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Choose your own adventure in Tasmania’s stunning Huon Valley

The concept of the executive retreat is a sound one. Highly strung and constantly carrying the weight of the entire business, the C-suite understandably needs a moment or two to pause, refresh and reconnect with reality from time to time – if that means travel, even better. Is it any wonder CEOs need – and get – more sleep than anyone else in the business world?

An entire industry has popped up in recent years to temper the threat of business-class burnout.  In particular, post-pandemic, the practice of assembling a bunch of bosses in a remote location to discover superpowers, play Theatresports-style games and open up the innermost chambers of their souls to their peers has become a winner for executives and a boon for operators.

The notions and insights that return from these jaunts usually fill the office for a month or so in an attempt to foster similar connections and creativity. Without the practiced guidance of the gurus that run these retreats, however, the status quo from which the executives sought to escape in the first place soon settles back in with a vengeance.

Camp corporate

So consider, if you will, a more organic (and quieter) method of achieving the same goals. Lachy and Nathan certainly did when they purchased an old government-owned campsite in Strathblane, at the southern end of Tasmania’s scenic Huon Valley.

During the pandemic, the pair converted the old dorms, cabins and mess hall into River Run Lodge, a grown-up take on the school camps of old. The bunks are still here, albeit with a plush makeover, but the mess hall has been transformed into a cozy tavern decked out in a rustic-nautical style. Every Friday and Saturday, the tavern serves up local and imported drops.

As cold as it can get here, the roaring fireplace is a welcome solace, as are the meals and live music on Saturday nights, when locals and guests mingle over a veggie curry or pan-seared striped trumpeter.

It’s not hard to picture a company retreat taking place at River Run Lodge, where the feeling of remoteness is a deception. We’re only an hour and a half from Hobart, yet we could be at the end of the Earth. The silence here is infectious – why spoil it with primal screams and guarded confessions?

The Esperance River drifts lazily by, enticing us to hop in one of the provided kayaks and row over to the islands that were once popular escapes for young camp attendees. Have any of them come back to relive their childhood?

"They have," Lachy says in his laconic way. "They look around and can’t believe it’s gotten better with age."

Having been on my fair share of school camps, and the sense of camaraderie engendered by shared experiences far from the confines of the classroom not easily forgotten, the appeal makes itself known. A week here with the team left to our own devices would work wonders.

Southern comfort

Then again, a week anywhere in the Huon Valley would do the same. Tasmania’s best-kept secret is full of natural experiences and the spoils of Australia’s freshest food bowl. It’s also teeming with high-end, boutique accommodation that doesn’t once impinge on the serenity.

Among the stunners: Coast House Tasmania, a modern, spacious, two-bedroom adults-only house with an award-winning Andy Lehman design that’s inspired by local apple sheds and comes with its own private peninsular. 

Wake up and shuck oysters down by the shore of Kangaroo Bay, take a 10-minute drive to nearby Cygnet for breakfast (or cook your own in the fully equipped kitchen), and explore the town’s periphery. The nearby Lavender Goat Farm offers calming scents and a taste of farm living, complete with a menagerie of insistent goats.

A glance through the Coast House guestbook revealed one persistent descriptor: relaxing. That might be down to the patchy reception, which helps guests leave work at the front gate.

In Tasmania’s Huon Valley, itineraries are what you make them, and days flow naturally. It is what a work retreat should be: an antidote.

Rooms with a view

The Peninsula Experience continues further south near the town of Dover. Overlooking the Insta-ready Port Esperance Bay, the Cape House is one of just two properties on a private, gated peninsula encapsulating 100 hectares of Tasmanian wilderness.

Up to six adults can stay in the Cape House, a former farmhouse that’s been fully renovated into a luxury getaway that oozes old-world charm and in no way resembles an office. The panoramic views stretch off into a seemingly unreachable distance, and a series of walking tracks right at the doorstep lead off into the rich natural beauty of the Apple Isle. Take the car and you can visit Southport, home to Australia’s southernmost pub.

It’s not too bucolic, however. Creature comforts include a huge lounge room, multiple dining areas for entertaining and an outdoor hot tub, which allows you to spend some quality time with the resident pademelons of an evening. Remember, you must first bond with nature before you can bond with your colleagues.

Setting sail

Let’s say you prefer something a bit closer to civilization. The township of Franklin, on the bank of the Huon River in the valley’s west, has a population of not quite 450; by local standards, this is positively bustling. 

Only 45 minutes from Hobart, Franklin is a mariner’s town, and home to a thriving boat-building community with the Wooden Boat Centre at its heart. The Centre’s boat construction courses are a true test of teamwork and leadership for anyone willing to hoe into Tasmania’s seaworthy pines such as Celery Top and King Billy.

Or pair off and jump into a two-person kayak to explore the mysterious North and South Egg Islands in the midst of the Huon River. Matt at Esperance Adventures is a longtime local and a steady hand amid some surprisingly strong currents.

On this brisk morning, a cool breeze blows through an old apple shed on a distant hillside while a seabird harasses a potential mate on the shore of South Egg Island.

"They used to hold greyhound races on South Egg decades ago," Matt tells us as we paddle by. It’s hard to believe the dubious pastimes of the big smoke ever had a place out here.

