It was my first trip to Australia—my first trip abroad—in 2001, and I arrived in Melbourne a green-as-they-come university student, all nerves and adrenaline, ready to pounce on whatever adventure lay before me. Show me the city! I screamed silently at our study-abroad orientation leaders. Let me loose! We visited the Coney Island–like neighborhood of St. Kilda on the south shore, learned the finer points of Australian rules football, and ferried to nearby Phillip Island, site of a nightly parade of pint-size penguins that dashed from sea to land at dusk, prompting a chorus of “awwws” from everyone with a heart.
Those points of interest were lovely but ... safe. Introductory. What if I had realized that a couple of hundred miles off the coast of Melbourne was an island known for its irreverent art? For its stark and dramatic natural beauty, its world’s-best single-malt whisky, and seafood so fresh, it asks you about the catch of the day. What if I had visited Tasmania?
Much like the Azores in the Atlantic or Malta in the Mediterranean, this Australian island state has been preserved by its isolation. The Tasmanian Aboriginal people—the palawa—were said to have been cut off by rising seas in the Bass Strait some 12,000 years ago, marooned on a lush, mountainous mass roughly the size of Ireland. When the British arrived in the 19th century, they thought Tasmania—the end of the Earth—was an ideal place to send criminals. Tasmania’s population numbered fewer than 15,000 Indigenous inhabitants in 1804 but more than 70,000 convicts were transported there by 1853; a bloody Black War between British settlers and the palawa decimated the Aboriginal ranks as well as their language, culture, and traditions. Nowadays, Tasmania is the least-populated state in Australia.
Over the centuries, the poignancy and allure of isolation haven’t been lost on Tasmania’s residents. “To find a gaol [prison] in one of the loveliest spots formed by nature in one of her loneliest solitudes creates a revulsion of feeling I cannot describe,” William Smith O’Brien, an Irish-nationalist inmate with a knack for poetry, reportedly said on arrival to Maria Island, now a national park, in 1849.
Can a place that inspires poetry remain secluded for very long? Surprisingly, it can: The first international airport near Hobart, the waterfront capital city, didn’t open until 1956. And in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, international travelers comprised only about one- fifth of Tasmania’s 1.3 million incoming visitors. Given that Tasmania is a one-hour-and-15-minute flight from Melbourne, it feels like it should—it must—become an extension of any trip to Australia’s east coast.
“The last time I went to Tasmania was purely to eat,” says Sydneysider and travel writer Krisanne Fordham, who visited twice in 2022. “It’s a food lover’s paradise. Honestly, the best oysters I’ve ever had are from the Freycinet Peninsula on Tasmania’s east coast—specifically [those from] Freycinet Marine Farm. They’re bright and creamy and go amazingly with Tassie bubbles.
“What keeps me going back is that there’s something for everyone,” Fordham raves. “If you’re into nature, almost half of Tasmania’s land mass lies in national parks and World Heritage areas, so you’ve got glittering alpine lakes, rivers, incredible snowcapped peaks like Cradle Mountain and Mount Wellington. If you’re into culture, MONA [Museum of Old and New Art] has really cool exhibits, and there’s always some kind of music or film or art festival happening year-round.”
In recent years, as Australians were confined to travel within their state boundaries, the island saw a flurry of investment, development, and creativity. Take Hobart, for instance, where most visitors to Tasmania begin their trips. Since it opened in December 2021, the Tasman, a Luxury Collection Hotel by Marriott, has been a point of pride in the city, with three distinctive, adjoined structures: an 1840s former hospital at its center, a 1940s art deco extension, and a brand-new glass building.
From nearby Brooke Street Pier, it’s only a 20-minute high-speed catamaran ride to MONA. The museum’s name belies the risk-taking art and happenings here. In addition to showcasing owner David Walsh’s private collection (which includes one of the largest assemblies of works by light artist James Turrell this side of the equator), curators have asked such questions as, “Can poo be art?” and have showcased a functioning replica of the gastrointestinal system. They’ve also organized nude solstice swims. New performance art such as the High Tea for Two invites museumgoers to become part of “a living installation” during a scandalous socialite’s teatime.
Food lovers might enjoy Mic Giuliani’s foraging tours. Giuliani, who sells his handmade pasta at Hobart’s Farm Gate Market, takes small groups to search for greens, wild asparagus, and edible mushrooms. After the hunt, guests enjoy a six-course lunch with a local winemaker.
Blak Led Tours runs Hobart’s first palawa tourism experiences. The Aboriginal-owned and -operated company leads walking tours that teach travelers about resisting settler violence and foraging for native bush foods on Aboriginal land.
Today, this island on the fringes, one of the loveliest spots formed by nature, is a place to learn and experiment, to be irreverent and eclectic.
Tips for planning your trip
- How to get there: Qantas, Virgin Australia, and Jetstar all fly direct to Hobart or Launceston from Melbourne, Sydney, or Brisbane.
- The reservation to make: The restaurant Van Bone, located on Marion Bay, serves a four-hour lunch made with the bounty from on-site orchards and nearby organic farms.
- Know before you go: The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre has reconstructed an Indigenous language, now called palawa kani (using only lowercase).
- Stay longer: In Hobart, try the Rox—an 1880s schoolhouse turned into apartments— or the Pavilions, guest rooms run by the Museum of Old and New Art.