Touring the renowned wine region by air gives Akash Arora an exhilarating taste of this picturesque patch of South Australia.
What could be more exciting than swooping over South Australia’s lush McLaren Vale, 40 kilometres south of Adelaide, in a helicopter – looking down on green and gold fields of plump grapes and the steep cliffs and sparkling rock pools of Onkaparinga Gorge while taking in sweeping views of the Fleurieu Peninsula? When the invitation lands, it seems a perfect and decidedly thrilling way to see everything I want to in the time I have available – one precious weekend.
But there are two things about this joy ride I discover only as I prepare to board on the lawns of The Vineyard Retreat. One: this three-seater helicopter doesn’t have any doors. “We took them off,” says pilot Paul Beck as I nervously fasten my seatbelt. “We didn’t want any plastic between you and the views.” Two? Beck loves unleashing his inner Formula One driver when he takes to the skies.
It’s an exhilarating, if slightly unnerving, 30-minute James Bond-esque adventure – one I certainly wasn’t expecting. But a trip to the picturesque wine region, often overshadowed by the better-known Barossa, is full of surprises. You just need to know where to go.
If you’re seeking serenity, try The Vineyard Retreat, set on a very pretty six-hectare vineyard less than an hour’s drive south of Adelaide.
There are four freestanding guesthouses here; the largest, which is called The Highland, has a spacious living room, fully equipped open-plan kitchen and two bedrooms (each with an ensuite so it’s perfect for two couples or a small family).
Beautiful design touches are sprinkled throughout the cottage (plush rugs and velvet curtains in the living area; decorative sculptures and bespoke lights in the rooms), while the pantry is chock-full of breakfast supplies. It’s a stunning showcase of McLaren Vale’s gourmet produce: red-gum-smoked bacon from the local butcher, crusty sourdough from an Aldinga bakery and oversized eggs from a free-range farm just over the hill.
“There are two dozen eggs in the kitchen and, if you’re lucky, at least one of them will have twin yolks,” says Stu Cross, owner of The Vineyard Retreat. The next morning, I crack two eggs and find four yolks.Other than an outdoor hot tub – plonked thoughtfully among the vines on the property’s highest point – there are no on-site facilities such as restaurants or pools. But with the bounty of McLaren Vale at your doorstep, you won’t feel deprived.
Positioned amid 105 hectares of interlocking vineyards, d’Arry’s Verandah Restaurant is an ideal spot for lunch. The bistro-style dining room, with floor-to-ceiling windows and an outdoor verandah, has an extensive à la carte menu that can be matched with d’Arenberg wines at cellar-door prices. Pair head chef Peter Reschke’s entrée of lobster medallion with blue swimmer crab and prawn ravioli in a lobster bisque with the 2015 Dry Dam Riesling then follow with a main of confit duck leg with daikon cake and buttered brussels sprouts.
For dinner, make your way to The Salopian Inn, housed in an 1851 homestead with mismatched antique furniture and a string of gutsy Asian-inspired share plates. The red-braised kangaroo tail, slow-cooked on the bone, is a standout.
Book a 30-minute chopper ride with Helivista for a scenic tour of the region. View the rugged cliffs of Onkaparinga Gorge and the vineyards of McLaren Vale before flying 500 metres above the glorious beaches and aquamarine waters of the Fleurieu Peninsula.
Explore some of the region’s 160-plus wineries, best known for dry reds. Local character Chook McCoy runs Chook’s Little Winery Tours, offering bespoke jaunts. His personal favourite? DogRidge. “They do wine tastings in a tractor shed in the middle of the vineyard,” says McCoy, “often with a koala watching you from a tree.”
Some of the region’s best shorelines are just 20 minutes’ drive away. You’ll find great cafés and restaurants, along with walking and cycling trails, near the sandy strips of Aldinga Beach and Christies Beach.
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