Port Lincoln is a city on the move. I realise this as I sip a craft beer in the hip new brewery Beer Garden Brewing, a shed-chic space overlooking a lush beer garden that wouldn't feel out of place in Sydney or Melbourne, owned by a late-30s couple named Mark and Janie Butterworth. Mark even has the requisite hipster beard.
Before taking this trip to South Australia's Eyre Peninsula, I'd been aware of Port Lincoln's reputation as Australia's seafood capital, and had expected to arrive at a quintessential fishing town, replete with grizzled fishermen and bad fish and chip joints.
Thanks to an injection of fresh energy from young locals such as the Butterworths, however, who are building vibrant food-related businesses up around the city's booming tuna industry, I'm realising it just might be Australia's newest gourmet's paradise.
As Janie hands me a tasting paddle of their award-winning brews, she tells me she and Mark worked in the mining industry (her a biochemist, he a chemical engineer) until they were made redundant three years ago.
"We decided to take the golden handshake and run," she says with a laugh. "We had family here and had been coming for holidays for 15 years. We always thought it was incredibly beautiful and we had brewed beer for fun since university, so we decided to start the first boutique Eyre Peninsula brewery."
Their brewery, which has sustainability at its core and uses local barley and wheat, solar power and rainwater for brewing, has "become a bit of a community hub", says Janie, nodding to the local artwork and gig posters adorning the walls. "Historically, a lot of young people have left this area for bigger cities, so we're happy to be giving them a reason to come back."
Our next stop, a coffee shop called Rogue and Rascal, is another reason for youngsters and food lovers to visit Port Lincoln. Set along the foreshore, which stretches between the seven-storey Port Lincoln Hotel and the 47-metre-high grain silos that service the local farms, it looks every bit the hip inner-city cafe, with chalkboard walls, black tiling and exposed copper piping.
I can't quite picture a grizzled fisherman hanging out here, and no wonder. As I pull up a stool by the windows overlooking pretty Boston Bay, and tuck into a moreish coconut cherry chocolate slice and a latte made with local beans, I discover it was opened by two Adelaide girls in their early 20s four years ago.
Having grown up in the big smoke, Jemma Schilling and Elouise Dukalskis decided to bring the small-bar vibe they'd loved in Adelaide to this regional town. First with this venue, and now also with their upstairs small bar The Rebel, which is a local favourite for cocktails and live music. Tonight, however, it's early to bed, in preparation for tomorrow morning's sunrise wake-up call.
In the early morning light, we head out for a 90-minute boat ride to small, uninhabited Blythe Island to snorkel with sea lions. We spend an hour swimming and diving and playing with these puppies of the ocean, barely noticing our hands and feet have gone numb in the frigid water. By the time we pile back on the boat, we're as elated as we are ready for lunch.
On dry land, we drive into the rolling hills above town to The Line & Label, Port Lincoln's newest fine dining restaurant set among the vineyards of Peter Teakle Wines, opened in late 2017. Even from the carpark, it's obvious that this is a big tourism, high-end positioning statement, on which millionaire owner Peter Teakle, a prominent local businessman, has spared no expense.
The main restaurant is a lofty space handcrafted from 19,000 pieces of South African bluestone and polished timber, circled by a deep verandah with views of the vineyards and ocean beyond. An open fireplace and huge kitchen gardens are off to one side.
Inside, the brief but well-curated menu celebrates what a special place Port Lincoln is produce-wise. We tuck into a zesty kingfish tartare served with nori and yuzu, washed down with a glass of Peter Teakle's excellent Estate riesling, before the crispy fried Ocean Jacket snout arrives. I'm not quite prepared for what looks like three piranhas to arrive on my plate, their sharp, criss-crossed teeth seemingly snarling up at me, or for how incredibly moist and flavoursome this fish is. It's a delicious reminder of why more than 65 per cent of our nation's seafood is pulled from the waters that surround us, seafood that, until recently, was almost all being sent off to Japan, where budgets are bigger and the appreciation greater.
In the evening I meet the man who helped change that situation as I take part in a seafood masterclass in the waterfront home of Kris and Brenda Bunder, the chef-owners of local seafood hot spot Del Giorno's Cafe.
"When we opened Del Giorno's back in 2002, you couldn't get local seafood in any Port Lincoln restaurants," says Kris as we stand in his spacious kitchen slurping fat, creamy Coffin Bay oysters, followed by the best piece of tuna sashimi I have ever tasted. "There was no local tuna, lobster or abalone on the menu anywhere, which was crazy, but it was all being sold to the Japanese market."
The first thing Bunder did when he opened Del Giorno's, then, was get rid of the imported seafood left in the freezer by the previous owners. "Since that day, we've only ever served local seafood products," he says with a satisfied smile. With the Bunders leading the way, other local restaurateurs cottoned on to the fact that people actually did want to eat local seafood, which eventually led Port Lincoln to secure its reputation as the place to come to eat, rather than just catch, Australia's best seafood.
For the next 90 minutes, we get a crash course in how to cook this famous seafood. We watch as Bunder wok fries plump western king prawns and tosses them through an udon noodle, crisp vegetable and miso salad; as he cooks a pot of local Kinkawooka mussels in fresh tomato and chilli sauce; as he flash fries rock lobster with lemon, garlic and butter, and prepares abalone three ways.
The meal he creates is fresh and uncomplicated, a lesson in how to let exceptional produce speak for itself. We devour it around the Bunders' dining table and raise glasses of local riesling to Port Lincoln, this seaside city on the move, that just might be one of Australia's best-kept foodie secrets.
FIVE PORT LINCOLN FOODIE HAUNTS
The newest kid on the Port Lincoln block, trendy foreshore bistro Fumo 28 is owned and run by local builder turned heritage pig farmer Jason Stephenson. No surprises, then, that pork from his company Boston Bay Smallgoods is a focus, as well as other local meats cooked over charcoal. See facebook.com/fumo28/
BOSTON BAY WINES
The best vineyard location in Australia? Perhaps. Set directly opposite the sparkling waters of Boston Bay, a visit to this family-owned vineyard, where you can pick up a bottle or nine of their very tasty riesling, is a must. See bostonbaywines.com.au
BOSTON BEAN COFFEE CO
A cup of the award-winning coffee from this local roaster, which uses sustainable and ethical beans, should factor into all Port Lincoln mornings. Leave suitcase space for a few bags of beans. See bostonbean.com.au
COFFIN BAY OYSTERS
Spend an hour eating and learning about freshly plucked and shucked Coffin Bay oysters on a working oyster lease, during this Oyster Farm Tour, just a half-hour drive from Port Lincoln. See oysterfarmtours.com.au
The best views over Boston Bay are from Sarins Bar and Restaurant inside the Port Lincoln Hotel, making it the perfect sundowner spot. Stick around for dinner – the seafood linguine, with spencer gulf prawns and Kinkawooka mussels is exceptional. See portlincolnhotel.com.au
Nina Karnikowski travelled as a guest of the South Australian Tourism Commission.
Regional Express (REX) flies from Adelaide to Port Lincoln up to eight times daily. See rex.com.au
Double rooms at the Port Lincoln Hotel are priced from $155 a night. See portlincolnhotel.com.au
Dinner and a seafood masterclass in Kris Bunder's private kitchen is priced from $200 a person, for a minimum of four guests. See delgiornos.com.au
For views from a vineyard and fine dining, book a table at The Line and Label. See thelineandlabel.com.au
Learn more about craft beer in Port Lincoln. See beergardenbrewing.com