Under a vast southern sky in the crisp dusk of a Hobart winter, Greg Irons, director of Bonorong Wildlife Park, proffers the toe of his Blundstone boot to a pair of Tasmanian devils.
“These two are all right,” he says, giving one of the screeching animals a playful but solid nudge to the muzzle. “But those other two, we just don’t go near them.”
Tasmania could have no better national icon than the Tassie devil, a potent symbol of the deep other-worldliness of Australia’s southernmost state. To describe the creature to someone who hasn’t seen one is difficult: it’s a kind of carnivorous, cat-like, marsupial badger which, at first glance, could be a type of tiny ground-dwelling sun bear but on closer inspection shares certain characteristics with the hyena.
Historically, people have also struggled to define Tasmania. Charles Darwin, who landed here in 1836, found its fauna bewildering and colonial artists took more than a generation to paint the landscape accurately, having initially rendered the gum trees as mutated serpentine oaks set in a strange and wild version of the British Midlands.
Hobart, the capital city, still represents civilisation’s last stand before Antarctica – and the crystalline light gives a pewter sheen to everything. This remoteness used to count against Tasmania. It was once a place where people joked you could buy a house on a Visa card and one buyer famously took the government’s A$7,000 first homebuyer’s grant – aimed at helping young people towards a deposit – and purchased a house outright.
Today, property prices are on a par with mainland Australia, and isolation has become its selling point, helping to attract celebrities and business leaders in search of a hideaway. But despite its gentrification, Hobart retains a down-to-earth, energetic atmosphere that is a product of its remote location – there’s a sense that at the end of the day everyone from the pierced-lipped goths to the suited solicitors have to drink together in the same pubs.
The Museum of Old and New Art, due to open in Hobart next year, pays tribute to this quintessentially Tasmanian ethos. Part gallery, part museum and part quixotic folly, the museum will house the collection of modern art and antiquities owned by the professional gambler David Walsh, who is a native Tasmanian. Carved into the rock over three levels on his Moorilla Estate winery on the banks of the Derwent River, the gallery – like a small version of the entrance to the tomb of Rameses IV – is staggeringly strange.
Mark Fraser, the director, says that while the collection is loosely built around the themes of sex and death, the gallery – the only private collection in Australia to be opened free to the public – aims to be much more than that. It will house everything from Australia’s premier modernist Sidney Nolan to Britain’s Damien Hirst.
“We’ve got a special room for a work called ‘Cloaca’ by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye,” he says. “It’s a machine that takes in food at one end and produces – well, you know – at the other. We’re really pleased to have it but we’ve had to put a special air-conditioning unit into the space.”
Several other new developments are converging to help Tasmania’s repositioning as a high-end destination. The Saffire Freycinet resort, looking out on the Freycinet National Park on Tasmania’s east coast, opened this month and is now Australia’s most expensive hotel. Describing the astonishing setting of the resort, and the complex itself, is, again, like trying to describe a Tasmanian devil to someone who has never seen one – there’s a terrible feeling that no one will believe you.
Shaped like a giant stingray, the hotel looks out across deep blue water to Freycinet Peninsula and a troika of craggy peaks known as The Hazards, which, at dusk change colour from a dun-coloured khaki, through purple to a deep ochre orange in the time it takes to drink a coffee.
The rooms are self-contained units set in front of the stingray-shaped dining and living area, and come with fridges stocked with food and champagne, all of it included in the room rate. The deluxe rooms have small gardens of raked sand, which lead to a plunge pool of warm water glimmering in the pristine cool – at night it’s possible to sit in this pool and look up into inky skies to the misty arc of the Milky Way.
Inside, everything is geared towards a view that comes streaming through glass walls in the living rooms and bedrooms. While there’s a flat-screen television in the bedroom, it’s an unwelcome distraction to the drama of wilderness outside. Leaving the blinds up at night allows you to wake in the morning to more changing colours, in reverse order this time – the Hazards go from ochre to purple to khaki as the sun rises in the east.
It’s actually quite hard to drag yourself out of the room but the effort is rewarded. The hotel organises tours through one of the world’s most spectacular national parks, taking in sweeping views of Wineglass Bay, so called not just because of its shape but because whale slaughters in the 19th century turned the waters claret red.
Despite the antiquity of the landscape, there’s always a sense of human history. Freycinet carries the same huge skies and lowering land masses that can be seen in the sketches from Baudin’s French expedition that named the peninsula in 1802. At one point, we eat a packed lunch sheltering from a gale in the sunny lee of a beach dune near a fresh water pond, all around us the discarded shells of Angasi oysters eaten by generations of Tasmanian Aborigines who must have found exactly the same spot an excellent place for a picnic.
Saffire is just one of a number of relatively undiscovered luxury developments along the coast of Great Oyster Bay. As with many things in Tasmania, coming late to the high-end tourist boom means it has avoided many of the eyesores of mainland Australia. Local residents requested, and were granted, a smaller development than first proposed at Saffire – the hotel can barely be seen across the water from the national park. Similarly, coastal retreats such as The Lair and Avalon – both self-catering, architect-designed houses along the Great Oyster Bay road – are designed to commune with the view. In Avalon, the kitchen and living room are all glass and the blue waters of Great Oyster Bay seem to come up to the lip of the building. The bedrooms tucked behind the living rooms take in so much light, you almost squint when turning into them.
At The Lair, which sits on a hill looking out on to Freycinet Peninsula, architect and owner Ricky Bzowy rolls back the sliding glass walls, as if ushering the whole of the bay inside. “It’s pure theatre,” he says.
The house is packed full of local produce and the latest gadgets. There’s an easy-going expectation that guests will help themselves to the food without going at it like locusts and a strong feeling of being hosted.
Not to be outdone, Tasmania’s more traditional accommodation is also being upgraded. Quamby Estate and the Red Feather Inn near Launceston and the Islington Hotel in Hobart have been transformed dowdy colonial homesteads into stylish modern hotels. With this group of hotels there’s an odd deracinated Englishness – that makes them all the more alien; like the colonial naturalist who drew kangaroos as hopping deers.
Back on the minibus we get a lesson in ways of seeing when one of the group starts flipping through his notebook. An inveterate sketcher, he had done a doodle of a small Bennett’s wallaby that had come crashing through the bush at Freycinet National Park. We burst out laughing, when we notice that, instead of the small cupped leaf-like ears it actually has, he’d given it giant rabbit ears. Old world patterns, it seems, still die hard in Tasmania.
Peter Shadbolt travelled with Austravel (www.austravel.com), which offers a week’s trip to Tasmania, including two nights at the Saffire, car hire and flights from London from £2,749. For more information see www.saffirefreycinet.com.au, www.mona.net.au, www.thelair.com.au
Details of all other accommodation are at www.discovertasmania.co.uk