Travel Story Tastes of Tasmania: family fun on Australia's foodie isle

View over Hobart from part way up Mt Wellington.
Photo of Gemma Nisbet

"The rest of our trip has been lovely — the food, the views, the charm and beauty of the place. But this is what I really came for, and it’s hard to beat."

I’m not sure I could come up with an image more quintessentially “Hobart” than this: Matthew Evans, aka the Gourmet Farmer, the former Sydney restaurant critic turned Tassie televisual foodie, manning a stall at the famed Salamanca Market on the waterfront. 

He’s selling raffle tickets in aid of a local school and the prize — a handcrafted wooden boat — speaks volumes about this place and its preoccupations.

Evans may not be Tasmanian born and bred but he can claim some responsibility for his adopted State’s reputation as a culinary paradise, where gourmet sophistication meets abundant fresh, local produce and a concern for traditional craftsmanship and artisanal production. 

These days, people come from far and wide to get a taste of the Apple Isle. Combined with the draw of Tasmania’s scenery and its reputation as an arts hub (aided by the headline-grabbing Museum of Old and New Art, or Mona), it’s no wonder Tasmanian tourism is booming.

But I’m not really here to browse Salamanca or taste local produce or visit Mona — or visit Port Arthur or climb Cradle Mountain or any of the other classic Tasmanian things. 

I’ve come with my mum — our first trip together in many years — to visit my niece and nephew, who have lived in suburban Hobart for the best part of a decade. 

I haven’t seen them in nearly two years, so it’s a reunion of sorts — although I suspect that, at age 16 and 11 respectively, they will have priorities other than spending time with their grandma and their aunt. It should be interesting.

SATURDAY

I wake on our first morning to the muffled sounds of my mum outside my room. With only a perfunctory knock as warning, she throws open the door and flicks on the light. It’s like I’m 15 again and being told I need to get up for school. I feign sleep but she’s seen it all before.

We walk from the terrace we’ve rented in Sandy Bay, a waterfront suburb near the city centre, to Battery Point for breakfast at Jackman & McRoss, a bakery/cafe that becomes our regular haunt. 

Then it’s on to Salamanca Market, where we find Evans and his boat along with crowds of people, the ubiquitous busker playing Oasis covers and stalls selling everything from market staples (jams, pickles, antiques, flowers) to distinctly Tasmanian products including local wood craft, knitted things (good for an overcast 15C December day such as this) and produce. There’s fat asparagus, tiny sweet potatoes, big pumpkins, truffles, tables of raspberries and, of course, apples.

By the time we pick up my niece and nephew, the grey clouds have made good on their threat of rain. We stop off at the Shot Tower for lunch and the kids and I climb the sandstone tower, which was built in 1870 for the production of shot — molten lead was dropped from the top, cooling into a pellet shape on the way down. It’s a surprisingly long climb up a winding wooden staircase — not made any shorter by the fearful exclamations of a woman ahead of us (“Ooh, this step seems dodgy”), or by the kid loudly counting the number of steps (259, apparently). The view would be brilliant on a fine day but we linger only long enough to pose for a photo in the rain.

SUNDAY

“You couldn’t see anything yesterday,” a man wearing Adidas shorts says. I mention the shorts because they suggest a certain insanity, in the circumstances: we’re at the top of Mt Wellington, above Hobart, and the car says it’s 6C.

If you couldn’t see anything up here yesterday, today it’s next to nothing: just glimpses of the city and surrounds beneath the ever-shifting blanket of cloud. 

The drive up was a small adventure in itself: through the suburban streets into thick forest dotted with ferns and huge rhododendrons with pink flowers, through thinning trees until just below the cloud line, the scattered remains of a rock fall providing a clear outlook over the spread-out little city.

The backdrop to all of this is the Derwent River, which weaves through the city and along which we travel that same day with my niece and nephew on the ferry to Mona. 

Opened in 2011, the museum is known for its playful, provocative approach — its founder, professional gambler David Walsh, described it as “a subversive adult Disneyland” — and the ferry feels suitably quirky, painted in pink camouflage pattern, with a row of model sheep and a life-sized white plastic cow on the deck.

