In Tasmania I had one of these totally cliché “traveling is awesome and unlocks the world” moments wherein I finally understood a line in an Irish folk song. So in this particular song, a guy drinks too much (in Ireland, can you believe it) and gets caught up with some evil seductress who frames him for theft and he gets sent off to prison, and I always thought they were saying they send him to “Vandyman’s Land.” Like the handyman or something. Whatever it was, I never understood it, but contextually got that this was not a good place. Hold that thought.
Most people probably know that Australia came into being in Western consciousness when it was established as a penal colony by the British, and Tasmania was an important cog in this system. Port Arthur was the hub of this activity and once housed 2,000 people, between prisoners and guards. Walking around today, it seems like not a bad place to spend your life as a prisoner, but considering it took several months by boat to get here from England and the obviously harsh life conditions, it was understandably a brutal punishment, if not a death sentence, to be sent anywhere in Tasmania, and Port Arthur was the end of the line.
As I’m on this walking tour in Port Arthur, the very enthusiastic guide mentioned offhand that Tasmania’s originally name came from the Dutch explorer who first landed here and named it after the then-governor of the Dutch East Indies. He called it Van Diemen’s Land—not Vandyman’s Land. Obviously, a Google search could have uncovered this not-so-amazing connection, but I was totally excited about this serendipitous discovery, so the lesson here is traveling is good because it helps make sense of nonsensical bar songs you hear in Ireland.
Anyway, Tasmania was a place of highs and not so much lows as moments of utter befuddlement. I’ll start with the highs.
Hobart and the Tasman Peninsula
I don’t know what I expected the Tassie capital to be like, but Hobart wasn’t it. The town of 200,000 feels both bigger than it is and more intimate. Apparently Hobart used to be considered some horrible backwater by mainland Australians, but it’s a thoroughly great small city and unlike so many places that claim this title, a hidden gem for foodies.
Salamanca Place is the main area of interest in Hobart. The waterfront neighborhood consisting of stone warehouses along the port was named after a 19th century British victory over the Spanish in the Battle of Salamanca, but weirdly the aesthetic is in fact more Spanish than English. Many of the original buildings are still around and now house wine bars and farm-to-table restaurants and such. I feel like I describe this kind of neighborhood in every city, because restored-warehouse-turned-trendy-restaurant is practically becoming a trope, but in Hobart, it feels particularly authentic.
Getting back to the Port Arthur prison, the Tasman Peninsula on which the former prison city sits is about an hour drive from Hobart and in my opinion, the most beautiful drive on the island. On the way out to the peninsula, you pass all these turnoffs where you can see crazy rock and cliff formations, with names like “Devil’s Kitchen,” and the geology of this area is really interesting.
It’s no accident that Port Arthur is located where it is. When you’re there, it doesn’t have that Alcatraz feeling of total isolation. The harbor at the bottom of the prison is calm and the water is perfectly clear. In the other direction, gentle hills lead back to the main part of the island. But escaping from here would be even more daunting than trying to swim across the San Francisco Bay. If you were to try to swim away from Port Arthur, the next piece of land you’d hit would be Antarctica. On land, you’re trapped because were you to head north back to the center of the island, the tiny connecting point (the narrow stretch of land that earned the area its name, Eaglehawk Neck) is so narrow that it could be very easily defended.
There’s a long list of tried and failed escape attempts hatched by convicts in Port Arthur, one of the more infamous involving an inmate who disguised himself in the carcass of a dead kangaroo to try to fool the guards at the patrol point at the top of the peninsula. The guards, who were almost as poorly treated as the prisoners themselves, tried to shoot the kangaroo for dinner, at which point the convict promptly gave himself up.
Knowing what I know now, I can say Port Arthur is one of the highlights in all of Tasmania. I didn’t expect this to be so cool, but the grounds are huge and there’s a lot to see, from a prison for juvenile offenders on an island in the bay, to the “separate prison” (solitary confinement cells conveniently located next to the psych ward), to the chapel and various officials’ cottages. The history here is fascinating and it’s a nice and very peaceful setting along the water. You could easily spend the better part of a day here. If you’re (un)lucky, you might stumble on one of the seemingly random historical reenactments staged around the grounds.
