Spot emus in South Australia. // © 2017 Getty Images
Feature image (above): Clients can sample great food and wine in the Barossa Valley. // © 2017 Getty Images
There were times during my trip to South Australia when I felt like I was back home in California. The weather during my April visit was sunny and nearly perfect. The rolling fields of grapevines looked a lot like the wine country I was used to. The coastline was more rugged, and the water a bit more blue, but it reminded me of Big Sur.
Then, just as I had convinced myself that Australia is not that different after all, something snapped me back to reality.
“Uh, I think I saw an emu standing on the side of the road,” I told Ralf Hadzic, my driver and guide from Life Is a Cabernet, a local tour operator based in Adelaide. “Do they just walk around like that?”
“Well, mate,” Hadzic deadpanned, “I don’t think it was someone’s pet.”
By the end of my visit, I realized that this mix of easy comfort and exotic adventure is part of what makes a trip to South Australia so appealing.
For travel agents, blending luxury and adventure is a winning combination. Travelers want to experience a destination that is unique and exotic — and rife with a wide variety of experiential activities — but they don’t always want to sacrifice comfort.
“American visitors want to feel like they are having an adventure,” said Hadzic, who lives in Texas part of the year. “But they don’t want to feel like they are too far from home — they want to be spoiled with their comforts. We can do that here.”
Indeed, many Americans seem to find this formula enticing. The most recent numbers from the South Australia Tourism Commission show a 13 percent increase in visitors to the region from the U.S. since March of 2016.
A visit to South Australia should begin in Adelaide, the state’s capital. This university town has a rich history and a cosmopolitan feel, and it’s a major center for sporting events, festivals, concerts and cultural productions. Its location makes it an ideal gateway to many regional destinations, including the Barossa Valley for wine; the Eyre Peninsula for adventure; and Kangaroo Island for wildlife. While Adelaide doesn’t have direct air service to the U.S., there are frequent flights to and from Sydney (two hours) and Melbourne (about one hour).
There are many types of accommodations in Adelaide, but I really enjoyed my stay at the Mayfair Hotel. This charming 170-room boutique property opened in 2015 and features stylish guestrooms with a range of luxury amenities. It is centrally located — across the street from Rundle Mall, a pedestrian-only outdoor shopping area — and guests will love the views from the rooftop bar.
There are several notable wine areas within driving distance of Adelaide, but the Barossa Valley (about one hour away) is the most well-known. Travelers can tour the Barossa in a variety of ways, including via biking and hiking tours. I explored the area with Life Is a Cabernet, which can handle anything from short morning or afternoon wine-tasting trips with just one or two people to multiday tours with a group. The company has guided a long list of major celebrities and dignitaries, from Beyonce to Hillary Clinton. Hadzic owns the company, and I highly suggest requesting him as your guide. His stories alone are worth the price of admission, plus he has a deep knowledge of the area and provides a level of access that stems from his personal relationships with local wineries.
The Barossa is still mostly made up of small operators, and travelers are more likely to interact with growers, not salespeople. Visitors should be sure to check out the Saturday morning farmers’ market near the town of Angaston to get a real feel for the local color. You won’t find snooty foodies here — just hard-working farmers who love what they do.
While there are a lot of great wineries to try, no trip to the Barossa would be complete without a stop at Seppeltsfield. This winery dates back to 1851, and it has one of the largest collections of old fortified wines (ports) in the world (dating back to 1838). For about $100, guests can take the Centenary Tour and sample a port from the year of their birth, as well as one that is 100 years old.
One of the best choices for lodging in the Barossa is The Louise. This luxury property with just 15 suites was opened by U.S. expats who wanted to highlight the wonders of the region. The hotel is now part of Relais & Chateaux and Luxury Lodges of Australia. Each suite combines modern luxury with country comfort. My one-bedroom suite featured a large Jacuzzi tub, an outdoor shower and a fireplace, among other amenities. The property also has an infinity pool that looks out over a neighboring vineyard. And the hotel offers a hearty breakfast delivered to your door daily.
Appellation at The Louise, the property’s restaurant, is a highlight in its own right. Considered one of the finest regional dining spots in Australia, it features local farm-to-table cuisine and, of course, a world-class wine list.
The Adventure Continues
After a visit to the Barossa, clients may be ready to experience something a bit more active to get their adrenaline pumping, making Port Lincoln a perfect next stop.
