You don’t really need a helicopter to have a unique culinary experience in Tasmania. But… it helps.
Mine is waiting for me beside Launceston’s Peppers Silo Hotel (built within the four silos of an historic grain factory on the banks of the Tamar River). Massimo Mele, the food director of inhouse restaurant Grain of the Silos, is explaining that the tour I’m doing today is a sign of things to come in Tasmania.
We’ll be tracking north from Launceston across the Tamar Valley to stop at a winery, before flying low over the beaches of the Bay of Fires on Tasmania’s north-east coast, then landing on an uninhabited island for a gourmet beach picnic. I’ll be one of the first guests to sample Peppers Silo Hotel and Unique Charters’ Swan Island picnic experience.
“This kind of agri-tourism is part of a shift in Tasmania,” said Mr Mele. “It’s an exciting time; we’re all only starting to understand what we can do down here. And we have some of the best produce in Australia.”
It’s a Saturday, so I’ve seen plenty of it first-hand at Launceston’s Harvest Market as I wandered with a chef from the hotel in charge of organising my picnic.
We fly across the Tamar Valley – because of its latitudinal position and agricultural position, the north-eastern Pipers River section of the Tamar Valley produces the greatest sparkling wine on Earth (outside of France’s Champagne region). In the 1980s, winemakers from iconic champagne house Louis Roederer scoured the world looking for the best place to make sparkling wine and chose this spot.
We’ll be landing at Clover Hill Vineyard to pick up supplies for my picnic. It’s home to the sparkling wine that Tasmania’s very own princess, Princess Mary of Denmark, chose for her 2004 wedding. I land beside a tasting room to choose my favourite tipple.
Then we’re off, tracking north-east to the famed beaches of the Bay of Fires, fringed by rocky headlands flecked with the distinctive bright orange lichen that gives the region its name.
Just five kilometres off the north-east tip of Tasmania is Swan Island, our lunch destination. Uninhabited, and almost impossible to reach by boat (because of its shallow and rocky surrounding waters), it’s home to five stunning beaches. The best of them is dubbed Little Wineglass Bay, after its much more famous and more visited namesake on Tasmania’s east coast.
There are no other people on the island… living people, that is. In the early 1800s, convicts lived here while building a lighthouse (it’s now one of the country’s oldest) and lighthouse keeper’s cottages. One of the lighthouse keeper’s wives died here – we visit her grave inside the thick littoral forest beside the beach. She is – allegedly – still on the island.
I see no ghosts today, just a humpback whale swimming past on its long journey south. On a tablecloth spread over the sand, I’m served some of Tasmania’s best gourmet produce – preserved sardines from here in Bass Strait, wallaby from the island with the sharp mountains I see in the distance (Flinders Island), beef from the Tamar Valley (Mr Mele told me earlier to prepare for the “best beef you’ve ever had”).
“There’s a story behind every item in the picnic box,” he told me. “All of it’s from people doing what they love.” And there’s sparkling wine, enough to induce courage to jump in the ocean (though in the height of summer, it’s a swimmable 19 degrees). When I’m done, we fly back to Launceston across 30 wineries of the Tamar.
There’s considerably less noise to the next tour I take, which starts in Hobart, two-and-a-half hours’ drive south of Launceston. This time my transport is an electric $130,000 Tesla Model S sedan, though I’m hardly travelling in deathly silence. Driver and co-owner of Drink Tasmania tours Peter Baldwin asks me what sort of music I’d like to hear; I tell him something old and smooth, like single-malt whisky.
Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” mightn’t be the silkiest tune to accompany a visit to Tasmania’s world-conquering distilleries, but it shows Tasmania does spirit-tasting a whole lot different to the Old World.
Mr Baldwin is a former social worker who quit his job to show travellers how good Tasmanian spirits are. He injects his tours with a disestablishmentarianism you’d expect of a former penal colony once called Van Diemen’s Land.
Just outside of Hobart – at distilleries set amongst the rolling green hills of the Coal River Valley wine region and surrounds – you’ll find some of the world’s most-lauded whisky and gin. On Mr Baldwin’s tours, you’ll meet the makers on behind-the-scenes tasting tours in distilleries, some not even open to the public.
Prepare yourself: spirit-tasting starts early, about 10am at Shene Estate. Here you’ll find the world’s most-awarded gin – their Poltergeist Gin is the only gin on Earth awarded a platinum rating for two years in a row at the World Spirits Award, while their whiskies also dominate the competition.
Housed in a Gothic stable of sandstone hand-cut by convicts and beside an early 19th-century Georgian farmhouse with ties to the King of England at the time it was built, this is one of Australia’s earliest pastoral holdings. I’m taken on a private tasting tour. Tasmanian whisky has quickly built itself world’s-best accolades; what will cost you $295 here costs $1200 in Scotland or Ireland. But the problem is it sells out so fast, you’ll often struggle to secure a single bottle of the best whisky (there’s a ballot system for some distilleries).
Today, I’m assured of sampling all the best tipples, while meeting the blokes who make it. It’s not just blokes around here, mind you; my next stop is to meet one of the industry’s few female distillers, who pours me her best creations in a distillery shut to the public.
Kristy Booth-Lark is the daughter of Bill Lark, the pioneer of Tasmanian spirits, a man so revered in these tasting circles even the mention of his name is enough to produce stilted murmurs. In her tiny Killara Distillery tasting room, she hands me a glass of her favourite whisky and waits for my feedback.
“That’s Tasmania in a glass,” she said as I sipped delicately at the whisky (it’s 69% proof). “It’s the smell of Tassie after the rain.”
In between, there’s a lunch at Frogmore Creek Winery where I dine on scallops with black garlic and almond cream with crispy prosciutto and pickled cucumber followed by beef carpaccio with anchovy mayonnaise – then it’s back to business.
Hobart Whisky is tucked inside an unsuspecting warehouse in the middle of Hobart – there are no signs, only those in-the-know come here. Two locals with a love of fine whisky started the distillery in 2014, and just being here is an experience in itself. I’m at a table with manager John Jarvis and head distiller Ben James, who pour me whiskies and explain each one as if they’re talking about their favourite children.
They’re awaiting my response – but I’m many whiskies in, and hardly a connoisseur at the best of times – so I nod and tell them what I googled last night to say: “Mmm, there’s a lot of character in that one.”
But that’s hardly the point of today; no-one is testing anyone’s knowledge. No, this here is a privileged jaunt through a part of Tasmania few get to see, but that the whole world is talking about. There’s room for four on this private tour – so you’ll never share this special part of Tasmania with crowds.
“The best thing about Tasmania”, chef Massimo Mele told me, is “we don’t even really understand how good it all is down here yet and it shows”.