Fleurieu – South Australia's undiscovered country

French explorer Nicholas Baudin would be appalled at what locals have done to the peninsula he named for the Comte de Fleurieu in 1802.

Strictly speaking, the land-leg below Adelaide should be pronounced with two ‘urghhh’ sounds separated by a guttural ‘r’. South Australians however have given up on this and simply called it the ‘Flurry-oh’.

Should we care? Not really. Because, however you call it, this is arguably one of the most rewarding regions in Australia – a trifecta of dramatic coast, towns that tell an important story and a wine region with a reputation that has travelled far beyond these shores.

If at this point you’re scratching your head wondering why you haven’t heard the name ‘Flurry-oh’, you’re forgiven. Most out-of-state visitors flying into Adelaide default north to the Barossa while those coming in off the Great Ocean Road either bypass the peninsula altogether or shoot through on their way to Kangaroo Island (the KI ferry leaves from the tip).

You shouldn’t make the same mistake.

So let’s start with a name you will know: McLaren Vale. The McLaren wine region is only 40km from Adelaide and a terribly civilised introduction to a region that gets increasingly rugged the further south you go.

Roads less travelled

Small towns like Willunga, McLaren Vale and McLaren Flat are set in west-facing foothills that are warmed by the Mediterranean-like sun and soothed at night by sea breezes. The land was found to be ideal wine country way back in 1839 when settlers John Reynell and Thomas Hardy planted the first vines. Hardy went on to become Australia’s largest wine producer.

Today the region is home to champion growers including SC Pannell (holder of the 2014 Jimmy Watson trophy) and Yangara (awarded Australia’s Best Winemaker by James Halliday) to say nothing of perennials such as d’Arenberg, Angove’s and Hardys Tintara. Cellar doors – 80 of them and counting – offer as much diversity as scenery, as well as the region’s extraordinary fine produce, served on everything from simple platters to degustation menus.

It’s fun to get lost on the roads less travelled, but if you’d prefer to cut to the chase, try the ‘McMurtrie Mile’ : a $15 ‘Passport’ buys you private tastings in Wirra Wirra, Hugh Hamilton and Sabella as well as a two-course lunch (and beer tasting) at Red Poles restaurant.

For a more hands-on experience, you can blend your own wines at d’Arenberg’s Blending Bench do a famous one-day cooking schools held at beautiful Chapel Hill Wines. At the 32-hectare farm owned by Producers you can get stuck into cheese making, winemaking or mechanical grape picking.

From the McLaren Vale, you can also enjoy spectacular views of the coast and the Peninsula, curving 50km away to the south. It’s a vista of low ranges, rugged headlands, isolated beaches and the glittering Gulf St Vincent.

Go the distance and you’ll discover pieces of country few people get to see.

Bucolic 1950s-style beach holiday vibe

At the southern extreme, where the placid Gulf waters give way to the muscle-y Southern Ocean, hikers are discovering the extraordinary four-day trail from Cape Jervis through Deep Creek Conservation Park to Victor Harbor. Part of the Heysen Trail, it has it all: cliff scenery that enchanted artist Sir Hans Heysen, secret bays that are home to seals and dolphins, and rugged beaches like Parsons and Waitpinga, both revered by professional surfers.

For a gentler immersion, you could take a beach house at the remote towns of Normanville or Carrickalinga on the Gulf. Nestled at the foot of steep pastured hills, you’ll feel you’ve rediscovered the family beach holiday circa 1950. It’s all about kids in soft sands and safe waters, it’s about ice creams and horse rides on the beach. After a day in the sun, everyone heads into Normanville or the bucolic town of Yankalilla for cafes and pubs. There’s also a fine golf course at Lady Bay.

To completely change the scenery – and the story – head across the Flurry-oh to another name that may perplex: the tiny port town of Goolwa.

Resist the colourful cafes and shops on the historic main street to find the gorgeous old wharf. This is home to the PS Oscar W paddle steamer, as well as a fine timber goods shed (now the Steam Exchange Brewery, serving craft beer and 52 per cent proof moonshine) and a very good cafe bar called Hectors. Time it right and you’ll also see ‘the Cockle Train’ being drawn by one of several period locos including a charismatic steam engine.

