The valley that time forgot

On the Fleurieu Peninsula, a delicious Australian experience awaits, writes Erin O'Dwyer.

We arrive at Second Valley in the dying hours of the long weekend. Our caravan was booked for four nights but circumstances have conspired to keep us away. Dinner with friends, cups of tea with family, a spin around the wineries of the McLaren Vale.

Then, finally, we are here.

We check in - "Ah, the elusive ones!" says our friendly host upon our arrival - then busy ourselves for the beach.

Even with the long twilight enjoyed by South Australia's Fleurieu Peninsula during the summer months, the odd geological formations of Second Valley make it touch-and-go for a spot of sunshine on the sand. A round, yellow-hued headland rears to the south. To the north, another angular hillock bares its rocky grin.

One of us briefly braves the sea and then we're picking our way back to the caravan park. We've all seen enough of regional Australia to know we must eat before eight or perish.

"We close at eight but we stop cooking at 7.45pm," the woman at the kiosk had warned us earlier.

We draw straws on what it's to be - pub grub at the picturesque coastal village of Normanville (an arduous 15-minute drive away) or fish and chips here.

The kiosk seems to be doing a great trade but we wonder about the quality of the fish at a place that also serves up chiko rolls.

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The desire not to drive any more wins the day and we find ourselves pleasantly surprised by the little shop's fare.

"You're packing four days into one," says the young host, delivering our order to our picnic table. "Just arrived and already down to the beach. Back for dinner, pouring the wine. And tomorrow you'll be gone by 10..."

It's true. Around us, families have spent three days adjusting to the lost-in-time flavour of Second Valley. It's a caravan park like any other - the musty smell, the laminex table, the caravan's annex in camouflage colours - but the location makes it extraordinary. An hour after we arrive, I am completely relaxed. And wishing we had arrived three days before.

Second Valley is just more than an hour's drive south of Adelaide.

It's about 40 minutes beyond the McLaren Vale wine region, past Yankalilla and a stone's throw from Cape Jervis, the gateway to Kangaroo Island.

Imagine yourself at the far end of the continent, far removed from town and country, oblivious to the goings-on of the world.

Second Valley is two places rolled into one - beachside holiday hamlet tucked behind the headland out of the wind and old-time farming region struggling to survive.

These days Second Valley is sleepy - the school's been closed for 50 years and there are no shops apart from the antique shop - yet it's charming in every way. The Federation-style cottages date back a century. There are cows on the headland and Kombis on the road. Staying at the caravan park is a simple step back in time - we're surrounded by kids playing cricket rather than the Wii.

There are 50 powered and a handful of unpowered camp sites.

If you don't fancy a caravan park, then consider the old mill, which has become a brewery and boutique accommodation.

Locals rent out rooms and call themselves B&Bs. But the caravan park is still the best bargain in town - especially if you like to fish.

At dawn and dusk, it's secret men's business at the packed jetty. The park boasts a fish cleaning area and dump point - clearly it's the real deal. That said, us women from the city do not feel out of place. We feel the special spirit of the area - perhaps the ghost of Captain William Light, who founded the settlement in 1836. Possibly the most compelling feature of Second Valley is its proximity to McLaren Vale - and it's about a third of the price when it comes to accommodation.

There's something deliciously Australian about buying an award-winning chenin blanc then breaking out our plastic beakers as we wait for our fish and chips.

As the sun sets, we move from our picnic table to our caravan annex and talk about our other travels - Germany, Ethiopia and Russia - and wonder why we didn't just stay here.

We "thank" the economic crisis for its impact on international tourism, toast Second Valley and look forward to all the other secret Australian destinations still to come.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Qantas flies regularly to Adelaide. See qantas.com. From Adelaide, take Main South Roadand follow the signs to Normanville and Cape Jervis.

Staying there

Second Valley Caravan Park, Park Avenue, Second Valley, South Australia. On-site vans from $45 a night (sleeps four). Extra adults $8 a night. Phone (08) 8598 4054. See secondvalleycaravanpark.com.

Leonard's Mill is a 150-year-old heritage-listed building on the Fleurieu Peninsula, 90 kilometres south of Adelaide.

The mill has been restored as a restaurant and the surrounds have been developed to include a range of accommodation, including restored stone settlers' cottages, some with spas and some self-contained. Phone (08) 8598 4122. See themillcottages.com.

Second Valley provides easy access to Kangaroo Island, Granite Island, Myponga Reservoir and the World Heritage-listed Coorong National Park.

The McLaren Vale vineyards are a 45-minute drive away.

Further information

See southaustralia.com.

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