This small town on the Eyre Peninsula is less than an hour from Adelaide by air on local carrier Regional Express. Port Lincoln is known for amazing seafood, beautiful beaches and thrilling adventure. One of the top local operators is Goin’ Off Safaris, run by hometown boy and local legend David Doudle. Because Doudle grew up in Port Lincoln, he knows the area as well as anyone, and he delights in making sure visitors experience the best it offers.
“I started this company because I knew all these great spots that I love, and I wanted to share them with visitors,” Doudle said. “There is so much to do here; it’s the perfect place for travelers.”
Goin’ Off Safaris can cater its activities to a client’s interests, but some of the highlights include off-roading on coastal sand dunes; fishing from the beach or from a boat; and snorkeling with sea lions. And, for true excitement, visitors can get into a metal cage and go underwater with great white sharks.
“I’ve seen 20-footers and more on some trips,” Doudle said. “Being in the water with a shark that big can be quite a rush.”
If guests want to combine activities, Doudle can also arrange for helicopter tours and transport.
Since the area is known for its seafood, culinary travelers should head to Coffin Bay, where some of the best oysters in the world are cultivated. Coffin Bay Oyster Farm Tours gets visitors right into the action by having them don waders and walk out into the bay to learn about the delicacy. Of course, clients also get to shuck and eat the oysters right out of the water — with the option of a glass of Champagne — as well.
While adventures abound, the accommodations in the area are somewhat limited. Port Lincoln Hotel is a good choice, or visitors may be able to book a local beach home through Airbnb or another management agent. (Goin’ Off Safaris can help with this, too.)
As I was having lunch with Doudle on a picture-perfect beach without another person in sight, I began to understand why he loves his home so much.
“It’s like I have a secret to share with people,” he said. “I just want to show everyone this amazing part of the world.”
Another short Regional Express flight from Adelaide takes visitors to Kangaroo Island, one of South Australia’s most distinctive destinations.
Kangaroo Island is Australia’s third-largest island, and about 30 percent is protected land, so it is known for its pristine and rugged natural setting and extensive wildlife. Visitors who want to get the most out of their visit should book a tour with Exceptional Kangaroo Island. When I traveled with the local operator, I saw koalas, wallabies, an echidna, a very rare species of parrot and, of course, kangaroos. I also visited one of the island’s main attractions — a colony of endangered Australian sea lions that live on the coast at Seal Bay Conservation Park. Most visitors here can only walk along the beach in tightly controlled groups, but the guides from Exceptional Kangaroo Island can take guests individually or in their own groups.
After a busy morning of wildlife viewing, my guide took me to a large tent set up deep in some private woods, where he prepared a lunch of fish, meat and produce from the area — accompanied by a bottle of local Shiraz.
Upscale clients should consider a stay at the Southern Ocean Lodge, one of Australia’s premier accommodations. The lodge, part of Luxury Lodges of Australia, is located on the remote west end of the island, just outside the well-known Flinders Chase National Park. The setting here is one-of-a-kind — alone on a hillside with incredible views of the Southern Ocean — and the property’s design takes full advantage of the surroundings by placing the hotel’s 21 suites along the ridgeline.
Guestrooms are large, modern and sophisticated, and many have deep soaking tubs with incredible views. (There is also a communal hot tub overlooking the ocean.) The lobby and restaurant have a warm, contemporary feel that is carried throughout the property. One of the best aspects of the all-inclusive lodge is its air of generosity. During the nightly cocktail hour, guests are encouraged to walk up to the bar and fix themselves a drink as if they are truly at home.
Clients might be perfectly content just hanging out at this luxury property, but they can also choose to book a range of guided local experiences. Wonders of KI is a complimentary tour of local highlights, including Cape du Couedic Lighthouse, Remarkable Rocks and Admirals Arch fur seal colony. Another included experience is Kangaroos and Kanapes, where guests are served sunset cocktails and snacks in a field where kangaroos and wallabies congregate to graze, providing a way to observe the animals up close.
There’s a long list of other hikes, biking tours, watersports, yoga classes and more that are available through the lodge for an additional fee.
During the Wonders of KI tour with Southern Ocean Lodge, we visited Western Kangaroo Island Marine Park, where we stood on a high viewing platform and watched huge ocean swells crash along the rocks all around us. It was an awe-inspiring sight. I couldn’t help but think of all the ships throughout history that had crashed along this coast, often stranding sailors.
But after visiting South Australia, I can think of worse places to be stuck.