(This article is loosely translated from the original Danish version, printed in the newspaper Berlingske, 17 December 2016.)
By Anders Buch-Larsen
After years of hiding in plain sight, Australia’s southernmost state is reappearing on the travel map. Once harbouring a steady stream of sailors and convicts, the state capital of Hobart is now a destination for tourists and backpackers seeking a slice of the city’s vibrant culture and scenic surroundings.
As a bucket load of fish heads sails through the air, a shadow swells in the waters of Hobart Harbour. In a foamy spray that sends the seagulls flying, a hefty fur seal pierces the surface and grabs the goods.
In the nearby stalls, the local fish sellers are amused by the gasps of nearby tourists and their frantic attempts to replace the fish and chips in their hands with cameras and smart phones.
To the Tasmanians it is part of everyday life to witness Sebastian, as the fur seal is called, appear amongst the starfish and schooners of the docks.
“One day, he will snatch a tourist,” winks a vendor on the floating fish stall Flippers.
“But so far, he’s good for business.”
The days when Hobart’s inhabitants had to look far and wide to find a visitor, are not that distant, though.
Tucked away at the south end of the Bass Strait, Australia’s smallest state has for a long time been placed below the kangaroos and coral reefs of the mainland. Both in terms of geography and priority in tourist travel plans.
Two top-ten placements in Lonely Planet later, however, recommendations on Tasmania’s natural beauty, gastronomic bounty and cultural vibrancy, has once again made travellers gaze toward Australia’s hidden gem.
Although the state capital still carries the nickname ‘Lazy Hobart’ and might at first glance seem like a sleepy outpost, visitors do not have to scratch the surface for long before finding a flow of newfound self-esteem and energy.
After years of slumber, Hobart is a city waking up for action.
Sex, drugs and modern art
Wind blows through the hair of passengers, as the sun hits the deck of the speedboat making its way up the Derwent River. From the lounge below, the roar of the engine is accompanied by clinks of glasses – perhaps toasting the local vineyards that have filled them.
As the hull’s pink camouflage pattern cuts through the river’s blue waters, the five-lane Tasman Bridge towers towards the sky above. Since 1964, the bridge has been spanning the riverbanks, connecting Hobart’s areas into one city. Except in 1975, that is, when a ship rammed one of the supporting piers, closing the bridge for rebuilding.
Although today’s speedboat does not steer the same destructive course, the rock star sensation is strong. Straight ahead awaits the art museum of Mona, or ‘Museum of Old and New Art’, to which the locals ascribe much of the credit of Hobart’s return to the world stage.
With a vision described by private owner David Walsh as a “subversive adult Disneyland”, Mona has given the once quiet Hobart a newfound edge of ‘sex, drugs and rock’n’roll’ since 2011.
Built directly into a sandstone cliff, the museum displays artworks from artists like Pablo Picasso and Damian Hirst. Perhaps more infamous, however, are the many installations of sinister, sexual or otherwise provocative character.
On the grounds above the caverns, the museum houses festivals, markets and other events throughout the year. Also, the museum prides itself with its very own vineyard, microbrewery, restaurants and luxury accommodation.
Apart from visiting artists, the main collection and concept can be credited to the owner himself – with ideas ranging from parking spots reserved to God to the possibility of riding to Mona on top of a fake sheep on the aforementioned speedboat.
Like another Clumsy Hans, the eccentric gambler and multimillionaire David Walsh has thus brought a seemingly uninspiring Hobart into the fine halls of the art world. And he has proven it to be a world-class spectacle.
Still, Hobart is more than Mona. The same cultural blossoming can be found all over central parts of the city, whose total area beats London in size but in terms of inhabitants barely compares to Aarhus.
Cash registers cling and bakeries and coffee are buzzing in the historic district of Battery Point. In North Hobart refurbished pubs and cinemas reflect an entrepreneurial spirit, while perfect flat whites make smiles go higher than usual in the casino and beaches of Sandy Bay.
