It's Friday afternoon in the Tasmanian capital, Hobart, and the crowd at Retro, a harborside cafe adorned with free-form mosaic art, is decidedly offbeat. A fleece-clad couple sip lattes and a spiky-haired musician carrying a guitar case greets a friend. A cyclist in spandex pedals by so slowly that his wheels barely move.
Just above the port, strong westerly winds buffet the 1,269m-high Mount Wellington, bringing icy air from one of the world's longest uninterrupted stretches of ocean. At its peak, stunted eucalyptus trees take on spectral shapes, and the views seem to stretch toward Antarctica. But the weather in Hobart's coves, sheltered by the mountain, is balmy. At the cafe, there's mist, then a sun shower, then a rainbow, then brilliant sunshine.
Change happens slowly in Hobart, and that's the way the residents like it. Balanced on the southern edge of an island that is Australia's smallest state, 241km south of the mainland, Hobart, a city of 195,000, has been spared the scars of rapid development. Sandstone warehouses from the port's whaling days and Victorian era-gingerbread houses have been lovingly preserved. Squid boats still dock at the active piers, laced with 19th-century drawbridges. The nation's oldest continuously working pub, the Hope and Anchor, serves beer from the 175-year-old Cascade Brewery, just up the mountain.
Yet a sense of energy animates the city these days, fueled by an artistic undercurrent and celebrated natural surroundings. Hikers swing through town before setting off to explore the region's temperate rain forests and pristine seas. Foodies arrive to sample the world's largest supply of wild abalone, as well as wild duck, hare and other local game. Farmers experiment with niche-market products like artisanal goat cheese and milk-fed lamb. And vintners grow cold-climate wines in the Coal River Valley, just 20 minutes outside Hobart.
The changes are echoed in the city. Architects are updating venerable structures with steel and glass. Artists are moving in, attracted by the city's still-mellow vibe and proximity to nature. And tourism is way up, in part because major cruise lines now make Hobart a regular stop.
"I moved to Hobart after 10 years in Brooklyn because I thought Australia is the best country on earth, Tasmania the best part of Australia, and Hobart the cultural epicenter of Tasmania," said Brian Ritchie of the rock group the Violent Femmes, a recent immigrant to the city. "Within 24 hours of landing here, I did unscheduled performances and recording sessions because the musicians are not too paranoid to say, 'Let's try something.'"
Much of Hobart's new sense of style is centered along its harbor, site of Australia's second settlement in 1804. Convicts from the British Empire and gold prospectors created a rowdy, whiskey-soaked district. Today, young professionals linger at cafes and browse though Tasmanian art galleries tucked into old sandstone warehouses.
The harbor's cultural revival began with the Salamanca Arts Center, which restored seven warehouses in the mid-1970s and turned them into exhibition halls and studio spaces for contemporary artists. On a recent visit, an 2.4m-tall Mobius paper strip hung in the main gallery, part of a biannual art festival that drew plaid-skirted schoolgirls and culture seekers from mainland Australia.