With my waders pulled up to my armpits I sloshed into Tasmania’s Great Oyster Bay and pushed my way to the shallows where the baby bivalves floated by the thousands. Since my arrival on Australia’s remote island state several days earlier, I had lunched daily on the plump, delectable shellfish, chasing them with gulps of crisp Tasmanian Riesling. But this morning’s encounter in their natural element was proving to be more risky than I had expected. “Be careful where you step,” cautioned one of the nearby oystermen as he watched me slip on the slick ocean floor and windmill my arms around to catch my balance. “You don’t want to wander out where the water is higher than your waders.”
Now that was a scary thought. I envisioned myself stumbling into a trough, suddenly weighed down by the water pouring into the rubber overalls that had enabled me to sashay through the water with impunity. I had ventured into the ocean hoping to shuck open a dozen or so oysters and wash them down with Champagne while standing amid the beds and posing for a souvenir photo. Alas, a heavy rainfall the night before compelled a change in plans. "We don’t harvest after a rain," the oysterman explained as I made my way back to shore and removed my waders. "The runoff from land makes the water muddy."
A Tasmanian would not serve muddy oysters; if not for the rain, he seldom, if ever, would even have a chance to do so. Because of its remoteness and the currents that flow from the Southern Ocean, the island—a landmass about the size of Scotland lying between the Australian mainland and Antarctica—has some of the planet’s most pristine coastal and inland waters.
The breezes that waft over the island also are among the world’s most pollution-free. Cape Grim, at the northwestern tip of Tasmania, about six hours by car from the capital city of Hobart on the southeast coast, is home to the Australian government’s baseline air-pollution station. There, researchers collect air samples to use as controls when analyzing air content in other parts of the world.
Even the bottled water sourced from Cape Grim and served in many Tasmanian restaurants is especially pure. Unlike garden-variety spring or well waters, the Cape Grim brand bottled water never touches the ground; instead, it is collected as rain.
Some local connoisseurs—one of whom I met a few hours after my foray into the realm of the oysters—say that Tasmanian water is most enjoyable when distilled into Lark Single Malt Whisky, which has been produced at the Lark Distillery in Hobart for nearly two decades. "It all began when a local surveyor named Bill Lark went fishing in the Clyde with his father-in-law," Mark Nicholson, the distillery’s tour manager and chief storyteller, told me in the Lark tasting room. He tilted a bottle of whiskey toward me in inquiry as he explained that the Clyde is a river running through Tasmania’s central highlands. Because I had not had a drink all morning I eagerly accepted his offer.
In the course of the afternoon," Nicholson continued, "the two fishermen shared a flask of Scotch, which got Lark to thinking." Lark recognized that, in addition to the abundance of wonderfully pure water, Tasmania has everything needed to produce a world-class whiskey: rich fields of barley, highland peat bogs, and the perfect climate to bring all the ingredients together. But it also had a law that required a distillery’s still to be a minimum of 2,700 liters, or about 700 gallons. The law, an Australian statute dating from 1901, was designed to prevent moonshiners from plying their trade, but it also had kept legitimate spirits makers from setting up shop in Tasmania.
In 1992, Lark had the law overturned and produced his first batch of whiskey, in a five-gallon still. Since then, more than half a dozen boutique distilleries have opened in Tasmania, and Lark single malts have received several prestigious accolades, including a World Whiskies Awards prize in 2009 for being the best single malt produced outside Scotland or Ireland.
Also in 2009, the Scottish developers of a small distillery near St. Andrews brought Lark to Scotland to help design a facility similar to his own. Kingsbarns Distillery is scheduled to open next year. "Imagine that," said Nicholson, shaking his head. "A bunch of Scots asking a Tasmanian to show them how to make Scotch.
You know," he continued, pouring me another glass, "We’re very fortunate. Tasmania has always had the world’s best meats, the best fruits, the best fish and herbs. But for the longest time we didn’t have the restaurants and hotels to showcase them. Now we do."
To be sure, Tasmania is a long way from anywhere else and is home to animals and plants that seem to have evolved on another planet. Prison walls and solitary cells remain in the towns, serving as reminders of Tasmania’s past as a British penal colony. And as some of the local funsters like to point out, between its great white sharks, deceptively innocent-looking but venomous platypuses, and Tasmanian Devils, this part of the world has an unrivaled number of things that can kill you.
