Exploring Flinders Island: a wild Tasmanian paradise
Getting to know Tassie's exceptionally beautiful Flinders Island.
In an ever-faster life, an island offers a retreat. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Tasmania has soared in recent years. Stressed-out Melburnians have flocked in droves. Sydneysiders too. But where do you go when Tasmania gets a little bit too metropolitan? Flinders Island, for some, is the answer.
Uncovering Tasmania’s wild Island
Stunning scenery at Tasmania's Flinders Island: credit Kara Hynes
In the Bass Strait, part of the wild and windswept Furneaux Group of more than 100 islands, Flinders Island has a reputation as a new frontier for gun chefs, creative artisans and entrepreneurs. Some call it home; others, charmed, return again and again.
On my first visit to the island, to report on a visit by Alex Atala in 2018, I watched as the Brazilian chef was welcomed warmly by locals, plunged into the frigid ocean for abalone and got a first taste of mutton bird, a polarising island delicacy known for its fat and intense fishy flavour. Atala raved about the pristine nature and I couldn’t shake my own thoughts: that this was a special place, just a short hop from Launceston, or a slow boat from Bridport.
“People have no expectation of the place,” says islander Jo Youl. “But when they see the mountains, beaches, the ruggedness, everyone leaves wanting to come back.”
Flinders Island accommodation
Views from the island's Cray Shack accommodation (foreground). Credit Chris Crerar
Youl has been on the island for eight years, her family having owned a farm here since the 1930s. Her husband Tom grew up on a farm in Tasmania; Jo the same but in rural Victoria.
Employed at a Melbourne advertising agency, she knew that Tom, working on Flinders Island as a builder, would never move to the big smoke. She took the leap.
It could have just been six months, she says, but time tells a different story. Together they’re raising a family and the fortunes of the island.
On their 904-hectare Quoin Farm, the Youls run cattle and a growing boutique accommodation business, with residences including Dwarf Cottage, Wombat Lodge, and the Cray Shack, nestled on the shore of Killiecrankie Bay.
Typically rugged coastline of Flinders Island: Credit Kara Hynes
The bay was once home to eight cray boats, but now only 76-year-old Jack Wheatley remains, the island’s last cray fisherman. Mount Killiecrankie, with its steep granite faces, draws climbers and hikers alike. A few nights can conjure thoughts of “what if I didn’t go back?”
Staying at Flinders Wharf
The Flinders Wharf, home to several accommodation options as well as cosy dining: credit Ness Vanderburr
Island life hasn’t slowed the Youls’ ambition. The Flinders Wharf in Whitemark opened in April 2019. As the temperature drops outside and an ocean gust picks up, we’re ensconced in this modern hub, fashioned from old wharfside sheds.
Staring out to sea through floor-to-ceiling windows, we draw warmth from the central fireplace and bandwidth from the WiFi. There’s good coffee, booze, and a kitchen and provedore selling the best island produce, including baked goods, condiments and hot sauce from Flinders Island Condimentals, made by Jon and Alison Hizzard, who have a shop up the road.
When I meet Jon, a former professional juggler, he fixes me with a curious look, and in a broad northern English accent, only slightly tainted by two decades in Australia, asks: “Where you from?”
We pinpoint our roots to neighbouring West Yorkshire towns, marvelling that the new Doctor Who is “a lass from Huddersfield”. It’s a small and sometimes strange world.
Flinders Food and Festivals
A spread of local goodies on site. Credit Kara Hynes
Beyond sating tourists and locals, Jo Youl’s plan was to draw chefs to the island. Through two iterations of the Flinders Island Food and Crayfish Festival (held in April) a cadre of chefs has grown to love the island.
James Viles, of Biota fame, says: “There's just so much on that island you could eat from; you’d never have to leave on a seasonal basis. There’s everything from bees, to meat, farmed and wild, to plant species, to the ocean. It’s one of the most abundant places I’ve been to in this country.”
The Flinders landscape sustains abundant wildlife, as well as lucky visitors. Credit Kara Hynes
Viles travelled back for the Wharf’s guest chef series, which has included the likes of Matt Stone and photographer-chef Luke Burgess. Youl says the island attracts a breed of chef that revels in catching, shooting and cooking.
Tom Ambroz, of Furneaux Distillery, located in The Flinders Wharf, wasn’t looking to leave Hobart. A chance conversation and a few visits to Flinders Island got under his skin. “When I got back to Tasmania, I couldn’t stop thinking about what life would be like on Flinders,” he says.
Treats from Furneaux Distillery are served at Flinders Wharf: credit Ness Vanderburr
“It’s a cliché but it was freedom. There are fewer people, there’s always a private beach and a seat at the bar. No one is really telling you what to do. And that extends to the distillery in a manner of speaking; we’re just kind of experimenting.”
Single malt is the focus, with all grain smoked using peat dug from the east coast of the island, imparting, they hope, a peaty, salty maritime flavour, akin to famed drams from the Hebridean island of Islay, such as Bruichladdich.
Whisky is a waiting game, and while the product ages, Ambroz keeps things ticking over making gin and vodka as well as tackling experimental projects, such as a spirit made using kunzea blossom. A native shrub, kunzea blossoms for about a month and has a honey-like aroma. Ambroz says the finished product will “defy definition a little bit, neither a gin nor a vodka; I think we’re just going to call it Island Spirit”.
Island artisans and artistry
It's easy to find your own slice of solitude here – perfect for creative thinking, as Ali Shillington found out. Credit Kara Hynes
Sydney-based floral artist Ali Shillington says Flinders Island helped distil her thoughts on how to take her Lokale Blumen enterprise forward. “I’m driven by sustainability, reminding people about nature in spaces,” she says.
“Flinders was perfect in terms of being able to demonstrate what I can do. Florists in a city often follow trends, driven by the taste of the client, rather than thinking about where you are and what’s available. I never wanted to be a florist with a shop or anything; I always wanted to be an artist. Being on Flinders helped that come to life.”
Shillington worked with Youl on pieces for the Wharf, and then for the Food and Crayfish Festival, with renowned artist and zero-waste pioneer, Joost Bakker. The concept: to forage from the island, engaging the community. Sophie Pitchford, organic purple garlic grower at Brymworth Farm, gave up her allium flowers. In turn, Shillington says, “the ladies of the CWA sacrificed all of theirs too”. It was these community chain reactions that drove the projects along.
Glamping, anyone? The island hosts a range of pop-up experiences each year, in addition to its food festivals: credit Kara Hynes
Back in Sydney, Shillington’s mind is never too far away from Flinders. A collaboration with Youl, the Flinders Island Wild Weekend runs over two weekends in March. It’s a bespoke, retreat-like celebration of the island’s food, drink and nature.
“There's a whole lot of love about being on the edge, and on an island,” Shillington says. “You’re at the mercy of what’s happening between land and sea; you just don't know what's going to happen. I love the spontaneity of being at the mercy of the elements. That’s Flinders.”
Words by Max Brearley; published Friday 31 January, 2020.