King Island, located in the Bass Strait halfway between Tasmania and Victoria, is renowned for its beef, cheese and golf courses – however its stunning vistas and the warmth of welcoming residents will also steal your heart.
King Island’s ‘Restaurant with No Food’
Some might think a restaurant without a menu, or indeed any food, might not cut it as a business plan. But the fact that The Restaurant with No Food – one of King Island’s many endearing community projects – is among its most charming and talked about assets, says a lot about how different this beautiful island hamlet is.
Local artist Caroline Kininmonth conceived the concept a decade ago. An old boatshed by the working harbour in the island’s main town of Currie burnt down, and Caroline decided to resurrect it as a restaurant that locals or tourists could frequent, armed with their own food and drink. She rallied residents for support, and as anyone who knows how vibrant Caroline and her art is would guess, set about creating a space like no other. Painted in eye-popping fluorescent yellow and decorated inside and out with Caroline’s signature artworks (whimsical depictions of King Island and its landmarks, such as the nearby lighthouse) and pieces lovingly sourced from op-shops, the boatshed is a wildly creative blend of restaurant, gallery and loungeroom.
World-famous chef Tetsuya Wakuda recently cooked up a storm there – local beef, cheese, abalone and lobster was on his menu – and he’s not the first person to fall in love with what is now an iconic venue symbolising the resilience, resourcefulness and creative nature of the island’s residents.
Portside Links on King Island
If you need a cuppa and baked treat provided though, make sure to visit Portside Links, a gallery and retreat in the sweet village of Grassy. The gobsmacking views over Grassy Harbour are complemented by the fantastic artworks-in-progress by owner Marilyn Chapman. She and husband Ken visited the island as tourists, fell in love with the landscape, and built the gallery to showcase the plethora of art and craft on their new home. They started serving coffee and cake, and now it’s as much a gallery as it is a cosy café where people gather to talk art and life.
Meat Your Beef on King Island
King Island has the glossiest, happiest looking cows on the planet. They reflect the natural abundance and fertility of an island that produces some of the best beef in the country.
Portuguese-born Ana Pimenta and her Tasmanian husband Tom Perry studied agriculture at university, and share a passion for the environment, animals and sustainable living. So the wonderfully engaging and educational farm tour they offer – Meat Your Beef – merges their interests and gives guests a real-life, hands-on experience on a working cattle farm, while learning about their extremely successful business.
Ana is also an exceptional cook (she cooked for Tetsuya on his recent visit), so tours can include a three-course meal and Tasmanian wine. It’s all made even more special by the couple’s two outgoing children, their friendly pet dogs, a rescue magpie called Weagle (“Who thinks it’s a dog!” says Ana) and poddy calves that need feeding from a big bottle.
Frogshack Farm Tours and growing garlic on King Island
Just down the road (everywhere is ‘just down the road’ as King Island is only about 1100 square kilometres) is horticulturist Carmen Holloway, who has been dubbed the Garlic Queen of King Island due to her annual crop of around 15,000 organic bulbs, and the fact she’s spent more than a decade collecting, researching and trialling garlic cultivars. Her garlic has no herbicides, pesticides, fumigants, bleach or GMO, and food-lovers from all over Australia order it direct.
With husband and farmer James and their two kids, Carmen has created a permaculture paradise with the intention of re-establishing wildlife habitats that once existed on their patch of the island. The family has 600 acres for their cattle and 15 acres they’ve set aside for a permaculture farm and an ongoing organic environmental experiment.
There are chooks free-ranging in the abundant veggie patches, guinea pigs foraging through the undergrowth (“they’re great lawn mowers,” says Carmen) and bees producing honey by the gallon. And there’s a dazzling array of edible plants and trees — nectarine, lemon, lime, plum, cherry, apple, apricot, walnut and quince, and an impressive avocado plantation.
There’s also a special wetland habitat attracting rare frogs to the property, thus their business’s name: Frogshack Farm Tours.
“I want to re-introduce the green and gold frog into this environment, and we already have the striped marsh, smooth froglet and the brown tree frog,” says Carmen with pride. “We are actually one of 50 survey sites in Tasmania to monitor the wildlife and natural habitat, and we have six of Tasmania’s 11 frogs and more than 50 bird species, including the black cockatoo.”
