Scenic Drives, Oldest Vines and Easy Hikes: The Great Southern Australian Road Trip
By Tab Hauser
South Australia between Adelaide and Melbourne is a very worthy road trip. In nine days we tasted very good wines from the world’s oldest original commercial vines.
We walked off some good food with hikes in a rain forest, on the coast and in an extinct volcano where we encountered kangaroos and got pooped on by a koala.
We finished off by driving along the Great Ocean Road to view the famous scenic coastal rock formations before ending in the lively city of Melbourne.
Upon arrival in Adelaide, we arranged a free walking tour with the volunteers at International Greeters. Information on them and the city can be found here.
The highlights of our 20-hour visit included the pedestrian Rundle Mall, the bustling Adelaide Central Market, the Euro-style Adelaide Arcade, the courthouse and the 120 million-year-old opal fossil at the South Australia Museum.
Don’t miss the world’s best dumplings at Mandoo off Bank Street near the Hyatt Hotel where we overnighted.
Barossa Valley, Where Shiraz is King
With the morning rental car paperwork completed it was an easy hour drive north watching the landscape turn to rolling green hills, quaint towns, and scenic vineyards. The Barossa Valley is one of the world’s great wine regions having 150 vineyards producing 21% of Australia’s wine. Former Wine Spectator critic James Suckling said the Barossa Shiraz can be compared with the best Syrahs of France. After various high-end tastings, it is difficult to say who is better.
We were in the Barossa Valley to learn about and taste Shiraz. During our visit, we paced ourselves to no more than three vineyards per day. The reason being is that too many wineries in a day tend to blur the visits. Our goal here was to upgrade to the “premium selections” in the cellar rooms (Aussie speak for a tasting room).
Back in the United States, it is easy to find “affordable” and mediocre Australian wines. Due to limited productions, much of the “great stuff” does not get exported. Our three-night base in Tanuda was at the Barossa Vineyard Cottages. We chose here because of its spacious cottage stocked with locally sourced eggs, cheese, sausage, bread, wine, sherry, and chocolates.
Peter Lehman Wines
Thirsty and anxious after checking in we drove ten minutes to Peter Lehman Wines. Peter Lehman is one of the larger producers of moderate to fine wines. At their cellar room, we arranged for the premium tasting along with their Weighbridge platter of locally sourced meats, cheeses, bread, figs and olives.
The premium tasting takes place away from the main bar. It comes with an “ambassador” who explains the details of each wine poured making the experience more interesting.
Before opening the wines she talked about their switch from cork to screw-top bottles and how their technology can mimic the way corks breath on the higher end wines. Our tasting was a real Shiraz pallet opener. Our ambassador poured us three Shiraz’s ranging from moderate to the high end coming from old low yield old vines.
Up until this moment, we had no idea how great Australian Shiraz could be. For an everyday red, their Shiraz-Cabernet blend was affordable and excellent.
When you think of where the oldest commercial grapevines are, most people tend to guess Europe. The answer is actually the Barossa Valley as it escaped the devastation of the phylloxera louse that started to kill the vines in Europe after 1860.
Because of the area’s remoteness to the rest of the world and the strict quarantine laws, the vineyards planted since the 1840s remain phylloxera free.
While a few vineyards verbally sparring over who has the oldest vines, the family-owned Langmeil Winery came up most by people in the valley. Their documents state in 1843 the first Shiraz grapes were planted on their property.
We visited the cellar room for a taste of three reds and a white. We started with the Orphan Bank Shiraz from 1860 era vines and graduated to their Freedom 1843 vines. Both luscious, full-body, low in tannins and excellent with 1843 a little more velvety on the tongue.
Our guide walked us out of the cellar room with our bottle to show us which vines the fruit came from. I have been to over a hundred wineries and have never seen vines this thick. Book the Freedom Experience tour in advance to try these most sought after wines.
