At the Edge of the World

  • Mike Nolan

Not until i have finished the meal’s second course, a combination of sugar-cured trout and wasabi ice cream that jolts the mind as well as the palate, do I pause to gather my geographic bearings. I consider the outcome of sailing directly west from my location on the barely tamed northwest coast of Tasmania, out through the Gates of Hell—the entrance to Macquarie Harbour, so named because British convicts once landed at the harbor en route to perdition in the form of the penal colony that encompassed much of Tasmania in the late-18th and 19th centuries. When navigating a due west course from the harbor into the Roaring Forties of the Great Southern Ocean, the next land encountered is not India or Africa, but Argentine Patagonia, 12,000 miles distant. In another scenario, I envision shooting an arrow into the earth below my chair; if that could follow a straight path through the planet’s center it would exit in my kitchen just outside of Boston.

My dinner companion, Roger Corbin, a pilot with Rotor-Lift Helicopters in the Tasmanian city of Hobart, contributes to my disorientation with endless suggestions for what he calls hands-on Tasmanian adventures. “We could fly out to Abel Tasman island and watch the sun rise over the cliffs,” says Corbin. “I’ll supply the champagne.” As the last of the wasabi melts, and I empty a glass of native Stefano Lubiana sparkling wine, the maps and globes whirling in my mind come into focus. In arriving here at Franklin Manor, in the tiny fishing village of Strahan, I have gone as far as I can go; if my journey continues, it will bring me only closer to home.

Aware that the vast majority of the 450,000 Tassies reside in the two main cities, Hobart and Launceston, I had come to Tasmania, an island about the size of West Virginia, expecting to see vast forests of eucalyptus and exotic pines, pristine beaches stretching for miles, wild river valleys, and a variety of exotic creatures found nowhere else. All of these indeed have been encountered, but there is also a sense that, like my various Tasmanian hosts and I, the plants and animals are recent arrivals. Although remnants of Tasmania’s history, both human and natural, abound, it seems as though the entire island emerged from the Tasman Sea only yesterday. So much of the land is virgin territory, and the people have yet to decide what to do with it—or, they have chosen to leave it untouched.

This is the lasting impression that Tasmania creates, but not the first, for neither description applies to the Tamar River Valley, where a weeklong trek around the island begins. The river empties into the narrow yet treacherous Bass Strait that separates Tasmania from the rest of Australia to the north. At the valley’s Rosevears Estate, located on the river’s west bank, winemaker Andrew Pirie and I dip our glasses into vats of Pinot Noir grapes in various stages of initial maceration, while work crews, bleary-eyed from 20-hour days, rush to complete the grape harvest. “You can taste the plum in that one,” notes Pirie, before opening a bottle of the estate’s 2000 Reserve, which provides a powerful berry nose and a taste that hints of spice. “It’s better with food than wines from warmer climes, and more adaptable to different cuisines,” he says.

Although a Tasmanian wine won a ribbon at the Paris Exhibition of 1848, modern viticulture on the island dates from the late 1950s, and the broad river valley recently has become populated with winemakers taking advantage of the long, sunny autumn afternoons and the cool climate similar to that of some of the great winemaking regions of Europe. Throughout the valley, tasting rooms with attached restaurants are being built in anticipation of accommodating oenophiles visiting from around the globe.

The Tamar Valley land that now produces wine once was a source of gold. In the 1830s, the owner of one of the local mines built Hatherley House, which sits on a hill overlooking Launceston, the northern city at the source of the Tamar River. “This was the owner’s attempt at creating a little England here in Tasmania,” explains Flora de Kantzow, chairman of the company that owns the Hatherley. Formerly a townhouse and now a bed-and-breakfast, the property offers an eclectic mix of contemporary and traditional elements. Modern works of art hang on walls above 19th-century furniture. Quirky features, such as life-size colonial figures carved from wood and hidden doors in the guest rooms that conceal the presence of bathrooms (a design element that initially can create some anxiety), await around every corner of the house. On this day, the Hatherley is hosting a number of drivers participating in the annual Targa Tasmania road rally, which takes place in the hills above Launceston. The driveway is filled with vintage Porsches and Ferraris, and guests not involved with the event must brave a gauntlet of owners intent on discussing their racing tactics and their cars’ performances. What some might consider a less daunting passage awaits along the shores of the Bay of Fires.