If you mention to anyone in Australia you’re going to Hobart, they will all say you HAVE to go to MONA. This is the new modern art museum just outside the city and as far as museums go, they’ve gotten all the mechanics right. The museum is built on a hill up the river from Hobart and has a great vantage point on this tip of land in the middle of the river. The restaurants are amazing. The entire museum is underground, but they have lots of outdoor spaces and it seems like they host a lot of cool events and concerts. When you walk in, they hand you an iPhone with descriptions of all the art in the museum (there are no placards anywhere) and it works based on GPS. When the woman told me this, I was not thrilled because I’ve seen this before and it never works. But this system does work. Flawlessly. And they have a bar within the exhibits, what else could you want?!
So, the art: it’s basically all modern art and to quote the British family I met who were less than enthused about the museum, the overall motif is “sex and dead people,” which is a spot-on description. Really the only thing in the museum that isn’t modern is a haphazard collection of corpses and sarcophagi stashed in a corner. I know exactly nothing about art so I’m in no position to tell you whether this is actual good modern art or a bunch of trash. But if you, like me, think most modern art is kind of ridiculous, then the collection at the MONA is like a caricature of bad modern art.
I think collectively we can move on from the “I could have done that” critique of modern art. It’s not so much about how difficult was it to make something. The question now is, why have you foisted this thing you made on us, the unsuspecting and innocent public? It got to the point where the thing below seemed like the greatest masterpiece in recent history simply because it was kind of funny and not altogether grotesque.
I can’t emphasize enough how little I know about art, so obviously these are the observations of someone wholly unqualified to be making them. But I noted something at MONA—which I would still recommend actually, it’s cool to see the place—that is, to me, a perfect microcosm of the problem with modern art.
On one wall, there’s a collection of 400 plaster cast vaginas. So first of all, unnecessary shock value: check. The description tells you that they were taken from women of all races and ages and religions blah blah blah and the point of the piece was about female empowerment and to “help to combat the exponential rise, seen in recent years, of cosmetic labial surgeries.” Fair enough. The only people in the museum, which was pretty crowded, actually looking at this piece? Young guys, usually in groups. I’m not trying to shame these guys at all, but I really don’t think they were hanging out around this piece because they care about issues of female body acceptance. Audaciously, the website claims, “this piece is intended to change the lives of women, forever.” Nothing like a little self-canonization. Here ends my art rant.
Anyway, something much more exciting: cute animals!
Near the MONA is Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, an animal rescue for injured wildlife. I don’t think I need to employ the hard sell on this. They have a ton of kangaroos, which you can walk amongst and feed, some koalas, some birds, wallabies, emus, echidnas, and Tasmanian devils, which are basically impossible to see in the wild. Tasmanian devils don’t exactly look cuddly, though they’re hardly demonic in appearance. But you do not want to mess with them. Their jaw strength is incredible and when they eat animal, they just eat the whole thing: bones, skin, fur, feathers, whatever. When I was at Bonorong, a guy was feeding a dead rabbit to one of them and the sound it made when another devil came near it was truly otherworldly, and suddenly its name made sense.
It’s really worth a visit. You get to see someone bottle feed baby wallabies and if you don’t think that’s cute, then I hope you have a safe journey back to whatever planet you came from.
Hobart is not going to enthrall you for weeks on end, but as a gateway to the rest of the island, it’s incredible. The vibe is predictably laidback, but the people don’t lollygag through life. Everything is efficient, but nothing is rushed. As far as restaurants go, I had consistently good service more in Hobart than anywhere else in Australia. At night, it’s quiet, but not eerie. Along Salamanca Place, people are out eating and drinking until surprisingly late for a relatively sleepy town, but if you get a few blocks away, it’s quiet enough that you can hear the sounds of the ships bobbing in the harbor. If you just stayed in Hobart and went out to the Tasman Peninsula and to Port Arthur, you will have seen the best of Tasmania.
