December 1, 2018

Exploring Tasmania’s Wine, Whisky, Waters, and Wallabies

We decided to go to Tasmania when we were in Bhutan.
It makes perfect sense.
It was over cocktails on our last night, after a magical trip, with our ragtag group of friends and friend/guide, Matt (a former Backroads guide who started his own small tour company). Matt’s a little crazy, gives great color commentary, and is a global nomad who has spent his life living and traveling around the world—essentially, he’s our kind of people.
We were playing a (mostly smart-ass) game of “where next,” because between our friends and us, there isn’t much unchartered territory. We came up with three: Borneo, Sri Lanka, and Tasmania. Borneo was out, because we’re fairly certain they may still have headhunters there (the real kind, not the almost-as-scary corporate kind). Sri Lanka was put on hold, because India is the most logical place to add on a few days, and our trip to India made a lasting enough impression that we don’t want to go back quite yet (we still have scars from the insect bites).
So, Tasmania it was. Rugged, remote, wildly beautiful. And marsupials everywhere. They had me at “marsupials.” Plus, it gave us a chance to hang out a bit more in Sydney and Melbourne.
Matt put together a custom trip for us that combined biking with some hiking, and a little, not a lot, of transport.
The best news about Tassie (we’re on a nickname basis)? Tons of wineries, whiskey distilleries, water, and wallabies (that’s all the alliteration I can come up with). Seriously, the more research we did, the more we discovered that in addition to a lot of natural beauty and not a lot of population, it’s packed with great wine areas and there’s a second-to-none whiskey trail.
Sorry, Borneo and Sri Lanka. You didn’t stand a chance.

Day One:

Fly to Launceston and get out as quickly as possible. (The city is not worth your time.) We landed, changed clothes and started bicycling through the greenest rolling hills and countryside we’ve ever experienced, other than in Ireland. With our travel-addled brains, it took a beat to learn to ride on the left side of the road so that we didn’t end up like the wallaby roadkill we were seeing in ample supply.
Pandering shamelessly to his audience, Matt set our destination as a late lunch and champagne tasting at Bay of Fires winery. It was so good, I bought the T-shirt (in this case, a sweatshirt).  And we bought two cases of wine for the rest of our trip. Happy hours, you know.
Our destination after lunch was on the coast at Barnbougle, a golf resort in true links style. The hotel? Not so much. The location? So much.
Our first day in Tassie taught us that the freshest seafood in the world is right here at your fingertips. Oysters, prawns, fish of all kinds. It was the best we’ve ever had, right up there with Cape Town.

Day Two:

We got up close and personal with the sheep and their babies, the less-adorable-but-much-more-fragrant lavender fields (at Bridestowe Lavender Estate, the largest in the southern hemisphere), and Richie Porte’s countryside route to Scottsdale (a Tour de France mainstay, and Tasmania’s most famous, if only, cyclist). Spectacular views, with dinner at the highly entertaining and incredibly local Bridport Bunker Club. Theoretically, they speak English in Tassie. But, you wouldn’t know it dining at Bunker’s.

Day Three:

Matt knows that balance is what makes for a good trip, combining a variety of experiences. No one plans an adventure better, even though we give him a lot of shit (or sheep poo, which you can buy for $5 AUD a bag in the countryside, in case you’re interested). Today, we rode through forests filled with wallabies and parks packed with rhododendrons as tall as the houses. Then we bicycled the best uphill-turned-downhill to the St. Columba Falls (7 km up and 7 km down from the Pyengana cheese shop and dairy with a cow “ass massager” and some of the best cookies we’ve ever had).

Next up was the Bay of Fires Bush Retreat for “glamping.” I officially hate that word for so many reasons, but it’s completely justified here—this place was a bit like a luxury summer camp for adults (AKA, alcohol didn’t have to be sneaked in via shampoo bottle) and perfect for one night. We sat by the wood-burning fire after a surprisingly gourmet meal outside, talking with fellow guests on a long weekend from the mainland. Typical young Aussies.
The best way to see the Southern Cross and the most stars you’ve ever seen in your life? Go pee in the middle of the night. At the non-ensuite bathroom. Oh, yes. A “variety of experiences,” indeed, Matt.

