Untamed, unconventional and dramatic - Tasmania's people, like its land, have their own idiosyncratic take on the rest of Australia's claims to fame, finds Chris Reed. And they like a good night out.
It's about 9pm on a midweek night and the waterfront is humming. Large crowds of people spill from bars into daytime-quaint hospitality zones. There are long queues for nightclubs. Groups of people much younger than me swagger and stagger through the night. Balconies heave with young women whose dads wouldn't want them going out dressed like that. The thirst for action is palpable.
This is Australia. But it's not Sydney, Melbourne or even Brisbane. This is Hobart.
This is Tasmania.
Don't believe the tripe. There are those who would have you believe Hobart makes a wet winter Wednesday in Wairarapa feel like New Year's Eve in Times Square. Tasmania has long been the butt of jokes from the mainland. Sydneysiders have sneered, Melburnians mocked. But their own may be coming round. One of the aforementioned Hobart hangouts even made a recent list of "The hottest bars in the coolest neighbourhoods" in a fancy Sydney paper. (Hey! I drank there! I'm down with that!) Lonely Planet last year named it one of its top 10 cities.
Direct comparisons with other Australian destinations are largely pointless - Sydney and Melbourne are major world cities for different and very good reasons. Hobart isn't but it's a damn fine place to visit and a great gateway to an island state with its own idiosyncratic takes on its rivals' claims to fame: There's a massive harbour but it's largely unpopulated and therefore largely unspoiled; there's a world-class collection of art, but it's particularly confronting and displayed in a mad underground bunker; there's a significant site of colonial history, but it's blighted by tragedies long-past and less-old; there are ample opportunity for foodies to froth, but over produce with a strong focus on organic, sustainable and boutique production methods.
Of course, most of the island isn't like Hobart was on that wild midweek night. This is no "Eyebeefa" of the Antipodes - most of the state is (delete as applicable depending which marketing material you read) wild/unpopulated/unspoiled/haunting/clean/green/rolling/rugged.
Tasmania's a smudge over 68,300sq km, roughly a quarter of the size of New Zealand, but with only an eighth of the population. Of those half a million people, about 220,000 lived in greater Hobart in June 2013. And you thought Southland was empty.
From above, the main island looks a little like a slightly squashed heart. Fitting. I loved it.
According to the official blurb, its people breathe the world's cleanest air and "rejoice" in pure water. Oh yes, and it's an island of "dramatic coastlines, rugged mountains, tall forests and sparkling highland lakes". (Told you).
There are more than 2000km of walking tracks and 18 national parks, Hobart has the second-lowest rainfall of its nation's state capitals and the average summer temperature is a lovely 21C.
Sounds perfect doesn't it?
One minor drawback is that it's not the easiest place to get to from Auckland. There are no longer any direct flights, which means changing planes in Sydney or Melbourne. And when you're there, there are limited transport options if you don't fancy driving.
So I went by boat, which I think is a fine way to do it. I flew to Sydney then cruised on Princess Cruises' Sea Princess. Two nights and one day at sea before waking up in Tasmania ridiculously relaxed, well fed and watered.
The Sea Princess cruise ship in Port Arthur, Tasmania. Photo / Supplied
We arrived in Burnie, a town in the northwest with a population of about 19,000. It's a maritime town - and one of Australia's largest deepwater container ports, handling more than two million tonnes of cargo a year.
From here, Tasmania dispatches its honey, cheese, fruit and vegetables to the world.
When you're cruising and arrive in a destination with limited transport options, you don't have to think, just book an excursion.
We piled into a bus for the hop to Cradle Mountain and Dove Lake in the Cradle Mountain - Lake St Clair National Park at the northern end of the Tasmania World Heritage Wilderness Area. The mountain was declared a national park in 1922, thanks to the efforts of Austrian Gustav Weindorfer who built a chateau there and petitioned for the land to be preserved. Today, a quarter of all visitors to Tasmania check out the park's (here we go) wild, unspoiled, rugged beauty.
It's not unlike parts of the South Island - "ancient rainforest and alpine heathlands ... icy streams ... stands of ancient pines mirrored in the still waters of glacial lakes", according to the Parks and Wildlife Service.
The nature of excursions meant we had a relatively short time to drink in the views, but if you're so inclined it's a hot spot for trampers, with a large number of walks, including the renowned six-day Overland Track.
Another good sleep, another new view. Port Arthur, location of the first interaction between Australian aborigines and European explorers in 1772.
All too predictably, the first half of the 19th century saw disease and conflict introduced to the area, with European sealers, whalers and settlers behind deliberate campaigns to eradicate the indigenous population.
When it came to harsh treatment, the Europeans didn't forget their own. In 1830, Port Arthur was selected as a penal colony for repeat offenders. Its remote location on a narrow finger of land meant that even if you got out the prison you'd struggle to get anywhere beyond the dense forest.
The harbour on the island's southeast is beautiful, with the incredibly well-preserved remains of the penal colony nestling in a corner, with little to suggest the hardships it housed. The harbour felt a bit Bay of Islands, a bit English Lake District; trees cascading to the water's edge, clean water, silence.
Of course, Port Arthur's recent history rocks that sense of tranquillity. In April 1996, 28-year-old Martin Bryant went on a shooting spree, killing 35 people and wounding 23 others. He's in prison, never to be released and has never explained his motivation.
