I’ve got a soft spot for Tasmania.
Maybe it’s because the scenery and weather remind me a lot of New Zealand – rolling hills, rain forests and an unpredictable climate.
Maybe it’s because, like New Zealanders, people from the Apple Isle get a lot of grief from the rest of Australia. Whether it’s supposed relationships with their cousins (Tasmanians) or sheep (Kiwis), those sophisticated folk on the mainland are never short of something to say about their island neighbours.
Maybe it’s just because I love empty roads and deserted beaches, and Tasmania has those in abundance.
Whatever the reason, I had a wonderful time in Australia’s smallest state a few years ago and was very excited to head back.
And then I almost didn’t.
Bushfires had been blazing fiercely throughout much of eastern Australia for several days, and Tasmania hadn’t been spared. Several parts of the island were still cut off as we headed for the airport, and we’d considered postponing or cancelling our trip right up until the last minute.
In the end, though, we didn’t. That turned out to be the right choice – although there was plenty of smoke from the air and blackened trees beside the roads, the fires ultimately didn’t cause us any real problems. A few days earlier, of course, it would have been a very different story.
The nice folk at Vroom Vroom Vroom had offered us a discount on our car hire for the week, but we hadn’t expected to get an upgrade as well – our Renault sedan was far fancier than I’m used to. Leather seats, inbuilt GPS with sexy robot voice, and controls in interesting places. Still, there’s nothing wrong with turning on the windscreen wipers when wanting to go round a corner, or changing radio station when trying to enable cruise control … right?
We didn’t have all that long in Hobart, and I was determined to make the most of it. It’s a small city, and many of the highlights are clustered near the waterfront. Salamanca Place, with its bars and restaurants inside old sandstone warehouses and a famous Saturday market that I’ve never yet managed to see. The colourful docks, with cruise ships and expensive yachts vying for space alongside rusty fishing boats. Even the central business district is full of restored historic buildings – a far cry from the generic glass shopfronts of most other Australian capitals.
We stayed in one such building, the rather charming Tassie Backpackers in the middle of the city. On top of the refurbished Brunswick Hotel, it had friendly staff, clean private rooms with ensuites and free (albeit intermittent) wifi – a rarity in this part of the world. The common room and kitchen area were in a cool outdoor space downstairs – probably a little too cool in winter, but great in summer.
The two things that I had really come to see, however, both lay out of town. Mount Wellington dominates the Hobart skyline, the peak around a 20km drive from the central city. The mountain’s infamous bad weather had closed in when I was last there, and given the overcast skies I wasn’t certain things would be much better this time around. Still, despite occasional spits of rain on the winding drive to the top, the view turned out to be a vast improvement – even as the temperature hovered around a balmy three degrees Celsius.
If Mount Wellington is an impressive natural feature on one side of the city, MONA is an equally impressive man-made feature on the other. Open now for barely two years, the Museum of Old and New Art has created quite a stir in that time. Built largely into the ground on a winery east of Hobart, the museum has quickly become Tasmania’s largest tourist attraction. My friend Christine had raved about the place a few months after it opened, and after only a couple of minutes inside, it was easy to see why.
Descending from the brightly-lit atrium into the gloom of the museum proper, the subversive nature of the design quickly took over. This is not a museum for the prurient – nudity and sexuality is celebrated, and let’s just say that the faint smell of human digestion in the air was not due entirely to my fellow patrons. Consumer greed was a common theme of several exhibits, and the artists don’t hold back.
One of the larger displays even managed to elicit a scream from Lauren as she walked into its centrepiece, the combination of light, sound and mirrors raising pulses rather higher than usual.
It’s unusual for me to spend more than a couple of hours in a museum, but MONA was very much an exception. I could happily have spent all day there – it’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. For such a small city, the museum gives Hobart a truly world-class attraction
Lingering over breakfast the following morning, we were in no hurry to leave. The sunlight reflecting off the old buildings bathed everything in a warm glow, and a sense of calmness crept over us for the first time since arriving in Australia. Lauren turned to me excitedly. “Do you think we could…”
I completed her sentence with a smile.
“Live here for a month, perhaps?”
Why yes, in summer, I’m pretty sure we could.