Photography by Adam Gibson
Words by Max Brearley
Life on Flinders Island agrees with Jo Youl. With her husband Tom, they’ve made this rugged, yet beautiful isle in the Furneaux Group their home. Whipped by the westerly “roaring forties,” it’s a community made up of farmers and those that chose to retreat from mainland life. Leaning on their mutual farming heritages while employing modern smarts the Youl’s are not just surviving in the Bass Strait, they’re thriving. “I feel like if I was somewhere else, I wouldn’t have had the focus to create some really beautiful spaces,” says Jo. “It’s like a blank canvas here.”
With a contemporary eye for tourism, Jo has created accommodation offerings - The Crayshack, Killiecrankie Beach House, Wombat Lodge and Dwarf Cottage – that would easily sit amongst the bucket list properties we all have stored in our minds for an island retreat or bookmarked for those in need of daydream moments. A landmark hospitality project, The Flinders Wharf at Whitemark sits oceanside, a colorbond clad structure with a boatshed aesthetic. On a wild day it’s somewhere to be ensconced, with the central fireplace going, maybe enjoying a nip of something from the on-site Furneaux Distillery and a plate or three from chef Mikey Yeo. “I love it. I love the space,” says Jo of a venture she’s nurtured. “I love going in there. I love the energy, and I love what Mikey’s producing,” she says.
Jo Youl on Flinders Island by Adam Gibson
“This is our third year that we’re going into running a restaurant and it’s going really well,” says Jo. “Mikey makes everything from scratch, and he’s worked so well with our producers,” she says. “It’s just really starting to cement itself as a restaurant in northern Tasmania.” It’s a modest statement, as beyond northern Tasmania it could sit wharf side in Hobart, or for that matter any great port, a magnet for those of us who seek out good food and drink with a true sense of place.
The Youl’s aren’t purely tourism operators. Tom works full time across their two farms, 2400-hectare Quoin Farm and another 400-hectare block running cattle. “We’re currently building two new sets of cattle yards,” says Jo. “It’s been an amazing season and cattle prices are extraordinary. I don’t think we’ll ever see any better times for cattle farming than we’ve got right now.”
Flinders Island coastline by Adam Gibson
While Jo and Tom make island life look rugged yet idyllic, it’s been a journey to get to where they are. Jo’s family have owned a farm on the island since the 1930s, although she was raised in country Victoria. Similarly, Tom was raised on a farm in Tasmania. “We both had amazing childhoods, so we hope that they [our three kids] have that,” she says of them growing up amongst the natural splendor of Flinders, where visitors come to climb Mount Strzelecki and Mount Killiecrankie. “Hiking, diving, swimming, and good eating,” is how Jo puts it. Flinders Island does feel like it has it all, feeling like the island community it is, not a theme park for tourists.
Helping travellers discover Flinders Island is as much about a mindset as it is a checklist says Jo. “Switching off, I think that’s really important,” she says. “You just don’t have to go anywhere. It’s slow paced and it’s lovely. You get into your own rhythm.”
Photo by Adam Gibson (Tourism Tasmania)
In their own down time Jo says that “when the weather’s good it’s so easy just to hop down to the beach and go for a swim. And there’s so many options on where we can go and what we can do. I think now that the kids are getting older - Georgie who is the youngest is turning three this February - we’ve got tents ready to go camping, the kids are swimming more and snorkeling.”
The ocean shapes life on Flinders and spending time on it is a priority, Jo and Tom both holding pot licenses for crayfish. “Other than crayfish it’s really about whatever is biting, from flathead to snapper or anything that’s around, kingfish sometimes.”
Locally caught crayfish (Image by Adam Gibson for Tourism Tasmania)
While Jo is in her element it wasn’t always the course she’d set. Melbourne called, the trappings of city life, and working for an advertising agency. It’s perhaps the tale of a classic leap of faith: Jo, knowing that Tom, who was working as a builder on the island, wasn’t destined for city life - and so she made the leap.
“The first six months of living here was quite different, it takes a little while to get used to,” says Jo. “Some of the community aren’t easy at times, but we’ve got lots of friends here and there are always some really amazing positives from it,” she says, I imagine, with a certain level of tact. “It’s just a community like Tassie, you know, so many different people from different realms of life. And everyone’s entitled to their opinion and what we’re doing might not suit everyone, and that’s fine. I think people are entitled to that opinion.”
The Youl's on their Flinders Island property (Image by Adam Gibson)
When we speak, Jo is excited by the coming of summer, and having crayfish on the menu. I understand why, having eaten some of the best and biggest crayfish on my visits to the island. At one time the granite studded Killiecrankie Bay was home to eight cray boats but now there’s just 79-year-old Jack Wheatley, the last commercial cray fisherman on Flinders Island. “There are some younger guys who do it down south, around Lady Barron, and we’re talking to them as well as a backup,” says Youl. “But Jack is so iconic, and we’ll just always buy off him while he’s around. The crayfish around Flinders are generally large. Jack went out last week for 10 days and slept on his boat and got his quota.”
A few years ago, Jo told me people come to Flinders Island with “no expectation but everyone leaves wanting to come back.” Whether people come with “no expectation”, I’d question, and that’s in part due to Jo and Tom, and their ability to balance farm life with raising the island’s hospitality game. As to wanting to come back: my time in the Furneaux Group has always been short but unforgettable. It’s a place where I’ve eaten well from crayfish to more polarising muttonbird. A place where you’re welcomed into homes like an old friend. I’m always thinking of my next trip.
Cover photo by Adam Gibson (Tourism Tasmania)
Original story published in our East Coast Tasmania magazine.