In Sullivan’s Cove modernized warehouses host cafes, restaurants and speedboats departing for Mona. And many of the city’s other museums are also within comfortable reach from here.
Among others is a replica of Polar researcher Douglas Mawson’s expedition hut. If you wish to see the original, you will have to go to Antarctica - but if so, you are lucky that Hobart is also the port of departure for several research expeditions heading to the cold continent.
At the southern end of Sullivan’s Cove, numerous perennial sandstone buildings dating back to 1830 form the Salamanca area. To a large extent this is where you will find Hobart’s city life and cultural pulse.
In Salamanca days and nights are easily spent exploring small alleys and squares holding everything from popular bookshops and hidden art studios to fancy tiki- and cocktail bars, as well as live music under open sky.
In addition, both Salamanca Square and the strip of buildings facing the harbour offer rich restaurant experiences. Treat yourself with freshly caught salmon tapas at Smolt, juicy coffee-rub steaks at Rockwall or sinfully delicious pastries at Honey Badger Dessert Café, which look like they have been summoned straight out a fairy tale.
Or choose to just sit back and enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of one of the many locally produced beers, wines or ciders as the sun sets and colours the water in gold.
Ghosts and gastronomy
Tunes from brass bands, guitars and bagpipes mix with the persistent buzz of chatter, grins and market banter. Scents of savoury scallop pies, freshly baked bonfire pizzas and wraps full of sizzling wallaby meat tempt the nostrils as your eyes are seduced by the many market stalls that have been featuring at Salamanca every Saturday since 1972.
With more than 300 stalls today, the Salamanca Market is one of Hobart’s main attractions. Here, you can easily satisfy your heart’s every craving when it comes to crafts, clothes and candy. Not to mention a solid section of exotic dishes and a treasure trove of food and beverages from the Tasmanian hinterlands - a cornucopia of delights that attracts gastronomists from all over the world.
Samples of whiskey, gin, cider, beer and wine await visitors in the many market stalls. The same do oysters, shellfish, fish, berries and the many fresh apples that has inspired Tasmania’s nickname: ‘The Apple Isle’.
Should you be unfortunate and miss the Salamanca Market, do not despair. You will get plenty of other chances to savour the goods at the ‘Twilight Market’ on Fridays, the ‘Farm Gate Market’ on Sundays and the annual festival ‘Taste of Tasmania’. Or you could head out of town and visit the many farms in the Tasmanian countryside yourself.
Cheese, chocolates, fudge and caramel can be found across the state. And back at the marketplace, sweet scents of Tasmanian leatherwood- and manuka honey compete with the woody odour of handcrafted items made from local woods like King Billy- and Huon Pine - famous for their fragrant oils and extreme durability.
Following a history of aggressive timber industry, the use of the rare Tasmanian wood types is now sustainably managed, recycling and only utilized only from trees that have fallen by themselves.
And despite its past, Tasmania today is reputed for its branches of environmental sustainability, from which the world’s first green political party allegedly emerged.
Protected wilderness with a shady past
Of the total area of the island, approximately the size of Ireland, over 40 per cent is covered by UNESCO-protected wilderness. Thus, Tasmania is one of the places in the world with the most national park per-capita.
Aside from its timber industry, the scenic state has, however, had other blemishes to struggle with.
Following Sydney as the first major colony, British convicts founded Hobart in 1803 and the following year moved it to its current location.
With the beautiful but rugged nature as a backdrop, the town and its nearby prison settlement Port Arthur was for years considered a frightening place filled with crimes, horrors and wickedness. Some of these stories are brought back to life on various ghost walks in the region, which is said to be one of the most haunted places in the world.
Over time, the capital of what was once known as Van Diemen’s Land developed into a shabby hub for seafarers, scoundrels and harlots. And moral and ethics were not exactly bolstered by the intensive persecution of the local aboriginal tribes, from which every single member was wiped out in Tasmania.
The same fate met the thylacine, perhaps better known as the Tasmanian tiger. To this day some Tasmanians tell hopeful tales about the carnivorous marsupial still existing on the island, hiding somewhere in the dense wilderness.