While that may be so, Tasmania is fast gaining renown as a gourmet’s paradise. The corollary of the unspoiled environment is the remarkable quality of everything edible that grows here—fish or fowl, flora or fauna. Tasmania’s environment also has proved ideal for producing cool-climate wines, and the island validates the truism that where vineyards take root, cozy inns, boutique hotels, and spas spring up (see "From Cozy to Cutting Edge").
It is harder to figure out what the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) is doing here. Suffice it to say, Hobart’s newest attraction is not for everyone. MONA, which opened in January, was built at a cost of $73.5 million and contains a collection valued in excess of $98 million. Admission is free, which is just as well because it might save some visitors the time of asking for their money back.
Sitting in the distillery’s tasting room, glass in hand, feeling the whiskey warm me against the damp of the waterfront while Nicholson, a sixth-generation islander, held forth on local folkways, I found it easy to imagine the convict ships arriving outside. They docked amid the din and clamor of the harbor, their woebegone prisoners moving down the gangplanks past those less fortunate swaying from the gallows erected dockside.
From 1804 until 1853, some 76,000 convicts were transported from British jails to Tasmania’s prisons. Once they had served their sentences, some found work on the boats that were making Hobart the center of the southern hemisphere’s whaling industry. The whalers set out after humpbacks and right whales 50 feet long or more, in vessels one-third that length. The slaughter often turned the sea around the boats red.
Whaling in the region came to an end in the late 1800s, when oil production from the United States drastically reduced the world’s dependence on whale oil for keeping lanterns lit. But Tasmania was about to become famous for another of its natural resources. In 1788, the man who would later notoriously captain HMS Bounty, William Bligh, planted the first apple tree in Tasmania. The fruit flourished beyond anyone’s expectations, and by the turn of the 19th century the worldwide demand for Tasmanian apples—some 120 varieties of which then grew in the island’s orchards—earned the state renown as the Apple Isle.
It was a short leap of logic to presume that if Tasmanians could grow apples, they could also produce grapes for wine, just as mainlanders had been doing since as early as the 1820s in and around Sydney. But the island climate proved too cold for wine grapes to thrive.
Then in the 1970s, a young oenophile named Andrew Pirie, a Sydney native who had moved to Tasmania, was on a yearlong tour of Europe’s wine regions when it dawned on him that some of the most acclaimed wines came from cooler regions: Burgundy, Alsace, and Champagne in France and the Rhineland and Mosel in Germany. When he returned home, Pirie located Tasmania’s best microclimates for Europe’s signature cool-clime varietals: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling.
Today, Tasmania is recognized as Australia’s premier cool-climate wine district and is home to more than 240 vineyards. Most are only a hectare or two and do not produce commercially, but a number of the vineyards are owned by boutique wineries that make and sell elegant, naturally acidic wines.
They pair wonderfully with Tasmania’s cuisine, which benefits from the cool winds that blow the island’s skies clear of pollution. The ripening season is extended, enabling the island’s orchards to produce mouthwatering berries, green vegetables, stone fruits, herbs, and mushrooms.
Meat animals of all sorts, domestic and wild, graze across the island, including grass-fed Wagyu (Kobe beef). Other delicacies are the local truffles; first harvested in 1999, Tasmanian truffles were selling for about $700 per pound during the 2010 harvest season. Saffron, used to flavor such seafood dishes as bouillabaisse and paella, is one of the world’s most expensive substances, and some of the finest is found in Tasmania, where it can retail for the equivalent of more than $50,000 per pound.
Some of the world’s most succulent shellfish and scale fish—rock lobster, Atlantic salmon, brown trout, ocean trout, stripy trumpeter, tuna, crabs, crayfish, abalone, and scallops—swim in the crystal waters around Tasmania. Inland, the lakes and streams brim with trout, beckoning expert and novice anglers alike.
With a muted thump, thump, thump of its rotors the Bell JetRanger chased its shadow over the fields of the central highlands and dropped low to give us a closer view of the large, shiny pipeline that snaked down the mountainside and disappeared into the forest below us.
