Art-house appeal

Hobart hip ... the Islington Hotel.
Hobart hip ... the Islington Hotel. 

Hobart's urban renewal is driven by the controversial MONA museum, boutique lodgings and chic dining, writes Andrew Bain.

Known to some as Slowbart, the island capital has never been a city noted for its urban cool. But in a virtual blink, Hobart's cultural landscape has been transformed, with art, wine, fine food and stylish accommodation becoming integral features of the city. A weekend in Australia's southernmost city can now be as sophisticated as any in Sydney or Melbourne.

If Hobart's makeover has an origin, it's the opening of MONA - the Museum of Old and New Art - in January. Tunnelled into the sandstone cliffs of a peninsula in suburban Berriedale, Australia's largest private art gallery - bigger than the Art Gallery of South Australia and the Art Gallery of Western Australia - contains about 460 artworks owned by the collector, gambler and entrepreneur, David Walsh.

He has often described his $175 million gallery as "a subversive adult Disneyland" and irreverence is MONA's clear intent. It begins at the entrance, where visitors cross a drab plaza and tennis court, entering the building through a mirrored facade that reflects Hobart's unfashionable northern suburbs. It is designed specifically to underwhelm and to confront traditional associations of art and grandeur.

Descend the spiral staircase into the subterranean gallery and the first exhibit of sorts is a bar, playing to Walsh's theory that alcohol aids understanding (or at least the perception of understanding). Nearby is the Cinerarium where, for $75,000, you can have your ashes interred and displayed as an exhibit. For now it holds just one urn, containing the ashes of Walsh's father.

MONA's artworks are a sometimes jarring mixture of quality and quirkiness, seemingly designed to show off Walsh's personality as much as the art. The gallery has, by choice, no defining theme so that, for example, a 1300-year-old Cretan coffin can share space with Arthur Boyd's Melbourne Burning and Cassandra Laing's 2006 charcoal-and-graphite Darwin's Girls.

And there are some treasures. Chris Ofili's infamous Holy Virgin Mary, of a black Madonna surrounded by elephant dung and pornographic images, created a firestorm of angst when displayed in New York little more than a decade ago but has landed without kerfuffle in Hobart.

There are paintings by Arthur Boyd, Brett Whiteley and a near-hidden Wassily Kandinsky, though big names have little clout at MONA, being jumbled among the works of less prominent artists. Only Sidney Nolan's wondrous Snake - its 1620 individual paintings comprising the 46-metre-long, outback-inspired image of a serpent - is given absolute prominence. When bought by Walsh in 2007, it prompted a change in the design of the gallery simply to accommodate it and it's now displayed for the first time in its entirety in Australia.

Behind Snake - irreverent, remember - is Belgian artist Wim Delvoye's pungent Cloaca Professional. This gastro-intestinal machine is fed two meals a day - the likes of salmon wraps and beer - and defecates on the stroke of 2pm, creating the sort of smells that have made it a foul favourite among giggling children.

Favourites are encouraged at MONA. Gallery goers are led through MONA's three cave-like levels by an iPhone - known as O - that offers serious summaries of individual works as well as random and offbeat musings, often from Walsh. Using the O, visitors can vote to "love" or "hate" particular works. Among the most loved in the early months have been bit.fall, in which water pours from the ceiling, spelling out words selected from Google searches; and Fat Car, a bright and unsubtle statement on modern greed and laziness.

After a few hours at MONA, you might feel the need to retreat, but even here the art theme needn't end. At the city's edge, the Islington Hotel might well be Hobart's second-finest art space.

Built in 1847 in Hobart's exclusive Dress Circle, it remains one of the city's most desirable addresses - Errol Flynn was born just metres away - and a rare splash of Regency styling amid Hobart's dominant Georgian architecture.

But the real riches are inside the hotel, among and between its 11 guest rooms. At first glance it appears as a place of antique furnishings and ideas - a formal library, a morning room for tea or coffee, the second oldest Chintz quilt in Australia - but the Islington is far from a period piece.

On the walls are the fruits of 40 years of art collection, with a striking pedigree. The hotel's owners once lived next door to Brett Whiteley, so there are a couple of Whiteleys. Louisa Meredith was great aunt to one of the owners, so there are works by the 19th-century illustrator and author. Elsewhere are two etchings from David Hockney's Blue Guitar series and, in one hallway, a Jazz-era Matisse painting.