Yalumba is a fifth-generation owned winery. It promotes sustainability through conservation management, packaging, winemaking and tree planting amongst other things. It was the first winery to receive the Climate Protection Award. Here we tried a mix of whites and reds.
What wowed us was their Signature Cabernet-Shiraz blend aged 24 months in American Oak. For the white wine, we liked the fresh taste and fruit on their Viognier. Before visiting go to their web site and consider one of five specialty tasting tours.
Rockford’s Black Shiraz
During our visit, we bumped into several Australians who told us not to miss the sparkling Black Shiraz from Rockford. Rockford’s buildings are made of old stones and bricks. They produce their wine using old methods.
This included a circa 1880 de-stemmer and a single cylinder 1912 8HP motor to press the grapes in a basket from 1890. In the cellar room, we enjoyed most of the varietals they poured. We found their bubbly Black Shiraz a bit dark and bitter to our taste but the Aussies next to us loved it.
When in the valley and between wineries consider a stop in one several villages to stroll. Here you can find farmers markets, cheese shops, microbreweries, restaurants, boutiques, and tasting rooms. Go to www.barossa.com and click the “visit link” to explore places to your liking.
Old Family Vineyards with a View in McLaren Vale
About 90 miles south and closer to the coast are the McClaren Vale vineyards. This is the birthplace of Australian wine recorded in 1839. Here you will find 18,500 acres spread over what they call a Mediterranean style climate. Its many microclimates give distinct characteristics to similar grapes.
The region has 160 vineyards, many are boutique-sized with production that sells out fast. The vineyards are scattered over the many windy country roads. With only an overnight allotted in here, we chose two places to visit that were founded in 1912 and 1837. While these were old family vineyards, we liked their modern design and view.
D’Arenberg is known for its five-story artistic cube and good wine. Completed in 2017 the cube contains a gourmet restaurant, wine sensory room, a virtual fermenter, a 360-degree video room, an Alternate Realities Museum and changing art exhibits.
The tasting room is on the top floor. The basic admission of $10 includes the museum entrance and sampling of their standard wines.
Splurge for their premium tasting that is served in a quiet classy area away from the busy bar. We had a setup of eight high-end reds and along with a few whites and a dessert wine. Each of the four Shiraz’s was full-bodied with some having a little more fruit or tannin on the tongue and were all very good.
We also liked their blended wines. D’Arenberg’s unusual “Dead Arm” Shiraz comes from vines where one of the branches dies off reducing its fruit yield but making the flavor intense. Sipping from the top floor gives you an excellent view. Afterward, walk down the steps to see the museum. For information on their different experiences and food go to www.darenberg.com.au.
Hugh Hamilton Vineyard
The Hugh Hamilton Vineyard cellar room sits above the vineyards with large picture windows. It is a pretty place to sip and have a snack. The Hamilton family has been in the business since 1837. A poster shows portraits of five generations of male heirs and their new CEO, Mary Hamilton who took over from her father Hugh. Hugh Hamilton was known as the black sheep of the family.
It is the reason why most of the labels have a black sheep on it and their wine list is called a flock. The flock has rebellious names like the villain, rascal or ruffian along with the description of the wine. While the marketing concept is cute, we only found their reasonably priced wines only OK.
3 Diva’s Comfy Cabins
When in McClaren Vale, consider the comfortable cabins by the vineyard at the 3 Divas (http://winedivatours.com.au/). The owners were very helpful with restaurant recommendations and can arrange wine tours.
Nature’s Cellar at a UNESCO Site
Take a 90-minute break from wine by driving east towards Coonawarra to visit a different type of cellar. The
Naracoorte Caves National Park is South Australia’s only World Heritage site and one of only eleven of its type in the world. The caves here have acted as animal traps for 500,000 years. As a result, Naracoorte has one of the most complete fossil records for this time period. We opted for the Victoria Fossil Cave tour. This got us up close and personal with a marsupial lion skeleton that roamed half a million years ago along with the stalactites, stalagmites, and a fossil graveyard. Go to NaracoorteCaves.sa.gov.au to choose the tour right for you.