Welcome to Tarraleah," said pilot Yass Kuwada as we touched down in a clearing and waited for the helicopter’s rotors to come to a stop. Kuwada works for Rotor-Lift Aviation, which offers helicopter tours out of Hobart International Airport. "Ever see a hydro town before?" he asked, before explaining that these towns were built in the 1930s to house the people who maintained the hydropower stations that the water passed through on its way to Hobart. Most of the locations are now ghost towns, but Tarraleah has been restored. Kuwada paused for a moment and looked toward the highlands. "I sometimes wonder if the Tasmanians know how lucky they are," he said. "Anywhere else, those would be electrical high-tension wires. Here, they are pipes filled with water. It’s a paradise."
This is indeed a paradise for fly fisherman, said Ken Orr, Tarraleah’s resident fishing guide, who greeted us and led the way around the town. "You’ll find the world’s best trout fishing right here in Tarraleah," said Orr, who operates Ken Orr’s Tasmanian Trout Expeditions and claims some 40 years of experience fishing Tasmania’s lakes, streams, and rivers.
But Orr’s clients do not just wade into a stream and cast lines this way and that, hoping to catch a fish. "First, I want to see if you can cast. Most fishermen don’t know how to, so first you have to learn how to drop a fly right in front of a trout."
This, he says, is sight fishing. "It’s more like hunting than fishing the way most Americans know it. Typically a day of fishing will begin by a riverbank where the trout lie in warm, shallow water. You can see their fins sticking up through the water. It’s exciting. These are the purest brown trout in the world."
Usually no two days with Orr are spent on the same body of water; he takes clients to a variety of shallow lakes and meadowland streams. "All the while, you’re surrounded by the unspoiled wilderness," he said. "I’ve had platypuses swim between my legs while fishing. Of course, you don’t want to pick them up or you’ll get stung. But it’s nice to know they’re there."
The name Tarraleah means "forester kangaroo" in the language of the local Aboriginal people, and the town is host to an enormous range of Tasmanian wildlife. At night the place comes alive, with platypuses, possums, wallabies, wombats, quolls (predators the size of small cats), and echidnas (otherwise known as spiny anteaters) wandering about.
In daytime a place to see these and other wildlife close up without risking loss of a finger is the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, about a 30-minute drive north of Hobart. "We’re like an ark for all the strange or injured animals nobody else wanted," said Karl Mathiesen, the sanctuary’s manager, as he picked up a jet-black-coated animal the size of a terrier and scratched its head, causing it to emit a low, contented growl, like a purr. Then Mathiesen returned the animal to the ground and took a chunk of raw meat from a container. The animal leaped into the air and locked its jaws around the meat, like a bear trap snapping shut. "You can see why the early settlers named this little fellow the Tasmanian Devil," said Mathiesen.
At this occurrence, another devil appeared and attacked the first, seizing the animal around its jaws. "This is a kind of play fighting. They lock mouths without injuring themselves," Mathiesen explained. "If they were serious they would severely injure each other because their jaws are many times stronger than a pit bull’s. The only reason these devils let me hold them is because I’ve raised them since they were babies."
Few animals live as rigorous an existence as the devils do. From the moment of birth their life is a struggle. The mother devil may have litters of 20 or more but can nurse only four, leaving the others to perish. Once grown a devil has to eat 15 percent of its own body weight each day, gorging on garbage, rotting animal carcasses, or rats and mice to survive.
Tasmania has been a haven for wildlife," said Mathiesen. "This is the only place in the world where some animals exist. We’ve lost only one animal in the past 40 years, the Tasmanian tiger. But we don’t want to lose another one."
The latest news on Tasmania’s conservationist front was that an increasing number of whales had been seen in the Derwent River, the estuary that runs into Hobart. A calf was even born in the river last year.
More surprisingly to a visiting foursome was the sight of whales traveling past Barnbougle Dunes, the links-style golf course on the northern coast of Tasmania. "We had some American golfers here the other day," said Richard Sattler, Barnbougle’s developer. "They told me they had never seen kangaroos and whales while they were golfing in the States."
Creating a uniquely Tasmanian experience is precisely what Sattler had in mind when he built the golf course, which made its debut in 2004. "The land was no good for farming, but I didn’t want to put up condos, the sort of thing you might see anywhere."
