The outside world has always regarded Tasmania as something of a mystery. In the 18th century, Jonathan Swift situated Lilliput off its coast in Gulliver’s Travels; soon afterward, some of the first British convicts that were transported here tried to escape by walking to China, only to get lost in the rugged hinterland and resort to cannibalism. An aura of mystery persists today, perhaps because Tasmania, an island slightly larger than Nova Scotia, is one step farther removed than the rest of the Australian continent, hidden under its southern shore and cut off by the violent seas of the Bass Strait. Nature is on a dramatic scale here: over 3.4-million acres of its area is protected wilderness, including ancient rainforests, jagged peaks and powerful rivers. In recent years, Tasmania has become easier to reach with Qantas flights from Sydney and Melbourne, luring more travelers to discover its surprising range of attractions. A wave of plush new eco-lodges, wineries and gourmet food producers has recast the travel landscape in the last decade, and with the addition of MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) in 2011, Tasmania has quickly been transformed from mysterious to downright alluring.
The waterfront of Tasmania’s tiny capital city (pop. 212,000) is today almost entirely intact from the British colonial era, when convicts, sealers and whalers made up the bulk of the hard-bitten community. A stroll along the restored Salamanca Place is eerily picturesque: the Georgian-era buildings were carved by 19th-century prison laborers from golden sandstone, and are framed by Hobart’s gleaming waters, with eucalyptus-covered mountains in the distance. The once-crumbling stores around Salamanca Square have been renovated into art galleries, bookstores, outdoor cafés and high-end restaurants, including Smolt, which specializes in Tasmanian salmon. After dinner, continue around the harbor for a drink at the Henry Jones Art Hotel, a former convict-built warehouse converted into chic luxury accommodation and exhibition space for local artists.