Up, up and away: Exploring Tasmania's food and wine scene by helicopter

The lighthouse at Swan Island, off the north-east coast of Tasmania.
The lighthouse at Swan Island, off the north-east coast of Tasmania. Photo: Chris Crerar

The Bay of Fires, with its white sands, turquoise waters and boulders covered in fiery orange lichen, is a destination likely already marked in most travellers' Tasmanian itineraries.

To get there, you can drive two-and-a-half hours from Launceston (or three-and-a-half from Hobart), then find somewhere to stay along the 30-odd-kilometres of coastline that stretches between Binalong Bay and Eddystone Point.

Or, you could choose the faster (and infinitely more thrilling option) and charter a helicopter.

A picnic on the lichen-covered rocks at Bay of Fires.
A picnic on the lichen-covered rocks at Bay of Fires. Photo: Chris Crerar

Local charter flight company Unique Charters has teamed up with a variety of businesses in northern Tasmania to offer a series of fly-in, fly-out experiences. There's an epicurean bent to them, influenced by the sheer volume of wineries, oyster farms, cheeseries and other producers around Tasmania's east coast, but the ease and flexibility of chopper travel means you can visit almost any of the region's destinations you fancy.

One ready-to-go aerial adventure sees you fly from Launceston (or Bridport, on the north-east coast) to the beautiful Freycinet National Park. If the season's right, you might see whales as you soar over Wineglass Bay, before landing and setting off on a walk along the famous Wineglass Bay track, gourmet bushwalkers' picnic hamper in tow.

Another will have you land on the beach at Killiecrankie on Flinders Island. Here, you can settle in for a long lunch prepared by local chefs, or you can head out with a fisherman and literally catch your own. You'll be plied liberally with local wines and gins whichever option you go with.

Helicopter tours begin and end at Peppers Silo Hotel Launceston.
Helicopter tours begin and end at Peppers Silo Hotel Launceston. Photo: Supplied

There are also simpler tours, such as a 15-minute scenic flight through the Tamar Gorge, and another over the Tamar Valley wine belt. Add a stop at a winery cellar door or two, if you want – all the itineraries can be customised by combining elements from two or more of the existing tours, or built from scratch.

We choose lunch at the Bay of Fires. Unique Charters' co-owner Peter Barron meets us early-ish on a Saturday morning at the new Peppers Silo Hotel Launceston to introduce us to our pilot and explain how the day will unfold. It's raining, and we're given the option to postpone the trip, but Barron has called and has been assured of clear conditions at our destination.

So up we go, zipping above the city and out over the lush, green forests of northeast Tasmania in a tiny black bubble. The rain disappears as we circle over the Barnbougle Dunes golf course, clearing our view over Pyengana and across to Ben Lomond, and exposing the bike tracks that run like veins around the mountain.

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Our excursion includes a visit to the Lease 65 oyster farm at St Helens, and it's on a shell-scattered patch of sand right out front that we land about 45 minutes later. Owner and farmer Craig Lockwood is there to meet us, and to show us through the facility where the oysters are graded, cleaned and sorted for sale. We finish on the jetty with a dozen of the farm's finest, pulled from the ocean moments earlier, shucked and sprayed with lemon from a roughly cut wedge.

We're there for about an hour before we're picked up by Dick Le Fevre from Tas 4x4 Tours, who drives us to the Bay of Fires for lunch. He's a little early, so the drive is extra scenic – as a local, Le Fevre knows the most photogenic coves along Binalong Bay.

We pull off the main road into the patch of bushland that rings the coast. There, chef Tom Dicker and his partner Anna Hoffmann, who own and run the Bay of Fires Bush Retreat, are cooking from a makeshift kitchen they've rigged from the back of their van. Hoffmann leads us down a path towards the beach, where they've set up a beautiful picnic spot for two in an enchanting, secluded patch known as Cosy Corner.

Ceviche grilled octopus with chorizo and potato, and a salad of house-smoked salmon, boiled eggs, green beans and avocado.
Ceviche grilled octopus with chorizo and potato, and a salad of house-smoked salmon, boiled eggs, green beans and avocado. Photo: Anna Webster

Gazing out across the piercing blue waters and white sands of the Bay of Fires, a skinsy local field blend wine from the Tamar Valley in hand, we eat thick-cut toast with a slab of salty butter, ceviche of local blue-eye, grilled octopus with chorizo and potato, and a salad of house-smoked salmon, boiled eggs, green beans and avocado. The food is good enough to rival any restaurant, but the setting is incomparable.

Eventually, we head back and then chopper to Peppers Silo Hotel in Launceston, where almost all Unique Charters tours begin and end. Staying at the hotel isn't a mandatory part of the experience, but it's certainly a luxurious (and convenient) bookend. It also gives you access to a range of exclusive add-ons provided by the hotel, including spa treatments, picnic hampers, cuddles with the hotel reception's labrador, Archie, and dinner at the on-site restaurant, Grain of the Silos.

Open since mid-2018, it's already one of Launceston's best restaurants. It's testament to its quality that after a day of eating, we're still able to eat more fresh oysters, baked scallops in a buttery, herby crust, house-made cavatelli pasta, a huge, pink pork chop with crackling and burnt apple sauce and a caramelised apple tarte tatin.

Details

While prices are determined by the itinerary you choose, Unique Charters' fly-in, fly-out experiences aren't as expensive as you might think, starting at $360 a couple for a scenic flight through the Tamar Gorge. Although fires continue to devastate much of Tasmania's south and central regions, for the moment the northeast is safe and Unique Charters is operating as usual. For details, visit uniquecharters.com.au.

Anna Webster was a guest of Unique Charters.