from Kettering to Hobart winds along the coast through the delightfully named Snug (surely a hobbit town), Taroona and Sandy Bay, and in no time I’m at Battery Point, on the city’s fringe, ready to sample the steaks at the Shipwrights Arms bistro.
SALAMANCA PLACE, HOBART
IT is 8pm on Friday. The lingering twilight has just settled over Hobart’s most famous piece of real estate. The bars are full of suits and secretaries kicking back. Occasionally a businessman wearing a rumpled shirt and anxious expression, mobile phone pressed to his ear, breaks away from the crowd to pace the pavement nervously. Mums and dads, whose flyaway children have abandoned their chips and fizzy drinks to pursue seagulls and pigeons on the pavement, pack up their prams and make way for the next wave of more serious diners. Teenage girls in high heels and loud summer frocks chat furiously while tourists study menus with the zeal of hunters and 50-something couples sit comfortably shoulder-to-shoulder sipping good wine and watching the passing parade. A teenage boy is busking at one end of the strip. A hundred metres away is another busker, aged closer to 60 than 16, entertaining a group of enraptured toddlers with what sound like bawdy pub songs.
The serious buskers — jazz trios and a classical quartet — are setting up as I stroll along to the laneway leading to the steep stone stairs that climb to Battery Point. The light has almost gone but, on the village green at the centre of the circle of exquisite cottages known as Arthurs Circus, dads are still pushing children on swings. A couple of teenagers huddle on a park bench discussing their relationship woes in anxious flurries of bitter, whispered words. It is past 10pm now. Darkness falls and the high sound of children’s laughter rings across the still-warm air.
A FRIEND, Tasmanian born and reared but long a resident of the wider world, has informed me that Hobart’s Cat and Fiddle Arcade is not to be missed so, after breakfast, I set off downtown to find this architectural gem.
A half hour later I’m standing in the middle of it, street map in hand and totally flummoxed. Can this functional walkway with its smattering of utilitarian shops be what he was referring to? The cartoon-like metal cat mounted on a concrete wall above the doughnut shop suggests I’m in the right spot.
There’s a clockface beside the cat and a metallic moon next to that. This, I decide, is where the action happens. The clock strikes the hour. The cat begins a stiff, mechanical fiddle, a little dog peeps from behind the moon, the dish and spoon make a half-hearted play for one another, the cow fails to make an appearance.
I see that my friend, famed for his sardonic wit, has cleverly provided me with a chance to glimpse the inner Tasmanian. Here in this southernmost city of this southernmost state of this southernmost outpost of a once-upon-a-time empire, a mechanical manifestation of an English nursery rhyme has captured the imagination of local children and entered their hearts, generation after generation.
Anthony Trollope, who visited Australia in the 1870s, wrote ‘‘ everything in Tasmania is more English than is England herself’’, and there’s still something about Tasmania that is English in a way that no longer exists on the mainland. It is manifest in the placenames and in the sturdy buildings, and in the long shadow of convict history.
SNOWCAPPED in winter, shrouded in fog any day of the year, Mt Wellington squats above Hobart, an imposing presence. The drive to the summit takes less than 30 minutes so, on my last morning, I decide to farewell this beautiful city from its highest vantage point. Soon, the houses peter out and the road winds up through forested foothills. Despite the early hour, the ubiquitous Tassie cyclists are making their way, seemingly effortlessly, towards the mountaintop.
Forest gives way to alpine tussock, then to stark rocky outcrops, and suddenly I’m there. The road widens into an expanse of paved car park, empty at this time of day. There are a handful of functional-looking buildings bunched together under the imposing transmission tower that dominates the skyline and beyond them, the lookout, an attractive edifice of glass and stone.
An icy wind blows in fierce gusts and, unprepared for such a big temperature plunge, I fashion an old sarong from the bottom of my bag into a makeshift turban to keep my ears from freezing. The lookout affords little shelter from the cold but the views are spectacular: across the city to the harbour, down the channel to Bruny Island, up country to Ben Lomond.
I’ve been here less than 10 minutes when the first of the cyclists joins me. Grey hair peeps out from beneath his aerodynamic headgear and I see, with something of a shock, that he’s well into his 50s. He’s barely puffing. His example spurs me into action and I set off on one of the many bushwalks that fan from the summit. Now, with my back to the tower, I can see the rugged beauty of the region. It is early summer and the alpine plants are a profusion of red, white, pink, yellow and orange. The rocky landscape, dominated by the cliff face of dolerite columns known as the Organ Pipes, has a Gormenghast quality to it: atmospheric and eerie.
The sun comes up and I have to refashion my sarong into a sunhat. But I have sturdy walking boots — a must for this high-country trekking — and soon I’ve left all sense of the city behind. Three hours later, hot and hungry, I amback at my car and before midday I’m ensconced in a comfy cafe, a cholesterol-laden brunch in front of me. I’ve earned it.
The Huon Trail can be done as a daytrip from Hobart or extended to a two or three-day tour. www.huontrail.org.au. Peppermint Bay provides everything from a quick coffee to fully catered private functions. It also offers cruises through the region’s waterways in a luxury catamaran, lunch included. www.peppermintbay.com.au. The vehicular ferry to Bruny Island departs from Kettering at about hourly intervals during the day. www.brunyisland.net. Mt Wellington is a short drive from the city via Fern Tree. Organised walking tours are available. www.mtwellingtonwalks.com.au; www.wellingtonpark.tas.gov.au.
Middle-earth: Clockwise from bottom left, Peppermint Bay; cliffs at Bruny Island; the Neck at Bruny Island; Salamanca Place, Hobart; looking towards Hobart from Mt Wellington