I explored some of that history at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, which emerged last year from a US$28 million redevelopment. Among a host of new or retooled exhibitions is a gallery dedicated to the thylacine, the marsupial Tasmanian tiger that was hunted to extinction in the 1930s. More arresting still is the top floor of the museum’s Bond Store annex, a creaky Georgian warehouse of time-burnished plank floors and exposed beams and brickwork. Eerily lit under the rafters of the building’s hipped roof, this exhibition space, titled “Our land: Parrawa, parrawa! Go away!”, tells the tragic story of Tasmania’s Aboriginal people following the arrival of British colonists, with special attention paid to the so-called Black War that, by most accounts, all but wiped out the island’s original inhabitants (and would later be inspiration for H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds). It’s provocative stuff.
The Hobart museum that everyone comes to see, however, lies 12 kilometers upriver, built into the cliffs around the Berriedale peninsula. MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, caused an international sensation when it opened in 2011, its subterranean galleries filled with radical art themed around sex and death—most famously, a wall of porcelain vulvas and a rank, mad-scientist-like installation that replicates the human digestive system, producing “feces” on a daily basis. Owner David Walsh, who grew up in the blue-collar suburb of Glenorchy and made his fortunes in gambling, is the local eccentric whom everyone seems to adore, and for good reason—love it or hate it, his “anti-museum” has become the state’s top tourist attraction, drawing 350,000 visitors annually. Indeed, “the MONA effect” is credited with boosting Tasmania’s flagging economy. Conveniently, there’s also a wine-tasting room next door; MONA is on the grounds of Moorilla estate, where the island’s first riesling vines were planted. And believe me, after spending a few hours underground among the museum’s mind-bending exhibits, you’ll need a drink.
Borrowing one of Avalon’s bicycles the next morning, I peddled past the seething traffic of Davey Street and into the quiet roads of Battery Point, a well-preserved neighborhood of beautiful Victorian houses, some faced in sandstone, some in brick, some in clapboard. Even older cottages encircle Arthur’s Circus, the original village green, today trimmed with late-summer flowers. Down a steep hill at the edge of Sandy Bay, I came across a park dedicated to the Hollywood swashbuckler and notorious rake Errol Flynn, born in Battery Point in 1909. On the very short list of famous Tasmanians, Flynn is at the top, along perhaps with writer Christopher Koch (author of The Year of Living Dangerously) and onetime real estate agent Mary Elizabeth Donaldson, currently the crown princess of Denmark.
From there, I walked my bike back up the hill and made my way, as all visitors do, to Salamanca Place, a row of sandstone former warehouses that today host boutiques, bars, cafés, and art galleries. This is the epicenter of all thing trendy and touristy in Hobart—and I don’t mean that as a knock. I happily poked about in the galleries and bookshops and paused to admire the goods at The Maker, which stocks Tasmanian-made clothing and accessories.
Lunch was at Tasman Quartermasters, eight blocks from the water amid the commercial bustle of Elizabeth Street. Previously occupied by the teahouse of Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie, who moved here from Milwaukee in 2008, the space is now a convivial gourmet-burger and wine bar. Owner Stuart Addison is a Hobart-born sommelier by trade and is as passionate about his burgers—cooked sous vide before being given a once-over with a blowtorch—as he is about his hometown. “Ten years ago I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing this, but there’s a new energy and sophistication down here now,” he told me as I munched on a toothsome wallaby burger. “Chefs love it because it’s so easy to find farmers to work with, to connect directly with producers. Take the climate, the wines, and the holistic approach to agriculture, and Tasmania could be the Tuscany of Asia, there’s so much potential.”
Certainly, there is no lack of energy or finesse come dinnertime at Garagistes, Hobart’s most buzzed-about restaurant for four years running. Here, in a former auto mechanic’s garage outfitted with communal tables and an open kitchen, chef Luke Burgess (who trained at Tetsuya’s in Sydney) presents delicately plated five-course degustations that keep the room packed on each of the four nights that it’s open per week. When I visited, the menu included house-smoked Midlands eel with celeriac confit, lardo, and pickled lemon; heirloom tomatoes accompanied by a dollop of smoked-oyster salep dondurma (a Turkish ice cream); and tajarin pasta with sea urchin and locally foraged sea blite, a coastal herb. It was easily the most memorable—and priciest—meal of my trip.