"Our summer pudding is the best in Tasmania," the proprietress assured me. I had pulled off the highway to eat at Eureka, a tiny fruit and berry farm a half-mile or so from the Tasmanian coast. The sign promised an array of bests—the best ice cream, the best fresh berries, and the sign didn't lie. When I visited in November, early spring in Australia, the strawberries had just come in. They were small, but piercing in their sweetness, and easily the best I had ever tasted. Eureka, it turns out, is blessed with its own perfect berry-growing climate, a little eucalyptus forest consisting mainly of blue and white gums. Here Ann and Denis Buchanan plant and harvest, and make their own jams and chutneys. Ann clucked over me as I greedily downed their pudding, a tart mash of berries and bread; then Denis, a prickly graybeard in overalls, showed me around. "We're the real McCoy," he tells me, in contrast with some other outfits that sneak in outside fruit. "It's a boutique operation, alright. Our advertising is hopeless. We live by reputation alone."
The stop came as a relief. Driving up the east coast of Tasmania, I worried my senses were leaving me, so hallucinatory was the beauty of the landscape. To my right flowed softly undulating dunes covered in banksias and bearded heath. Beyond these lay catchments of water sheltered from the open Tasman Sea in dune swales and coastal lagoons. As I pushed north, toward Great Oyster Bay and the Freycinet Peninsula, there were long, deserted stretches of pristine white-sand beaches, broken up only by looming granite outcrops, by the pates of massive boulders protruding from wet sand. At dusk, the rocks, dusted in orange lichen, glowed like pink lanterns, and wallabies lined the empty highway. Proceed with caution, I had been told; they are known to spring into oncoming traffic.
Eureka, it turns out, is a classic Tasmanian story. A modest DIY foodie utopia, deposited in its own microclimate, run by interlopers—Ann and Denis sailed down to Tasmania from Sydney in 1991, with no idea they'd stay—selling to a devoted clutch of locals. Lately, though, what Australians call "the Big Dry"—the worst drought in a thousand years, some say—is taking its toll. Freakishly unseasonable weather, already a Tasmanian specialty, has been increasing in ferocity, a trend locals blame on global warming. "It's been exceptionally weird the last couple of months," Denis told me, and he worried about his latest crop.
Doomsday weather aside, Tasmania is currently rebranding itself as Eden. A wind, more or less untouched by any landmass, whips around the globe, pounding Tasmania's west coast. The endless gusting makes Tasmania's air, soil, and surrounding waters some of the least contaminated on the planet. Perhaps more important, thanks to its wild congeries of microclimates, you can grow or harvest virtually anything—berries, stone fruits, nuts, olives, truffles, wasabi, saffron, caviar, Wagyu beef—to exacting culinary specifications. Its crystalline waters abound in king crabs, crayfish, rock oysters, scallops, and abalone. Its cool-climate wines and craft cheeses are superb, and gaining international recognition. And its famous Leatherwood honey, drawn from the dense rain forest, might be the most delicious substance to ever strike the human palate.
Before it could be paradise, Tasmania was hell on earth. Tasmania is Australia's smallest state, an island off the continent's southeast coast about the size of South Carolina. Once, if you committed a crime in England, you were banished to Australia. My second day in Tasmania, I drove out to Port Arthur, the settlement on the Tasman Peninsula where convicts were sent when they committed yet another crime while in Australia. As a secondary penal colony, Port Arthur was designed to be a place of unremitting subjugation and hardship. As Robert Hughes wrote in his majestic epic of Australia's founding, The Fatal Shore, it became "the closest thing to a totalitarian society that would ever exist within the British Empire."
Today, guidebooks in hand, tourists poke their way through the hollowed-out ruins of old outbuildings. To get there from Hobart, Tasmania's capital, I drove through Eaglehawk Neck, the narrow isthmus that connects the Tasman Peninsula to the Forestier Peninsula, which is connected in turn to the mainland. The scenery is arresting: the landscape is wind-pruned and intense, with talus slopes dropping down to aquamarine waters. Back at my hotel, an employee asked about my day at Port Arthur, and I too-casually replied, "Oh, lovely, thanks." She turned to me full-on, dropping her smile. "It is an unbelievably sad place, for everything that happened there. For the convicts, for the aborigines. Even the way the light slants there. It is not lovely. It is sad." I stood corrected.