On Tasmania’s northeast coast, about 100 miles from Launceston, the roars of revving vintage car engines are replaced by the crackling underfoot of jellyfish, victims of a recent storm in the Tasman Sea, that litter the beach. A lone fairy penguin fishing in the surf points the way south toward our destination, the Bay of Fires Lodge, an ecotourism architectural marvel. Access to the lodge involves a two-day, 12-mile trek along white sand beaches, over rugged headlands, and through tidal rivers. The group of 10 hikers and two guides (the maximum number of visitors that the law allows at one time on this portion of the coast) includes an architect from Miami making a pilgrimage to what has become for many of his peers a holy site.

The only sign of civilization seen the first day of the walk is a 30-foot sailboat which, like the jellyfish, had been driven ashore by the storm. It stands as a sobering reminder of the risks involved with the annual Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race, which has recently claimed the lives of several mariners. Shellfish middens, left by aboriginal Tasmanians hundreds of years ago, rival the size of the dunes that frame the beach. The fires the natives built while harvesting the shellfish, seen by the first Europeans to sail this coast, are the source of the bay’s name.

When night arrives, the sky, far away from any source of light pollution, reveals stars of unsurpassed brilliance and, to those of us who have spent the bulk of our nights under the North Star, a rare glimpse of the greater and lesser Magellanic Clouds galaxies. In the morning, the clawed tracks of the island’s most elusive animal, the Tasmanian devil, lead us along the dune line before they disappear into the bush, perhaps ending at the carcass of some unfortunate prey.

Leaving the beach, we track through the so-called marsupial lawns, wide-open fields where wallabies question our presence with quizzical expressions. Because of a dry summer, the rivers are low, but they still require us to remove our boots and socks, which we have to put back on for the frequent scrambles over orange-lichened rocks.

Growing weary as the afternoon shadows lengthen, we scan the horizon for a view of our destination, but this is an exercise in futility. The Bay of Fires Lodge, set on the top of a bluff overlooking the beach, remains hidden in a grove of she-oaks and prickly box. Not until we exit the bush and ascend the stairway that leads to its deck does the lodge become visible. “We wanted to meld the lodge and landscape together, both aesthetically and in practice,” explains owner and architect Ken Latona.

Every item in the lodge and all of the materials used to build it were carried here by foot or transported by helicopter. The lodge consists of two long pavilions constructed of Tasmanian hardwoods, and because of the buildings’ glass walls, it seems as though the wallabies that occasionally hop by might join you for a libation. To fulfill what Latona calls his “dream of simplicity,” solar power provides electricity and heats the water that is collected in rooftop tanks, and guests must pump the water for their showers. A 3-minute exercise yields enough for a 10-minute shower while reminding you that water is a finite resource.

Days at the lodge can be spent exploring the beach or hiking the enormous system of dunes the Tasman Sea has deposited just south of the property. Anglers have to compete with the penguins and dolphins that are often seen fishing in the surf, and for naturalists, the bay is a haven for sea birds. Kayaking on the tranquil waters of the nearby Ansons River also offers a pleasant diversion—for those fit enough not to be concerned with reserving their energy for the return hike.

My ecological immersion notwithstanding, I depart the Bay of Fires not on foot but in Roger Corbin’s helicopter, a far more efficient mode of transportation for viewing an island with 20 national parks covering a quarter of the land area. The flight to the city of Hobart on Tasmania’s southeast coast, where we will visit the Salamanca Place fair, billed as the largest in the southern hemisphere, includes a couple of detours. We fly down the coast to the Freycinet Peninsula for a view of Wineglass Bay, which is bordered on three sides by mountains, and then stop for fuel on the lawn of a tavern about 50 miles north of Hobart. Before the surprised bartender delivers our drinks (Corbin’s is of the soft variety), a truck pulls up beside the copter and fills its tank. We will need all of that fuel for the flight from Hobart to Strahan.

The day of the final leg of the journey dawns dank and gloomy, and conditions do not improve once we are airborne. With raindrops pelting the windshield and a map of Tasmania spread across his knees, Corbin noses the copter through a number of valleys, trying to locate a pass deep enough to allow us to cross the mountains despite the low ceiling. Eventually he finds an opening, and we speed north through the twisting valley of the Gordon River and then across the wide expanse of Macquarie Harbour to Strahan and Franklin Manor. No need to cancel the dinner reservations.

When we arrive, Franklin Manor’s owner and chef, Meyjitte Boughenout, is busy sourcing wine. He plans to triple the size of the restaurant’s 1,000-bottle cellar within three years, and so this task is consuming much of his time. No doubt he will accomplish it and address the demands of his patrons who travel from all over the South Pacific to dine here; he did not come this far to fail.

