On a trip to the Barossa Katrina Lobley soaks up the scenery in more ways than one.
Sally Kent is giving the grand tour of Kingsford Homestead when she says the magic words. "That's the basket guests take to the bath down by the river," she says, gesturing towards a straw basket that cradles binoculars, a bathrobe, ice bucket and bath salts. Bath? What bath? I picture a battered tin number dragged from some shed. I couldn't be more wrong.
She gets on the radio quick smart to husband Pat. The pair used to manage Arkaba Station in the Flinders Ranges, so they're well practised at this hospitality caper. He skedaddles down to the bath to give it the once-over, returning to fetch me in the farm buggy. There's just time for an hour's soak before dinner. The rest of my party hasn't yet arrived; I've beaten them all to this bath.
Jas the kelpie comes, too. We motor over a hill studded with black-and-white Angus, opening and shutting gates so the cattle don't bolt for it. The pasture's bleached blond thanks to a persistent lack of rain, but the sky overhead is leaden. Things brighten, though, when I spy the shiny claw-foot bath, incongruously perched on its own timber deck overlooking the North Para River, a pair of sun loungers next to it. This could be a mirage except the weather's not hot enough for that.
Pat leaves his wristwatch behind so I can keep track of time - it would be awkward if he came back to find me still splashing about. He and Jas scoot, kicking up the famed Barossa dirt, leaving me to run the water, pour a cider and sink into the warmth. After congratulating myself on my good fortune - to be in this glorious tub, in the most unexpected place - I pick up the binoculars to spy on birds in the trees. I try to fix their markings in my mind so I can identify them in the field guide in my room but to no avail - my memories don't match any birds in the book.
The bathtub in the bush was inspired by the homestead's recent former life. To fans of the TV series McLeod's Daughters, the 1856 Georgian homestead will always be Drover's Run - the rundown cattle property that featured a photogenic bath under the windmill. The property's new owners, Stefan and Leanne Ahrens, re-created the concept for guests when they opened the doors in July 2012.
It suited the show's storyline for the two-storey homestead to look rundown but the Ahrens spent nearly three years installing contemporary interiors for its new life as a luxury retreat. The hardest bit was figuring how to grant each room an en suite - the answer was individual layouts. My upstairs room, the Mincalta Suite, has an elevated en suite with bath. The John Angas Suite, named after the property's second owner who turned it into a notable Hereford stud farm, has only a shower while the Frederick Scarfe Suite has a striking egg-shaped bath.
We dine that evening in the cosy stone cellar; the next morning, I work off the five-course degustation by strolling the property with Jas. As we return to the homestead, built of Edinburgh sandstone transported to Australia as ship's ballast, Jas spies a rabbit and takes off in pursuit. Luckily, I'm spared the sight of a bunny murder before breakfast when the rabbit outruns her.
It's hard to leave the homestead but we have a date with the Saturday morning Barossa Farmers' Market up the road in Angaston. I'm looking forward to meeting the artisan producers who lunched with us the day before at Casa Carboni over plates of nettle tagliatelle we'd kneaded and rolled just minutes before.
Italian-Australian couple Matteo and Fiona Carboni opened their cooking school and enoteca next to Victoria McClurg's Barossa Valley Cheese Company in December. They run classes in making everything from gnocchi, pasta and risotto to regional specialties such as those from Matteo's home of Emilia Romagna. Not being much of a cook, I'm surprised to find how much fun it is making pasta from scratch. "Wearing black was maybe not such a good idea," Matteo says , brushing flour from my sleeves.
Our brief encounter with valley producers makes market day a charming experience. I circumnavigate the cavernous Yalumba barrel shed, nattering with organic wine and verjuice maker Wayne Ahrens - no relation to the Kingsford Ahrenses - from Smallfry Wines. Cornucopia Farming's "oliveologist" John Williams waxes lyrical about his lemony olive oil and how Barossa legend Maggie Beer helped perfect his recipe. Michael Wohlstadt, of Barossa Heritage Pork, tells me how his milk-fed Berkshire and Tamworth pigs like to snuggle together like sausages.
