HOBART, Australia (Reuters) - There was a time, not all that long ago, when the remote island of Tasmania off Australia’s southern coast was the most feared destination in the British Empire.
But that was before all the sparkling wine, artisanal cheese and rare breed pork.
Once a penal colony, Tasmania has transformed into a destination for both foodies and art aficionados, drawn in by a boutique gourmet scene obsessed with fresh, local produce and the cutting edge Museum of Old and New Art (MONA).
The capital, Hobart, has a small-town feel light years away from the beachside glamour of Sydney, 1,000 km (650 miles) to the north, its sandstone cottages huddling beneath the imposing figure of Mt. Wellington.
Chef Ross O’Meara arrived in 2008 after more than 20 years cooking in Europe and Asia, opening Bruny Island Food on a small farm with his wife.
On a bright Sunday morning, O’Meara stood hawking jars of creamy rillettes - a sort of pork pate - and rustic pork sausages from his stand at Hobart’s weekly Farm Gate Market.
“It is not necessarily an easy life here, but what I consider a good life,” he told Reuters.
For a crash course in gastronomy, Tasmania style, look no further than the Taste of Tasmania festival held from late December to early January.
More than 60 stalls pack into a converted hangar on the historic waterfront, where revelers can watch the Sydney to Hobart yacht race with a bottle of Frank’s Cider.
Entrance is free but between the briny Bruny Island oysters from Get Shucked, pungent pulled pork tacos from Mount Gnomon Farm and chocolate-covered raspberries from the Christmas Hill Raspberry Farm Cafe, you will go home with a full belly and an empty wallet. Happily.
Tasmania’s biggest draw after its Saturday-only Salamanca street market is perhaps its most incongruous: a museum opened in 2011 by an eccentric philanthropist and professional gambler.
Located on the edge of Hobart, MONA has earned Tasmania a star in the art world’s firmament through its confronting and vital exhibitions, and stunning architecture.
Owner David Walsh has transformed a grassy peninsula above the winding Derwent River into a multi-purpose attraction complete with luxury hotel rooms and restaurants, but the real attraction is underfoot.
The gallery, 17 meters (56 feet) below the surface and reachable via a spiral staircase bored into sandstone, houses more than 2,000 pieces from Walsh’s personal collection, including works by renowned artists such as Damien Hirst and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Nearly 300,000 people visited MONA in 2014, not just for exhibitions such as Matthew Barney’s challenging multimedia tribute to U.S. writer Norman Mailer - the River of Fundament, showing until April 13 - but also for its music festivals.
If you are not in the mood for art, that’s fine too. On sunny days MONA staff put out bean bag chairs on the lawn, where you will find Hobart’s hippest denizens reading their books and soaking up the sun with nary a swimsuit in sight.
Still, to truly understand what is so interesting about Tasmania’s present, one should look into its past.
Port Arthur, a collection of time-ravaged sandstone buildings perched above a glistening harbor, was once the most feared men’s prison camp in the British Empire.
The road to Port Arthur, about 95 km (60 miles) southeast of Hobart, is a stunning rollercoaster marked by the towering cliffs over Dunalley Bay and the mysterious Tasman National Park.
A A$35 ($29) ticket buys two days’ access, during which guided tours offer a glimpse into the lives of the working class men from Britain’s industrial slums who once toiled to build these farthest flung outposts of the empire.
At the height of the camp’s activities in the 1860s, the average life expectancy in Liverpool was just 25 years, and for many, a life in their closet-like cells was their best option.
Luckily, these days a trip to Tasmania is far from the death sentence it was in their day, something you can ponder over in Hobart with a single-malt whiskey and a scallop pie.
Editing by Tony Tharakan