A day in Launceston, Tasmania: hike, taste wine and dine.
We step out of the Jetstar aeroplane down onto the tarmac, and the contrast could not be greater: hills all around, quiet save for the sound of the engines still idling, the smell of gum trees and freshly cut grass, and most importantly the crispness of the air…such a welcome change to the humid heat we left behind in Sydney in the early hours of the morning.
We’ve just landed in Launceston, Tasmania.
The trip was a last minute decision, trying to fit a short holiday between boat charters and medical appointments. One condition was to choose a destination we had not been to before, and that did not require all day to get there. After ruling out most of Australian mainland, it left us with Tasmania, the Apple Island at the bottom of Australia, a place we always dreamed of visiting on the boat. Except we have no boat no more, and we’re going on a road trip instead. 7 days, 7 places!
Getting out of bed at 4am to catch an early flight was the trade-off to make sure we’d have plenty of time to discover Launceston and its surroundings.
All I know about the region is that it is the home of the Tamar River, running northwards from Launceston to Bass Strait and the fertile Tamar Valley, famous for its cool climate wineries, orchards, dairy farmers and truffle growers.
It is 9am when we arrive though, too early to check into our hotel and/or embark on a food trail so we think it wise to start the day’s exploring with a hike to the Cataract Gorge. Ready for a longish drive, I am surprised to discover access to the Gorge is merely minutes from the city centre, and find not only well set up walking and hiking trails, but a large swimming pool, a restaurant, a cafe, a suspension bridge, manicured gardens and tame wildlife including the brightest peacock I have ever seen!
The hiking trails are mostly easy, the Cataract walk along the river is flat and leads to one of the main bridges, but as we have to return to the car ( and to Anne who declined to hike, preferring to take pictures of wallabys and ducks instead ) we opt for the Zig Zag track on the other side of the river which is proving challenging for Mr T whose post-surgery condition is leaving him breathless. We run into a lady, who doesn’t look particularly fit but tells us “that’s not as bad at the Great Wall”. “Which wall?” I ask. She looks at me wide eyed “ Of China!” I am not sure what to make of that comment…these days, everyone seems to talk about walls!!
By the time we finish the hike and return to the carpark, it is past 11am and the place is filling up quickly with tourists and families here to enjoy a picnic or a ride on the chairlft. That’s our cue to head out of town and drive along the Tamar River towards Georgetown, one of the first Australian settlements with a rich maritime history. We stop at the Mount George lookout, an historic semaphore site which overlooks the whole valley ( great photos!!) and since the town looks pretty quiet from here we drive on to Low Head which is the most northern part of Tasmania. There you will find the oldest operated Pilot Station, a maritime Museum, Low Head Lighthouse and Fog Horn. But my favourite, is stumbling into a local ranger who was kind enough to show me baby penguins in their nests, hidden in the bushes ( they wait for their parents who waddle from the sea each night to feed them )
Lunch is a quick snack of smoked salmon pate and iced coffee at Low Head’s Coxswain Cafe, and we’re off again, this time heading east on the Tamar Wine route.
The area is dotted with over 30 wineries and it reads like the who’s who of Tasmania’s sparkling wines: Bay of Fires, Jansz, Clover Hill, and Pipers Brook cellar doors all are located within 5-10 kilometers of each others and I so wish we could visit them all. But we only have time for one, so we stop at Jansz, one of my favourite sparklers and because I want to take a photo to send back home! Reception is friendly and cold, as in the lady behind the counter greets us with a smile and shows us to a fridge full of chilled bottles. Tasting is free for 3 “standard” cuvees then $5 for the more exclusive vintages. Some like the Vintage 2011 Single Vineyard Chardonnay are only available at the cellar door, and should you wish to purchase any, shipping is free. Thus will start my shopping spree around Tasmania, upgrading the cellar as we go…
The drive back to Launceston is as scenic as ever, driving past paddocks, fields and more wineries which is becoming a bit boring for Anne who is keen to arrive at the hotel.
Tonight’s accomodation is at Peppers Seaport, right on the river and overlooking the marina. We are staying in a one bedroom River View Suite, which accommodates the 3 of us, courtesy of a king size bed and a pullout sofa bed in the lounge room. It is like an apartment, there is a full size kitchen and laundry ( which we don’t use ), a large walk-in robe and a bathroom supplied with fancy toiletries. Complimentary wifi, bottled mineral water and chocolate truffles ensure that Anne feels right at home!
