There’s something meditative about carving wood. As I lightly place some pressure on the tool and slide it through a piece of Huon pine, there’s a satisfying slicing sound as a shaving falls off. For a moment, I’m in my own little world, and I almost don’t hear David Rauenbusch speaking to me.
“Maybe take out a little bit more from just there,” he instructs calmly. “And if you can match that curve you’ve got on the top, it’ll look even better.”
David is a professional spoon carver. He sells them at markets and online (his Phoenix Creations business has quite a following on social media), and he runs classes – like the one I’m doing – at his workshop in the Huon Valley town of Cygnet in Tasmania (often attended by his online fans). In some ways, David is in his own little world here too – one he’s created with his wife Michelle since they arrived in 2003 – with a wood-fired stove and home-baked cookies inside, fruit trees and mountains on the horizon outside.
“It’s a nice, light, green, quiet place to make things with your hands,” he tells me.
There’s certainly something creative in the air in Cygnet, about an hour’s drive south from Hobart. For years it’s had a bohemian atmosphere but recently that’s taken on a more pronounced artistic flair.
“Behind every tree and under every rock, somebody is painting, sculpting, or cooking it,” quips Carly Plant, a local artist who’s volunteering at the community’s Lovett Gallery when I pop in.
The gallery has a lovely collection of works by local artists – both amateurs and professionals – and I even spot a few photos by former Greens leader Bob Brown. The gallery is attached to the town hall, which houses some of the Cygnet Market on the first and third Sunday of every month. The stalls spill out across the street to the car park and it’s another good way to discover more arts and crafts, as well as the food that’s produced in this fertile region.
Walk the main street and you’ll notice that not only is Cygnet bohemian and artistic, it also feels quite sophisticated. Bookended by two classic pubs at either end of town (along a stretch of road less than a kilometre long) are high-end art galleries, fashion boutiques, and an ecostore. Thank goodness there’s also a ’24-hour emergency butcher’, as the artisan meat store styles itself.
It all makes a bit more sense when I’m at the market chatting to a local Cygnet resident and she jokes that there are more retired people with PhDs per capita than anywhere in Australia. (I assume she’s joking – but I guess she could be a retired statistician with a doctorate!) A lot of people from the mainland, tired of a stressful career, find here a relaxed Tasmanian environment blended with a vibrant community, creative stimuli… and good wine, of course.
The Huon Valley is known for its pinot noir and chardonnay and several local wineries have received critical acclaim, including Sailor Seeks Horse, which will win you over to both varietals if you’re not usually a fan. It has a tasting room (open weekends) within the Port Cygnet Cannery, an old apple canning factory on the edge of the water that’s been converted into a dining and function centre.
There are touches of heritage throughout the restaurant – parts of original machinery used to make some tables and a fireplace, plus the exposed brick walls, of course. But the food is decidedly modern, with a menu that changes weekly with seasonality and sources much of the produce from its own local farm. There’s often salmon, for example – but only when the fisherman calls to say he has caught some good ones.
There’s artistry in the food and, a few doors down, I find yet another artist – this time, it’s potter Ian Clare. He’s quite an institution in Cygnet, his large workshop full of shelves with bowls and cups, several wheels waiting for students, and the man himself busily adding colour to an order of small pots. His ethos is that his door should always be open so people can come in to see him work and chat about his pottery.
“I think it’s important to show people part of the process,” Ian tells me. “People might have thought they knew what good work was but until they really experience it, they don’t know!”
He may be talking about a pottery studio, but it makes me start thinking about the town and the region, my mind again drifting into my own little world of relaxation. You may think you know this part of Tasmania, but until you experience it… well, what Ian said.
Cygnet is, like most of the Huon Valley, a relatively easy day trip from Hobart – and the drive here along the Huon River is a highlight in itself. But there’s more to do in the region than fits in a day and it’s worth staying for a night or two to make the most of it.
The Cygnet Old Bank on the main street is, as the name suggests, the town’s former bank and has been converted into a restaurant and clothes store downstairs and luxury accommodation upstairs. Three separate rooms and a communal lounge with a fireplace give it just the feel you would expect for this quirky little slice of Tasmania, and I would recommend it. A bit artistic, a bit sophisticated, and very easy to relax into.
WHAT TO DO:
Learn how to carve a wooden spoon with David at his Phoenix Creations workshop.
See some local artwork at the Lovett Gallery, at Ian Clare’s pottery studio, or some of the other galleries in Cygnet.
Taste the wine at Sailor Seeks Horse at the Port Cygnet Cannery.
WHERE TO EAT:
For one of the best lunches in town, head to the restaurant at the Port Cygnet Cannery.
Serving breakfast and lunch, the Conservatory Cafe also focuses on local ingredients.
The Red Velvet Lounge is another local favourite on the main street in Cygnet.
WHERE TO STAY:
In Cygnet, the Cygnet Old Bank has charming rooms in a heritage building on the main street.
Elsewhere in the Huon Valley, Ashdowns of Dover is a friendly bed and breakfast with a beautiful view.
In Hobart, the new Vibe Hotel brings modern style to the convenient CBD area.
Or the beautiful Corinda offers old school elegance in a historic manor with a friendly welcome.