Coonawarra just 45 minutes east of Naracoorte was the halfway point in our road trip from Barossa Valley to Melbourne. The wine region here is very easy to visit. All 35 vineyards are located on a nine by 1.25 mile stretch of land just off A66.
It reminded me a bit of the Silverado Trail in Napa Valley. Coonawarra’s claim to wine fame is its rich red soil draining over limestone with the cabernet sauvignon grape dominate here.
Brand’s Laira was established in 1893 and was one of our favorite stops. Before entering, linger at some vines near the entrance and read the historical signs.
Once inside order their locally sourced “ploughman’s platter” with a glass of wine and sip it in the original cellar complete with old dust-covered bottles. At the bar sample both new and old wines.
We found nearly everything we liked with prices appropriate for styles and age of the wine tasted. We wish we could put a case of their 1868 Vines Cabernet in our suitcase. Afterward, we viewed grapes arriving in the back and were impressed as a computer screen showed us how they were being sorted at a rapid pace. When visiting look for the original 15 rows of Shiraz planted in 1893.
Just around the corner is the Wynns Coonawarra Estate established in 1891. Their cellar room is a museum and tasting bar where several wines are available to sample. We sipped and looked at the exhibits that included company artifacts and a model of the grounds natural drainage. Our favorite wines were the Lane Cabernet/Shiraz, Riesling and the “Pedro Ximenez” fortified dessert wine. Wynns several wine tours can be found at Wynns Coonawarra Estate.
At the south end of Coonawarra is the town of Penola that services the region for its tourists and businesses. We checked into the funky named MUSt@Coonawara. This stylish hotel is all modern and is near the end of town walking distance to a few wineries. Stroll five minutes to the Raddis Estates to experience a small winery. More information Coonawarra.org.
Port Fairy, Kangaroos, Emus and Koalas
Part one of our great southern Australia road trip was over. Wineries were out, scenic vistas and nature were in. Port Fairy was our overnight destination. This town had the most charm of our three overnights on the coast. After checking into a large suite at Douglas Riverside we took an easy hike on the 77 acre Griffiths Island Preserve nearby.
The one-hour pretty stroll has you view sea birds, a small old lighthouse and an occasional wallaby (small kangaroo for non-Aussies). The next morning we did a quick drive around town using a self-guided historical map to see the pretty homes and its quaint main street before the 20-minute drive to Tower Hill Wildlife Preserve.
Tower Hill is a preserve in an extinct volcano surrounded by lakes. Upon driving into the parking lot we were greeted by two emus that blocked our spot. Stop at the visitor’s center to learn about the easy hikes here. We recommend taking the 45-minute trail to the top for the view and then the 30-minute boardwalk trail to look for wildlife. Normally people find koalas after seeing cars pulled over with people looking up in the trees.
My experience was different. While walking on the trail I felt a small tap on my shoulder for that I thought was a pine cone. Looking down I saw something over an inch long, hard and brown. Puzzled, I looked up only to see I had been pooped on by a koala 30 feet up that I missed seeing just two minutes earlier. Our mini-safari walk had us view two more koalas and three kangaroos up close.
Our weekday visit here was very peaceful only coming across a few others on the trails. Walks can be on your own or guided. For more information go to Parks Victoria
The Beautiful Coast
To get the most of the Great Ocean Road and its beautiful offshore rock formations you need a plan. Heading east to Port Campbell stop at the three sites called The Gorge, London Bridge and The Arch. Each place is well marked and is a short walk to the viewing area from the parking lot.
While all three offer a view, the highlight is London Bridge with its arch underneath it. This was originally a double arch that connecting the mainland but collapsed in 1990 leaving people stranded and lucky not to have crossed during the collapse. It offers a pretty view with the sun glowing on it. At the Arch we watched the waves pound hard and spray up on its walls while a pod of dolphins fished nearby.
