"I want to be King of Tasmania!" shouts the oafish Ubu, a huge puppet and the the central character of the outlandish satirical play King Ubu, staged at Launceston's Cataract Gorge.
I think, "Don't we all?" Or at least to visit it. Since the opening of Hobart's Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in 2011, Tasmania has become a highly desirable destination, and climate change only adds to its cool charms, in more ways than one.
Hobart has MONA, but in 2019 Launceston pulled off a coup against its southern rival by capturing the annual MONA FOMA festival. This cultural extravaganza, heavy on music but including theatre, cabaret, art and design, is perfectly framed by this historic city, a place small enough that I can walk between venues, but large enough to have good restaurants to visit between shows.
On the following days, after Ubu's evil plot has been foiled in a strikingly beautiful natural setting, I'm treated to a wild selection of MONA FOMA events. These include a boat ride through digital art at the quirky Penny Royal theme park; a wander through a surreal bubble-like structure in a local park; and live music acts across two stages at the Festival Hub, with the bonus of great food stalls.
The festival highlight for me is Kipli Paywuta Lumi in which the audience walks through the forest of Trevallyn Recreation Reserve to be welcomed at a replica bush hut by Tasmanian Aboriginal hosts. There we share a traditional meal cooked over a campfire. As a schoolkid I was told that Tasmania's first people had died out; it's a delight to see that disproved, by experiencing their living culture.
MONA FOMA comes once a year, but there's plenty more to sample and between events, I explore the wealth of year-round attractions in and around Launceston, from art to food.
Launceston is the headquarters of Design Tasmania, and its flagship gallery is a beautiful space on the edge of City Park. When I arrive, it's hosting a temporary exhibition for MONA FOMA, Body Future, in which two artists create work from the most unlikely materials: dust and sweat. The permanent collection is a tribute to northern Tasmania's tradition of crafted timber. I'm impressed by works including a cabinet with a "head" shaped like that of a Cape Barren goose, a clothes rack made from an arch of blackwood and a chaise longue constructed from plywood, steel, glass and many layers of packing foam. The gallery shop, in an adjoining former church hall, is filled with covetable items for purchase. See designtasmania.com.au
Launceston's grandest gallery is the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (QVMAG), which was established in 1891. Spread over two campuses, it acts as both an art institution and a history museum. The exhibits at the Royal Park branch include Chinese antiquities and a 19th century temple, while the Inveresk branch (used as MONA FOMA's Festival Hub) sits on the site of former railway workshops and has an exhibition focusing on the extinct Tasmanian tiger. See qvmag.tas.gov.au
Nothing prepares you for the marvellous streetscapes of Launceston, a beautifully preserved collection of 19th and early 20th century architecture only occasionally interrupted by Brutalist intrusions (I'm looking at you, ANZ branch on Brisbane Street). A great way to hear the stories behind the facades is to join Geoff McLean's Prince's to the Park tour, which threads through the CBD. McLean has plenty to say about the city's lively past, as we walk from the statue of Dr Pugh – who performed Australia's first operation with anaesthetic – past distressed church exteriors and an unexpected Egyptian-style synagogue, to Dicky White's Lane, named after a convict who made good as a publican and racehorse owner. See launcestonwalkingtours.com.au
An easy way to sample Launceston's cafes and restaurants is Taste Walk Talk's Sunday Brunch tour. Over two hours, guide Brock Kerslake takes me to three local eateries, starting with heirloom tomatoes and a black pudding Scotch egg at stylish cafe Bryher. Afterwards we head to Bread & Butter, a cafe in a sprawling ex-industrial premises where we enjoy house-made pastries with apricot jam. Then at Rupert & Hound, a seafood restaurant overlooking the Tamar River, we eat pickled octopus, hot-smoked salmon pate, and oysters, some of which are laden with pickled cucumber soaked in local gin. Genius. See tastewalktalk.com
Brewery tours have limited appeal to me – there's only so many times you can view huge vats and bottles jiggling along conveyer belts, before the excitement wears off. But I greatly enjoy the second half of the tour of the James Boag brewery in central Launceston, when we taste various brews accompanied by cheese. The tale of Wizard Smith, a worker who saved the brewery's draught horses from a 1929 flood and has a pale ale named after him, is almost worth the price of admission by itself. See jamesboag.com.au
If you're more of a wine person, explore the Tamar Valley's vineyards. On my last day in Tasmania I join Taste the Tamar run by Experiential Tasmania. Over five hours, guide Sara Barnes takes me to Tamar Valley Truffles, where I walk among the trees that help germinate the elusive but expensive fungus, and talk to a farmer about the challenges of truffle farming. This is followed by wine tasting and an impressive spread of local salmon, cheeses and fruits at Loira Vines, more tastings at the down-to-earth Swinging Gate Vineyard, and beautiful river views with wine at Waterton Hall, an 1850s homestead. See experientialtasmania.com.au
FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD
The king of Launceston food attractions is the Harvest Launceston Community Farmers' Market, held every Saturday morning. Amid the busy, buzzing atmosphere, shoppers browse stalls selling local produce and ready-to-eat food. After trying many samples offered by stallholders, I buy a three-pack of salts – one smoked, one flavoured with wakame seaweed and one flavoured with pepperberry – from Tasman Sea Salt to take home. See harvestmarket.org.au
Beyond the market, there are plenty of good places to eat in Launceston. Sweetbrew is a cool cafe with an inventive vegetarian menu. Geronimo serves modern European dishes in a venue with a leafy view. Stillwater is housed within an atmospheric 1830s flour mill, with a seasonal menu and accommodation. Mudbar serves innovative dishes with an Asian twist. All of them have an emphasis on local ingredients, and the results are delicious. See facebook.com/sweetbrewespresso; geronimorestaurant.com.au; stillwater.com.au; mudbar.com.au
Tim Richards travelled courtesy of MONA FOMA and Tourism Tasmania.
FLY + SAIL
Virgin Australia flies to Launceston from Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Spirit of Tasmania sails nightly from Melbourne to Devonport, an hour's drive from Launceston. See virginaustralia.com.au; spiritoftasmania.com.au
Peppers Seaport Hotel is on the Launceston waterfront, with rooms from $200 a night. See peppers.com.au/seaport
MONA FOMA returns to Launceston in January 2021. See mofo.net.au