Island hopping

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 September, 2011, 12:00am


It was a long way to go for fish and chips. I'd put off going to Australia for decades because, as a Brit, I'd imagined it as a big, dry, old-fashioned version of England - full of (very long-term) expats, cricket pitches and dodgy food. Yet here I was in Hobart, Tasmania, tucking into battered white fish and big golden chips.

'That's blue eye,' my guide, Doris, explains. 'It's one of the fish we catch in the seas off the island. Isn't it delicious?'

It was - crispier, whiter and lovelier than cod, and the chips were good, too. And a local sauvignon blanc was superb. We were sitting at Fish Frenzy, a smart restaurant in the same building as an apartment I'd rented on the harbour. My view was a pub, an old clipper and a large, rusting crane 'Made in Leicester, England'. Yes, it was kind of English, but only in a way, and only for a few moments.

I took a boat from a jetty just along from the restaurant to visit the newly opened Museum of Old and New Art. The boat service was laid on by the gallery and the mini-voyage came as part of the A$15 (HK$114) entrance ticket.

I was pretty jet-lagged after the long-haul flight, and the cold breeze coming off the water woke me up nicely. Soon we were disembarking at a bunker-style modernist building that could easily have been featured in a James Bond film, with a gallery, wine bar and chic restaurant all built into a sprawling complex.

If the venue was remarkable, the art was bizarre. Collector and millionaire David Walsh calls his private showcase a 'subversive Disneyland for adults' and the themes explored in works by Marina Abramovic, Damien Hirst and Chris Ofili are, basically, sex and death - with a bit of scatology thrown in. The naked bodies on display, and a poo-making machine called Cloaca built by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, woke me up even more than the fresh air. After a couple of hours of stimulating, suggestive art I needed another drink. A boutiquey little bar served microbrewery beers, so I took a bench and drank one slowly. It was like a piece of London's trendy Shoreditch district dropped into a provincial town set in a wilderness - interesting and slightly alienating.

I'd flown to Hobart from London via Hong Kong and Melbourne. For a first foray into Australia, Tasmania is not the most obvious choice. But I'd heard the island was green, small, characterful and clean.

I was not disappointed. Tasmania has the climate of New Zealand, some of the fauna of Australia - kangaroos, wallabies, wombats - and then some others, most notably the Tasmanian devil. And it packs a lot of lush landscapes and impressive sights into a relatively small space.

On my second day I travelled a couple of hours out of Hobart to Eaglehawk Neck on the southeast coast to catch another boat - this time to Port Arthur, the famous convict settlement. The drive took me through a landscape of rolling hills and jagged mountains covered in pines, gum trees, ferns and vineyards. It was gorgeously green and inviting to look at.

The boat trip was no mere A to Z experience. The vessel was a twin-motor speedboat, with seats for about 50 passengers. We sped past sea stacks and sheer vertical cliffs, blowholes and islands shrouded in mist. The crew pointed out lighthouses and bird colonies, and whooped when we saw dolphins.

The pilot says the weather is as kind as it ever was. 'People forget how far south Tassie is,' he says. 'We're farther down than parts of New Zealand, and we get big seas sometimes and harsh weather.'

He grinned as he bounced the boat over the waves, while his co-pilot gave out seasickness tablets and potato chips.

Port Arthur was disarmingly nice and neat-looking. A museum of incarceration and, since July 2010, a Unesco World Heritage site, it was nonetheless full of dark ghosts and terrible truths.

My guide, Colin, took me to a solitary confinement block and turned off the light to see how I liked the darkness. I didn't. It was terrifying, even if it did plunge me back in time to imagine the poor prisoners dropped on this remote island with no hope of ever going home. It seems a little late in the day to harp on about British colonial excesses 150 years after the fact, but I left the penal colony downhearted.

Far more cheering was a nearby Tasmanian devil and 'roo sanctuary. The satanic moniker of these strange creatures comes from a demonic scream they use, along with sneezes, to communicate with each other. The main message seemed to be 'get off my meat' as a pair fought over a kangaroo steak. The sanctuary is one of a handful on the island that are trying to preserve healthy Tasmanian devils - the population is under threat from a cancer that, oddly, is contagious.