The course follows the natural curvature of the land, rising over the dunes. "You’ve got the wind and the dunes, and the mist spraying off the ocean and into your face," said Sattler, who did not take up golf until after he opened the course.
A second, adjacent course that he developed, Lost Farms, offers a change of pace, with 20 holes instead of 18, almost all of which travel over sand dunes. Lost Farms also features a 50-room lodge with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the course, the dunes, the beach, and the ocean. "From here in the dining room," said Sattler, "you can see whales."
Stranger sights awaited back in Hobart, at MONA.
MONA is bound to be controversial," Mark Fraser, the museum’s director, advised me before leading me on a tour. "But that doesn’t matter. David doesn’t care what people think of it. In fact, he plans to find out which display is the most popular, and then he will remove it."
David is Tasmanian David Walsh, the 49-year-old professional gambler and multimillionaire who founded MONA, and who, according to a MONA press release, believes there are only two reasons to create art: "to get laid or to defy death."
The museum, a vast subterranean fortress scraped from the surrounding sandstone, was created to baffle, confound, or assault the senses at every turn. Here, replicas of body parts hang from the branches of a tree. There, the mutilated bodies of suicide bombers are sculpted in chocolate. Over there are images of men and women who have had their groins ripped out. A featured attraction is the Cloaca, a machine that feeds meat, fish, and vegetables into the bowels of one machine so they can be digested and ultimately excreted with revolting authenticity.
One thing can be said for Walsh: In a field where so many try to shock, break down barriers, and get attention, he has become this year’s poster child of the avant-garde.
Walsh made his first big splash in the art world five years ago during a Sotheby’s auction, when he outbid Australia’s National Gallery of Victoria and paid $3.1 million for The Bar, a much-vaunted 1954 painting by John Brack. Members of the Australian art establishment were asking, "Who is this guy?" They soon learned that the Brack’s new owner was not a front for an international art cartel, nor a European prince, nor even some dot-com parvenu; rather, the story initially went, he was one of those louche characters who moved along the fringes of the casino world: a card counter.
In the months that followed, a fuller, clearer picture of Walsh emerged. He was single with two daughters, a math whiz and college dropout who had made his fortune by developing complex algorithms—systems for betting and winning—and applying them to horse racing. He cultivated the image of the enigmatic, publicity-shy genius, but he was fond of wearing T-shirts with the words "F--- this or that."
With his vast profits Walsh bought Moorilla, the winemaking estate outside of Hobart on which MONA was built. On the grounds, Walsh also added a boutique brewery called Moo Brew, eight modernistic pavilions, a stage where he hosts rock concerts, and the Source, a stylish chrome-and-glass restaurant overlooking the Derwent.
Given Walsh’s multiplicity of interests, it follows that not all of MONA’s contents are intended to revolt. Some merely intrigue. One of the first items you see upon entering the museum is a sandstone waterfall that displays the term receiving the most Google hits that day. The museum’s holdings also include Australian Sidney Nolan’s Snake, a 151-foot-long painting comprising 1,620 individual panels framed in groups of six.
MONA also houses part of the antiquities collection that Walsh began amassing 20 years ago. The collection includes two Egyptian mummies, Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets, and hundreds of Greek coins. Also on display are a Porsche 911 and a Mack truck that would not look out of place at the Smithsonian.
Actually, most of the exhibits are antiquities," said Fraser, leading the way to the Source, which is perched on the edge of a cliff. Fraser cannot tarry this afternoon; he has to dash off to London to take delivery of a new exhibit. "It’s 150 vaginas," he said.
He was curious, though. What did I think of the museum?
It wasn’t really my cup of tea, I admitted.
Fraser beamed. "David will be so pleased."
Barnbougle Dunes, +61.3.6356.0094, www.barnbougledunes.com.au; Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, +61.3.6268.1184, www.bonorong.com.au; Ken Orr’s Tasmanian Trout Expeditions, +61.3.6289.1191, www.orrsometassietrout.com.au; Lark Distillery, +61.3.6231.9088, www.larkdistillery.com.au; Moorilla/MONA, +61.3.6277.9900, www.moorilla.com.au; Rotor-Lift Aviation, +61.3.6248.4117, www.rotorlift.com.au