Three retro highlights you shouldn't miss.
I’m just back from Hobart.
Quaint, calm and pretty, the capital city of Tasmania often feels that it’s at the bottom of the world. It’s not, quite. Wellington in New Zealand is the southernmost capital city, but Hobart is not far behind. But when you go south of Hobart past the Huon Valley, you feel as if you might tip off the edge into Antarctica. It’s one of the launching points for cruises to the frozen continent.
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To give some perspective for those who don’t know, Tasmania is Australia’s smallest state, an island about the same size as the Republic of Ireland, Sri Lanka or Florida. Hobart sits in its south-east, on the wide Derwent River. It’s Australia’s least populated capital city. It’s also its second oldest, having been established as a British penal colony in 1804, just after Sydney.
Also known by the aboriginal name of Nipaluna, Hobart is breathtakingly beautiful, the city and suburbs a confetti of Colonial sandstone buildings, Federation timber cottages, Fifties brick veneers, and Sixties ranch-style houses scattered along the reaches of the Derwent river, folded under two mountains.
I’ve been going down there for decades, long before it became a tourist hotspot. My sister moved to Hobart in the 1980s and my parents followed twenty years ago.
That doesn’t make them Tasmanians. They’re still considered Mainlanders, having come from ‘overseas’ - the huge and dominating bulk of the Australian continent, so enormous that poor little Tasmania, separated by 419 kilometres of Bass Strait, frequently gets left off Australasian maps.
Hobart was actually my first-ever ‘overseas’ destination, so I feel a lot of affection for it. I went there on a high school excursion in the 1970s, when Hobart attracted visitors for its historic importance, but hardly for its contemporary food and culture scene.
We stayed in the old twenties-era Astor Hotel on Macquarie street. It was more like a boarding house than a hotel then (it still has budget accommodation) and it instilled in me a love of fusty heritage hotels.
The ‘educational’ highlight for greedy young teenagers was the visit to the Cadbury Chocolate factory on the Derwent river. In those days, a factory tour included as many samples of broken chocolate you could cram into your mouth, which were offered at various stations along the manufacturing path, creating lifelong chocoholics (which probably was the ambition) even before they gave us an overflowing bag of chocolates to take home at the end.
In later years, Cadbury charged an entry fee and the only chocolates available to sample were for sale in the visitor centre shop. Now the tours have stopped altogether.
Fortunately, there are many more things to love about Hobart than chocolate.
But it’s a complicated place beneath its surfaces. Tasmania’s isolation has meant that it has struggled economically. The state has an illiteracy rate of 50 per cent and a welfare dependency rate of 33 per cent, and in some areas only 45.5 per cent of students complete Year 12. Tasmania is also the state with the highest rate of poverty in Australia. Hobart’s suburbs bear the brunt of this.
Hobart’s loveliness doesn’t eclipse the violent history of aboriginal genocide and the cruelties of the penal colony that the British established. It was a major whaling centre too, so the river ran with blood for many reasons. I find a certain melancholy lingers in the atmosphere like the fingers of fog that often hover in the valleys and sit on the river.
Or maybe it’s just the moody weather, although Hobart has more days of sunshine a year than warmer Sydney.
It doesn’t sound like I’m making a great case for the city, does it? But its the complicated history that makes it fascinating and unique. Being a bit of an economic backwater has meant that (as yet) it hasn’t been overdeveloped, although there are a couple of really ugly modern building marring the CBD. It’s authentic, eccentric and not like anywhere else in Australia.
And then there is MONA and God. (David Walsh.)
In 2011, the thrilling Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) opened its doors and changed the landscape, literally and figuratively. Sleepy backwater Hobart became an international art city, and its restaurants and bars were suddenly filled with intense, black-clad people wearing interesting hairdos, arguing about esoteric subjects.
And seriously good restaurants like this new addition, Van Bone, at Marion Bay.
No wonder so many Mainlanders have moved down there, snapping up historic houses and enjoying the laid back lifestyle, lack of traffic, fresher air and great produce. These transplants seem to be the happiest people in Australia.
So ‘quaint’ doesn’t quite cut it anymore as a description for Hobart. There’s a lot of sophistication, creativity and energy.
But still, there are wonderful pockets of quaintness that didn’t quite get the memo.
I want to pay tribute to three of them.
The Country Women’s Association has run a shop in the city for 80 years. The current incarnation at 165 Elizabeth Street has been its home since 1951. It’s stocked with homemade jams and chutneys, knitted baby clothes, home-baked cakes and small handcrafted gifts. My absolute favourite purchase one year was a pair of knitted Christmas puddings. It’s staffed with lovely volunteers, the prices are great, and the strawberry jam is legendary.
I’ve spent many hours in this delightful corner shop in Battery Point, which has been there for 20 years. I’ve found many bargains among the bookshelves and clothing racks. It’s worth a walk up the hill from Salamanca Place, especially if you’re interested in textiles. Kookaburra has an online store as well, selling more costly, high-end objects. There’s a pair of 1940s snakeskin peep-toed pumps I’m coveting right now.
Now, this is seriously daggy (Australian for unstylish), but I’ve had so much fun visiting this antique steam engine from 1950, which sits beside the road 19 kms south of Hobart. The train’s old carriages hold dusty shops, a pancake parlour and a microbrewery with two antique barns on the same property. Maybe the pickings aren’t as good now as they were twenty years ago, but it still makes for good rummaging.
My next overseas trip is to another island - Fiji. It’s going to be a whole other experience.