Bags of chubby Black Devil cherries are stacked at the tiny terminal as we exit the ferry on Bruny Island, a short cruise from Tasmania's "mainland." Like everyone else, I grab one and it goes straight into the cooler on the back seat. Five minutes later, I'm slurping freshly cracked oysters in dappled sunshine under eucalyptus trees, listening to ocean waves at Get Shucked, a roadside shack.
By day's end, when my party arrives at our rustic-yet-luxe beach cabin at Adventure Bay, the cooler is stuffed with goat and cow cheeses, possum sausages and Bruny Island Smoke house salmon, tuna and quail. The car smells like crusty bread. As my buddy Jim flips a sizzling filet of wallaby on the "barbie," I pop open a luscious pinot noir from Bruny Island Winery, the southernmost vineyard in Australia. I recall Bruny's owner Bernice Woolley laughing when we marvelled at Tasmania's diverse and sophisticated local offerings. "You're not alone," she said, splashing unoaked chardonnay into tasting glasses. "Even Australians are only now beginning to discover what we've got going on down here."
While most people think of Tasmania as either a wild destination for intrepid trekkers or a 19th-century convict dumping ground full of short-tempered marsupials, what's been "going on" on this island in recent years is a low-key foodie revolution. And, gradually, word is getting out about Tassie's fresh produce, farm-gate tasting routes, trophy-grabbing cool climate wines, innovative chefs and cooking schools, such as the Agrarian Kitchen (located in a 19th-century schoolhouse, it offers everything from Pastry 101 to a two-day Whole Hog course). A new generation of "Tassievores" has sprouted up way down under.
As Australia's poorest state, Tasmania is a region that never completely moved on to costly prepared foods. And the lack of major industrial farms means much of the produce is organic. Folks we chat with on Bruny Island's portion of the Huon Trail – a rural touring route south of Hobart – talk about trading fresh eggs for veggies, or fishermen swapping salmon for a side of pork. "It's how we grew up and now people are coming from all over the world to experience what we've all been doing since we were kids," says Rob Pennicott, a former fisherman who runs Bruny Island Cruises.
First settled in 1804 by a motley crew of whalers, sailors and released convicts, Hobart is now an unpretentious, hilly city of 212,000 with sandstone cottages and Victorian and art deco buildings.
Hugging the harbour are cafés, bistros and seafood take-out joints selling a dozen varieties of fish and chips, plus local specialties, such as scallop pie. This is where 250,000 people gather every December for the week-long Taste Festival to celebrate both food and the arrival of yachts after the challenging Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.
But even without a festival in town, Hobart is all about food. Salamanca Place, a gathering hub since 1824, is a plaza crammed with bistros and gourmet shops, such as the Wursthaus Kitchen, rated one of Australia's top-five food stores by Gourmet Traveller magazine.
On Saturday mornings, the entire neighbourhood morphs into a food, arts, crafts and music free-for-all with stalls selling everything from didgeridoos to Lark's single malt whisky. "We needed a mining permit to extract peat for the whisky," the booth's kilted gentleman explains. "And before founder Bill Lark could start in the 1990s, he had to lobby against an 1838 distilling ban ordered by Sir John Franklin, governor of the penal colony."
Every Sunday, a bell rings at 9 a.m. to open the Tasmanian Farm Gate Market in a downtown parking lot where vendors sell free-range Berkshire pork, goat meat and Tasmanian Leatherwood honey out of their pickups. A second weekly farmer's market can be found at the Museum of New and Old Art (MONA) opened in 2011, home to controversial exhibitions such as Belgian artist Wim Delvoye's Cloaca, a machine that is fed and defecates daily, and a chocolate replica of the mangled remains of a suicide bomber. Moorilla Winery, Moo Brew craft brewery and a five-star hotel are also part of the state-of-the-art complex.
Leaving Hobart after our jaunt to Bruny Island we set out on a 450-kilometre drive north to Launceston along the dry, sunny east coast. En route to the Tasman Sea are historic little towns, such as Richmond, with brick and stone buildings and arched bridges built by convicts. We taste a range of award-winning Wicked Cheeses before settling into lunch at Meadowbank Estate, where the vineyard restaurant pairs Frogmore wines with rabbit, venison and grilled freshwater eel.
The next morning, we kayak the crystal waters alongside Freycinet National Park to an oyster farm, where owner Andrea Cole shucks so we can taste. Aquaculture is huge along Tasmania's 5,000-kilometre coastline – the state has 300 islands – where scallops, mussels, ocean trout, abalone and crayfish are farmed in the cold waters. We hike to a viewpoint in the park overlooking turquoise Wineglass Bay, then continue driving north up the coast to Binalong Bay, pounded by breakers sending up a mist tinted magenta by the setting sun.