Like MONA, the Islington is a fusion of old and new. The large guest rooms feature antique writing desks and bureaus alongside blonde-wood furnishings and gleaming bathrooms. The hotel's central living area has bare 160-year-old walls enclosed by a glass conservatory, providing an equally contrasting view: in one direction, the dolerite columns of Mount Wellington rising above a small forest of Murano glass sculptures; in the other, roughened walls bear an old clock from the Saigon railway station.

The mood of the five-star hotel is intimate - there's art and heart here. To create a homely feel, rooms have no numbers and there's an honour system on the conservatory bar. Wines and spirits are as local as the view - Tassie labels such as Spring Vale and Stefano Lubiana - a policy that extends through the hotel. In the rooms the coffee has been ground by Tasmanian Coffee Roasters, just down the road in Sandy Bay, and even the king-size mattresses were made in nearby Margate.

After a day of gallery going, Hobart's newest spa is a welcome 30-minute drive south of the city in the hills above Margate. Harmony Hill Wellness and Organic Spa Retreat took five years to design and construct. Its buildings form the shape of a hexagonal Buddhist mandala, around a glass pyramid containing three massage rooms.

Treatments combine ancient Asian techniques with modern spa indulgences and my visit begins with an infra-ray sauna. The temperature hovers about 50 degrees and soon sweat is cascading from my body.

The retreat's signature Chi energy healing treatment is as much osteopathy as it is massage, designed to read and "unblock" the body's energy flows. The moment Ami places a hand in the small of my back, she asks if I often ride a bike, which I do.

Higher up, between my shoulder blades, she stops. "You've had trouble here?" she suggests, her finger on the spot where I'd put out my back nine months ago. And so it continues for an hour, perhaps the most intuitive massage I've experienced, my life and personality interpreted through the muscles in my body.

Traditionally, Hobart's dining and drinking scene has been focused on Salamanca Place and North Hobart but the city's newest and arguably finest food and wine venue opened in a novel location in September.

Garagistes sits on a bland stretch of central Murray Street, inside a former mechanic's garage, across the road from a discount chemist and a hardware shop. Passing foot traffic in the evening is almost non-existent.

Anything less than great here would fail and yet there's rarely a night when Garagistes isn't packed. Popularity has been instant for reasons of quality not fashion.

Garagistes' creator is chef Luke Burgess, who trained at Sydney's Tetsuya's restaurant and also worked at Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant recently named as the world's finest in the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurant awards.

Inside the warehouse-like space, dim lighting, four slabs of communal tables and the curing meats that hang in view give Garagistes a mediaeval feel at odds with the modern flavours. The food is tapas in style and the emphasis, in true Tassie tradition, is on seafood. The changing menu features the likes of salt fish fritters and steamed local clams, balanced by pork-stuffed olives or steamed and pickled beetroot with whipped goat's curd.

At its core, Garagistes is a wine bar and wine is king; the food is a complement. Parochialism is eschewed - there are only two Tasmanian wineries on the 50-page wine list - in favour of small artisan vineyards across Australia and Europe, with an emphasis on production that is organic, sustainable and with minimal intervention.

In this urbane cavern, you might wonder again: is this really Hobart? Step out into the cold, quiet night air and there's the sense that the flow of life in Hobart hasn't really changed - cars trickle rather than stream through the streets - and yet somehow it feels as though it has grown into a city. A rather cool city.

Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Tourism Tasmania.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Virgin Australia, Jetstar and Qantas fly to Hobart from Melbourne and Sydney. One-way fares cost from $59.

Things to do

The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) is at Moorilla, in the northern suburb of Berriedale. A ferry service operates from the Brooke Street ferry terminal on the Hobart docks. The gallery is open daily 10am-6pm; no entry fee. Luxury accommodation overlooking the Derwent River is available at Moorilla's eight pavilion rooms (each room containing works from MONA's collection) from $490 a night. To extend the MONA experience, try lunch (daily) or dinner (Tuesday-Saturday) at its fine Source restaurant, or sip Moorilla wines and its Moo Brew beer in the Wine Bar; see mona.net.au.

An hour's Chi energy healing treatment at Harmony Hill costs $160. It runs a pick-up service from city hotels. See organicspa -retreat.com.

Staying there

The Islington Hotel is a short walk from the city centre. Double rooms cost from $300 a night, including breakfast for two. Midweek specials (Monday-Thursday) offer three nights for the price of two; see islingtonhotel.com

Eating there Garagistes is open from 5pm Wednesday-Saturday, plus Sunday lunch. No bookings are taken (except for the Sunday lunch). See garagistes.com.au.

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