Cracker barrels and cheese
Rich pickings ... King Island's surf is rated highly. Photo: Andrew Bain/Lonely Planet
From outstanding breaks to the produce of its celebrated dairy, Sam Vincent revels in the best King Island has to offer.
When the surf's up on Tasmania's King Island, Ueli Berger is an angry man. "It means my workers don't show up on time," fumes Berger, head cheesemaker at the island's celebrated dairy. "Bloody slackers!"
King Island's produce is well known: award-winning dairy, succulent seafood and some of Australia's best beef (20 per cent of Tasmania's herd is on the island). But what is less well known is that the very factors that have contributed to this cornucopia - howling winds, offshore reefs and huge storms - have also created another treat to be consumed by tourists: waves.
Standing at the western edge of Bass Strait, in the path of the roaring forties, King Island bears the brunt of some of Australia's biggest swells. Moreover, being an island, the wind is always offshore somewhere, meaning you never have to contend with blown-out chop.
In what might be the world's most gourmet surf safari, I'm spending a week sampling the island's breaks - necessary exercise when you are also sampling lashings of fresh dairy with just about every meal.
But on my first day on the island, as luck would have it, the sea is as flat as baked ricotta. So while Berger boasts to me that finally some work is getting done (unlike last week, when the surf was pumping), I get down to business myself, tasting the gourmet products that have put King Island Dairy on the map.
According to local legend, the first European pasture reached King Island in the early 19th century via straw beds washed ashore from a shipwreck. Seeds from the straw quickly germinated in the island's rich soils, setting the scene for one of Australia's most famous dairies. Berger doesn't know if the legend is true but he does think it's a "bloody good story". And he makes bloody good cheese. His dairy specialises in soft cheeses, with hard varieties only made when there is excess milk between September and January. Each cheese variety is named after a local landmark, with my favourites the Cape Wickham Double Brie, nutty-flavoured Phoques Cove Camembert and the sinfully rich Bass Strait Blue. The dairy also makes desserts, creams and possibly my favourite natural yoghurt.
Berger thinks the secret to the dairy's quality lies in the island's unique microclimate, being milder than both Victoria and mainland Tasmania. The roaring forties also help, blowing flavour-enhancing salt spray far inland - so far in fact that I would later meet a farmer in the centre of the island who complained of rusting tools, despite both coasts being nearly 15 kilometres away. It is inland that I head next as I cross the island in search of surf. King Island is quite big (64 kilometres long; 27 kilometres wide), and empty (1800 inhabitants and falling), meaning that driving here can be a lonely experience. I travel for nearly an hour without seeing a soul along a dead-straight road flanked by stands of tea-tree, paperbark and the occasional weatherboard farmhouse. Fairy-wrens jink beside my car, Pacific Gulls ride the thermals above, while all around me cows munch lazily on pasture that has retained its green tinge well into summer.
At Cape Wickham the road turns to gravel and climbs through russet-coloured hills that resemble lumps of dough, before ending at a mighty lighthouse that, at 52 metres, is the southern hemisphere's tallest. The beacon began operation in 1861 in a bid to halt the spate of shipwrecks that occurred off King Island earlier that century, including the sinking of the Cataraqui in 1845 - Australia's worst peacetime maritime disaster with the loss of 406 lives.
The Martha & Lavinia was another unlucky vessel, running aground in 1871 just a few beaches east of the Cape Wickham lighthouse. She picked a good spot to sink. First surfed by locals in the 1970s, by the 1990s Martha Lavinia Beach was an annual stopover for the world's professionals after they had competed at Bells Beach at Easter. Tracks surfing magazine rates it Australia's best beach break, while Australia's Surfing Life ranks it in the world's top 10. The locals are justifiably proud, with one tourist brochure claiming the beach has featured "in more magazines than Pamela Anderson".
If only Martha was as curvaceous as Pam the afternoon I visit. She's offshore but petite, meaning instead of the steep, fast barrels usually on offer, the only action is in the shore break. It's still a thrill to be surfing such a famous wave (especially by myself) and it's a beautiful spot, with clear water and a gentle arc of white sand upon which more than 140 varieties of shells have been found.
That night I again cross the island to visit King's best restaurant. From the outside, the Grassy Club looks like any other rural Australian watering hole, with faded ads for beers that no longer exist covering its walls and a veritable muster of utes parked out the front. But inside, the Bold Head Brasserie serves Kings Cuisine - refined dishes using the best produce the island has to offer. The night I visit, chef Stephen Russell's blackboard menu includes an antipasto of island produce (including wallaby salami), Gummy shark tempura, pan-fried Tassie quail and aged roast rump from the hills outside Grassy. I tuck into an entree of char-grilled octopus served on a light Greek salad (exquisite), before doing my bit to control the local plague of wallabies, polishing off a steak of the macropod with spinach and caper sauce. The meat is more tender than I had expected and I'm told the reason is due to its diet: the lush pasture meant for the island's cattle.
With the swell picking up the next day, I spend the rest of the week following a simple routine: surf all morning; eat all afternoon. When the wind is easterly I surf Fitzmaurice Bay (rocky but fantastic), British Admiral Beach and Three Rivers, the latter with an audience of intrigued cows; when it blows from the south I head to Disappointment Bay for quick, glassy rides under the watchful gaze of the Cape Wickham lighthouse. The biggest "crowd" I surf with is five, and most of the time I am alone.
Post-surf hunger is sated each afternoon in the King Island Bakehouse, in the main settlement of Currie. Baker Wayne Hamer's flaky gourmet pies have won nationwide competitions and the crayfish ones don't stay on the shelves long. My favourite varieties are the King Island beefsteak, camembert, spinach and bacon, and seafood (filled with scallops, gummy shark, prawns and mornay, these are perfect for restoring energy to paddled-out arms).
Good surfing and good eating are profoundly linked on King Island. Most of the island's 25 surfers are involved in the food industry, either as fishermen, farmers or kelpers - freelance beachcombers who collect the masses of bull kelp that wash up on the west coast, later to be exported to Europe for use as a food thickener. Then of course there is the dairy, which has a long history of temporarily employing visiting surfers.
Local surfer Guy Barnes thinks this combination is what makes the island's surfing scene unique.
As we check the waves from his living room, Barnes tells me how as a kid when he wasn't surfing he was diving for abalone, catching lobsters and muttonbirds or shooting pheasants and turkeys (both were introduced for hunting; even the ferals are gourmet here). "We have good waves and good food in abundance - what more could you want?" Barnes asks.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Tasmania.
Regional Express connects Melbourne with King Island daily from $300 return. Phone 131 713, see rex.com.au.
With no public transport, a hire car is essential. P&A Car Rentals has an office at the airport. Phone (03) 6462 1603, see www.kingisland.org.au.
WHERE TO STAY
In Currie, Boomerang By the Sea offers self-contained cottages from $150 a night. Phone (03) 6462 1288, see boomerangbythesea.com.au.
In Grassy, Portside Links has luxurious double rooms from $200. Phone (03) 6461 1134, see portsidelinks.com.au.
WHERE TO EAT
King Island Dairy, Loorana, phone (03) 6462 1348, see www.kidairy.com.au; fromagerie open Sun-Fri, noon-4.30pm.
Kings Cuisine, Grassy, phone (03) 6461 1003, see kingscuisine.com.au; open Wed-Mon for dinner, mains from $26.
King Island Bakehouse, Currie, phone (03) 6462 1337.
Most surf spots are accessed via private land; no permission is required but make sure you close all gates. King Island is temperate but not that temperate — full-length wetsuits are a must all-year-round, with booties and a hood musts in winter.