When you visit a capital city, certain images come to mind. Traffic, pollution, bad public transport and locals who would rather wipe their bums with broken glass than be friendly to a traveller.

That’s why visiting the Tasmanian capital ofHobart is a breath of fresh air – quite literally. Unaffected by “big city syndrome,” and having some of the freshest air in the world – it hasn’t touched land since leaving the east coast of South America – black bogies are a thing of the past.

Australia’s second-oldest city, Hobart nestles neatly between the towering Mount Wellington and the Derwent River. As far as capital cities go, you’d be hard pushed to find a more beautiful, welcoming place than Hobart. It’s large enough to give you a sense of being in a city of significance but it manages to retain the smalltown Tasmanian hospitality that you’ll find in the rest of the state.

Downhill daredevil

But there’s more to the city than just a clean nasal passage, so I decided the best way to see it was to go right to the top of the 1270 metre Mount Wellington, then hurtle down its winding road on a mountain bike.

At the top of the mountain, you’re greeted by an expansive view out over Hobart and its harbour, and on clear days you can even see as far as the Tasman Peninsula, 100km away in the south-east. I spent a good 20 minutes just taking in the gorgeous view of the surrounds, before being dragged away for the big descent.

Decked out in the obligatory safety gear and using a state-of-the-art mountain bike – well it was compared to the Chopper I’d left at home Ð it was time to head down the mountain. Good brakes are essential when making the descent, as the road down is both steep and winding, and it’s quite scary how fast you can go if you lay off the brakes. I was shocked at one point to find that in about a minute, we’d travelled the best side of three kilometres.

After getting acquainted with the asphalt, it was time to go off-road onto some of the fire trails to really put the bikes – and our knees – through their paces. Avoiding the odd tree and careening down steep hills, we made our way to the steepest section, the Rivulet Fire Trail.

Why it’s called that, I don’t know.

I thought the “More-Than-A-Good-Chance-Of-Going-Arse-Over-Tit-If-You’re-On-A-Mountain-Bike-Fire Trail” would’ve been far more appropriate. A couple of the more gung-ho members of our group attempted the steeper ascent, but with memories of my dad taking the stabilisers off my bike when I was five years old and allowing me to become acquainted with the Oakwood Park concrete, I decided to walk it down.

The final part of the descent took us past the famous Cascade Brewery, and through the Georgian house-lined streets of Battery Park, before ending up in Salamanca Place.

This harbouside area is the site of the famous Saturday markets, where it seems the entire town congregates for good food and the odd bargain. If you’re in Hobart on a weekend, attendance at the markets is mandatory – you risk being thrown out of town if you don’t turn up. (Actually that’s not technically true, but it should be.)

Brawling bars

After all the exertion of the day, I checked my watch to find it was beer o’clock – conveniently being the time the Hobart Historic Pub Tour leaves. The two-hour walk takes in some of the most famous and historic pubs in town – and you know there’s nothing better than learning loads of cool facts about pubs and then forgetting them all by drinking copious amounts of Tasmanian beer. Lucky I brought a pen with me…

Our guide, John, took us to The Hope and Anchor Tavern, which is the oldest in town, established in 1807, only three years after Hobart was settled. Over a couple of beers in the pub’s friendly lounge, he told tales of early Hobart running out of beer and many people starving, as the colony’s wheat supply was cheekily used to brew beer and not make the bread for which it was intended.

Another great pub we stopped in was Irish Murphys – or what used to be known as the “Blue House”, because of the fights that used to take place there. It was run by “Ma” Dwyer, who never started any of the fights, but she sure finished a few – she finally had her license taken away in 1961 after 19 convictions for assault. The pub was a favourite of Hobart’s criminal element as it had three separate entrances to escape from in case the police raided the joint! Class.

An organised piss-up in a brewery

Not content with my informative booze odyssey the night before, I decided it would be rude not to visit the Cascade Brewery, where arguably Australia’s best beer literally falls from the sky. Well, it’s not technically the beer, more like the water they use in the beer-making process – rainfall that, erm, cascades down Mount Wellington is used to make the various beers Cascade offers. And it’s lucky it rains a bit in the area, as there’s 1.1 million litres being brewed at any one time and around 600 million litres brewed each year. So the entire Cascade brewery serves about a third of the backpacker market, then…

The tour of the brewery is fascinating for beer muppets like myself who are only just able to work out how to get the top off the bottle. You’re taken behind the scenes to see every stage of the process, from where the hops are delivered to where all the bottles are labelled and packed into slabs. With the help of some intelligent machinery – I like to call them “beer-bots” – they can make up to 12,000 cartons of beer a day.

The view from the top

Another way to stave of the winter chills is to take a cruise on the 200-year old replica ship, Lady Nelson. The boat takes 90-minute weekend tours of the Derwent River, and if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can give the crew a hand setting the square sails. It will be the best $6 you’ve ever spent.

If you have a little more time on your hands then it is well-worth heading a couple of hours south from Hobart to take in the Tahune Airwalk, a canopy walk through some of the tallest trees in the world. The metal walkway takes you up into a forest plush with stringy bark eucalypts, sassafras, blackwood and myrtle trees and gives you a great perspective on how tall these buggers really are. You can head out to the Cantilever section, which just hovers over the trees and offers a great view of where the Huon and Picton Rivers meet.

Nearby are the fascinating Hastings Caves, believed to have been formed over 40 million years ago, with some gorgeous stalactite and stalagmite formations. The caves are so cut off from the outside world, the harvestman spider, which makes its home inside, has not evolved since dinosaur times. Lazy bastard.

Heading back to Hobart, make sure you buy some apples from one of the many roadside stalls that litter the countryside. They’re about the only thing in Tassie that rivals the air in the freshness stakes.