Tasmania is gently weaving a spell over me. I hadn't realised how vast it was, tending to think of it as "just a small island" below the main continent. This southern state has a permanent welcome mat out for visitors, generously offering to share its attractions. And with hospitality, food and wine being my passions, I discover Tasmania is brimming with delicious foods, heritage beers and one of the smoothest whiskies I've come across.
What better time and place to start exploring Hobart than on a Sunday morning as a bell rings at 9 to announce the start of the Farm Gate Market, whereTasmanian farmers and producers sell produce such as organic milk, unpasteurised sheep's cheese, honey, giant swedes, wasabi and saffron plants and hot apple cider. Lark whisky's stall is also offering free tastings but it's too early in the day for me to get stuck into sampling spirits so instead I schedule a visit to its shop later in the day.
Dragging myself away from Hobart's market, I drive north, following the Derwent River and soon the city scape is replaced by orchards, dairy farms and old hop fields.
This picturesque valley is home to owner, brewer, farmer and cook at the Two Metre Tall Company - named after, yes you guessed, the 2m tall main man, Ashley Huntington.
A self-confessed lunatic fringe brewer, Ashley brews beer that no other brewer in Aussie would even consider, such as barrel-fermented sour beers. It's like crossing beer with a glass of pinot gris. Trust me when I say it does grow on you.
Two Metre Tall also farms Wagu Angus beef fed on the leftovers of beer grains and hops. They are surely the luckiest beef around. The carbohydrate-rich hops help to produce a remarkably marbled beef meat.
Food match: Bring a salad and breads and sample Ashley's ales and his three-year, barrel-fermented sour hop brews. Buy some steak and cook it to your liking on the farm's 44-gallon drums chocka with smouldering wood. (You can also catch the Farm Bar Bus from Hobart to Two Metre Tall.)
Returning to the city and specifically South Hobart, I'm keen to see how Cascade Brewery matches up to the beautiful image on its beer labels; so it is a special moment to see the building exactly as I have imagined it. Built in 1827, it is Australia's oldest brewery. The first beer the brewery produced was the Pale Ale bottled in 1832, and the recipe is still used today.
Cascade uses local river water, local barley and local hops. Until only 10 years ago, a bell was rung on the front gate at morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea and finishing time. All the workers would rush to the bar and drink as much as they could until the bell chimed to tell them to go back to work. The good old days!
The brewery tour finishes with a beer tasting. The Cascade pure is light, refreshing and crisp and the ale is big and bold. The stout has been described as the best in Aussie - rich, full-bodied and smoky.
Food match: Braised lamb, sweet potato pie with a roasted cauliflower gratin.
A wee dram
Back in Hobart central, I check out a shop owned by whisky distiller Bill Lark, another Tasmanian treasure.
Imagine the days when the ports were full of ships and distilleries were dotted all over the state. When Cascade Brewery began, it had difficulty converting sailors from whisky to beer. So the brewers managed to get the law changed, banning spirit distillers. Out went the whisky and in came the beer.
Bill came along 20 years ago and managed to have the old law reinstated. Tasmania's combination of hot and cold temperatures during the day allows the whisky to pass or breathe through the port barrels as the whisky expands and contracts. This produces a rich-bodied whisky even the Scots are jealous of.
I sample the Lark 40, 43 and the 58 per cent proof. All use germinated barley, smoked over locally scorched peat, locally designed and built distills and aged in locally made 100 year old port barrels for six years. I buy a bottle of the 43 per cent Lark Whisky, at A$168. It is so smooth and has a smoky toasted barley beginning with a sweet caramel finish.
Food match: Rich chocolate torte or chocolate truffles.
Cradle to Coast Tasting Trail
Taste fresh produce on this self-guided food trail that visits the providores, farm gates and cellar doors of Tasmania's northwest region. With rolling hills and coastal vistas as your backdrop, you'll discover sweet treats, fresh produce, artisan cheeses, fine wines, boutique beers, ciders and more.
Visit an eco-certified inland salmon and ginseng farm. Stop by a dairy to watch cheddar-style cheeses handcrafted. Make time for a microbrewery and hop garden. Or schedule a stopover at a raspberry farm.
Chocoholics can learn about the tempering, moulding and enrobing of fine couverture chocolates, truffles, pralines and fudges before becoming that proverbial kid in the candy store. If you like cider, sample some and soak up local history at a fourth-generation apple orchard.
A highlight of the trail is its flexibility. You can take a day tour of degustation or adopt a more leisurely pace by staying in boutique accommodation dotted through the region and trying out the region's restaurants and cellar doors' cool-climate wines.
In Tasmania, whisky is crafted slowly, by hand and in copper stills. The pure mountain water is ideal for producing fine whisky and the native bush flavourings are used to create quality liqueurs. You can sample single malt whisky at the first licensed distillery in Tasmania, the Lark Distillery in Hobart, where the whisky is handcrafted in small batches, matured in small barrels and hand bottled. Or take a guided whisky walk at Hellyers Rd Distillery in Burnie, Australia's largest distiller of single malt whisky. Perhaps visit Redlands Estate, one of only two "paddock to bottle" distilleries in the world in a 1857 granary building in the Derwent Valley, or Tasmania's mystical Central Highlands and the Nant Distilling Company, producer of Australia's only highland single malt whisky.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Fly there with Air New Zealand.