Just 27 miles south of Adelaide, the capital of the state of South Australia, is a little-known Mediterranean-style region called the Fleurieu Peninsula with world-class wines, local produce and passionate growers, stellar beaches and small towns with a thriving cuisine scene.
Though it is off the beaten path for international travelers, it is on the driving route between Adelaide and popular Kangaroo Island. It's also worth a special trip for those who seek a mellow area rich with local culture and a low level of commercialism.
I've explored this roughly 3,000-square-mile region (including Kangaroo Island) countless times since 1979 with my buddy and fellow journalist, Jim Hutchison, who grew up in Adelaide. We have honed an ideal itinerary over the years, often heading here on breaks from book and magazine assignments. It's one of my favorite places in Australia.
The boot-shaped peninsula, its toes pointing toward Kangaroo Island, can be explored on an activity-packed 125-mile trip on quiet country roads over a long weekend.
We always rent a cottage on one of the wide sand beaches that start in Adelaide so that we can forage in this region of cheesemakers, olive groves and artisan charcuterie-makers, and throw whatever we want on our barbecue with a view — marinated kangaroo steaks being a favorite.
On our last visit in 2014 we chose to stay on Moana Beach, a quiet-during-the-week place with the laid-back Deep Blue Café serving breakfasts of free-range Kangaroo Island eggs opposite the surf life-saving club. We sipped espressos while listening to crashing waves and lorikeets screeching as they flashed red and green among the Norfolk Island pines.
Jim and I spent a week there taking day trips and doing day hikes, starting in wine-rich McLaren Vale, where we always take a morning exploring back roads, a picnic under construction on our back seat. Alexandrina cheeses were plucked fresh from the dairy and warm venison steak pies were scooped up from the butcher in nearby Mount Compass.
Puttering along between grapevines and gum trees, we stopped at cottage producers for smoked trout, warm bread and oysters nestled on ice. We topped off with a bottle of white wine wrapped in a beach towel to keep it frosty.
Then we head to Maslin, our favorite among the dozens of nearby beaches and South Australia's oldest "unclad" beach. On a quiet stretch of sand we had all to ourselves, we indulged in a gourmet picnic where not just the oysters were au naturel.
At the end of our stay we headed south along the beaches and through eucalyptus forest to the old-style holiday town of Victor Harbor. From there it's not far to the mouth of the Murray River and the vast string of dunes that make up spectacular Coorong National Park. A winding road through the Langhorne Creek wine area and the Mount Lofty Ranges led back to Adelaide.
Australia's McLaren Vale on the Fleurieu Peninsula boasts premium wines and gourmet local fare
McLaren Vale is a premium wine-growing region known for its Shiraz, and it's the gateway to the Fleurieu Peninsula, where the vineyards extend almost to the beaches. Visiting some of its more than 70 mostly boutique wineries is something of a pilgrimage for my friend Jim and me, birthplaces of our favorite Aussie whites that love the sea breeze and the big reds created by winemakers such as d'Arenberg, Wirra Wirra and Samuel's Gorge, whose rustic cellar was an 1853 olive-press house.
Wineries, in everything from historic cellars to modern structures, are scattered along dusty roads here, where you unexpectedly come across painters' and potters' studios in old stone cottages or roadside stands selling fresh dried fruit, multicolored potatoes, kiwis and protea flowers.
There's an ever-growing collection of small new wineries such as Alpha Box & Dice, which is run by talented young guns who produce small-batch vintages in a converted stable complete with pinball machines and a stuffed armadillo.
Some wineries offer local specialty platters to accompany tastings, while others have outdoor patio restaurants and offer accommodations among the vines.
Coriole Vineyards' tasting room is in an 1860 ironstone barn. It hosts an annual music festival (May 7 and 8) and a Shakespeare in the Vines event (Jan. 24).. Bring your own blanket; there is plenty of wine on hand.
On Saturday morning we headed to the Willunga Farmers Market (www.willungafarmersmarket.com), South Australia's first and perhaps its best, a cheerfully lively affair with local producers' and artists' booths selling everything from wild scallops to pasture-fed Yankaponga lamb.