Kelping on King Island
Kelp is big business on King Island, and it’s one of few places in the world where giant ‘stormcast’ bull kelp washes up by the truckload. It only grows in extremely cold water in places such as Tasmania, Chile, Norway and Iceland, and although it doesn’t have a root system it suctions on to the reef, so it takes big muscles and a tough winching system to remove it.
“We can only take what Mother Nature donates to us, washed up on the shores,” explains GM John Roediger. “It’s illegal to take it from the ocean – it would destroy the eco-system in which it thrives.”
He explains that kelping is a great way for King Island families to make money, and they know due to weather reports when there’ll be a haul ready and waiting. It’s often a father-and-son business, and it’s good money, with a truckload worth about $1500.
Kelp is in more products than people realise, and is in high demand – it’s a foaming agent in beer and a binding agent in things such as cat food, toothpaste, shampoo, salad dressing, cakes, dairy products, frozen foods and even pharmaceuticals. The cows on King Island also love to eat it, as it gives a dose of vitamins and minerals that keeps them healthy. Another reason why the beef here is so good.
King Island Dairy
The island’s mineral-rich soils, cool climate, abundant rainfall and consistent salt spray create incredibly lush pasture that is perfect fodder for cows, meaning the local herds produce unusually rich milk.
King Island Dairy collects milk from just a handful of nearby farms, meaning it’s as fresh as it comes – straight from cow to dairy on a daily basis, from paddock to factory within a few hours. The dairy has been producing cheese and cream for more than 100 years, and when you add cheesemakers with a passion for culinary perfection to the story, the result is some of the best-loved cheese on the shelves. Chief cheesemaker extraordinaire, Swiss-born Ueli Berger, heads the operation, and the business produces around 2000 tonnes of cheese a year, as well as employing around 100 locals.
On offer is a lip-smackingly delicious array of brie, camembert, washed rind, cheddar and blue cheese – and visitors to the Cheese Store can indulge in a tasting of all varieties straight out of the factory across the paddock.
Shey Cooper grew up on King Island, left in her early 20s, then returned to set up an idyllic life with her children near the dairy. Now she works at the cheese store running the tastings and selling produce to fellow cheese lovers.
“We are so lucky to live here – you have to remember not to take it for granted and remember how fortunate we are to have all this amazing produce, so fresh, right here to enjoy,” she says.
After choosing some cheese for a platter, matching it with Tasmanian wines and beers and sitting on the Cheese Store’s farm-style veranda with the sun shining on the surrounding verdant paddocks, it’s easy to fall in love with Shey’s world.
King Island Historical Society Museum
To put the many colourful historical pieces of King Island together, I wander around the meticulously curated King Island Museum, where most exhibits have been donated by local families. The building was formerly the lighthouse keeper’s home, and you can also marvel at the Currie Lighthouse right next door.
King Island has a fascinating (and somewhat grisly) history of shipwrecks that have claimed more than a thousand lives, including Australia’s worst ever maritime civil disaster – the Cataraqui wreck of 1845. It claimed the lives of 400 people, including many women and children who were headed from England’s Liverpool to Melbourne.
Luke Agati, president of the Historical Society and an historical author, loves to take people around the museum, working as a volunteer to keep King Island’s history alive. He’s particularly fond of the ANZAC relics, as King Island had the highest population of ANZACs anywhere in the Commonwealth.
Porky Beach Retreat
King Island is at the bottom of Australia, with Bass Strait to one side and the Indian Ocean on the other. Thus the weather can be wild and wonderful, the sunrises and sunsets nothing short of majestic, and the coastline has a beautiful ruggedness that enchants photographers, filmmakers and those out for adventure in untamed territory.
Just outside Currie, settled into the wind-whipped landscape above Porky Beach, is Porky Beach Retreat. This secluded four-bedroom home sums up barefoot luxury, and its owner Alex has truly redefined accommodation on the island. Her attention to detail surpasses some of the finest hotels in the world and the views can be taken in from every room or the awesome wine barrel-shaped sauna that perches on its own wee hill, its sibling decked-in spa on the lawn below.
Sitting in that sauna with a glass of Tassie red in hand, and a little platter of KI delicacies including an ash brie from the dairy ‘just down the road’, I can confidently say there is nothing else like it in the world. In fact, the same can be said of King Island.