McLaren Vale – the town at the heart of the Southern Vales – is about an hour by car from central Adelaide. It’s a good place to stop to get your bearings. Stop in at the Visitors’ Centre (on the left as you arrive), tell them what you are interested in and they will help you devise an itinerary.
- Visit the wineries – of course. Over 60 beautiful cellar door outlets – where you can try, with no pressure to buy. Everyone has their favourite but we recommend, in no particular order, D’Arenberg (great views from the tasting room, also great restaurant), Coriole (beautiful garden), K1 on the ridge (for its gorgeous lakeside location), Chapel Hill and nearby Samuel’s Gorge (great views, great wine).
- For really serious wine drinkers have a look at what the wineries of ValeCru have to offer. These boutique wineries (some not much more than a shed) have banded together to jointly market the thing they hold in common – small volumes of high quality wine. Often quirky, always passionate winemakers – in it for the love of it.
- Try the beers. McLaren Vale now has at least three good small breweries with ‘cellar door’ outlets: Ekhidna, Vale Ale (cellar door at Red Poles) and (our favourite) Goodieson’s.
- Pick up gourmet supplies at Blessed Cheese in the main street of McLaren Vale. Good coffee. Great cheeses, breads, etc. Great breakfasts too. Blessed Cheese is also home of the Cheese and Wine Trail. You buy a cheese platter, they give you a map to 4 wineries. At each winery you get a small glass of wine paired with one of the cheeses on your platter. A great way to see – and taste – the district. And great value. ($15 head last time we looked.)
- Grab a jar (or two) of olives from the Olive Grove (on Warners Road near the entrance to D’Arenberg). These are the sort of olives that convert the uninitiated to olive eating.
- Swim at Port Willunga. One of the most painted and photographed beaches in the state.
- Have a meal at the Star of Greece. It looks like a little kiosk in the Port Willunga beach car park – but it’s a local institution. One thing to know – it’s is not a Greek restaurant. It takes its name from a ship that was wrecked on the beach in 1888. (On very low tide days, the hull is visible out in the waters of the north bay.) Great food. You will need to book. And if squid is on the menu, order it!
- Stop at the bakery in Aldinga. Generally this little town is just somewhere to drive through on your way to Port Willunga – but the bakery is definitely worth a visit. Everything baked on the premises, fresh every day. Great coffee too.
- Visit Willunga.
- If you are there on Saturday morning, the Farmers Market is a must. Then a coffee (or two) in the High Street. The 3 Monkey’s is a favourite, but everywhere is good.
- Buy some meat from Hamlets Butchers half way up the High Street on the left. A proper old fashioned butcher shop. Makes all its own smallgoods.
- Eat at one of the other great local restaurants.
- Vasarelli’s in McLaren Vale. This is a proper Italian restaurant – serving proper Italian food – run by two generations of a local Italian family.
- Russell’s Pizza, in Willunga High Street. This is a word of mouth restaurant (I am not sure it even has a sign) and is only open on Friday and Saturday nights. VERY casual. Rustic even. (Well actually it is pretty much a shed!) BYO. $7 corkage. Order as soon as you arrive because orders bank up. Try the Turkish pizza.
- The Salopian Inn. A great regional restaurant. In addition to great food and a good cellar they have 160 gins available to try – including a gin distilled on Kangaroo Island.
- Victory Hotel at Sellicks Beach. Renowned for its hillside views and its cellar. And awarded for ‘best hotel dining’ in Advertiser Food Awards 2013.
- The multi award winning Fino in Willunga. Regional food. Interesting wine list.
- For a Sunday lunch that you will never forget – Our Place – on Willunga Hill. No menu, you just turn up and eat what the Clappis family are cooking. Northern Italy meets regional South Australia. Glorious! Booking essential.
- Take a flight in a bi-plane. Seriously good fun and a great way to see the region. The airfield, nestled in the vineyards on Colville Road, Aldinga, even has a cool little café.
- If you are there in October/November (odd years only), make sure you see the finalists in the Fleurieu Art Prize – the world’s richest art prize for landscape painting.
For those of you who don’t have access to a car, don’t despair. This is a wine region you can visit by bus – and, if you are up for a bit (well actually quite a lot) of walking, you can sample some of the best of the district. Here’s how. Jump on the inexpensive Premier Bus (Victor Harbor route) to McLaren Vale. (They run buses three times a day from the Central Bus Station. Take the earliest one to give yourself plenty of time.) When you arrive, ask a local to direct you to the Shiraz Trail – a pleasant bike and walking trail that runs from McLaren Vale to Willunga along the old railway route. Walk a couple of kilometres towards Willunga, until you reach McMurtrie Road. Here, within walking distance, you’ll find the wineries and eating places of the ‘McMurtrie Mile’
- to the right – the Salopian Inn restaurant (mentioned above) and Richard Hamilton’s Leconfield Wines (lovely cellar door, platters of food available)
- to the left – Primo Estate (chic tasting room that, in addition to standard tastings, offers a premium paid tasting where you can learn a lot!), Hugh Hamilton Wines (panoramic views, friendly staff, lots of variety) and, if you are a good strong walker, Wirra Wirra (grand established winery) and Red Poles (wine, art, beer, food).
Retrace your steps to get the bus home. If you miss the Premier Bus (too much wine tasting!), you can use standard public transport (bus then train) to get back to Adelaide. There are bus stops in McLaren Vale Main Street. (Be sure to check the timetable though. If you also miss those buses it is a pretty expensive cab ride back to the city.)