Wild about the wines

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The region south of Adelaide has great diversity in its captivating culture and coastal scenery, writes David Sly.

Beyond the shaded lawns of the Victory Hotel atop Sellicks Hill, a glorious northern panorama unfolds: McLaren Vale's lush vineyards stretch between sparkling coastal waters and the rolling Mount Lofty Ranges, interspersed with pastures, orchards and olive groves.

"It's our own piece of paradise," publican Doug Govan says, "but we're more than happy to share it with our friends."

This luscious rural vista lays just beyond Adelaide's metropolitan area. Serving as a gateway to the Fleurieu Peninsula, McLaren Vale is a swift 30-minute expressway drive south of the city centre. It's why the region fills with food and wine fanatics, many of whom assemble for lunch at The Victory - some lured by wines from Govan's extraordinary 8000-bottle cellar, others for chef Glen Worrall's fresh regional fare served in the pub dining room and on the patio that takes in the glorious view.

While McLaren Vale is Australia's cherished home of the small winemaker, boasting 121 wineries and with 65 cellar doors open to visitors, the region is not only about gastronomic delights.

Pristine white-sand beaches are equally alluring - especially for driving cars on the sand for picnics next to the gently lapping tide.

Driving on the wide, hard-packed beach is allowed at Moana and between Aldinga Beach and Sellicks Beach. It's part of a tradition that dates back to formal motorbike and car racing on the beach from the 1910s until the mid-1950s; then local surf-lifesaving clubs raised funds by charging a nominal sum for each car to descend the concrete boat ramps onto the sand.

Divers are also fond of the northern point at Aldinga Beach. The upper reef can be accessed by walkers at low tide and is popular for snorkelling, while deeper areas of the Aldinga Aquatic Reserve feature spectacular drop-offs - like an underwater cliff descending into the deep gulf. At neighbouring Port Willunga, the Star of Greece shipwreck is a favourite for scuba divers. It's part of an underwater heritage trail that includes four shipwrecks located in Gulf St Vincent, identified in a brochure and by four underwater plaques adjacent to each wreck.

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The wild beauty of the Fleurieu coastline isn't only appreciated from the water. At the southern tip of the peninsula - not far from the towering Starfish Hill wind turbines generating electricity at Cape Jervis - one of the world's great walking trails commences. The Heysen Trail, which extends 1200 kilometres across South Australia and showcases the state's rich natural beauty, begins in the Deep Creek Conservation Park. This southernmost stretch of the trail extends about 90 kilometres to Victor Harbor and faces the roaring Southern Ocean. From here, there are awe-inspiring cliff views of hidden coves and long, sandy surf beaches.

Big surf pounding into Parsons Beach and Waitpinga Beach attracts only experienced surfers, though the Fleurieu's south coast also has many less-threatening wave breaks. Dan Keelan runs the South Coast Surf Academy at Middleton - one of three local learn-to-surf operations. Keelan has spent a decade encouraging first-timers. "It's the perfect place to learn because the Middleton waves break in the shallow water and I still get a buzz from seeing someone get up on a board for the first time," he says.

Some steep sections of the Heysen Trail passing through rugged terrain bring walkers into close contact with abundant wildlife, from echidnas to kangaroos and birds, including Peregrine falcons and sea eagles. Southern Right whales loll in the ocean, where mothers migrating from Antarctic waters rear calves from May to October.

Visitors are welcome at the refurbished South Australian Whale Centre, which features interactive displays and a whale skeleton from the South Australian Museum.

Rugged granite outcrops are a recurring geological feature.

A long, wooden causeway links the Victor Harbor foreshore to Granite Island, which is home to a thriving fairy penguin colony that can be observed during guided evening walks.

The small island can also be explored by taking the 2.9-kilometre Kaiki Trail (the Aboriginal Ramindjeri people's name for this landform). Interpretive signs explain the dreamtime story in which Ngurunderi travels down the Murray River in search of his two wives, throwing his reed spear (his Kaiki) and creating the landscape that now surrounds Victor Harbor. A historical horse-drawn tram can take you across the causeway.

The exploration pace quickens significantly at Goolwa Beach.

Directly adjacent to the popular Bombora cafe, a sandy access track enables four-wheel drive vehicles to snake through the dunes to hard beach sand that stretches 10 kilometres to the mouth of the Murray. Countless pelicans, terns, Pacific gulls and many other bird species feast on prevalent fish in this area, which means it's also a haven for beach anglers mostly going for giant mulloway or salmon.

For those wanting a more benign coastal experience, the Fleurieu is home to 62 art galleries, detailed in an art trail map (download it from southaustralia.com). The artworks are varied but largely explore coastal themes - from painter-in-residence George Tetlow and jeweller Erika Inhofer working at Studio 13 Gallery in Normanville to the funky Blue Temper Ironworks at Middleton, where blacksmith Chris Murphy creates and displays his sculptures.

Red Poles in McLaren Vale, a farmhouse among vineyards, combines a communal studio area and exhibition space with bed-and-breakfast-style accommodation, a weekend eatery and live performance space - a vibrant mix of arty activity with refined sophistication that befits the warm and generous Fleurieu personality.

FAST FACTS

Staying there

The Australasian is a discrete private hotel within a cleverly renovated historic pub with modern touches. Five guest suites, each decorated differently, with contemporary mod-Oz dining for house guests in a spacious dining room. From $275 to $325 a night. Saturdays incur two-night minimum. See australasian1858.com.
Birks River House is a luxurious riverfront retreat overlooking the Murray, saved from demolition and carefully restored by owner, Barossa winemaker Robert O'Callaghan of Rockfords Winery. $250 a night (two-night minimum for weekends). See birksharbour.com.au.

The Victory Hotel, a celebrated watering hole atop Sellicks Hill with grand elevated views of McLaren Vale and the Aldinga coast, has three serviced cottages among vineyards adjacent to the pub, providing bed and breakfast accommodation for $165 a night. See victoryhotel.com.au.

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