Good news: I’ve found a place you definitely do not need to put on your bucket list. If you Google Launceston, the second major city in Hobart, it looks actually really cool. You have all this old Victorian architecture and pleasant small-town vibes, and the natural area surrounding Launceston is nice, if not Tasmania’s most dramatic landscape.
I arrived in Launceston during summer bush fire season and nearby Cradle Mountain park was largely on fire, so a ruddy red smoke haze hung over the city, which is going to make any place seem a little creepy.
Second, it was Australia Day, which is not so much a day about Australian independence, but has the same patriotic vibe as the Fourth of July with fireworks, people having picnics, etc. (remember it’s the height of summer here). So of course this is not a normal day. I expected pretty much every business to be closed and indeed it was. But Launceston was empty. Empty in the sense that at 2 p.m., I was standing at the main intersection in town and didn’t see another person anywhere. And it’s not just that people weren’t in the downtown area. The parks, of which there are many around town, were basically empty. There were almost no cars on the streets. In the hillside neighborhood where I was staying, the streets were dead silent. No barbecues in people’s backyards, no music playing, no people talking. Silence.
I don’t need to belabour the point here. This place is weird and can be skipped. In the morning, when I made a headlong retreat at first light back to Hobart, I stopped at a coffee shop on the way out of town that was actually in a nice shopping district, so while Launceston seemed less ghostly by the light of day, it’s still a place I do not understand the appeal of.
At the one bar in town that was open the previous night, I had the misfortune of meeting what was clearly the town idiot. All you need to know about this guy is he proudly hasn’t voted in several decades, which is actually illegal here and incurs a fine, and he vocally supports Pauline Hanson, who is the Australian Donald Trump and is uncannily similar to him. When this guy was telling me about her, he said she “speaks the truth,” which after this campaign season, I think any sane person among us now understands to be a euphemism for crazy. To top it off, this guy proceeds to tell me all the things that make Launceston great: high unemployment. This is literally the one “positive” feature he laid out for the town.
So I don’t know, if you’ve been to Launceston or live there and love it, apologies. There is something interesting there I would imagine, but I sure as hell did not find it.
Coles Bay is the kind of town that has one restaurant, but that restaurant is so good and the setting of the town is so nice that it seems like you have everything you could ever want. Along Tasmania’s eastern side are several small towns that hug the coast and this is the island’s most beautiful and most famous scenery. Coles Bay is near Freycinet National Park, known for its great hikes and the iconic Wineglass Bay.
At the time, I was really impressed by this. The weather was perfect that day, it wasn’t crowded, and it’s admittedly a great view. But now even with a little distance, it’s lost some of its appeal to me, for no discernible reason. The park has some great hikes and some great scenery, and if this was in your backyard, it would be awesome. But if I’d flown all the way down here just to visit Freycinet, I might be a little disappointed.
Honestly, the best reason to go to Coles Bay is to go to the only real restaurant in town, Tombolo. I do not know how they make such good pizza, but it’s almost shocking. They have live music and great coffee in the mornings and it’s pretty much the epitome of your small-town, vibe-y, one-stop shop.
Overall, Tasmania is an odd place. Hobart is an awesome town, the Tasman Peninsula is incredible, and the area in and around Freycinet National Park is beautiful. But a lot of the interior of the island is really bleak, like driving through southern Indiana in January. Launceston is pretty weird. There’s an odd mix of the spectacular and the utterly mundane. Given that for most of us, this involves a trip around the world, I’m on the fence about it. I wouldn’t make the trip down here again just to see Tasmania, and I would probably advise against someone heading all this way to see Tasmania exclusively. But, if I were coming to Australia again or if you had time to spare down in this corner of the world, it’s worth a stop.
Since I’m still behind, more posts to come about Australia. Next will be about my road trip along the Great Ocean Road.