Hobart: Criminal past, contemporary culture

By Graham Reid

Graham Reid discovers the history and vibrant artistic culture of Tasmania's capital.

Hobart - today a hip city of restaurants, cafes and upmarket art galleries - was once a seafaring town from which numerous historic Antarctic expeditions departed. Photo / Thinkstock
Hobart - today a hip city of restaurants, cafes and upmarket art galleries - was once a seafaring town from which numerous historic Antarctic expeditions departed. Photo / Thinkstock

On the foreshore of Sullivan's Cove - the tourist hub of Hobart, Tasmania's capital - is a collection of interesting bronze statues. The largest is of a man holding aloft a wind-blown flag, his other hand patting a dog, and they are posing before an old-style camera on a tripod.

This heroic figure is the scientist Louis Bernacchi who, in 1898-99, was the first Australian to winter on the Antarctic ice. The dog is his favourite husky Joe, who accompanied him on that journey and when he joined Robert Falcon Scott's 1901-4 expedition.

Hobart - today a hip city of restaurants, cafes, upmarket art galleries and all the other trappings of the sophisticated upwardly mobile 21st century - was once a seafaring town from which numerous historic Antarctic expeditions departed. Here along the foreshore are the old buildings, now renovated, which once housed pubs and prostitutes, sealers and whalers, scientists and ne'er-do-wells.

This town of almost 240,000 - originally a penal colony on the Derwent River - is a place where aboriginal people and Charles Darwin once walked.

The Australian polar explorer Sir Douglas Mawson set out from here in December 1911 on a voyage of incredible hardship which included 160 km travelling alone across the ice. His name is given to Mt Mawson, a popular ski-field northwest of the city.

Hobart wears its history confidently. The recently opened Cascades Female Factory just 10 minutes from the foreshore on the site of the former women's prison - which housed 1200 women and children between 1828 and 1856 - offers guided tours of this World Heritage Site and an insight into a brutal and repressive slice of the island's past.

It is near the famous Cascade Brewery. Take the 90 minute tour and end with a pint in more convivial surroundings.

For an even more emotional experience of Tasmania's convict past no visitor should miss Port Arthur, a 90-minute scenic drive (or a leisurely cruise down the coast) where the penal colony, established in 1830, became an important industrial, timber and shipbuilding centre. But it is a memory of the harrowing psychological torture of inmates more than even the harsh working conditions which any visitor leaves with.

Hobart is proud of its origins as a rough'n'ready town. Today it's where up-market cruise ships and hardy yachties (notably those in the annual Sydney to Hobart race) heave-to.

Hobart does style very well too: there is award-winning dining along Elizabeth St Pier, the acclaimed Prosser's on the Beach at Sandy Bay just south of the central city, and the Point Revolving Restaurant in the Wrest Point Casino for cocktail-hour views.

But it is the arts which are increasingly drawing tourists. And what makes many of the galleries and hotels in this area special is the history steeped in the walls.

Here are renovated warehouses which were once 19th century workhorse buildings, like the Henry Jones Art Hotel, formerly a famous jam factory, which has prime position harbourside.

The stout beams, stone walls constructed by convicts and old offices (now function rooms) make this something special. The corridors, IXL bar and rooms are hung with works by excellent local artists, all for sale at indecently cheap prices.

Christine Scott, curator of the hotel's collection, offers an art tour for guests and, with printmaker Sarah Beith from nearby Despard Gallery, also runs hobartwalks.com which holds regular art walks around the city.

And there is much to see in this compact area around the harbour. Rosemary Miller, CEO and artistic director of Salamanca Arts - cafes, bookshops, retail galleries, a theatre and artists' studios - notes they've been going more than 35 years.

Here too is the excellent Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) and, of course, just up the Derwent is the famous Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) which opened in January 2011 to publicity and controversy.

A recent edition of 1000 Places To See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz includes two places in Tasmania - Cradle Mountain and Freycinet National Park - but you can guarantee the next edition will include the extraordinary MONA dug down three massive storeys into sandstone and rock and full of challenging art and installations, some of them confrontational, some by big names like Picasso.

The visitor is just as likely to come away in awe of the engineering of the galleries where sheer walls of rock soar dozens of metres above or below.

MONA - with a fine-dining restaurant, cafe, an on-site brewery and which hosts an annual music festival - has invigorated Hobart and its arts scene.

And the TMAG - which has a close relationship with MONA - has just undergone a A$30 million refit and has a huge collection of historic artifacts as well as work by mainland and local artists.

Once considered a cultural backwater, Tasmania has leaped ahead in the past two decades and today is pulling home talented people who'd left for brighter lights. And - because of flourishing vineyards and organic farming - there's now a sophistication to Hobart few would have guessed a decade ago.

Take one of the boutique wineries tours which stops at MONA for their excellent selection, or drop in at the Lark Distillery on central Davey St for one of their handcrafted whiskies.

Louis Bernacchi wouldn't recognise his old hometown today.

Tasmania top 10

1. Gourmania Food Tours

Gourmania introduces you to some of the people whose passion and talent stirs the pot of a blossoming food scene.

2. Frogmore Creek Wines - Richmond

Frogmore Creek Wines is one of Tasmania's most awarded wineries.

3. Grandvewe Cheesery - Woodbridge

At Grandvewe - Tasmania's only sheep milk cheesery - you can meet the sheep, taste up to 15 different cheeses and enjoy a wine.

4. Farm Gate Market, Hobart - Sunday mornings

The Farm Gate Market is about supporting small, boutique and artisan businesses
within Tasmania.

5. Red Velvet Lounge

A funky eatery 45 minutes south of Hobart, the Red Velvet Lounge prides itself on wholesome fare.

6. Redlands Estate - Plenty

Offers tours of their 'Paddock to Bottle' single malt whisky distillery - one of only two in the world.

7. Get Shucked Oysters - Bruny Island

Sell their Pacific oysters to some of the best restaurants in Australia. Live and half shelled oysters are also sold to visitors on site.

8. Tasmanian Seafood Seduction - Hobart

Take small groups on an exclusive full-day seafood foraging cruise in the waters of the D'entrecasteaux Channel.

9. Herbaceous Tours - Hobart
Take you through the farm gate to meet the personalities behind Tasmania's award-winning produce.

10. Two Metre Tall Company - New Norfolk

Brews real ale and real cider in unique batches using farm grown ingredients sourced from their family-owned property.

IF YOU GO

Best time to travel: Year round! Autumn is mild and winter brings an atmosphere found nowhere else.

Getting there: Fly Air New Zealand to Sydney or Melbourne with connecting Virgin Australia flights to Hobart from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch with connections available from all around New Zealand.

Explore more at: myaustraliapassion.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf01 at 24 Nov 2014 13:19:15 Processing Time: 820ms