Poor old Hobart, pretty but dull. Since it was founded as a penal colony beside Sullivans Cove in 1804, the natural beauty of Australia's second-oldest city has been tempered by its reputation for quaint conservatism. Mark Twain was charmed by the city when he visited in 1895 - "the splendour of the sunlight! The charm of the water glimpses!" - but was noticeably silent on the subject of its cultural attractions. Hobart is not especially known for being edgy or exciting.
Until now, that is. Compelling recent signs suggest the winds of change are ruffling the smooth waters of the Derwent River like never before.
Chief among the omens is MONA, the breathtaking private museum built with the fortune local mogul David Walsh has amassed over decades of beating casinos at their own games. Walsh's daring gambit has endowed the nation with a frankly remarkable portfolio of ancient and modern, sacred and profane art.
His delirious labyrinth is sheathed by a fortress exterior of Corten steel rusted onto the escarpment of the Berriedale peninsula. Inside, a spiral staircase corkscrews deep into MONA's nether regions where arriving guests emerge into a soaring sandstone void complete with gleaming bar.
MONA, or the Museum of Old and New Art, is very much a product of Walsh's whims. Displays are not labelled or blandly curated; visitors simply pinball from one wild experience to the next in a maze of spaces totalling 6000 square metres. In one room a wall of screens captures the faces and voices of a 30-strong choir performing a joyous medley of Madonna hits. Nearby, a long black corridor is hung with exquisite white porcelain sculptures of diverse female genitalia ("we call them mushrooms when kids are around," a gallery assistant confides), while Stephen Shanabrook's rendering, in chocolate, of the remains of a suicide bomber is typical of the astonishing ideas gathered here.
The opening exhibition, "Monanism", combines blockbusters like Sidney Nolan's epic masterpiece Snake, a rainbow serpent slithering across 1620 individually painted panels, with Julius Popp's crowd-pleasing Bit.fall - a mesmerising waterfall of words and light set against a 250-million-year-old Triassic stone backdrop. More than a dozen works were commissioned especially for the exhibition, including Belgian Wim Delvoye's Cloaca Professional, a chemical wonder of suspended glass flasks and tubing that replicates the coprophilic functions of human digestion.
The shock tactics of art world enfants terribles such as Damien Hirst, Jenny Saville and Andres Serrano are more than balanced by Walsh's eye-popping antiquities from the ancient empires of Egypt, Rome and Central America, and by moments of poignancy like those of Hiroshima in Tasmania, where visitors create their own art by making crayon rubbings against the stone remnants of a railway platform bombed, atomically, in 1945.
Walsh insists he doesn't care if people like MONA or not, but at the opening party he seemed to relish the hordes flocking for a first glimpse of his vision. He lavished 1300 invited VIPs from the worlds of art, music and media with a 16th-century bacchanalia that included 17 kilograms of foie gras, 420 lobsters and three kilograms of Petrossian caviar. A further 2500 public guests partied on his 3.5-hectare private peninsula where the gallery marks the final, $175-million piece of the Moorilla playground of hotel (the monumental MONA Pavilions), winery, brewery, café and restaurant. Asked whether he felt the gallery was finally ready after five years of conception and construction, Walsh said, "Is anything ready? Ready suggests you have a definite end point. We're ready enough." In any case, Hobart has never witnessed anything like it.
Walsh is not the only radical rattling the establish-ment. Tetsuya's-trained chef Luke Burgess has moved into an old mechanic's garage in Murray Street where he's banking on locals embracing his avant-garde dining ideals - no bookings, communal seating, spare industrial interior and a menu featuring at least half a dozen ingredients they can't identify, let alone pronounce. In the few months since it opened, Garagistes has defied the city's staid stereotype as dine-hards from near and far beat a path to its hot-rolled steel doors to sit beside strangers at Tasmanian oak refectory tables and tuck into such novel delights as quail eggs with shaved fennel, roast chicken skin and ajo blanco, and ocean-fresh cured kingfish with miso, bleeding heart radish and orach (a long-forgotten herb).
Burgess, who came to Tasmania on a whim in 2006, did a stint at Copenhagen's Noma two years ago that he says "made me think where I am and what else I need to know". A year later, he and partners Katrina Birchmeier and Kirk Richardson opened Garagistes, where Birchmeier curated the formidable wine list of 150 largely natural and biodynamic boutique wines and Richardson oversaw the artistry of the restaurant's interior. The kitchen ethos shares some of Danish wunderkind René Redzepi's obsessions with locally foraged ingredients and making extraordinary from ordinary, but the eating experience is distinctly Tasmanian.