Day Four:

Today’s dramatic coastal riding from the Bay of Fires to Iron House Brewery (yes, a brewery, winery, and distillery) for lunch gave the best introduction to the wild Tasmanian coastline.
After our beautiful bike ride, our destination (the Saffire Freycinet) made for one of our top hotel experiences, ever. It had it all: service, location, design, food. It was one of those hotels where they’ve thought of everything. Two nights here didn’t seem like enough (this is the kind of “variety in experience” that we can get on board with).

That afternoon, we met the Tasmanian Devils. The Saffire has a retirement community filled with them (naturally), as they’re doing their part to preserve this endangered species. They are cute in photos and just as crazy and vicious as the Bugs Bunny cartoons in reality. Just watch them rip apart a dead wallaby.
The all-inclusive Tassie wines and snacks? Incredible. And the oysters and seafood? The best.

Day Five:

Now we were in Freycinet National Park. An incredible hike to Wineglass Bay, to the white-sand Hazards Beach with granite rocks and spectacular overlooks. About 8 km up and down, and one of the best hikes in memory—complete with tame wallabies and their joeys by the side of the trails.
Back to the Saffire and sheer bliss.

Day Six:

Maria Island.
Australia and Tasmania were primarily populated with British Empire convicts in the 1800s. Maria Island was one key place they were sent, and it now consists of the remnants of the penal colony. It’s also dramatically beautiful and filled with kangaroos, wombats, and baby wombats, and the famed devils (which you will mostly see at night). The small island is perfect for a bush walk and/or bicycle ride, which gave us views of fossil cliffs, greenery, the coast, and the marsupials (everywhere!).
Tonight we stayed at Brockley Estate, a “farm” with turkeys, chickens, and kangaroos that come up on your porch. Think family-style, home-cooked meal by the wood-burning fire. Warm, cozy, intimate.

Day Seven:

First, it’s remarkable we made it to Day 7. This is a long trip for us, but so far it’s flying by.
Off towards Hobart, via bicycling to and through Richmond, a Georgian village that dates back to the 1820s (old for Tassie). And as a bonus for us, it’s in the middle of wine country. In Tasmania, it’s all about Pinot Noirs. Being Syrah, Cab, and Zinfandel drinkers, it was a terrible burden to bear, but were able to muddle through by asking for the hairiest of Pinots they could find.

Hobart is the capital of Tasmania. It has yacht racing and sailboats everywhere in its vast harbor, as well as the tasting room for Lark Distillery (Tasmania’s best-known and oldest whisky distillery.) Our hotel was the Henry Jones Art Hotel on the Harbor. It’s a hotel that digs up your last name to kindly remind you that you likely have relatives who were convicts, finding those from the 1800s with the same name. Its sister property, the Macq01 hotel, has a great Story Bar right on the harbor, where you can watch the sailboats come in and out.

Day Eight:

Today we ride the TinderBox. It’s a challenging bike ride around the wonderfully remote, wooded peninsula, with beaches, cliffs, and (yes, more) wineries. As of today, best bike ride of the trip. Quiet roads, lots of climbing, a lot more climbing, and incredible views (especially when you’ve worked for them).
Hotel was the Villa Howden, an interesting European-type villa we commandeered for two nights.

Day Nine:

Off to Bruny Island, known for having the some of the highest sea cliffs in the world. In typical Matt fashion, we always end on the highest of high notes. We took the ferry from Kettering to the Island, then jumped on our bikes for a great food-filled 40 km ride that included oyster tasting (Get Shucked), beer and cheese, honey (Bruny Island Honey),then over the Isthmus to the chocolate shop for fudge and a picnic lunch at Adventure Bay with Captain Cook and Captain Bligh, British explorers who loved this part of Australia (or Van Dieman’s Land). Expand your horizons and Google them.

The highlight? Back for a whisky tasting of all Tassie Whiskies at Bruny Island House of Whisky. A must.
And then our bikes were gone for good. As much as we loved our bikes, it was nice to see them go.

Tassie, summed up:

Whisky, wine, wallabies, wombats, wild, spectacular coastlines… And the devils and roos. Native forests, sweeping bays, picturesque beaches, and sparkling blue lakes. The freshest oysters and incredible seafood.
From golf courses to tents to the lap of luxury, from farms to cities to islands, all with the Southern Cross above our heads at night. The perfect trip.
And who the hell even knows where Borneo is, anyway?