Tasmania has long been a desirable destination for those in the know, and thanks to the recent addition of MONA, Hobart might now be Australia’s coolest city. Get there before
everyone else does. By Elisabeth Knowles
Six years ago, my then boyfriend and I were discussing where to go for a short break. “Where do you want to go?” he asked. “Hobart,” I replied. “You’re kidding,” he said, clearly amused. “Tasmania’s for old people.”
It was a harsh judgment, but back then there was a common perception – interstate, at least – that Tasmania wasn’t much more than a quaint, pretty and slow destination; very green, very peaceful and, for those under retirement age, very – how would you put it? – relaxing (or boring, depending on your point of view). That’s exactly why I wanted to go (and exactly why he wanted to go somewhere else).
But even back then, Tasmania was much more interesting than it was given credit for. One of the most outstanding annual art events in the country, Ten Days on the Island, was conceived here in 2001. Far from being a parochial country arts and crafts fair, Ten Days comprises an international contemporary arts calendar of dance, theatre, visual arts, film and music. It’s hosted in locations all over Tasmania – cleverly turning the entire state into a festival venue.
Similarly, Tassie’s boutique hotel scene – the accommodation option du jour – was already thriving by 2004, when The Henry Jones Art Hotel, which overlooks Fisherman’s Wharf on the Hobart waterfront, became one of the first “art hotels” in Australia. The former jam factory now showcases a changing exhibition of 300-plus artworks as well as providing some of the nicest digs in town for a short break.
But if Hobart was an underrated gem back then, it’s really coming into its own now. In the next couple of years, we predict more and more people will be dropping Tassie, and especially Hobart, into conversations – and more than likely they won’t be old people (though who identifies as being “old” these days anyway?). Tasmania has now, unequivocally, become a Desirable Destination.
Tasmania’s art scene is only getting better, and Hobart is leading the push with the opening of MONA. The Museum For Old and New Art is, to me, the most exciting new gallery this country has seen since the MCA opened in Sydney 20 years ago. Other more recent openers, such as Brisbane’s Gallery Of Modern Art and Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image, are fantastic too, but what’s so exceptional about MONA is that (a) it is a private collection generously made public, and (b) it’s housed in an architecturally inspired building.
You enter MONA via a renovated 1940s residence complete with sandstone crazy paving and a lighthouse-shaped fireplace. The home originally belonged to Claudio Alcorso, founder of the Moorilla Estate vineyard. MONA’s exhibition space was excavated out of solid bedrock directly under the house – after walking down a solid steel staircase you look up to see the exposed concrete foundation slab of the original house – which, now you’ve snuck in underneath it, serves as the ceiling. To your right, an immense rock wall is etched with giant swirls from whatever humungous drill-bit carved out the space. Aesthetically, you’re impressed before you even get to the artworks. And the bit most blokes will like, then-boyfriend included, is that the next thing you come to is a bar, so you can walk around the gallery with a beer in your hand.
MONA opened on January 22 with an exhibition called MONANISM (which could very well be a play on the word “onanism”, considering the sex and death obsession apparent throughout MONA). The eclectic collection includes ancient Greek coins, an Egyptian sarcophagus and works by Sidney Nolan, Damien Hirst and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
There’s boutique accommodation onsite, too. A series of eight waterfront pavilions overlook the Derwent River. You can choose from the original pavilions, which have understated Japanese-inspired décor, or more contemporary villas with colourful designer furniture. Photographic feature walls in the bedrooms depict nudes in various states of ecstasy. It would be hard to find a more inspirational stay for a dirty weekend away.
All this is far from the stuffily old-fashioned, Devonshire-tea-style experience Hobart used to call to mind. Which brings us to the food. There’s also an exceptional restaurant at MONA: The Source uses local produce to create an innovative modern Australian dining experience. Again, you couldn’t get further from boring if you tried.
Tasmanian produce is truly outstanding. Every Saturday, a stroll through Hobart’s Salamanca Market will guide you through the state’s best offerings including fresh-shucked oysters, sizzling barbecued bratwurst and Bruny Island cheese (try “1792”, a great, if pungent, cows’ milk cheese aged on Huon pine boards).
Personally, I can’t wait to try one of Hobart’s newest eateries, the restaurant and wine bar Garagistes, which opened late last year on Murray Street and whose chef, Luke Burgess, trained at Tetsuya’s in Sydney. Fine dining in Hobart is known for being more relaxed than in most capital cities, and the communal tables here encourage casual sociability. It’s also impressively affordable. The set four-course seasonal Sunday lunch menu is $65, but even if you choose the à la carte option, you’ll pay $35 tops for a main (such as grilled skirt steak with anchovy, new-season garlic and broad beans).
I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling hungry. Race you to the airport?