Hobart’s walk on the wild side

The places we treasure the most are the ones that have their story etched into the fabric of their being. Places where history isn’t delivered on a plaque but under foot, in the walls, in the stories of the people who live there.

Hobart is such a place.

“We do have a grim history,” says Justin Johnstone, a Master Storyteller at the MACq 01 and the Henry Jones Art hotels.

The persecution of the original palawa people and Hobart’s reputation as the place where the convicts “who are too wicked” for Sydney Cove were sent marks its history as particularly brutal.

“We celebrate our palawa history, we acknowledge the terrible injustices and own them,” says Johnstone.

“We also tried to hide a lot of our convict roots as well for the longest time. But again, we embrace that now.”

A trip to Port Arthur is mandatory. The place has the calm demeanour of a quaint village, but once the stories unfold you will wonder how anyone could have survived the horrors inflicted on those unfortunate enough to have been brought here in chains.

From floggings with a cat-o-nine tails to solitary confinement, the prison saw it all on a mass scale. Once the prison finally closed there a swift pivot into township and tourist attraction in the late 1800s. And that says a lot about Hobart. When the dark times end, people are attracted in droves to walk in the footsteps of others less fortunate and mutter to themselves ‘there but for the grace of God’.

You don’t have to stay at the hotels to enjoy Johnstone’s enthralling tales of Hobart’s history. Get him to liven up a breakfast or lunch at either hotel with stories of convict hair in the walls or exploding boilermakers.

Hobart’s drama spills into the natural environment, which has a wrenching natural beauty. If all you do is take a ride out of the harbour with Pennicott Wilderness Journeys to witness cliffs so foreboding they alone would enough to justify your trip. These towering sea cliffs, the highest in Australia, are so imposing they feel almost alive, a sensation not diminished by entering the ‘Breathing Rock’, as close as it comes to being swallowed whole by a giant.

Back on dry land it is no less compelling. A series of booms and busts have left their mark on the city in a unique way.

The city is littered with red crosses during Dark Mofo.

“Our European history is booms, interspersed with periods of mending and making do. The fact that a lot of our built heritage is intact, is often the product of our frugality,” says Johnstone.

“Sometimes we’ve just put a new façade on an older building, so you see one period from the front and another at the back. The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery is a wonderful example of this. The front is highly decorative late Victorian but when you walk through the water gate and look from behind, it’s an austere, unadorned but totally practical 1820’s Bond Store built by convicts. It’s an architectural mullet hairdo!”

Hobart’s latest boom is tourism, with a number of new hotels to show for it. The Crowne Plaza Hobart opened its doors late last year. The 235-room hotel has stunning views across the harbour and Mount Wellington, but you don’t have to stay to enjoy them. Just head up to Aura on level 12. It has a restaurant, bar and event space that offers a panoramic view of the city.

Accor’s Mövenpick brand made its Aussie debut in Hobart, along with a new Vibe hotel. The Tasman, part of Marriott’s Luxury Collection, is busy putting the finishing touches before its opening in December.

Hobart is strongly connected to the land, and so is its food. Tasmanian chef Analiese Gregory literally brings her passions to the table. Hunting for deer, diving for abalone or foraging for herbs, it’s all there in her cooking for groups.

Rodney Dunn plans to turn the walled gardens of his latest venue into an outdoor event space.

Rodney Dunn and Séverine Demanet are ex-Sydneysiders who fell for Tasmania’s rugged charms in 2008. Looking to get their hands dirty, literally, they launched a cooking school from their farmstead before expanding the Agrarian Kitchen Cooking School & Farm to a new venue housed in a former mental asylum. They make almost everything from scratch using the produce from their gardens, including their fried sourdough potato cakes which should come with a health warning they are so addictive.

Hobart’s rugged nature seems to carve out distinct individuals unafraid to follow their dreams, no matter how improbable. Bill Lark was one, a then young land surveyor who some 30 years ago armed with nothing more than a dream and tenacity became the first Tasmanian to be granted a distilling licence in more than 150 years. Now Lark Distillery is a global benchmark in the world of whiskeys.

David Walsh is another, the much-lauded professional gambler who threw millions into a building to house his peculiar collection of art and antiquities and turned it into a global bucket list museum – the cultural phenomena otherwise known as MONA.

MONA’s winter festival Dark Mofo is also a huge drawcard and this year was no exception. Its carnival of unholy pleasures that spills into the streets, lighting up the dark with scattered red crosses. A siren marked the dawn, a clarion not so much to awake as to head to bed for the many night crawlers.

Business Events Tasmania CEO Marnie Craig says while MONA put Hobart on the map “there are so many more drivers that are attracting visitation both for leisure and the business events market”.

“Mona has created interest and now people are discovering that there’s so much more about the destination,” she says.

“We’re so fortunate in Tassie to have a really connected community that now embraces the winter months and seizes the opportunity to come together and celebrate them. So many Tasmanians look forward to Dark Mofo each year and love the shift from winter being a deterrent to visitors, to now being a drawcard.”

And having so many new hotels online and in the pipeline has only helped, particularly as Hobart is attracting “more and more of the larger conferences around 800 pax”.

“The new product is placed perfectly for the C&I market, which is showing great interest in Tasmania at the moment,” says Craig.