The reason for overnighting in Port Campbell is because it is a ten-minute drive to the Twelve Apostles parking lot. With lighting so different at dusk and dawn staying here gave us an easy drive to view it twice. Sunset is magnificent. The walls on the cliffs and the apostles changed shades as the sun went down (and as it went up the next morning). At the sunset we viewed the apostles silhouetted by a pretty orange horizon.
The next morning we drove back to watch the mist clear as the sun rose on the apostles and cliffs. Other coastal sites worth a stop included Lord Ard Gorge and Tom and Eva’s Lookout. The scenery is beautiful. To touch the water and see the cliffs from the beach you can park at Gibson Steps and walk down. Wanting one last look from above, we booked a 12 Apostles Helicopter ride.
We were not pleased when they used a larger helicopter to put six of us on board. The two middles seats have a limited view out the opposite window due to the two people closer to that window and their cell phones blocking it. The view is fine on the window you are near. I would take the smaller chopper or pass on the ride.
Rain Forests, Waterfalls, a Lighthouse and Chocolate
The Otways is where the rain forest meets the Great Ocean Road. It is an area of waterfalls, forest hikes, a California redwood forest and little hamlets full of farm stands, microbreweries and food shops. While we only had a day and a half, you can easily spend a few days here.
A fun place to start is the Otway Fly Tree Top Adventures. Here you can see the forest from the top by taking their one-hour Rainforest and Treetop Walk. This starts as a stroll through the woods until you reach the first tower that takes you up to a series of suspension bridges about 90 feet high.
In the middle of the bridges is a spiral tower that climbs up to 147 feet for a better view of the forest and bridges. There is also a zip line tour available if you wish to soar through the forest.
The Otways are known for their waterfalls and you can spend a few days visiting several of them. Just down the road from Otway Fly is the Triplet Falls. The one-hour return walk will take you through the ancient forest to find three cascades surrounded by large ferns. For waterfall information go to VisitOtways.com/. If you have time while in the area, visit the photo-worthy California redwood forest planted here in 1936.
Cape Otway Lighthouse
Just off Great Ocean Road is the Cape Otway Lighthouse Station. When on Lighthouse Road look for cars pulled over. This is a telltale sign of people looking up at Koalas which three were spotted. At the entrance find out what special tours or historical talks may be given that day. Then take the path to the different historical structures before heading to the lighthouse. The lighthouse was first lit in 1848 and is the second oldest in Australia. Climb to the top for the best views. Allow 90 minutes for your visit.
An easy must-see stop between the lighthouse and Apollo Bay is called Maits Rest Rainforest Walk. This is a perfect pretty half-mile self-guided boardwalk path through one of the few thick patches of temperate rain forest in the area. You will immerse yourself in lush greenery and 300-foot trees with little physical effort while feeling miles away from it all. Go to https://www.parkstay.vic.gov.au/ for information on Otway walks and parks
Our last night was spent in Apollo Bay which is a pleasant beach town perfect for an overnight or a day by the ocean. From Apollo Bay we had three last stops before Melbourne. The first one was to the 90 foot Erskine Falls. This is one of the taller falls in the area that you can take a 5-minute trail to the overlook or walk the quarter-mile round trip near the base.
For something different go to the Angelsea Golf Club . Here you pay $10 for a 30-minute ride around in a three-row cart to see kangaroos going about their business on the golf course. We watched them hop between the greens and in the fairway where club members played around or ignored them.
Great Ocean Road Chocolatier
With Melbourne 90 minutes away, we celebrated our last stop at the Great Ocean Road Chocolatier and Ice Cream Shop. This is a very large chocolate store and café. Visitors watch the production through windows while helping themselves to samples of different chocolate chips. While shopping, look for the smiling employees with the world’s best job of handing out free candy.
For a few dollars book a tasting session to try 12 different styles of chocolate. This was a very sweet ending for a road trip worth driving when in this part of the world.