Hobart, in Tasmania, Australia, is a rather small capital. It does command the lion’s share – and the lion features on the state flag – of the island’s 500,000-strong population, with 218,000 or so calling the city home. Celebrity chef Rick Stein certainly wasn’t complaining about the city’s diminutive size, when he visited as part of a tour of Tasmania for the BBC series World on a Plate. He hunted for wallabies – the latest game meat taking the world by storm, sampled arguably the best single malt whiskey in the world and tasted sustainably farmed salmon that has become a national obsession. And in the process, he lauded Tasmania’s foodie scene, putting the state firmly on the gastronomic map. It’s a long way from the old “Apple Isle” moniker.
It’s not just the local produce that’s put Hobart, and Tasmania, on the world stage, either. Sure, the seafood is fresh, the wallaby is tender and the distinct cool-climate wines are delectable, but there’s also a lot happening in the arts scene. Much of the credit for the recent surge in Hobart’s popularity has been attributed to the Museum of New and Old Art (MONA). Opened in 2011 by professional gambler and philanthropist David Walsh, the bizarre subterranean collection of somewhat random and controversial works drew in 330, 700 visitors in the last year alone, according to figures from the Tasmanian Visitor Survey – and that doesn’t count the locals that visit time and time again. Entry is free for Tasmanians and MONA is more than art-meets-science. It’s also a venue for all kinds of events, including Mona Foma, known as Mofo, Mona's annual festival of music and art, and Dark Mofo, a winter festival that celebrates the dark through large-scale public art, food, music, light, film and noise...and even more controversy.
Alighting from MONA’s fast ferry service along the Derwent River – where punters can choose the Posh Pit, with complementary beverages and nibbles, or the standard service, which includes the option of sitting on a fiberglass sheep – the edifice squats above, chiselled into an escarpment. From the lobby, a spiral staircase descends 17 metres underground, ending in a cathedral-like basement bordered a 250-million-year-old Triassic sandstone wall. Without giving the game away, what follows are three levels of a provocative and evocative jumble of art. Like it or hate it (which some do), it’s undeniably fascinating.
There’s more to Hobart than MONA though. Time it right and you may be there for the Taste of Tasmania, a week-long festival celebrating Tasmania's food and wine that runs over the end of each year and the start of the new one. The Sydney to Hobart yacht races finishes at the same time, so the streets are packed with yachties and spectators and on the bay, the sails of the sleek craft flap like colourful flags.
Every second year, around March, Ten Days on the Island takes to the stage, with artistic performances in the theatres and on every street corner. Then there’s the Australian Wooden Boat Festival, the Antarctic Midwinter Festival, the Festival of Voices and a road rally called Targa Tasmania that traverses the state, finishing in Hobart.
There are also plenty of everyday sights. Hobart sits in the foothills of Mount Wellington. From the pinnacle, on a clear day, you can see across the Tasman Sea and into the wild South West National Park, a World Heritage Area. You’ll have a bird’s eye view and realise that the city centre is wedged between the mountain and the banks of the Derwent, with the suburbs stretching across the water to the eastern shore. Wellington Park is threaded with tracks and trails that cover dry woodlands to windswept summits, offering short strolls and more extended walks into remote areas.
Every Saturday, the mellow sandstone facades of historic warehouses watch over Salamanca Market, with more than 300 stalls selling a medley of fresh fruit, the distinctive leatherwood honey, crisp organic vegetables, kitchenwares carved from sweet-smelling Huon Pine, locally designed jewellery, clothing and crafts. Whether you want to kick back over a coffee and listen to buskers singing the blues or pick up a handcrafted souvenir, this is the place to do it. At night, the wine bars and pubs here are packed to the brim, as punters sip on sauvignon and dine al fresco when the weather permits.
On Sundays, come rain, hail or shine – and sometimes you’ll get all three in one day – a busy street in the heart of Hobart transforms into a bustling farmers’ market. It’s all about Tasmanian produce and getting to know your farmer. If you can’t eat it, drink it, grow it or meet the producer, you won’t find it here. What you will find is an ever-changing array produce, and the true meaning of the word “provenance.”
On the other side of the city, the equally verdant Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens are a haven for green thumbs, and if you time it right, you may catch one of Directions Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Gardens productions tumbling its way around the gardens, the audience following in its wake, toting blankets and picnic baskets.
Hobart may be small, but it’s taken American author Napoleon Hill’s advice: “If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.” This city does both.
Bottom left image courtesy of Alastair Bett