But the only place where you can be certain to find the animal is in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery where a stuffed version stands as a moth-eaten monument of shame for the state’s nefarious past.
Giant ferns and devil screams
Streams of water trickle below the tall eucalyptus trees hiding the clouds above. Giant ferns flank the paths towards the top of Mount Wellington and teddy bear-like wombats and wallabies rustle in the nearby shrubs. Somewhere nearby a ruffled kookaburra guffaws its maniacal laughter.
The scenery in the temperate rainforest surrounding Hobart might resemble something straight out of ‘Jurassic Park’, and it is hard to believe that the city centre is only a walk away. Instead of dinosaurs, regular forest fires provide the element of uncertainty.
Fortunately, most of these bush fires, as they are locally called, are controlled and carried out in demarcated areas as a necessary part of the life cycle of the unusual Australian plant life.
The close connection to nature runs deep in Hobart’s self-image, and wherever you find yourself in the city the view of rugged Mount Wellington quickly reminds you of nature’s presence.
Kunyani, as the mountain is called in the local Aboriginal tongue, only becomes invisible when clouds sweep in with the ever-changing weather to cover the massive rock wall. A phenomenon that only makes the mountain’s reappearance even more majestic.
And although Charles Darwin on his visit to Hobart in 1836, at that time called Hobart Town, described the Mount Wellington as a formation of limited beauty, it nevertheless drew him to summit it. And the panoramic view from the top is worth the hike.
Orcas and parrots
On top of Mount Wellington stands an antenna. A reminder of the symbiosis of nature and culture to be found in Hobart. Here, you do not have to play mobile games like Pokémon Go to encounter strange animals.
During the day, you might spot Orcas, whales and fairy penguins along the beaches, while parrots and both black and white cockatoos flutter between treetops. And if you get lucky, you might also glimpse a platypus or an Echidna in the waterways and thickets.
If you head out at night, away from the city lights of Hobart, you will undoubtedly notice the rustle of marsupials like possums and pademelons, a sort of miniature kangaroo native to the island.
You might even hear the scream of a Tasmanian devil or witness the Aurora Australis in the skies above you - the southern hemisphere’s equivalent to the northern lights. And with nature being practically in the backyard, the Hobart area offers plenty of opportunities for outdoor experiences and activities.
Under the open skies the trail systems in the natural parks present a plethora of hiking routes, or bushwalks, as they are locally called.
On the mountain walls, you will witness fearless climbers while equally brave mountain bikers mile down the narrow, winding tracks on the densely forested hillsides.
After heavy rains, foaming and bubbling rivers bring both river rafters and crystal-clear spring water to the bottom, where the latter is bottled and used for beverages in Australia’s oldest functioning brewery, Cascade, located at the foot of Mount Wellington.
Diving, surfing, sailing and kayaking is possible along the Derwent River and the surrounding east coast. And every year the port of Hobart becomes the finish line of a world-famous boat race, starting from Sydney – the in which a young Tasmanian woman and a Danish crown prince met each other during the Olympic Games in the year 2000.
The prince from Denmark
In a small city like Hobart, where rush hour lasts a quarter and inhabitants still greet each other on the street, it does not take long before Danish tourists are asked how ‘handsome Frederik’ is doing these.
While few Danes regard themselves as close to their royal family, this kind of confidentiality seems quite common on the Tasmanian island.
Here, quite a few number of people seem to have been one of Mary’s schoolmates or to have served the royal couple some raspberry pie back when their relationship was still a secret. And everything in between.
Just like the Danish crown prince in Sydney discovered that Tasmania has other and sometimes more interesting things to offer than the mainland, more and more tourists are today making the same discovery.
Where Hobart was once the laughing stock on rough jokes about the Tasmanian outsiders, bogans and convicts, the reputation of the southern state and its cool climate now echoes longingly among adventurous travelers and sweating Australians seeking to get away from the heat.
The heydays of Hobart are no longer a story of the past.