A stereotype of Tasmania is that everyone is related to everyone. Actually that’s quite accurate – turns out a guy I had a huge ass crush on in high school is related to one of my best friends, who I met in college. Tasmania. *sigh* If not related, then another common saying is that everyone knows everyone, and this is also true. The upside of this is that it’s always easy to find mutual friends, and social circles commonly overlap one another. This is how I came across Thalia Haven and its owner, Susan West. My mum plays bridge and Susan plays bridge at the same club as her. You see where this is going.
I got together with Susan, who is from America originally, to ask her about her early life, how Thalia came into being, and what she hopes for its future.
What brought you to Tasmania?
I had been living in New York and running a fellowship programme, sponsoring Africans to come to the US to study. I needed a professional degree so I applied and was admitted to the Public Policy Programme at Harvard. I left New York in my silk dresses and 4 inch heels, came to Harvard and met a bloke who became first my boyfriend, and then my husband. When we first met, he told me I would love Tasmania, and I thought “I’m in 4 inch heels. I work in international development, what on earth am I going to love about Tasmania!”
When I came here for the first time it was the late 80s, and I was blown away. I had never been in a place as beautiful as Tasmania. I was in my early 30s at the time and when I lived in New York, all anyone ever talked about was how much we worked and how much we paid for our apartment. So when I came here, suddenly I was meeting people who were the same age as me and they talked about where they had been walking, what they were growing in their gardens. I had never met a person under 90 years old who had a garden, and it never occurred to me that you would want one. Everybody I came across was working part time so they could have the pace of life they wanted. In America, working part time meant you wouldn’t receive the proper benefits, vacation time, health insurance etc, but here, people were choosing to have a life in addition to work, and I was really impressed by that.
What is it about the culture locally that you really enjoy and really makes one’s experience living here?
There is always a farm door selling produce direct, or a fridge by the side of the road with produce from the garden and an honesty box next to it. I really like that. When I was living in New York, I learned where to go for the best culture, the freshest produce, I had a relationship with my dry cleaner. I liked that. I grew up in West Africa where relationships are not only important, they are everything. That feeling of being does have a certain effect – if someone gets a decent job in the city, suddenly you’ll find 80 people from your village moving in with you thanks to your relationship with them. It’s lovely in a sense though, because there is a feeling that no one is ever alone. Of course I love to travel, but I never get the restlessness that others feel that they have to escape from. I like the personal connections you can establish here.
How was Thalia born? What was the design and building process like?
We built Thalia as our weekend beach house. For years my husband wanted to buy something that was within driving distance of Hobart, north facing but which was isolated. The land became available by coincidence when we were visiting. The purpose for the land all along here is for sheep grazing, but because this strip runs along the coast line and there is a beach, it was negating the value because you can’t run sheep on a beach. As a result, we were able to purchase for a reasonable amount of money. Building started in the early 2000s and we hired a husband and wife architect team (award winning Morrison & Breytenbach in West Hobart) who eventually became our personal friends.
The inspiration for the layout came from where we lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was an old candy factory. It was entirely open plan except for the bathroom. I liked living in there and being able to hear where my husband was and what he was up to, and that’s what we tried to replicate in Thalia – you can be in bed reading a book but you can feel if someone makes a cup of tea, and if you want one then you can easily call out “could I have one too?” And I really liked that. The dynamic ends up being very organic – you wander in for coffee and tea and breakfast stuff, and then someone organises activities and you all go out and do that together, then you come back for lunch, and then everyone wanders off again afterwards. You end up drifting in and out and naturally back to the centre again when it’s time to open up a wine or make the dinner. We wanted a flow of public and private, and the architects really accommodated our desire for this, and I think it really works.
What about the stonework and the timber? Where did that come from?
The builder we had is a specialist in recycled timber, and he is clued into the network of where to find things and when sheds or bridges are being pulled down. He knows about these sorts of plans months in advance. We were in America at the time a heritage bridge in Lismore, NSW, was being pulled down and the wood became available to use. When the timber arrived we had to sandblast the asphalt off it. If you look at the beams they are full of these big spike holes, and you have to remember these beams held up a bridge, and cars drove over it for decades. The builders had a really difficult time cutting and nailing through these beams because iron bark is such a tough wood when it’s dried out.
