Come to the beautiful south

Visitors invariably head to Ayers Rock and Sydney neglecting South Australia. Don’t, we say.

In a country packed with show-stoppers like Ayers Rock, Sydney Harbour and the Great Barrier Reef, it is not surprising South Australia remains relatively undiscovered by visitors.

But that is a real shame, for packed into one easy-to-navigate state (if “packed” is the right word for such magnificently empty territory) are hundreds of tourist treats, from beautiful wine country to breathtaking the Outback and some of the most spectacular beaches in the world — all within an easy drive of Adelaide international airport.

The prettily named Fleurieu Peninsula is the place to go for a heady combination of vineyards, beach and wildlife. A good focus is McLaren Vale, known for a handful of acclaimed vintages. Touring and tasting has been made easy by an ingenious cheese-and-wine trail which involves picking up a hamper at the town’s Blessed Cheese café. This contains crackers, local cheese and other picnic fare, plus map and suggestions for matching wines. In practice, the wineries will arrange tastings of their range — and the best bit of the scheme is the voucher to exchange for a take-home bottle.

A particularly good vineyard to visit is the highly rated Wirra Wirra, which has lovely grounds and is close to a delightful country gallery, the Red Poles, which has a garden, enticing jewellery, pottery, pictures and rooms to stay.

But it would be hard to find a more sybaritic dwelling than the Vintage B&B, just outside McLaren Vale with a fabulous view of vines. It is a shame the DIY breakfast, lets down the quality of the beautifully-decorated suites — on the second morning we opted to breakfast instead at Blessed Cheese.

The best place to dine among the vineyards is the award-winning Salopian Inn, which serves French fare with soft lights and music. But for lunch on a sunny day, there is no better place than the Star of Greece, a sophisticated and colourful beachside restaurant which has attracted celebs from Kylie to Sting, serves delicious food, wine and cocktails all day at reasonable prices yet displays no attitude. 

It was at Port Willunga, a 15-minute drive from McLaren Vale at the top of a long stretch of fabulous clean, white sand which on the day we visited was pretty well deserted. After whiling away post-lunch hours swimming and beach-combing, we headed to nearby Aldinga Beach just for the pleasure of driving the long stretch of sand designated for vehicles, and photographing the arty shelter complete with canine sculpture and inscription in memory of a much-loved local fisherman.

At the bottom of the peninsula is the resort of Victor Harbour, which has all the attractions strangely absent along the Aldinga stretch, perhaps the reason the beach is so delightfully underused. Victor Harbour has less charm and more crowds, but for bird lovers it is the jumping off point for Granite Island. Here, 2,000 of the tiny fairy penguins only found in the Antipodes return each night after a hard day’s fishing, and visitors can book tours and travel the causeway to the island on a horsedrawn tram.

But a more intimate option is to take the tram by day, enjoy a super fish lunch at the outdoor café overlooking the rocks, then inspect the little birds at the rescue centre set up by Brit Dorothy Longden and her husband Keith.

Wildlife enthusiasts with time to spare will also want to visit Kangaroo Island, just a 45-minute crossing from the Fleurieu, which boasts not just a collection of marvellous marsupials, but many of the other curious and endearing animals for which Australia is famous, from shy echidnas to even more bashful koalas; here, also, are white dunes and spectacular boulder-strewn beaches.

Foodies on a tight schedule may prefer to stick to the wine country — there is much of it to explore in South Australia, notably the Barossa, where the big-name vineyards are situated, and the more rarefied boutique operations of the Adelaide Hills. Here, the lunch-only Petaluma Restaurant at Bridgewater Mill winery is one of South Australia’s most attractive.

But there are also unmissable surprises not far from the vines.

Heading north from McLaren Vale and skirting the Barossa — pausing perhaps at the pretty town of Hahndorf for a delightful alfresco lunch of dips and local cheeses at Udder Delights and a tasting at the top-rated Henschke winery near Keyneton — visitors will suddenly find themselves encountering unexpected and breathtaking Outback very close to the Sturt Highway which connects Adelaide with wild bush.

This is the jumping-off point for Portee Station, home to thousands of sheep coloured pink by the red earth; a long stretch of river frontage with ochre-coloured banks; and an absolutely delightful Victorian homestead run with great panache as an inn by Pat Kent and his wife Sally, a Brit and former air stewardess.    

The river view from the house is so stunning, it is tempting to just crash in the spacious and comfortable bedrooms with their picture windows, or on the delightful verandah with a chilled bottle from the reasonably-priced wine list. However, the delights which come as standard with the first night’s stay are not to be missed. This is wombat country, and at dusk there is a chance to drive out along the outback plains to look for the shy little creatures emerging from their huge burrows. The trip is timed to coincide with a spectacular sunset along a private stretch of beach where Pat pours bubbly over hibiscus flowers at a table by the river. Then it is back to the ranch for dinner under the stars cooked by the rancher’s daughter and served elegantly on white linen; with advance notice, kosher-observant guests are catered to, as this is very much a tailor-made experience.

Extra activities from hot-air ballooning to in-room massages can be laid on, and guests staying at Portee during the last week of June this year can experience the thrill of watching an authentic Australian activity on a world class level, as the national sheep shearing team hones its skills prior to the 2008 world championships.

While the real draw of South Australia is truly fabulous places like Portee, which combine Outback adventure with stylish home comforts, and the aforementioned coast and countryside, it is worth noting that the once rather staid city of Adelaide — a couple of hours’ drive from Portee and barely more than an hour from McLaren Vale — has livened up in recent years. It now fields a slew of interesting restaurants, good galleries and an acclaimed annual arts festival.

    Last updated: 2:26pm, September 10 2008