We pull up in an inlet to enjoy a much needed cuppa and Matt’s amazing homemade brownies. A local rule seems to be that food prepared in the Huon is inherently incredible. This goes unbroken at Franklin’s Cinnamon and Cherry cafe, whose Turkish co-owner Hande has created a menu that places Ankara firmly on the Huon shore. My spinach and feta borek pastry is the best of both worlds, as is the unlikely alliance at work in my cinnamon and cherry-flavored milkshake.

The standout, however, is Osteria, an Italian restaurant run by Martino and Sofia, a couple from Umbria. Set in the old Franklin courthouse (with the former lockup just a few meters away), Osteria uses nothing but locally (and sustainably) sourced produce for its sumptuous dishes, including handmade gnocchi, spaghetti with line-caught bluefin tuna and Freycinet mussels pickled in-house.

Luxury from the top down

While these eateries would make for a fine discussion spot for your squad, it’s important to have the right accommodation. Franklin understands this. For a town that was on its knees after the apple industry collapsed in the 1960s, Franklin has come back in a big way. Its Streeton-esque vistas look incredible, particularly from two of its most amazing luxury getaways.

The first potential headquarters for your team during your retreat is what the Hobart Mercury deemed ‘possibly Tasmania’s finest home’. The Alto Franklin sits atop Heriot’s Rise and looks down on the Huon River (unless resident Highland cows Molly and Holly happen to wander in your way).

A three-bedroom modern masterpiece, the Alto boasts a luxury ‘fantasy wine cellar’, fireplaces both indoor and out, a vegetable garden, an on-site gym, a Modulanova kitchen and even an infinity lap pool. For want of a better word, it is stunning.

Equally impressive is Hunter Huon Valley, which takes the term retreat to a new level. You won’t find a single TV or bar of wi-fi in any of Hunter’s three luxurious cabins, which have been designed to place guests as close to nature as possible without sacrificing a modicum of comfort.

Have a bath right beside a curtainless window that overlooks the valley. Sleep beneath a blanket of southern stars thanks to a wide-vision skylight. Enjoy the peace and rarified country air on your deck. And if your retreat descends into noisy role playing, so be it. There’s no one around to hear you.

An entire industry has popped up in recent years to temper the threat of business-class burnout.

Hot and cold

Franklin’s proximity to Hobart means the Alto and the Hunter are perfectly situated for day trips back to the city should the need arise, or deeper into the wilds of Tasmania. Have you really bonded as a team if you haven’t staged your office version of Alone Australia?

The most Alone moment of my adventure comes when my group meets Selena of Elsewhere Sauna. Her customized two-wheel trailer is parked on the edge of Randalls Bay. My colleagues are keen for a dip, but it’s way too cold for me – we’re in southern Tasmania after all. Selena assures me I’ll change my tune.

We tog off and enter the mobile sauna, currently 90 degrees. Inside, nothing has been lost in translation to vehicle: the wood-fired sauna even includes hot rocks for extra steam. It doesn’t take long before we’re begging for a swim, so down to the bay we bound.

The immersion in the chilly bay is a harsh punishment for my 90-degree skin…at first. And then, after a moment, Selena’s promise of an energized, relaxed feeling comes true. We repeat the process two more times (with body scrubs and herbal tea en route) and leave feeling softer, more serene and – yes – even more of a team.

Time out from the world

My trip ends as many corporate retreats might, over a meal. Huonville is something of a gateway between the Huon Valley and the road to Hobart, worth a stop whether you’re to or fro; it’s full of restaurants, quirky stores and a proper country pub. 

It’s also right by the Kiln Eatery, a former hop kiln that looks right out of the middle ages. Seven days a week, the Kiln serves the kind of delectable local fare to which you’ll have become accustomed, while the neighboring Clifton Estate is a six-bedroom bed and breakfast with enough space for your posse and the colonial charm to match. This is, after all, what you came for.

All this isn’t to say that Hobart itself lacks the chops to pass as a corporate retreat. Book out a few rooms at the Salamanca Wharf Hotel and you’re ideally situated to spend time in familiar city surroundings but with a distinct sense that you’re far from the madding crowd. An evening at the Drunken Admiral seafood restaurant, decked out in all sorts of nautical esoterica, is enough to transport you to a time and a place where teamwork was a matter of life and death.

Of course, there are similarly isolated options to the north. The long drive from Hobart to Launceston includes a swathe of options for workmates seeking time out to reconnect. Worth considering is Rathmore House, a convict-built country manor and shearer’s quarters that, under ownership of Cally and Richard, has been transformed into a gorgeous, animal-filled time-warp farmstay. 

You’re a long way from the world here, so it’s best to lean into it. Trade office politics for animal logic with Tim-Tam the horse and Jake the drake, or feed Hercules the bullock a loaf of bread or two. Those quarterly one-on-ones will never be the same once you’ve sheared a sheep together.

The point of an executive off-site is to trade the corporate for the corporeal, to reconnect with a world often forgotten during cutthroat deals and power meetings. The high expectations of modern executives have driven corporate retreats to increasingly extravagant levels – with mixed results.

In Tasmania’s Huon Valley, itineraries are what you make them, and days flow naturally. It is what a work retreat should be: an antidote. True remoteness, fantastic food, luxuriant lodgings and plenty of space to both get lost and find yourself.

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