After working for years at two- and three-star restaurants in Belgium and France, Boughenout submitted to his restlessness and relocated to Sydney, taking a chef’s position at the Ritz-Carlton. A vacation in Tasmania eventually landed him and his wife, Debbie, in Strahan, where the gentility of the Victorian manor and attractions of small-town life hooked them like a rudderfish that, when blackened and served with a Gewürztraminer, anchors the manor’s seven-course tasting menu and supports Boughenout’s claim that “Strahan is a paradise for a chef interested in seafood.” It is also a good place for a chef who collects mushrooms for his consommé by jogging down dirt roads behind the family station wagon and throwing the freshly picked harvest in the open back.

“At a place like this, you come here for the chef,” says Boughenout, “so put yourself in my hands.” My pilot and I do just that, and after the rudderfish, the trout, the wasabi ice cream, and a dessert of carrot ravioli, we linger over our cognacs, giving Corbin a chance to offer more suggestions for our next adventure. “I know a little bay a short flight south of here where we can shuck carloads of oysters,” he says. “We’d eat lunch in knee-deep water. I could probably find a bottle to bring along.”

Intended or not, his point is taken: Even when you have reached the edge of the world, other adventures await.

Bay of Fires Lodge (Evandale), +61.3.6391.9339, www.bayoffires.com.au
Franklin Manor (Strahan), +61.03.6471.7311, www.franklinmanor.com.au
Hatherley House (Launceston), +61.03.6334.7727, www.hatherleyhouse.com.au
Henry Jones Art Hotel (Hobart), +61.3.62.316.391, www.thehenryjones.com
Rosevears Estate (Rosevears), +61.03.6330.1800, www.rosevearsestate.com.au
Rotor-Lift Helicopters (Hobart), +61.03.6248.4117, www.rotorlift.com.au

 

Among the accommodation options in Hobart is the recently opened Henry Jones Art Hotel, named for a businessman who was the first Tasmanian knighted by England. The hotel fuses modern and colonial styles on the waterfront of Sullivan’s Cove, the spot where the first European settlers landed in 1804.

Henry Jones’ Art Installation Suite features a private revolving exhibition of paintings and sculpture, which is curated by faculty at the University of Tasmania School of Art.

Just steps away from the hotel is the harbor and Salamanca Place, a street lined with art and antiques shops. Artisans from all across Tasmania convene here each Saturday and transform the road into a half-mile-long carnival. It features everything from hand-woven clothing made from Tasmanian wool to sculpture and paintings by immigrants from around the eastern Pacific to performances by a mariachi band from Peru.

Next to the fair is Antarctic Adventure, a museum that explores Hobart’s long relationship with the Southern Ocean. It offers a respite from the chaos of the fair and includes a room that approximates conditions on the frozen continent—a perfect place to chill out.

Henry Jones Art Hotel (Hobart)
+61.1300.665.581
www.thehenryjones.com

At Moorilla Estate, a boutique winery just north of Hobart in the town of Berriedale, a series of chalets hug the hillside that leads down to the shores of the Derwent River. With a museum dedicated to various forms of ancient art (a fifth-century tiled mosaic of Dionysus riding a bull could be viewed as reminder to drink sparingly of the estate’s product), a fine restaurant, and a winery, Moorilla offers its guests many options. Each chalet has its own cellar stocked with Moorilla vintages, and as in most of Tasmania, Pinot dominates the selection. From the chalet’s expansive decks, you can view the Derwent, the ever-looming Mount Wellington, and Hobart to the south.

Moorilla Estate
+61.03.6277.9999
www.moorilla.com.au

The City of Launceston in northern Tasmania offers many fine dining choices, but none better than Stillwater on the banks of the Tamar River. The restaurant’s beams and floors were brought to Tasmania as ballast long ago by trading ships from Oregon and New Zealand. The tasting menu moves from east (saltwater sashimi plate) to west (duckling tartlet with braised shallots) as smoothly as the Tamar flowing past the windows. Here it is easy to linger over post-dinner drinks and watch the lights of Launceston reflect off the water. And as long as you do not overindulge, a short walk away is Cataract Gorge, where rock climbers brave cliffs high above the river. Also within walking distance is the Basin Chairlift, which is said to be the world’s longest single-span chairlift. At either location, the views are as striking as Stillwater’s menu.
 
Stillwater
+61.3.6331.4153

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