Why winter is the time to explore Tasmania's produce and culture
Katrina Lobley | Fairfax Media | The Age | April 2017
In the tucked-away cellar of The Little Nell, a luxury hotel in the Colorado haute-sport destination of Aspen, master sommelier Carlton McCoy is enthusing about a wine.
It isn't, as you might expect, a bottle from a famous French chateau or even something gorgeous from Napa, like the screamingly expensive Screaming Eagle. No, he's raving about Stoney Rise's Holyman 2014, a chardonnay from Tasmania's Tamar Valley.
Well, blow me down and pour me another glass of whatever you've got going, Mr McCoy.
I shouldn't be surprised. Tasmania is so hot right now it can be a challenge, especially during the Apple Isle's enchanting summer, to find a hotel room.
The pivotal moment, of course, that cranked the state's cultural credentials into the stratosphere was the 2011 opening of MONA on a riverbank in Hobart's north. David Walsh's eccentric Museum of Old and New Art is such a magnet that it inspired the late critic A.A. Gill to describe Hobart as "a museum with a great town attached".
Visitors can arrive at MONA via a fast ferry from downtown Hobart, but I drive. Parking is reportedly a nightmare on busy days but I'm here in winter, when car spots are in abundance.
I stroll in and wind through the gallery's subterranean innards, noting eccentricities such as Belgian artist Wim Delvoye's Cloaca – not to mention the theatrical performances of the staff who must feed the infamous poo-making machine. I also wander the grounds, stumbling upon Delvoye's gothic chapel with its macabre stained-glass windows and delicate cast-iron lacework.
To top off what's already been a magnificent morning, I lunch at The Source – MONA's on-site fine diner.
The menu showcases local produce, including drops from Walsh's own vineyard and brewery. There's every chance, for example, of finding something like Moorilla-poached cherries complementing a rabbit terrine, or the Moo Brew Dark Ale adding a luscious richness to a chocolate mousse in a caramel parfait.
Moo Brew also features on the Tassie-centric beverage list at Felons Bistro – the restaurant at the Port Arthur Historic Site. Felons draws heavily upon local produce, resulting in entrées such as quail from nearby Nubeena with a blue cheese, mixed-leaf and walnut salad, and mains such as venison, marinated in Tassie ginseng and mountain pepper, from Doo Town – that part of Eaglehawk Neck where the quirky shacks all feature "Doo" as part of their name.
Dinner at Felons precedes my lantern-lit ghost tour of Port Arthur, a famously spooky 19th-century prison settlement. Following our Driza-Boneclad guide, an expert at ratcheting up the suspense, we inspect the roofless church and hear tales of ivy that refuses to grow where a dead man's blood once ran, of invisible fingers that once stroked a woman's fringe from her forehead, and of a long-dead convict's face peeking from a cell in the Silent Prison. The next morning, at nearby Stewarts Bay Lodge, a fellow ghost-tour participant tells me that footsteps in his cabin kept him awake the previous night.
Port Arthur is also benefiting from Tassie's tourist boom, particularly as a stop for cruise passengers. During the 2016-'17 cruise season, 22 ships called at the historic site; 31 are scheduled for the next cruise season.
With my rental wheels, I have the freedom to roam the state, so I decide to tootle around Launceston. After seeing Tasmania's second city (glorious Cataract Gorge, the playful macaques in City Park), I refuel at Stillwater, housed within a 19th-century flour mill, and stay at the Mantra Charles Hotel, formerly the city's hospital.
Then it's time to explore the Tamar Valley. Every Tasmanian who likes a wine will have an opinion about which cellar door to visit. There's sparkling wine to sample at Andrew Pirie's tiny, appointment-only Apogee vineyard, and another favourite is Josef Chromy's pinot noir. I head to Pipers Brook, the vineyard Pirie co-founded in 1974, and browsing a copy of Wine Dogs as I sample the wines, I'm startled to spot a wine pig among the book's kelpies, cattle dogs and terriers. Pinot d'Pig is the resident swine at nearby Holm Oak Vineyards, which not only makes wine but cider and perry.
Employees at the cellar door (yes, I've detoured across the Tamar River just to visit the pig) encourage visitors to feed apples to Pinot. This can feel a little dangerous, as Pinot's manners aren't the best. Luckily, some locals show me his more civilised side. "Sit, Pinot, sit," one says, dangling an apple above the pig's snout. Improbably, he does, following the cider house rules.
Main image credit: MONA The Source Restaurant |Tourism Australia & Graham Freeman. Tourism Tasmania. All Rights Reserved. (Licensor: Content Services Melbourne)