"We don't want to be too confronting but we do want to push the boundaries slightly," Burgess says. "We're aiming for a casual, professional environment where people can experience our wines with a cuisine that's simple but driven by seasons, locality and freshness.
A short drive away in North Hobart lies another exciting newcomer in Sweet Envy, a pretty French-style pâtisserie run by two Tasmanian-born graduates of Gordon Ramsay's empire. Alistair Wise, who worked at Ramsay's Connaught under chef-patron Angela Hartnett, and his partner Teena Kearney - who worked at the Greenhouse in Mayfair, then travelled to New York City with Wise to open Gordon Ramsay at The London - craft whimsical but immaculate creations such as the RoVo, a deconstructed raspberry VoVo, and virginal white wedding cakes cloaked in edible feathers. Their freshly churned ice-creams come in improbable flavours like banana cassis and salted almond caramel.
Returning to Hobart after 10 years away, Wise is relishing the city's evolution. "There's good produce everywhere you turn at the moment," he says. "It's been a long time since I've felt like a kid in a candy store, not knowing what to cook or where to start. And Hobart itself has become a country town with some colour and character. There's something to do every weekend."
Another newcomer who left the big city's bright lights behind to blaze a trail on the Apple Isle is Remi Bancal, formerly a sommelier at Sydney's Banc restaurant. Bancal first came to Tasmania to open the sophisticated country retreat Calstock House at Deloraine in the central north but last year landed in Hobart with a classic French bistro on the city fringe. The appealing menu at Remi de Provence features an exemplary coq au vin of free-range Nichols rooster and daily specials such as Wednesday's cassoulet maison. Diners can raid Bancal's cellar-cum-bottleshop for island vintages and Old World extravagances from Romanée-Conti and Puligny-Montrachet.
Uplifting eating experiences continue at the Pigeon Hole café in happening West Hobart where Jay Patey plies home-baked panini and pastries and rocking coffee in an old butcher shop that seats just 16. Less than an hour from the capital, at Lachlan (weirdly pronounced "lack-lan"), cooking classes at Rodney Dunn's The Agrarian Kitchen are booked out six months in advance as visitors mob his farm-based cooking school to get back to tasty basics with heirloom produce and old-breed beasts. Hobart's small but committed food mafia also raves about the refined Cantonese at Me Wah, the vast cheese selection at Monty's on Montpelier, coffee from Dev'lish Espresso in Macquarie Street and breakfasts at Tricycle Café and Bar in the Salamanca Arts Centre.
Tasmania's upwardly mobile tendencies date back to last decade when the state's unaffected food culture took centre stage thanks to big-name chefs pouncing on its seafood, truffles, hormone-free beef, wasabi and abalone. Meanwhile, the advent of stylish hotels such as the Islington and the Henry Jones introduced new levels of luxury to the once-dowdy city and sparked a statewide splurge on luxury accommodation that has resulted in pin-up properties like The Lair and Saffire on the Freycinet Peninsula.
Hobart's dynamism is not limited to high-end hospitality. Even before the Museum of Old and New Art debuted, former Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie - another high-profile Tassie transplant and good mate of Walsh - wooed big-name bands down south for the MONA FOMA festival on the lawns at Moorilla. In January, Philip Glass, Grinderman and The Necks headlined a playlist that also featured Iceland's Ólöf Arnalds and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Ritchie is also one part of the team behind Hobart's Artbikes, a free bicycle-hire service to transport visitors around the city's art trails.
If you scratch beneath the shiny and new it's obvious that Hobart has been attracting interest for some time now with events like the Sydney to Hobart homecoming party in late December, the five-day Festival of Voices staged in the dead of winter, and the Taste Festival that celebrates Tasmanian produce and ingenuity over the new year period.
But given all that's going down beside the Derwent, it's a surprise to wander along Constitution Dock and discover that the plaintive cries of seagulls are still the loudest thing you can hear. Or to stroll deserted streets after 6pm when it seems the entire city has scurried home to escape the chill breezes of the evening.
And then you stumble across the black door of Garagistes, or the sandstone cellar of Remi de Provence, or head to marvellous MONA for an encounter with some of the world's most engaging modern art, and you understand why Hobart is suddenly hip.