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No longer a pit stop and much more than a place to dump prisoners, Tasmania is a kind of cabinet of curiosities

No longer a pit stop and much more than a place to dump prisoners, Tasmania is a kind of cabinet of curiosities
Hewn out of ancient sandstone, the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania is an ever-expanding look at eccentric and challenging art. (James Bartlett)

For 175 years, explorers and adventurers spent their last night in Hobart, Tasmania, before setting off into the unknown, icy wasters of the Antarctic in search of fame, science and the South Pole.

For 50 years, it was also the notorious last stop for about 75,000 prisoners from the British Empire.

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But now people are flocking to the heart-shaped island for very different reasons.

Last year major cruise lines made 95 port calls here, thanks to newly lengthened wharves that can accommodate the largest vessels.

Hotels offer great views of the historic harbor and the bright orange Aurora Australis, an icebreaking research vessel.
Hotels offer great views of the historic harbor and the bright orange Aurora Australis, an icebreaking research vessel. (James Bartlett)

Arriving passengers will soon notice two vessels that colorfully illustrate the island’s history.

The first is almost unmissable. It’s the orange Aurora Australis, an icebreaking research vessel the Australian government uses.

The second is the even more eye-catching gray, black and white-camouflaged ferry nearby.

It takes passengers to the Museum of Old and New Art, whose mix of architecture, design and wine has singlehandedly made Tassie a destination in its own right.

Dine on the grass — tables, that is — at the Source restaurant at MONA.
Dine on the grass — tables, that is — at the Source restaurant at MONA. (James Bartlett)

The huge Triassic-era sandstone underground bunker is full of eccentric and challenging art owned and funded by philanthropist and gambler David Walsh.

It’s based at Walsh’s Moorilla winery in the north of the city, Pieces such as “Fat Car” and the controversial “Cloaca Professional” will appeal to art lovers, but dining at the Source restaurant — perhaps at the outdoor “living tables” alone is worth the ferry ride .

MONA features four works by Los Angeles native James Turrell, including a tunnel of alternating neon colors.
MONA features four works by Los Angeles native James Turrell, including a tunnel of alternating neon colors. (Alex Johnston)

The Pharos wing, which juts out over the Derwent River, contains four works by Los Angeles native James Turrell. It opened late last year, and booking is still essential for his “Unseen Seen,” a 14-minute trip that has you lying inside a space-age white ball and experiencing rapid-fire color kaleidoscopes.

You have to experience it to describe it, but be aware that it requires a waiver to take part.

A cinema, concerts, library, outdoor sculptures and more make a visit to MONA essential, but there’s still plenty more to do — and much of it is close to where you disembark in Hobart.

Salamanca Market offers up fruit, cheeses, photographs and liquor distilled from saffron, lavender and more.
Salamanca Market offers up fruit, cheeses, photographs and liquor distilled from saffron, lavender and more. (James Bartlett)

If you arrive on a Saturday, you’re in luck. That’s the day that the Salamanca Market draws artisans from across the region. At peak times there can be 300 stalls here, and, aside from the bountiful selections of fruit, cheeses, bread, photographs, prints and creations carved from the local Huon pine, peculiar to Tasmania, there were some real surprises.

Tasmania has countless wines, but alongside locally produced tea, chiles and garlic you’ll find whiskey, vodka distilled from goat cheese rind and scrumptious gin distilled saffron and lavender. My double scoop of chocolate and honeycomb ice cream also had people stopping me to ask where I got it.

To sample more of the local wines and liquors, try the Franklin, an upscale city restaurant that is attracting crowds just for the locally sourced ingredients such as oysters, raw wallaby, fire-roasted cabbage and a Jerusalem artichoke ice cream with chocolate malt and licorice.

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Franklin is a common name here. John Franklin was governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania’s one-time moniker) from 1837-43 before he returned to England and took command of the deadly attempt to find the Northwest Passage (the basis of recent AMC series “The Terror.”)

Seagoing enthusiasts should make for the Maritime Museum of Tasmania, which looks at the seafaring Aboriginals, whalers, fishermen, ferries, wrecks and yacht racing. (The dangerous Sydney-Hobart race is an annual event.)

A Wunderkammer (cabinet of curiosities) takes center stage at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.
A Wunderkammer (cabinet of curiosities) takes center stage at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. (James Bartlett)

Errol Flynn, the swashbuckling movie hero and sailing enthusiast, spent his early years in Tasmania. His voracious appetites allegedly inspired Warner Bros.’ “Tasmanian Devil” cartoon character, and his archives and papers were left to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, which is also close to the harbor.

A Wunderkammer (cabinet of curiosities) dominates in the center, and it also mixes artworks with exhibits about the island’s history, people and creatures.

The Islands to Ice exhibit focusing on Hobart and its connection to the frozen continent was especially popular as kids (and adults) competed to see how long they could hold their hand on a map as ice grew on top.

You won’t find koalas in Tasmania, and the Forester kangaroo, which can grow to 130 or more pounds, is the only ’roo you’ll find here. Not surprisingly, the Tasmanian devil, which is the size of a large house cat and yowls, is the is top scavenger/hunter though it wasn’t always that way.

The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery devotes a room to the Tasmanian tiger, a marsupial with a crushing bite.
The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery devotes a room to the Tasmanian tiger, a marsupial with a crushing bite. (Wendall Thomas)

The museum also devotes a room to the Tasmanian tiger, which was once the apex predator here. This dog-like marsupial with stripes had a crushing bite.

The introduction of dogs and a government bounty introduced for nervous sheep farmers saw them killed off, and the last one died at the lone-gone Hobart Zoo in 1936. Or did it?

Tasmanians and even people on the mainland have claimed sightings ever since, and in the museum, you’ll see a response kit issued to the National Parks and Wildlife Service in the 1980s.

In any case, the tiger’s very much part of life. It’s the Tasmanian Government’s logo and shows up on beer labels from Cascade Brewery. Vast stretches of the island’s forests still largely unexplored, so who knows if they’re still out there?

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