Natalie Fryar raises a glass of her freshly poured vintage Bellebonne sparkling rosé and studies, with a quietly satisfied air, the fine bead rising to a light foam. Formerly chief winemaker at Jansz, Fryer now makes a brand of classy Tasmanian bubbly of her own and two distinctive gins under her Abel Gin label, a joint venture with business partner and restaurateur Kim Seagram. She takes a sip from her flute and says, to no one in particular: "You know, if you aren't making anything you're not really living."
Fryar's artisanal creed is an apt manifesto for the surprise package of Launceston. Skewered by the Tamar River and its tributaries, the valley city sits between gentle hills that rise to form some of the country's most stirring peaks: Ben Lomond, at 1572 metres, looms to the east; sawtooth Cradle Mountain, 1545 metres, is a two-hour drive to the west.
Launceston is brimful of winemakers, artisans, artists, chefs, designers, distillers and producers of all manner of things from small-batch butter, craft beer and sparkling cider to smallgoods, honey and pickles. Hobart is hot – overheated, if you're talking real estate – but Lonnie is a sort of culinary lab and creative Petri dish with its own quiet dynamism.
If Hobart is the Apple Isle's Sydney, then Launceston is its mini, time-trapped Melbourne. "We like to point out that Melbourne is Launceston's pop-up," says resident and city guide Brock Kerslake.
There's some truth in the jest. Convict sons John Batman and John Pascoe Fawkner set out separately from Launceston in 1835 and founded what became the city of Melbourne. A mere 45-minute flight apart, it's a proximity that breeds a certain fellow feeling.
On my first morning, I wake in one of the spacious riverfront rooms of Stillwater Seven, a new boutique hotel by Canadian-born Kim Seagram above Stillwater, her characterful restaurant in the city's 1830s flour mill.
A clear sky beckons above mist and the namesake still water. I've fallen instantly for my loft with its heavy beams and luxe "pantry" by local designer and craftsman Simon Ancher: a cabinet of wonders with curved radius corners that opens to reveal a mirror-backed bar stocked with local whisky, sloe gin, wine, an instant negroni. The snacks are northern Tasmanian, the cheese and charcuterie local, the sourdough and popcorn fresh from the restaurant downstairs. That's where I head for a doorstopping breakfast Reuben – wagyu, sauerkraut, fried egg – before following power-walking locals to the Saturday morning Harvest Market.
The wintry air is deliciously crisp for a stroll and I find the farmers and their 40-odd stalls, though not before I'm diverted by house-made cultured butter and fresh sardines on sourdough at Bread + Butter, a bakery, cafe and work-in-progress butter factory in a converted warehouse.
The market is groaning with goods made with Natalie Fryer's artisanal credo. Among them is a local kombucha brewer, Avocado Moon; a kimchi maker, Kimchi Me; a George Town seafood stall; and spuds from Erinvale Farm in the Tamar Valley.
Brady's Lookout Cider is made by the traditional champagne method and named after the "gentleman" bushranger Matthew Brady. Brady was devilishly handsome and gallant, with an eye for the ladies, and when he was hanged in 1826 the colony's female population is said to have fallen into collective mourning. I'm diverted again, this time by Guy Robertson's breakfast burgers. He raises free-range Wessex Saddleback pigs at Mount Gnomon Farm, and his smallgoods are on menus across the city.
I figure an hour or two of gentle perambulation will prove just the thing for a man in my condition, with three breakfasts to digest. So with Brock Kerslake, who runs the gourmet walking tour company Taste Walk Talk, I step out into a little country city with the mood of a big country town.
Launceston is poised for a tourism boom focused on the north's wine routes, its proximity to Cradle Mountain to the west and Freycinet Peninsula and Bay of Fires to the east. These natural blessings aside, there's a new $350 million inner-city campus of the University of Tasmania expected to revitalise the city – or at least its bars. Locals sense an inevitable push to gentrify a city centre of heritage buildings whose second storeys are being eyed by developers for "top-of-shop" apartments.
It's a handsome town with a vintage air. "One of its distinctive features," says Kerslake, "are the beautifully preserved examples of buildings from so many eras: Georgian, Gothic revival, Victorian, Federation, deco and post-war modern." In Launceston's St John's Street synagogue, built in 1844, the city even has a rare example of Egyptian revival architecture.