"This is from just down the road, made in an 1842 convict-built stable," says Jo Lisson as she pours a frosty Spring Vale reserve chardonnay. Lisson and her chef son run the Binalong Bay Café overlooking the crescent of white sand. The casual eatery is packed with folks who came for the popular prawn and blue-lip mussel laksa, and 12-hour roasted short-ribs from cattle who munched grasses at Cape Grim (which boasts the world's freshest air according to the Australian government's Baseline Air Pollution Station).
We backtrack 10 kilometres to St. Helens and turn inland on a winding route through dense rain forest where parrot-like rosellas and lorikeets flit among giant tree ferns and eucalyptuses. In the village of Pyengana, we pass by Holy Cow Café, serving up farm-fresh milkshakes from Pyengana Dairy Co., but opt instead for a pint of Boag brew at the nearby 1880 Pub in the Paddock. Then, it's an old-fashioned Devonshire tea with fresh clotted cream in the funky tin-mining town of Derby.
Just before Launceston, we stop at Pipers Brook for a bit of bubbly; Tasmania makes some of Aussie's best and it's sipped everywhere, even at roadside picnics.
Our last night is in an 1842 stagecoach inn – now known as the Red Feather Inn Cooking School – in the village of Hadspen, west of Launceston. Even out here, in this sleepy rural enclave, you can immerse yourself in the food scene by signing up to forage and fish, create a Tasmanian game feast, learn to make wallaby sausages, or smoke and cure. We poke around nearby villages, tasting from more than 50 samples at the Honey Farm, and settling into a fresh salmon burger and ginseng tea for lunch at 41 Degrees Salmon and Ginseng Farm in Deloraine. As we leave, we tuck a package of melt-in-your-mouth smoked baby salmon into our bag, feeling like we were well on the path to becoming true Tassievores.
IF YOU GO
Hobart is a 75-minute flight from Melbourne. Qantas, Virgin Australia and Jet Star run regular flights to Hobart and Launceston from most Australian capital cities. The Spirit of Tasmania ferries passengers and cars to and from the mainland daily, departing from Melbourne and arriving at Davenport.
WHERE TO STAY
Salamanca Wharf Hotel: A stylish boutique hotel in downtown Hobart with full kitchens, on the harbour alongside Salamanca marketplace. Doubles from $188; salamancawharfhotel.com
43 Degrees Eco Apartments: Self-contained two-bedroom eco-lodgings with full kitchen near the Adventure Bay beach on Bruny Island. From $184, breakfast included; 43degrees.com.au
Piermont Estate: Fifteen luxury stone cottages and a fine-dining restaurant on a private beach near Freycinet National Park. From $225; piermont.com.au
The Red Feather Inn and Cooking School: Forage, fish and hunt for ingredients, or learn smoking and curing in Hadspen near Launceston. Classes start from $195. Luxury rooms from $250 including breakfast; redfeatherinn.com.au
WHERE TO EAT
Ethos Eat and Drink: New, chic small-plate eatery in Hobart that focuses on local produce and spirits. Set lunch menu $34, and set dinners from $62; ethoseatdrink.com
Smolt: Waterfront dining in Hobart with local produce and wine specialties. From $7 for small plates and $22 for mains; smolt.com.au
The Source: Another excellent option in Hobart. Dinner tasting menu from $72 for 3 courses; mona.net.au/mona/restaurant
Meadowbank Estate Vineyard Restaurant & Frogmore Winery: Fine dining with a patio overlooking a vineyard in Cambridge. Mains from $32; frogmorecreek.com.au
Binalong Bay Café: Casual cuisine with a view over the spectacular bay. Mains from $22; 613-6376-8116, 64A Binalong Bay
WHAT TO DO
The 25 annual Taste of Tasmania foodie festival takes place on the Hobart waterfront from Dec. 28 to Jan. 3. thetasteoftasmania.com.au
Gourmania Food Tours: Four-hour small group walking and tasting tours in Hobart exploring Tasmanian produce and markets. $115; gourmaniafoodtours.com.au
The Agrarian Kitchen: Seasonal cooking courses in Lachlan, outside Hobart, including Tomato Gluttony and the full-day Agrarian Experience ($350). theagrariankitchen.com
Bruny Island Cruises: Eco-adventure wildlife cruises. From $120; brunycruises.com.au
Freycinet Kayaking Adventures: Guided kayaking adventures starting in Coles Bay. From $90 for three hours; freycinetadventures.com.au
MONA Museum of Old and New Art: Cutting-edge exhibits in Hobart. Admission $20 (free for those under 18); mona.net.au
For more information, visit discovertasmania.ca
The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism Australia, which did not review or approve this article.