From vineyards and a Mediterranean climate to sweeping beaches that would make the stars of Home and Away weep with envy, Adelaide is South Australia’s best-kept secret, says Etan Smallman
Book-ended by vineyards and beaches, with quaint Victorian houses sitting alongside tidy parkland, Adelaide is Australia’s elegant aunt.
A favourite haunt with Britons relocating Down Under, this modest city with its Mediterranean climate is often woefully misrepresented as a cultural wasteland – all this, despite hosting one of the world’s most prestigious arts festivals.
Which is how I come to find myself sitting in a wheelchair, blindfolded and with my hands bound, in a theatre being accosted by a group of young Belgians.
The Adelaide Festival certainly has an unusual mix of performances. One of the highlights this year is The Smile Off Your Face, by Ghent-based theatre group Ontroerend Goed and its ‘immersive theatre’ is a full-frontal assault on the senses.
Visit the South Australian city in ‘Mad March’, and you’ll be treated to a smorgasbord of entertainment, including the Adelaide Festival, the Adelaide Fringe, the WOMADelaide world music concerts and the Clipsal 500 road-racing extravaganza.
At the Festival’s writers’ week, Booker Prize winner Thomas Keneally explains why the jewel of the south has been attracting him since his first appearance at the festival in 1968.
“It is a beautiful place,” the author of Schindler’s List tells me. “It has this wonderful dry heat and the citizens exist among a torrent of wine, flowing out of the Barossa Valley and out of the McLaren Vale.
“Foreign writers love this because it’s so warm in the middle of the northern European winter. It’s hard to move in my hotel without tripping over some great British novelist or biographer.”
It may have a proud arts heritage, but the insults still come thick and fast for poor Adelaide and locals wear them lightly.
It has long been known as the ‘City of Churches’ and by the ironic jibe ‘Radelaide’, but it is also the country’s grape capital and has a really exciting industry stoking that torrent of wine.
The area is bursting with boutique winemakers, but the giant Jacob’s Creek dominates. After a quick glimpse of the grapes themselves growing just outside, I’m treated to a wine masterclass by expert Sacha Bown in the Creek’s new visitors’ centre.
‘The Sensory Experience’ is billed as an interactive workshop that helps increase your knowledge and enjoyment of the complexities of wine through sensory analysis.
As a complete wine novice, that isn’t hard. But it’s still great fun putting my smell and taste to the test with a weird tray of treats, from petrol-scented balls to a strawberry dipped in black pepper.
After a delicious lunch on the balcony of the Creek’s award-winning restaurant, I whizz off to Penfolds winery.
The ‘make your own blend’ experience is meant to make you feel like a winemaker for an hour. However, it is, in essence, an exercise involving mixing three different types of wine in an oversized test tube. One upshot though: the tasting involves you consuming far more wine than you realise and you get to take a bottle of your own blend home with you.
The Barossa may get the lion’s share of tourist attention but Southern Australia’s other wine region, the McLaren Vale in the beautifully-named Fleurieu Peninsula, just south of Adelaide, is a hidden treat.
Showing me the secrets of the Vale is local Benjamin Neville, who set up his Off Piste 4WD Tours last year after a decade on the corporate rat race in London.
Ben is beyond passionate about the area, thoroughly knowledgeable, and takes care of his passengers’ every whim – all while providing a rip-roaring four-wheel drive adventure.
We kick off the day with a surfing lesson in Middleton. Heath Worrall, of Surf and Sun, educates me about rips, tides, wave negotiation and surfing etiquette by drawing some nifty diagrams in the sand, before we do some stretches and head out into the sea.
I certainly feel like I’m an extra in Home and Away, but this is no Summer Bay – the clouds are out in force and a storm is brewing in the distance.
However, trussed up in a wetsuit and invigorated by the power of the waves, I instantly forget about the cold and what Heath describes as “the conditions of a washing machine”.
He’s right about one thing: it’s “hard yakka” out here as I try to remember how on earth I’m supposed to go from lying prone on the board to standing gracefully while being lashed by the waves.
I eventually make it on to all fours but actually standing upright for more than a split second eludes me. Never mind, I’ve got the surfing bug – I’ll be back.
After returning to the relative security of Ben’s 4×4, we stop for ‘a snack’ in the middle of the bush in Deep Creek Conservation Park.
It turns out a snack with Off Piste Tours involves a table, chairs, gingham tablecloth, china plates, champagne, a view of untouched bush that’s to die for – and an array of mouthwatering canapés freshly prepared that morning by his friend, chef Nigel Rich.
The only thing missing is a pack of kangaroos, who I’m told occasionally come to join the party.
We hop back on the road, and cruise through Yankalilla and Onkaparinga districts via superb off-road tracks offering vistas across the Fleurieu Peninsula. We even speed along the mesmeric Silver Sands beach before lunch on a secluded hilltop encapsulated by some (more) breathtaking scenery.
Sandwiches on a picnic blanket? Flaming galah, no. Instead, chef Nigel who trained in some of London’s top hotels before setting up his restaurant, The Elbow Room, in McLaren Vale (and, incidentally, whose English mother went to school with Margaret Thatcher) is cooking up a surprise.
The feast is being prepared on the back of his ‘ute’, before being smoked, Heston-style, with a curious gadget and some apple chips. And it is all complemented by wine served by Thomas O’Donnell, who works at the nearby Samuel’s Gorge vineyard.
After divining my complete ignorance on the subject, Thomas challenges me to a spitting contest to prove his lack of pretentiousness about wine.
I decline the invitation but if I were in any doubt about their laid-back attitude to their product, owner of Samuel’s Gorge Justin McNamee – resplendent with grape stains splattered across face, hands and clothes – sets me straight.
“In the McLaren Vale, we’re not in a hurry and never have been to tell the world we are the best.
“I think because we don’t overtly jam it down people’s throats, when people actually finally discover it, they go ‘holy bloody Nelly’. And when you drink great wine here and then you go to the beach and then you see great art, and then you see the sunset – people are forever saying ‘I don’t want to leave.’”
Holy bloody Nelly, he’s right, I don’t want to go anywhere.
Emirates (www.emirates.com) runs services to Adelaide via Dubai from Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow. In April, economy flights to Adelaide from London are available from £830 return.
Off Piste 4WD Tours (www.offpistetours.com) offers a full-day guided tour of the Fleurieu Peninsula for £130 per adult, including pick-up, drop-off, entry to national parks and breakfast and afternoon canapés including local champagne and hand-crafted beers.
Surf and Sun Tours (www.surfandsun.com.au) offers group surfing lessons for £35 each and private lessons for £80.
Jacob’s Creek Visitor Centre in the Barossa Valley (www.jacobscreek.co.uk) offers twice daily tours of its vineyard for £8.50 and a wine masterclass with two-course lunch for £60 per person.
Penfolds (www.penfolds.com) offers a 1.5 hour Make Your Own Blend experience for £45.
The 2014 Adelaide Festival (www.adelaidefestival.com.au) runs from February 28 until March 16.
For further information on South Australia, visit: www.southaustralia.com