However, there i just enough time to unpack and get changed as we have a an early dinner reservation at Stillwater restaurant, a short walk away along the river. While I am usually happy to go along with Mr T’s tendency to “wing it” when on holidays, if I hear of a restaurant or a place of interest I try to make sure we visit it. I had read about Stillwater in one of Not Quite Nigella’s blog posts, and knew it to be one of the best restaurants in Launceston. A fact that every one we met in town confirmed, so I dragged my crew along to this converted mill building by the bridge where we had hiked to earlier today ( that’s how compact a town Launceston is ).
The menu is like a long list of local produce prepared in intriguing ways and it takes us a while to read thru and choose. Our waitress is very obliging, going to great length to explain each dish, bringing us glasses of Clover Hill sparkling wines and a basket of sourdough with churned butter until we decide. We are tempted to go for the Chef’s 5 course menu, a combination of dishes from the menu and specials of the day for $125 per person, but it applies to the whole table only and we all want to try different courses, so we order a la carte instead.
For snacks, Terry orders oysters from St Helens on the east coast, a la natural. They come nestled on a bed of rocks, very cute, small but plump and juicy.
I choose the Cape Grim Beef tartare, with lemon and mustard emulsion, horseradish cream and sorrel. The meat is oh so tender and I could easily have eaten a larger portion.
Anne’s choice is Shaved calamari and potato noodles, garnished with togarashi ( chili pepper condiment ), lemon and katsuobushi ( similar to bonito flakes ). I think it’s quite unusual for her, but she loves Japanese flavours and this is her chance to taste something more elaborate than sushi.
These are followed by small plates ( about the size of an appetiser ). Mr T chose the Whiskey cured Huon Salmon, served with dill and honey vinaigrette, salmon pearls and puffed wild rice. This is such a pretty dish and super tasty, with only a hint of whiskey.
Anne loves her Mt Gnomon Pork Belly , seasoned with szechuan and black vinegar, pickled radishes and burnt cucumber. She reluctantly offers to share.
I went the adventurous route and decided to try the Tasmanian black lip abalone, which I never ordered before for fear of it being too chewy. I figured this was now or never, hoping chef Craig Will would work some magic ! Well, I am sure he cooked it to perfection, but unfortunately the shellfish was still too bitey ( tough would be another word, maybe too harsh?) for me. On the other hand, the black vinegar noodles and mixed Japanese mushrooms, floating in the roasted squid broth are a revelation! The flavours are magical and I could have drank that broth off the plate. Instead, the thoughtful me offers to give Anne and Mr T a taste and they proceed to mop the broth with what is left of the sourdough. Our waitress doesn’t miss a beat and seeing how much we love the bread, offers to bring another basket. I wish she’d bring another bowl of that broth too!
Then, come the large plates ( aka main courses ). Anne plays it safe and orders her favourite: roast duck breast with buffalo curd, carrot relish and pumpkin seed dukka. I can tell she loves it, by the way she only lets us have one mouthful. Indeed it is very nice, cooked just right and quite a generous serve too.
Tonight’s fish of the day is boarfish, a firm white flesh fish, crumbed with macadamia nuts and served with avocado, avruga caviar and lemon butter sauce. They had me at caviar and avocado! It is quite a luscious dish and I mop every bit of the sauce …
Mr T could not pass the Cape Grim eye fillet, as he loves his steak. It is served spread with yuzu and green olive tapenade, beetroot, potato and leek ash. He enjoyed the meat, but was not keen on the tapenade, saying it was overpowering the flavour of the meat. Personally I loved the unique combination of the tender meat with the sharp salty olive spread, and we swap plates so he can taste the fish ( and what sauce I have left ! )
By then we’re pretty full, but we make an effort to dig into the sides we thought we needed/wanted. The salt roasted potatoes with whipped miso butter and furikake come piping hot and bursting out of their skins.
The Roasted broccoli head splashed with lemon chilli oil is covered under a blanket of grated parmesan. Both sides are very tasty and we all wish we could eat more.
Actually, we are saving the very little room we have left for dessert. It is a choux pastry filled with hazelnut cream, and served with tiny dollops of lavender and berry cream. This is part of the 5 course menu, but we asked if the chef would let us have a plate for us to share. And he obliged !
What can I say? The 3 of us take one bit of the crispy shell and we nearly fight over the last scrape of custard.
And this, my friends, is a a fitting end to a wonderful dinner and most enjoyable day in Launceston. If this is day 1, I can’t wait to see what happens for the rest of the week!