The stones came from Orford, and the stonemasons were the ones who did the BaHai Centre in the city. Before they came to us they hadn’t done anything complicated, nothing more than a garden wall. It took them years to build because remember there was no power at the site. They lived up there during the week, but first and foremost they were happy people. The house was built by these happy people. We would come up to check progress on a Friday and they would be there, full of the place, full of the swimming they’d done, the dolphins they saw. It wasn’t just another job, they were enjoying the process and they did a beautiful job. I came up one time when the fireplace was being built and they walked backwards to see my reaction. I was looking at the fireplace and tears were streaming down my face. It was just so beautiful, and it was so substantive and yet light.
Thalia is powered off the grid and doesn’t have any central heating system. What planning did you put into making the most efficient use of its location, the materials used to build etc?
Thalia is north facing and it gets so much sun. Even if the backup generator is down, during summer time the batteries are at full charge. Thalia has huge thermal mass – all the windows are double glazed, the floors are limestone and dark so they retain a lot of heat, of course there is the stonework on the outside, and the gap between the kitchen and lounge area fireplace is filled with sand, again to absorb that heat from the fire and retain it within the main building. The fireplace design is called a Rumford, and was something that my husband researched and proposed; they have very narrow draws but they throw fabulously despite their size and perceived shallow-ness. You will end up pushing the furniture back from the fireplace because that’s how much heat that design gives off. In winter I would say Thalia is a good 5 degrees warmer than Hobart because of this, and June and July are spectacular seasons to stay here – you really feel warm and cosy.
I loved how accommodating all the little details are at Thalia. How did you decide on the sundry items and things that make Thalia feel like another home?
The house is full of things that I like and enjoy. For example, I like having something over my knees when I sit on the sofa, so that’s why there are alpaca throws in the living area. I like board games, so there are heaps of board games for people to play. The products of Thalia are all of the place, of Tasmania. I get the hand soap from Beauty and the Bees; the ingredients are all sourced locally. Sure it would be cheaper to provided individually wrapped, bulk produced soaps, but at Thalia I wanted people to experience and appreciate goods that come from the earth. In my mind, having that type of soap is part of what the place is and what I’d like visitors to experience. Same with the shower mats – I found someone who makes them out of alpaca, and at first it feels odd on the feet because we’re not used to that texture. I could have bought something a lot cheaper from Spotlight, but I wanted everything to feel beautiful, not just in the physical but beautiful to the senses. I went to the Quilt and Pillow Factory in New Town and they made me all the doonas at Thalia. They’re stuffed with Siberian goose down, and I can take them back to the proprietor, Donna, and have them laundered and re-stuffed. I like the relationships I make with my suppliers.
Thalia is the place for dad’s 60th birthday, the wedding anniversary, the place to reconnect with your significant other or a group of friends. We accommodate children and babies, we accommodate your dog; my dog is a part of my family and when I travel I want to be able to bring her with me. Thalia is where you stay to experience the place, not just the east coast or the popular areas surrounding, which is why I made the minimum 2 night stay. You can’t settle into the experience if you race in at 3pm and then check out at 10am the next morning. Thalia needs time to settle into. It’s part of an experience, and Thalia is the experience. I furnish Thalia with things that I like.
What are your hopes for Thalia’s future? How do you see Thalia enrich the lives of its visitors?
My plan is to improve the Thalia experience while maintaining its character. I’m putting in more outdoor seating (but not so that you have to worry about taking in cushions if it starts raining), adding more books about Tasmania, or by Tasmanians, to the library. I’ve improved the cookbook section not because I want people to cook by those recipes, but because I imagine, like me, people enjoy reading and daydreaming about food.
The beauty of an experience at Thalia is that guests settle into a a different rhythm for their stay. No wifi, no TV, no neighbours, no stimulus other than the sun, wind, wave, the stars, fire, each other. People reconnect in a way that is unique in the absence of the usual clutter of day-to-day life. This is something we have cherished over the years and something we protect in offering holiday experiences at Thalia. Even the ritual of going through the multiple gates frames the Thalia experience – you have to stop, take time, and almost symbolically, progressively close your normal life behind you and open yourself to the special things that Thalia offers. Thalia is a place to just be together without the clutter, and it’s something that everyone can appreciate.
Check out Thalia Haven online here where you can also book your stay. Contact Susan West on (+61) 0400 533 792, or for email enquiries at [email protected]
Don’t forget to check them out on Instagram as well @thaliahaven.