With riotous arts and culture festival Mofo making to Launceston in January 2019, this may be your last chance to experience Tasmania’s elegant second city before it’s on everyone’s radar.
Perhaps it’s the steep streets that give Launceston its slow-down-and-stay-a-while vibe. It takes time to trek on foot to the top of any of the hills around town. Once you’re there, the stunning views over the city’s graceful Colonial buildings and the North Esk and South Esk rivers, which meet to form the mighty Tamar, mean you won’t be in a rush to wander down again. But this gentle community of about 82,000 people has an unhurried approach to most things, a pace that may change when the annual Mofo music and arts festival takes up permanent residence in January 2019.
Launceston is also a food town and the accessibility of quality produce means that treating super-fresh ingredients with the consideration and respect they deserve is in every local chef’s DNA. It’s also a location that invites walking – yes, despite the hills. It’s easy to lose a day or two simply taking in the city’s inescapable prettiness – a pastel-painted front door here, a cluster of lavender and roses at a front gate there. But a lazy drive into the surrounding countryside to experience the rest of the region is also a salve for the soul. Here are eight ways to sample the best of the city and environs (and give your calves the rest they probably need).
Explore the market
“Harvest is what Salamanca Market used to be 10 years ago,” claims one Launceston local. Not that Hobart’s Salamanca – which still has its charms – is exactly Les Halles but there’s no denying that Launceston’s Saturday food fair has a community feel that many larger farmers’ markets have lost. If you’re there at breakfast-time, pick up a Farmhouse bacon and egg roll from Meat Bread Cheese. For lunch, it has to be a herby Asian noodle salad from Smallgrain; do your bit for recycling by returning the jar it’s served in for a $2 refund ($1 for smaller jars).
If you’re cooking at your accommodation, Mount Gnomon free-range pork is the pick of the proteins, along with local vegies from Elphin Grove Farm or Laos Fresh Farm. Get chatting to your fellow market-goers – many work in the food industry and you may well encounter them again at the city’s eateries.
Horses then courses
Sampling wine, cheese, berries and chocolate on the famous Tamar Valley Wine Route to the north of the city is a tourist must-do but if you want to earn your indulgences, begin with a detour north-west for a three- or five-hour Bakers Beach horse ride with Cradle Country Adventures. If there’s a more liberating feeling than riding along a stretch of pristine sand, it should be bottled and exported. Expect to see kangaroos and wallabies staring quizzically at the convoy as it wends its way through the adjacent grasslands.
Afterwards, it’s time to graze your way back to Launceston along the western side of the Tamar, stopping in at cellar doors such as Brown Brothers’ Tamar Ridge, known for its Devil’s Corner pinot noir (from Tasmania’s east coast) and Pirie sparkling wines.
If it’s a Friday or Saturday, catch the Tea Time dinner at Timbre Kitchen at Vélo Wines. The set menu of woodfired home-style cooking governed by the seasons might include a winter feast of casseroles and old-school fruit crumble.
Dine low and high
Launceston is great for casual eating – from its market stalls and quaint cafés to the food trucks at St Georges Square – but tends to leave high-end dining to Hobart and the mainland. The consistent exception to this is Stillwater, located in an 1830s flour mill overlooking the Tamar River. Chef Craig Will, who also runs Black Cow Bistro closer to the town centre, makes magic with anything that enters his kitchen, from Cape Grim beef to local calamari. The wine list is also an encyclopaedia of the island’s best cold-climate gifts. But this is still Tassie so don’t expect stuffy silver service – the staff invite you in as though you’re a guest in their home. The airy upper levels used to house a provedore and art gallery but the owners are in the process of transforming the space into accommodation, due to open for business in early 2019.
Enjoy the high life
Historic Highfield House is up a hill (what isn’t in Launceston?) but otherwise it’s one of the most convenient (and pretty) places to base yourself. Set in manicured gardens and with balconies edged in metal lacework, this stately circa 1860 mansion has six suites that offer a glimpse into the city’s past. Traditional details – including wide-board timber floors, original ceiling roses and cast-iron fireplaces – mix well with modern updates such as cowhide rugs and potted plants. For breakfast, a continental spread of fresh fruit, bread, croissants, eggs, cheeses and cereals (including gluten-free), coffee and tea is served on silver platters and cake stands in the dining room or sunny courtyard.
Brunch at Bryher
Alison Bergner and Tristan Morrison used to think “local” meant “from Australia”. The couple from Wollongong, south of Sydney, had their eyes opened during a holiday in Tasmania, which inspired them to make the jump across the ditch to start up Bryher, a licensed café. Named after an island off the coast of Cornwall on which they lived and worked, Bryher strives to use products so local you can almost see them growing, including tomatoes from Tasmanian Natural Garlic & Tomatoes, herbs from Thirlstane Gardens and sourdough from Apiece. Most of the menu moves with the seasons (“Sometimes we may have just a few serves of something interesting that we found at the Harvest market,” says Morrison) but nostalgic favourites such as boiled eggs with soldiers and cheesy rarebit are permanent fixtures.
Explore the gorge
Most visitors approach Launceston’s magnificent centrepiece, the Cataract Gorge, from the main car park, a 10-minute drive from the CBD. But the most scenic way to get there is to pack a picnic and meander along the level Cataract Walk, which hugs the cliffs along the South Esk River from the King’s Bridge in West Launceston. The one-kilometre track starts near Stillwater so fill yourself with a slow-cooked pork and kimchi breakfast omelette before you set off.
Parts of the gorge can feel like a retro ski resort in the off-season – or Kellerman’s from Dirty Dancing if you squint hard enough – thanks to the towering pines and the chairlift silently drifting overhead. Stroll through the Cliff Grounds, keeping an eye out for peacocks and pademelons milling about between the rhododendrons and giant sequoias, and over the Alexandra Suspension Bridge to the lawns beside the 50-metre swimming pool – the perfect place to picnic. For the energetic, the Zig Zag Track takes you to the clifftops for spectacular views.
Taste a Tassie-style G&T
The true spirit of Tasmania isn’t the ferry that brings tourists from the mainland – it’s gin. The island has more than 130 varieties of the spirit and you’ll find 10 or so of them on the menu at Henry’s. Sink into a cosy chesterfield in front of the open fire and savour a Sundowner G&T made with Hartshorn Distillery sheep whey gin, Fever-Tree Indian tonic water and a scattering of rose petals.
Step back in time
If there’s room in your suitcase for souvenirs of the non-edible kind, call into Vintage Red Fox (64 Tamar Street; 0400 468 419), opposite City Park, to browse this treasure-trove of fashion, jewellery and antiques. It’s like walking into your grandmother’s boudoir – if your nanna was Elizabeth Taylor or Jean Harlow. Possible finds at the store are beaded evening gowns, quality woollens, leather goods and accessories sourced from all over the world. There used to be an adjoining café that sold the city’s best lumberjack cake but owner Tanya Chantler has closed it to focus her energies on the antiques business. But you can still enjoy a takeaway brew while browsing. “I’ve retained the machine to sell coffee – and satisfy my own addiction,” says Chantler.
Photo credits: Chris Crerar