After about half an hour, we see Mona ahead of us, perched on a headland under a low, grey sky — the design like a modern take on a medieval castle, one local tells me. From the wharf, rusted steel and concrete walls frame steps to a plaza in front of the entrance. The museum itself looks unassuming from outside but inside a circular staircase heads underground to the galleries, hewn from rock. Apparently the whole complex is nearly twice the size of New York’s Guggenheim.

The collection is eclectic, with everything from ancient Egyptian sarcophagi to Sidney Nolan’s Dreamtime-inspired mural Snake to a 17th century beeswax model of a man’s head. My niece and nephew have been here before — both are unfazed by the more risque exhibits — and, mindful of memories of boring hours being dragged around museums as a kid, I resolve to play tour guide.

I collect an O, a iPhone-sized device that provides tongue-in- cheek commentary about the works, and use it to point out pieces that might interest them. There’s Cloaca Professional, the infamous “poo machine” which digests food into excrement; a glittering skull made from beetle carapaces; and a coffin shaped like an old-fashioned Mercedes-Benz. An elaborately fuzzy piece of furniture called Zizi the Affectionate Couch prompts a discussion about what constitutes art. We linger in front of Bit.fall, by German artist Julius Popp, which spells out randomly generated words — “pawning”, “Turnbull”, “$300” — in water droplets. My nephew and I agree it is our favourite.

I think it’s all going well until we adjourn to the cafe for lunch.

“Are we catching the boat back,” my nephew asks.

We are, I reply.

He looks thoughtful. “I think the boat ride was the most interesting part.”

MONDAY

Possibly to his relief, my nephew has to go to school. But my niece, now on summer holidays, joins us on a daytrip to Bruny Island.

Bruny is connected to Tassie by a car ferry, which we catch from the town of Kettering, not far outside Hobart. I’m surprised at how big the island is — about 100km in length, with considerable variety in its scenery — as we drive to the Cape Bruny Lighthouse at its southern tip, pausing only to try and fail to take photos of an echidna we spot along the roadside. (Unlike their nocturnal cousins in warmer parts of Australia, Tasmanian echidnas are often active during the day so are easier to spot; we see three during our time on Bruny.)

The lighthouse is well worth the drive, perched in a gorgeous spot between cliffs and white-sand beaches. Built using convict labour in the 1830s, the lighthouse is the second-oldest still standing in Australia and was one of the country’s last remaining staffed lighthouses when it was decommissioned in 1996.

Nestled down the hill are the white cottages where the lighthouse keepers once lived. That this spot feels relatively remote even today is testament to how isolated it must have been in the 19th century when staff worked long hours for poor pay, often going years without leave. These days, the lighthouse is cared for in part by volunteers, who live on site for extended periods.

Bruny’s attractions mirror those of the State at large: historical interest, rugged scenery and, of course, food. The island has a whisky distillery, a berry farm, winery, oyster farm and not one but two TV foodies: Ross O’Meara, who produces charcuterie products under the Bruny Island Food brand, and Nick Haddow, of the Bruny Island Cheese Company. Both appear regularly on Gourmet Farmer with Evans.

We stop for lunch at Bruny Island Premium Wines, which lays claim to being Australia’s southernmost vineyard, before stopping at The Neck, the thin stretch of land connecting the northern and southern parts of the island. There’s a lookout with fantastic views, made all the better by the fact this has turned into the single sunny day of our stay. 

My mum and niece having expressed little enthusiasm for sampling whisky and oysters, we stop in at the Bruny Island Cheese Company on our way back to the ferry. While Mum busies herself tasting cheese, my niece and I sit on the veranda, drinking ginger beer. We talk about what we’ve been up to during the visit but also about she wants to do when she finishes school, my job, how I decided what I wanted to do at uni, travel, our family. The rest of our trip has been lovely — the food, the views, the charm and beauty of the place. But this is what I really came for, and it’s hard to beat.

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