The market's motto rings true: "Meet the grower and taste the region." Willunga is one of a dozen or so charming heritage towns across the peninsula and is known for its gourmet eateries; even the classic old Aussie pub, the Hotel McLaren, is well stocked with local micro-brews and serves creative gastro-pub fare.
As the sun headed for the horizon, we settled our salt- and sand-encrusted bodies on the cliff-top deck of the Star of Greece at Port Willunga overlooking a beach dotted with surf fishermen.
Once a 1950s bait and tackle shop, it's now a deluxe beach shack serving contemporary Australian cuisine with a menu heavily populated with local seafood such as King George whiting and Kangaroo Island lobster, seafood so fresh that one food writer claimed "rigor mortis had not even set in."
Victor Harbor on Australia's south coast is perfect for whale watching and penguin peeping
As my friend Jim and I headed south through the Fleurieu Peninsula from McLaren Vale, past beaches popular with surfers, Route B23 eventually headed inland through eucalyptus-covered hills and pastureland.
There are only tiny towns here and remote, secluded beaches. We liked to bush-walk in the Deep Creek Conservation Park, where we spotted clouds of white corellas, kookaburras and cockatoos, and watched 'roos and wallabies grazing under the gum trees with the brilliant blue Gulf St. Vincent as a backdrop.
Sometimes we split our visit to stay a few nights in Victor Harbor on the south coast, a popular Adelaide summer weekend retreat with vacation homes lining its beaches.
It's a charming — sometimes cheesy — old-world seaside town dating to 1863 with Victorian buildings, fish and chip shops, the Cockle Train heritage railway that runs to nearby Goolwa, as well as a horse-drawn antique tram that takes visitors across a narrow wooden pedestrian causeway to Granite Island.
The mile-long path encircling the island, a nature park, was part of my morning power walk past giant granite boulders tinged with bright orange lichen. Sometimes I saw New Zealand fur seals and sea lions just offshore, and I've spotted southern right whales too.
Victor Harbor and adjoining Encounter Bay, once home to 19th century whaling stations, are where the cetaceans return every year from June through September to mate and give birth. There is plenty of opportunity for whale watching. Granite Island itself is uninhabited except for Little penguins, the world's smallest penguin species, that waddle onto the island beaches at dusk in time for nightly penguin-peeping tours departing from the island's Penguin, Marine and Environmental Centre, which also cares for injured birds and releases them into the wild.
At times we rented bikes and cycled the 13.5-mile Encounter Bikeway from Victor Harbor to Goolwa. En route is Port Elliot, where it's always a major decision whether to indulge in Port Elliot Bakery's legendary meat pies or to succumb to fish and chips whose aroma drifted temptingly along the beach, mingling with the smell of eucalyptus and sea salt.
Australia's undiscovered Fleurieu Peninsula has been changing for the better
Flocks of pelicans led the way into this Murray River port at the eastern edge of the Fleurieu Peninsula. As in other peninsula towns, some of Goolwa's 19th century buildings have become contemporary eateries and accommodations, such as the luxury five-suite Australasian Circa 1858 hotel that resides in a renovated Georgian-style lodging.
The town of 6,000 was declared Australia's first Cittaslow, a Slow Food-like designation that aims to improve the quality of life by slowing down the pace.
My friend Jim and I parked ourselves at Hector's on the Wharf and watched the paddle steamboats coming and going. On the wharf nearby, a former corrugated iron railway shed is home to the craft beers of the atmospheric Steam Exchange Brewery; further along the Murray River bank was our lunch destination, Aquacaf, with local specialties such as Goolwa cockles and Mulloway fish pasties.
The Murray River's meeting with the Southern Ocean creates a complex piece of geography. Australia's longest river empties into Lake Alexandrina, largely blocked from the sea by a narrow 81-mile-long strip of sand dunes — the Younghusband Peninsula — that make up Coorong National Park. It's a spectacular ecosystem for hiking and boating.