Hutton Vale's Jan and John Angas - he's the great-great-grandson of Kingsford's second owner - are there, too, but the lamb they bring each Saturday has already sold out. Locals and overnight visitors hit the markets early, but there's also a mid-morning wave from Adelaide (the 2010 opening of the Northern Expressway has been a boon for Barossa tourism).
Barossa produce is also heralded at Appellation, the destination dining room at The Louise in Marananga. More than 85 per cent of its menu is sourced from the Barossa and South Australia.
On the night we dine there, Hutton Vale lamb - accompanied by smoked eggplant, saltbush and sunflower kernels - features on the seasonal selection menu. There's also a chef's tasting menu that, unusually, is built around the sommelier's picks of the day. "This is one of the few kitchens in Australia where the sommelier and chef have equal say in what happens in the kitchen," owner Jim Carreker says in an accent that gives away his origins in the American south. "We're in a wine region - it is as it should be."
Sommelier Cassaly Fitzgerald is a down-to-earth, bubbly personality. Pouring Two Hands' 2010 Bella's Garden shiraz, she enthuses, "It's just gorgeousness in a glass."
Two Hands is just down the road from The Louise. If I were staying again, I would be sure to drop in - and pack a chiller bag so I could bring home goodies from the market on the plane.
I return to Adelaide airport direct from the market, marvelling at the connectivity between those I've met. Wayne Ahrens, for instance, uses Victoria McClurg's whey on his grapevines to prevent powdery mildew. Guests at The Louise can experience these connections as well through activities ranging from a masterclass and long lunch at Two Hands ($55 a person) to a home-cooked dinner at Wayne's place with museum wines ($260 a person), a pasta lesson and lunch with Matteo ($125 a person) and more.
Genuine warmth seems to flow between valley newcomers and those who can trace their Barossa roots to the 19th century.
Wayne Ahrens, whose ancestor arrived in South Australia in 1837, says he hopes Fiona and Matteo's fledgling business goes great guns. I simply raise a glass - a fine Barossa drop, of course - to them all.
Katrina Lobley was a guest of the South Australia Tourism Commission, Qantas and Audi Australia.
THREE MORE IDEAS FOR THE BAROSSA
Fly high View the Barossa's patchwork of vineyards from the air. Barossa Valley Ballooning collects passengers from the Novotel Barossa Valley Resort before sunrise for an hour-long dawn flight and breakfast buffet and bubbles on return ($300 adult, $240 child; see barossavalley ballooning.com.au). Balloon Adventures picks up from the Peter Lehmann winery at Tanunda for a one-hour flight followed by a champagne breakfast at the nearest picnic spot ($300 an adult, $195 a child; see balloonadventures.com.au).
Royal tour Be squired from one cellar door to the next in right royal style. Barossa Daimler Tours boasts an eight-seat 1962 Daimler limousine once used to ferry the Queen during her tours in Australia. Hire a car and driver for a half-day tour of up to four wineries such as Henschke, Penfolds, Wolf Blass and Charles Melton ($480 for up to four people, $30 for each additional person. See barossadaimlertours.com.au).
Lavender all over Find out how many ways you can transform lavender at Lyndoch Lavender Farm and Cafe. The cafe serves lavender scones, biscuits, bread, ice-cream, tea, chutney and more. During flowering season (August to January), take a self-guided tour of the farm's 90-plus lavender varieties ($2 admission). See lyndochlavenderfarm.com.au.
More information barossa.com
Getting there Qantas has a fare to Adelaide for about $180 return from Melbourne (1hr 20min) and $240 from Sydney (2hr 5min). Fares are return and include taxes; see qantas.com.au.
Staying there The seven-suite Kingsford Homestead is near Gawler, a 45-minute drive from Adelaide Airport, on the fringes of the Barossa Valley. A minimum two-night stay starts at $790 a night, twin share, and includes breakfast, dinner and beverages. See kingsfordhomestead.com.au.
Suites at The Louise, at Marananga, start at $490 a night. See thelouise.com.au.
See + do The Barossa Farmers Market, Angaston, operates every Saturday from 7.30-11.30am. See barossafarmersmarket.com.
Casacarboni, 67 Murray Street, Angaston, holds scheduled and private cooking classes. Its enoteca sells boutique Italian and French wines. See casacarboni.com.au.