I spent an hour with the devils, watching them run, squabble, sneeze and scream. As there clearly wasn't going to be any communing with them, I wandered into a nearby paddock to meet the kangaroos. They were grazing quietly, like a family at a picnic, but as I drew closer, they became curious. They let me sit with them and tickle their chests - until they got distracted by the grass, which they seemed to find a lot more interesting.

My drive to Eaglehawk Neck had given me a brief encounter with Tasmania's landscape. I wanted more, so joined a four-day 'luxury hike' on Maria Island, also off the east coast. While it might seem wilful to have bypassed mainland Australia to go to a smallish island only to spend half a week on an even smaller one, Maria Island, just 20 kilometres long, is big on loveliness.

The walk was gentle, taking in a string of beautiful, crescent-shaped white-sand beaches, fern-filled meadows and coastal bluffs where wombats and kangaroos grazed beside Cape Barren geese, and a few old ruins hinted at the island's past. Now a national park, the island over time has been used for farming, forestry and as a convict settlement. In the early 20th century, an Italian settler, Diego Bernacchi, tried to develop vineyards, a silk factory, a cement works and tourism of the French Riviera resort variety. Today, travellers come for pristine wilderness and, apart from a couple of park rangers, there are no permanent residents.

One of the treats of joining the Maria Island Walk - aside from the plush tents - is the food. Lunches are crisp organic salads and deli bites, while in the evening the guides cook up delicious Asian fusion dishes and barbecued meats accompanied by well-chosen Tasmanian wines. After a day's hiking, it feels like a fair reward and sends you off to your tent relaxed and sated.

The four days flew by, culminating, correctly, in a climb to the summit of Mount Maria, from where I could see mainland Tasmania and the world-famous, photogenic beaches of Wine Glass Bay. That evening we had one final feast - a five-course seafood and meat buffet - and spent the night not in a tent but in Signor Bernacchi's house. I felt like the lord of the manor - but a very pioneering lord in a far-away, exotic manor.

My trip ended in Hobart with one final Little England experience, at the New Sydney pub. Sampling the food - as hearty as that offered in any olde inn in my homeland - and the local ales, I spent an evening with a Tasmanian, a South African, a mainland Aussie and a Brit.

Rick, the Tasmanian, summed up the island's appeal. 'For years we've been ignored as the 'apple isle', or even laughed at,' he says. 'But suddenly our food, our landscape, our weather and even our being so small have become fashionable. Now everybody wants to come here.' We clinked glasses and then whispered that we hoped not everyone would actually make it. Small is beautiful, but so are quiet and calm - and unspoiled.

Head due south

Getting there

Qantas flies Hong Kong to Hobart via Melbourne starting from about HK$3,600 return, depending on the season.

Where to stay

The Henry Jones Art Hotel is a well-sited boutique hotel in a former jam factory on the harbour - and it has a fabulous restaurant.

The Somerset on the Pier loft-style apartments have good views of the harbour, and guests have access to a gym, spa and sauna.

Where to eat

Fish Frenzy is great for seafood, soups, salads and, of course, fresh fish dishes.

Henry's Restaurant - at the Henry Jones Art Hotel - is a great place to explore the full range of Tasmanian red and white wines while indulging in a great steak dinner.

Peppermint Bay offers world-class dining in Woodbridge, a 30-minute drive south of Hobart.


Take the Tasman Island Cruises boat service from Eaglehawk Neck to Port Arthur.

See to learn more about the four-day Maria Island Walk. Price A$2,150 (HK$16,300) per person, including two guides, three nights' twin-share accommodation, food and wine, national park passes and gear hire.

What to see

Port Arthur, the Unesco World Heritage listed penal settlement

The Museum of Old and New Art (left) - take the boat from the MONA Brooke Street ferry terminal in Hobart (45 minutes one-way).

The Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park in Taranna, Tasman Peninsula.