Years ago Jim and I got lost and stumbled across One Paddock Currency Creek Winery, nestled among the gum trees, some bearing the scars left by Aboriginal canoe makers when they harvested the bark almost a century ago. Now, visiting this far-flung winemaker, one of a few outside Goolwa, and its Shiraz is on our must-see list.
Nearby is Langhorne Creek (population 668), a premium red wine region dating to 1850, a sleepy rural area with much-lauded Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. Then there's the antique shops of Strathalbyn. From here it was just an hour back to Adelaide on a scenic route weaving through the Mount Lofty Ranges.
Over many years I've watched the Fleurieu Peninsula gradually move into the 21st century. Old stone hotels have morphed into chic inns, classic pubs have re-emerged as hip microbreweries, and the food has gone from uninspired to exquisite and locally sourced. But the best part is that the Fleurieu has not changed its unpretentious character and that it's still a largely undiscovered gem, the domain of locals.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA
From LAX, Air New Zealand, Qantas and Virgin Australia offer connecting service (change of planes) to Adelaide. Restricted round-trip airfares from $1,099, including taxes and fees.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 61 (country code for Australia), the area code and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY
The McLaren Vale visitors center website offers bookings for a wide range of accommodation options throughout the region: www.mclarenvale.info/accommodation-search.
McLaren Vale Motel & Apartments, Main Road and Caffrey Street, McLaren Vale; 8-8323-8265, www.mclarenvalemotel.com.au. Recently renovated, family-run accommodations in the heart of wine country. Doubles from $100 a night.
The Australasian Circa 1858, 1 Porter Street, Goolwa; 8-8555-1088, www.australasian1858.com. Award-winning boutique hotel in a historic Georgian-style pub. Doubles from $283 per night, including breakfast. Minimum two-night stay.
Jimmy Smith's Dairy Retreat, Mentone Road East, Port Elliot; 409-690-342, www.jimmysmithsdairy.com.au. Stylish two-unit bed and breakfast overlooking the beach. Two-night minimum: $415 for two.
WHERE TO EAT
The Barn Bistro, 252 Main Road, McLaren Vale, 8-8323-8618, www.thebarnbistro.com.au. Popular 19th century coach stop with an outside patio. Local menu with local wines by the glass. From $80 for two.
D'Arry's Verandah, Osborn Road, McLaren Vale, 8-8329-4848, www.darenberg.com.au/darrys-verandah-restaurant. Fine dining at iconic d'Arenberg winery. Open for lunch. Three-course tasting menu, $58 per person.
Eat @Whalers, 121 Franklin Parade, Encounter Bay; 8-8552-4400, www.whalersinnresort.com.au. Bistro overlooking the beach at Encounter Bay. Local charcuterie, cheeses and wines. Lunch from $60 for two.
Star of Greece, 1 The Esplanade, Port Willunga; 8-8557-7420, www.starofgreece.com.au. Popular Mediterranean-style seafood restaurant. Lunch or dinner for two from $90.
Blessed Cheese, 150 Main Road, McLaren Vale: 8-8323-7958, www.blessedcheese.com.au. Casual, locally sourced deli with excellent lunches and the area's best coffee. Lunch from $25 for two.
TO LEARN MORE
McLaren Vale and Fleurieu Visitor Information Centre: www.mclarenvale.info/visitor-centre. This excellent information facility has its own vineyard, cafe and wine bar, lake, linear park and landscaped gardens showcasing regional floriculture.
Cheese and Wine Trail: www.blessedcheese.com.au/cheese-and-wine-trail.html. A self-guided four-course progressive lunch and wine tasting. Pick up your goody-filled picnic hamper at Blessed Wine and Cheese in McLaren Vale and set off for winery tastings. $25 per person, two-person minimum.
Spirit of the Coorong, Main Wharf, Goolwa; 8-8555-2203, www.coorongcruises.com.au/soc. Cruises into the mouth of the Murray River for bird life and dune viewing.