When we pass the streamlined art deco-inspired Holyman House, which wraps around a corner block, Kerslake explains that the building once functioned as the Launceston airport check-in and lounge. Airline customers in the 1930s would chill in what was then, and in fact still is, a futuristic building. With its interplay of curves and thrusting fin-like verticals, it brings a touch of Miami or LA to Tasmania's second city.
Another well-preserved commercial building is the 1920s R Shott & Sons umbrella shop on George Street. It's part of an ensemble of heritage buildings painted in jaunty colours, including Waverley Woollen Mills – founded in 1874 – and Amelia Espresso. On the block's corner stands Black Cow Bistro, run by the Stillwater team, in an art deco butcher's shop from 1937.
This procession of heritage buildings would be hard to find in a city that had been less prosperous in its boom years, when Launceston was a thriving merchant settlement drawing its wealth from agriculture (mainly apples and wool), mining, and banking. But it has also survived the worst excesses of the knock-it-down 1970s, thanks in part to a deliberate low-rise policy.
Further along George Street, Kerslake steers me into Bryher, a cafe named by its owners Alison Bergner and Tristan Morrison after a wind-battered islet off the coast of Cornwall where they worked for a few years. But the name also means, in Cornish, "place of hills", so the couple, both NSW emigres, thought it appropriate for Launceston.
The cafe retains most of its original 1920s features. Chalked on a blackboard is a map of Tasmania stamped with a love heart and a list of suppliers: Provenance Coffee, Pyengana and Ashgrove Dairy; Tasmanian Natural Garlic and Tomatoes; Steve's Vegies; Hazelbrae hazelnuts and Coaldale walnuts; Thirlstane Gardens herbs. And I tuck eagerly into my fourth breakfast of the day: a spicy bloody Mary, perfectly formed Scotch eggs and still-warm pastries.
The menu at Stillwater, where I dine that night, continues the seasonal, locavore story. The oysters are grown in Moulting Bay near St Helens, the beef is from Cape Grim, the salmon caviar from Huon, the quail from Rannoch Farm near Port Arthur; the wagyu from Robbins Island in Bass Strait. The wine list is skewed the same way: Tasmanian pinot, chardonnay and riesling.
Launceston is famously foggy, though there's not a trace of haze during my visits, and the next day is diamantine. "A perfect day for flying," grins pilot Bruce Hume as we buckle up. A jeweller by trade, he co-owns Unique Charters with long-time friend and fellow pilot Peter Barron, and together they orchestrate rare experiences in northern Tasmania's remote places.
Hume charts an aerial path across a landscape of snaking rivers, corduroy vineyards and sprawling colonial farmsteads to the coast, before touching down at Freycinet's Friendly Beaches.
The ocean is still, the day "ridiculously beautiful" says Freycinet Lodge waiter Sam as he shows me to a private table set with crisp white linen on the water's edge. Oysters from Melshell at nearby Coles Bay come with a shot of cauliflower, parmigiano and ponzu. The venison is from Springfield deer farm on the slopes of the Great Western Tiers, the blue-eye cod is local, the wines from the Tamar, Derwent and Coal River valleys, and the view is 100 per cent Freycinet.
The chopper touches down just as the sun sets on this short, perfect, day. Of course, a chopper ride anywhere is a treat, but a skyborne chauffeur ride to a table in Freycinet National Park is a surprise and a delight. Just like Lonnie itself.
Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin fly direct from Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne to Launceston. See qantas.com.au
Rooms at Stillwater Seven start from $375. See stillwater.com.au
A Taste Walk Talk tour of Harvest Market costs $85 including brunch. See tastewalktalk.com. Unique Charters tours range from 15 to 90 minutes and also include the Freycinet in a Day experience and Lunch in the Bay of Fires Experience. Prices start from $360 for a 15-minute Tamar Gorge Scenic tour. See uniquecharters.com.au
Harvest Market is on every Saturday from 8.30-12.30. See harvestmarket.org.au. Make your own personalised bottle of sparkling wine at Josef Chromy winery's four-hour The Art of Sparkling Experience, from $235 including two-course lunch and wine. See josefchromy.com.au
Luke Slattery travelled to Launceston courtesy of Tourism Tasmania.