Nestled between the mountains and the sea, this acclaimed wine district, known for its shiraz, is just 40 kilometres from Adelaide.
Where to stay
The Blue Grape is a homely bed and breakfast with three guest rooms hosted by Hans and Ulrike Zimmermann. The house, with a guest lounge and kitchen, is set amidst their nine-hectare winery, whose Zimmermann Shiraz 2007 vintage has won many awards, including gold at the prestigious Vienna International Wine Challenge last year. Cook and artist Ulrike takes pride in preparing plentiful food for guests and discussing her paintings, which adorn the walls. It costs from $190 per night including breakfast (lot 6, 7 Newman Close, Willunga South, 08 8556 4078, thebluegrape.com.au).
Built in 1853, heritage-listed Peppermint Farm Cottage is surrounded by bush. It has two bedrooms and modern amenities including a spa bath, fully equipped kitchen and barbecue area (148 Strout Road, McLaren Vale, 0417 816 475, pfcbandb.com.au, from $240 per night, minimum two-night stay Friday to Sunday, minimum one-night stay Monday to Thursday).
Couples can wind down in luxury at Strathalbyn Villas (13 Sunter Street, Strathalbyn, 0423 261 168, strathalbynvillas.com.au, from $149 per night, minimum two-night stay).
Where to eat
The popular restaurant at rustic winery D'Arenberg is housed in the enclosed verandah of a 19th-century family homestead and, with views over the vines, is a lovely lunch spot in the warmer months. The menu changes with the seasons and might include blue swimmer crab ravioli with a lobster bisque (Osborn Road, McLaren Vale, 08 8329 4822, darenberg.com.au).
For a more casual lunch, Blessed Cheese lists its cut-above fare on a piece of butcher's paper stuck on the wall, but is also a provedore and cheese shop, with a large cabinet full of fine local and imported farmhouse cheeses (150 Main Road, McLaren Vale, 08 8323 7958, blessedcheese.com.au). Another good lunch (and coffee) option is La Terre, housed in a building which started life as a bakehouse in the 1880s. Most of the short menu, such as "savoury tart of the day" (olive and rosemary when we visited) is made on the premises (44 High Street, Willunga, 08 8556 2612).
The whitewashed walls of Fino bring a touch of the Mediterranean, and this restaurant has an acclaimed wine list and a constantly evolving menu, except for dishes that locals have insisted remain, such as the vanilla-bean ice-cream terrine layered with dark Belgian chocolate, brandy snap and poached rhubarb (8 Hill Street, Willunga, 08 8556 4488, fino.net.au).
What to do
Walk the Shiraz Trail, an easy eight kilometres of sealed path past vineyards, olive groves and gum trees between the villages of McLaren Vale and Willunga. If you'd rather ride you can hire a bike from Oxygen Cycles (143 Main Road, McLaren Vale, 08 8323 7345, oxygencycles.com). Taste olives from the 35-year-old, 30-acre grove at Lloyd Brothers farm shop which also sells products such as cold-pressed extra virgin olive oils, pesto, and pasta made on site (34 Warner's Road, McLaren Vale, 08 8323 8792, lloydbrothers.com.au).
See work by South Australian artists at Red Poles, an art gallery surrounded by vineyards that has a new exhibition every six weeks. The adjoining cafe is adorned with local art, jewellery and craft, for sale (McMurtrie Road, McLaren Vale, 08 8323 8994, redpoles.com.au).
If you enjoy hunting for a bargain in collectables shops, or browsing in antiques stores, head for the historic town of Strathalbyn, where antiques and collectables shops are conveniently clustered along High Street.
For families visiting McLaren Vale, it's worth the drive to nearby Victor Harbor, where kids delight in riding on the Clydesdale-drawn historic tram and patting the horses. The wooden tram, whose top-deck upstairs seating area has ocean views, rattles along a route it has followed since 1894, from the mainland along a wooden causeway to Granite Island, home to 2000 penguins and the 2.9-kilometre scenic Kaiki Trail (The Causeway, Victor Harbor, 08 8551 0720, horsedrawntram.com.au).
For adults, there are more adrenalin-inducing rides aboard 10-seater rigid inflatable boat The Big Duck with owner Dan Irvine, who grew up sailing on the harbour and went on to work on luxury yachts. He leads high-speed guided tours along the coast and out to islands such as Seal Rock to spot sea lions, fur seals and dolphins (Causeway Landing, Victor Harbor, 0405 125 312, thebigduck.com.au).
The region is home to about 80 cellar doors including Coriole Vineyards (Chaffeys Road, McLaren Vale, 08 8323 8305, coriole.com), known for its beautiful gardens. From Thursday to Monday, visitors can lunch on platters under the mulberry, Moreton Bay and Chinese elm trees.
The quirkiest cellar door? The deliberately, delightfully shabby Alpha Box and Dice (lot 50, Oliver's Road, McLaren Vale, 08 8323 7750, www.alphaboxdice.com.au) in a former barn and stables filled with old furniture, taxidermy and a pinball machine. At Primo Estate (McMurtrie Road, McLaren Vale, 08 8323 6800, primoestate.com.au) vinegar and olive oil are made along with fine wines. At Hugh Hamilton Wines (McMurtrie Road, McLaren Vale, 08 8323 8689, hughhamiltonwines.com.au) there are 360-degree views from the hilltop cellar door; at Wirra Wirra Vineyards (McMurtrie Road, McLaren Vale, 08 8323 8414, wirrawirra.com) there are toys for the kids to play with while the adults taste wine.
Oliver's Taranga Sagrantino 2009 $40
The Oliver family has been making wine for 170 years. This sagrantino (a grape grown in Umbria) is part of its small batch range of handcrafted wines.