That's hard to forget when you're visiting the site which, with its rolling, clipped lawns, English country gardens and bucolic beauty, betrays no sense of those unimaginable horrors. One shouldn't try to. History of whatever vintage offers a catalogue of horrors. The more recent they are, the more vivid the memories. We should always remember, always try to learn.
The ruins of the penal colony are like nothing else in Australia, a country with too few well-preserved remains. In its time it was groundbreaking, grappling with issues of crime and punishment we still struggle with today. As well as traditional penitentiaries, a model prison was incorporated into the settlement. Rehabilitation as desirable for deterrent and punishment.
The ruins of the penal colony at Port Arthur. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Arthur Chapman
Port Arthur was also home to military personnel and civilian settlers. Towards the end of its use it housed large numbers of the chronically and mentally ill - known, in days long before political correctness, as paupers and lunatics.
The Port Arthur Historic Site organisation offers ghost tours and paranormal investigation experiences. Some people like that kind of thing. I found the site fascinating and moving in itself. I'm not convinced such add-ons are necessary, or perhaps even tasteful, given its recent history.
One of the cruisers' excursions from Port Arthur is to the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park, as stark a change of tone from the historic site as you might get.
Forget the cartoon Taz, two-legged, spinning and jabbering like Wile E Coyote on meth. The real things, endangered, are like teddy bears with their button noses and short fur. Less so with their terrible tempers, chalk-on-a-blackboard screech and vampiric fangs. Four-legged and about the size of a smallish dog, apparently their large head and neck allow them to generate the strongest bite per unit of body mass of any existing mammal land predator. They can crush bones and tear meat, mostly carrion, to shreds.
John Hamilton, the park's founder and director, is a man on a mission. He and his team are at the forefront of efforts to conserve their population against the threat posed by Devil Facial Tumour Disease, an aggressive cancer. The first official case was described in 1996. Since then, the population has been devastated, estimates varying between 20 and 50 per cent across most of the state.
His park is also home to kangaroos and wallabies - you can feed them in a large enclosure - quolls, possums, eagles, hawks and falcons. The park has the state's only free-flight raptor show, where some of these birds show off party tricks such as swooping to lift coins from the audience.
Port Arthur is around the corner from Hobart, 37 nautical miles that might as well be a world away. From contemplation to contemporary and the only evening on shore in the six-night cruise.
Seeking to capitalise on a buoyant market, Hobart has built itself a new cruise ship terminal. From here, it's a short walk along the quay to madness. Beers, leers and cheers: Salamanca Place and its rows of converted sandstone warehouses.
By day it's craft shops, galleries and a weekly market. By night restaurants and bars. Gives a decent night out, that Hobart.
Rising above Salamanca is the historic heart of Battery Point, picture-postcard homes providing some of the most des res' in Tasmania. Perfect for a stroll, although ideally before a night out down the bottom of the slope. I just wanted a carb-loading.
The city is dominated by the 1271m Mt Wellington. It's the second oldest state capital in Australia with a history traced to 1803.
Creating the Museum of Old and New Art on an island famous for its unspoiled, rugged, etc ... and in the suburbs of an old city still not immune to sneers from the metrogentsia was, on the surface, absolutely crackers. Utterly bonkers. And you suspect that's exactly why its creator David Walsh did it. The Sydney Morning Herald once described him as a "professional gambler, entrepreneur and philanthropist".
I don't doubt the museum's acronym is a pop at the most famous painting in the world - or at least its cloying popularity. Mona's exhibits - many specially commissioned - are mostly from the very rich Walsh's private collection, and can be hard work.
The UK Daily Telegraph said Walsh "doesn't collect famous names; his indifference to fashion is one of the strengths of the collection. He likes art that is fun and grabs your attention, that packs a sting in the tail or a punch in the solar plexus".
Mona is underground, under an historic homestead, down a massive spiral staircase. It's full of stuff about death, flickering lights, photos that disturb. It's bleak and black, dark and stark. And one of the funniest places I've been. Where there's shade, there has to be light.
I loved it so much that I've written a separate piece about it for a future edition of Travel. In the unlikely event you miss it, go to Mona. If you're easily offended, go twice, just in case you change your mind.
When I get home from trips, I infuriate my wife even more than normal. I want to move to everywhere I've just been. This time it's Tasmania, specifically Hobart. Leaving by the Derwent River is the perfect way to see the city, all space and houses tumbling down to the water; lights coming on as we pick up speed and head for sea as afternoon ebbs into evening on a cool spring day.
I'm attracted to places you can be alone, whether by yourself or with others. Places with meaning and feeling. And I'm not averse to a decent night out, despite the creep of time.
I'll go back, and I'll go for longer. It's all of the above and so much more.
Princess Cruises will offer a range of round trip cruises to Tasmania, sailing from Melbourne and Sydney in 2014 and early 2015.
Fares start from NZ$1268* per person for a five-night round trip cruise from Melbourne on Dawn Princess including visits to Burnie - gateway to Cradle Mountain National Park - Port Arthur and the beautiful city of Hobart.
Meanwhile, a seven-night roundtrip cruise from Sydney on Sun Princess, visiting Melbourne before crossing Bass Strait to call at Burnie, Port Arthur and Hobart, is priced from NZ$$1609* per person twin share.
See your travel agent or call Princess Cruises on 0800 543 178 for more details.
* subject to availability, conditions apply.
The writer cruised to Tasmania and back courtesy of Princess Cruises.