Tasmania: Why it’s the place to go in Australia

Tassie drawcard: MONA, from the river. Photo: Leigh HenninghamTasmania has won. In a year when Conde Nast Traveler​ decreed Australia the world’s hottest destination, there’s no doubt Tasmania is the hottest of the hot.

Visitors to Hobart this month will find there’s hardly a hotel room left in the city. Occupancy year-round is about 85 per cent, the highest of all the capital cities, but over summer the city is crammed to capacity with the Christmas holiday traffic, celebrations around the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, the Falls Festival at Marion Bay, music festival MOFO, and the Taste of Tasmania, the wonderful food event that runs early January on the waterfront.

This year, there were so many visitors at the Taste, Blackman Bay Oyster Bar sold out on the first day of the eight-day festival (oyster Bloody Marys were a big hit.)The docks are awash with passengers from the 65 ships expected in port this season. Top restaurants, such as Franklin and Aloft, are booked out, as is the famed cooking school The Agrarian Kitchen (you need to reserve a spot months ahead).  People are cheek-to-jowl at the Saturday Salamanca market.

Over at the Museum of New Art (MONA) the first Australasian retrospective of Gilbert & George is packing them in. Elsewhere in Tasmania, those lucky enough to find a car to hire are tootling down to the Huon Valley and Bruny Island, or up to Freycinet and Wineglass Bay, St Helens and the Bay of Fires, the Tamar Valley, Launceston, Devonport, Stanley, Cradle Mountain, Queenstown and the wild west coast, visiting oyster farms, berry farms and wineries or hiking through still-pristine wildernesses. There’s a lot crammed into 68,000 square kilometres.

My first “overseas” trip was to Tasmania, from Melbourne, on a school excursion. The highlight, for schoolkids at least, was gorging ourselves on the free chocolates at the Cadbury factory on the Derwent. In those days, you could tour the manufacturing areas of the factory, with a chocolate stop at each station. Result: lifelong chocolate addiction.

My sister moved to Hobart in the 1980s and that became an opportunity to visit frequently. We’d motor around the state and stop at funny little B&Bs, long before Airbnb, or drive through primeval forests to the west coast with its majestic sand dunes.  My parents relocated to Hobart 12 years ago, which makes me an honorary Hobartian.

Twenty-five years ago I could see Tasmania had huge potential. It was pretty sleepy then and economically it was a bit of a basket case. But it reminded me a little bit of France, in the sense that there were pockets of devoted people making artisanal products such as wines, cheeses, smoked fish and even chocolate truffles.

In recent years, entrepreneurs have added kelp farming, truffle growing, saffron, salt and other speciality culinary delights to the things Tasmania does well. And they’ve learnt how to promote them.  The state could have gone in the other direction in creating big industry, but it’s these niche businesses, as well as the glorious landscapes, that give it its character and make it so appealing to visitors.

Enter MONA. It was as recently as 2011 that David Walsh opened his beautiful and provocative private museum but it feels as if it has been there forever. What has changed is the number of international visitors who now put isolated Hobart high on the global cultural map, something unimaginable only a decade ago.

It’s testament to the importance of culture to all our cities. Tasmania’s creative class is growing too, as writers, artists and other small businesses move there to take advantage of the inexpensive real estate.

It’s become a place, not just for retirees like my parents, but for those who want a lifestyle that’s quite different from that of the beach-obsessed mainland.

There are lots of Chinese tourists in Tasmania at the moment and quite a few European art world identities are spotted at MONA, but international visitors make up only 15 per cent of the total tourist pool.

These days, it’s Australians who are factoring Tasmania into their holiday plans. It’s simple for anyone on the east coast or South Australia to fly into Launceston or Hobart for a long weekend, although the airport is retro in a bad way (improvements coming).

While Hobart, in particular, desperately needs new hotels, I hope it doesn’t lose its quaintness. There’s still a Country Women’s Association shop in midtown, where they sell delicious jams and knitted Christmas puddings.

I wouldn’t want to see that go the way of the Tassie tiger.

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