Sleepy and pretty – yes – but Goolwa was once critical to Australia’s export wealth. Between 1853 and the 1880s, this was the end-point for wool, wheat and timber being shipped down Australia’s largest river system.

The calm waters beside the wharf are actually part of a vast and complex system of lakes, lagoons and sand islands formed by the Murray-Darling – the entire ecosystem hemmed in by 140km of sand dunes called The Coorong. Where the Murray breaches the dunes, the waters are treacherous.

Plenty of options

Hence the establishment of Goolwa. Paddle steamer captains had to transfer their cargo to a horse-drawn railway; the freight was then (slowly) towed along the coast to sea-going vessels waiting in Encounter Bay.

If you head to the little visitor information centre (formerly ‘a post office and railway station’) you’ll see old stables and a curious open carriage with seating: as well as hauling cargo, the horses began pulling people in 1853 – ushering in Australia’s first public railway system.

If this surprises you, wait until you drive to the other side of town – and stand on the spectacular 15km-long beach where the surf rolls in off the Southern Ocean.

It leaves you with a lot of options

You can stay in town to explore the history (don’t miss the almost forgotten collection at the Historical Society), and enjoy a suite of art galleries, cafes, pubs and boutique beach-house homewares.

You can join a day-long Spirit of the Coorong Cruise departing the Wharf to see the lakes, the islands, the Murray mouth and the astonishing ecosystem made famous by the movie Storm Boy.

Fish and chips par excellence

Or you can camp down on the walloping beaches of Goolwa and Middleton. Join one of the surf schools set up on the beach (Surf&Sun or Kingo’s); go hunting for fresh cockles (ask a local to show you how); or simply kick back in Goolwa’s funky cafe shack, Bombora beside the sand.

The story doesn’t end here, indeed it heads west along one of the most scenic rail lines in the country. Take the Cockle Train, take the road or take your time and cycle the Encounter Bikeway. Your destination is the 15,000-strong city of Victor Harbor but you’ll stop twice en route.

Middleton offers the excellent Blues Restaurant, the historic Old Mill (for wine, food and antique furnishings) as well as a lively surf scene.

Port Elliott is a lovely old sea salt of a town that’s become quite boutique. The historic buildings along The Strand now harbour hipsterish cafes, desirable homewares and ladies fashion outlets. The Hotel Elliott is a food hero worth checking out; and keep pushing through town to find stunning Horseshoe Bay, famous for the Flying Fish Cafe which does fish and chips par excellence.

Victor Harbor, set in a dramatic bowl of countryside, has been a whaling station, a deep-water port for the ex-Goolwa freight as well as a summer escape for Adelaideans for over 150 years. All these stories are well told in the Encounter Coast Discovery Centre on picturesque Warland Reserve; entry includes a tour of the old Customs Master’s house.

Next door is the Whale Centre where you’ll see how Victor has gone from hunting ground to safe haven. In the 1830s two competing whaling companies would race each other in rowboats to be the first to harpoon visiting Southern Right Whales and Humpbacks. Today, whales use Encounter Bay from May to October to calve and execute those signature frolics like spy-hopping and lobbing.

Sightings are made up and down this stretch of coast: check in with the Centre for the latest news, then repair to the bluffs. Alternatively join a Big Duck tour and let Dave Irvine get you closer to the action. Out of season he can locate other residents including seals and dolphins.

To bring your Fleurieu adventure full circle, you should board the famous Horse Drawn tram. Towed by the council’s own Clydesdales, it’s a relic of the railway operation, and one of only two in the world. You’ll clop slowly from the pretty town centre, out onto a 630m timber causeway and onto Granite Island.

Leave the tram to do a 2km circle of this curious rocky outlier where you can enjoy views and a surprising amount of wildlife. Best of all you can stand atop this rocky outcrop and look back at the Peninsula you’d never heard of. In the safety of the island’s solace and sea-breezes, it’s as good a chance as any to quietly practice your French.

Go on, give it a go: Fleurrrrrri-urghhhh.

Max Anderson - Published March 2016
Quick Facts 
Population Approx 1.2 million
Area 870 km2
Time Zone GMT +9.5
Languages English (official)
Currency Australian dollar (AUD)
Electricity 220–240v 50Hz
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