Here’s a test. You’re in a cool city in the US, Canada, South Africa or Australia. Sooner or later, you’ve had enough of the craft coffee and hipster bars, the bare brickwork and exposed ducts and everything being terribly vibrant all the time. You want to escape to somewhere peaceful, green and hilly, a place of sweet air, pretty villages and rolling fields of vines. Where’s best?
In San Francisco you head to Napa. In Vancouver, it’s Vancouver Island, obviously. Allow some time for those trips; slightly less from Cape Town to the winelands around Paarl or from Melbourne to the Mornington Peninsula.
Forget that lot. I’m thinking of a place where you can plausibly have your main course in town and your dessert in the hills, with nothing more to distract you than the sounds of the magpies and the smell of gum trees. That place is Adelaide.
Try this. Have a bite to eat in the Adelaide Central Market (it’s a market that’s very central) – maybe the laksa at Asian Gourmet or a pie at The Latvian Lunchroom. Then drive 20 minutes, 30 if you’re unlucky, to Uraidla, a village surrounded by orchards and market gardens high in the Adelaide Hills. Have a rum panna cotta with orange caramello and gluten-free cacao biscuit at Lost in a Forest, then, if you like, head back to the Big Table in Central Market for coffee. I guarantee your digestive system will cope.
Adelaide is conventionally described as Australia’s biggest country town. You know that’s accurate within minutes of strolling down King William Street, right in the centre. Sure, there are tower blocks, warehouses, convenience stores, high-end boutiques, public sculptures, buses and trams. But between the blocks, there is a neatly framed view of not-very-distant hills speckled with large, low houses. Melbourne and Sydney are their own intact, enclosed little kingdoms: Adelaide is open.
It’s a big country town.
Still, it has all the things modern, vibrant New World cities are meant to have – like the rickshaw bike that picked us up at the Mayfair Hotel one piercingly bright autumn morning.
The Mayfair is the kind of smart, well-run businessy-boutique hotel Adelaide has been crying out for. Tick that urban box. Our muscular architecture student rider weaved in and out of the blocks between North Terrace and Flinders, returning again and again to the narrow functional lanes that have lately been given over to bars, boutiques and cafés. Tick that box again.
It’s still a big country town.
Let’s take a minute to understand what signals those words send out. The country town is every bit a part of the Aussie national imagination as the beach and the bush. The instant picture: prosperous, wide streets, the colonnaded Victorian pub on the corner, the land agents and bottle shops down the street, the sport clubs and friendliness, the small ‘c’ conservatism, that easy surety than nothing really dreadful can ever happen here.
You can easily see that if you’re a restless spirit, a teenager, or both, it could drive you mad.
You might end up like Paul Kelly, a young songwriter who fled Adelaide for Melbourne in 1976, looking back at:
The streets…so wide, everybody’s inside
Sitting in the same chairs they were sitting in last year
All the king’s horses all the king’s men
Wouldn’t drag me back again
To Adelaide, Adelaide, Adelaide, Adelaide.
But even old punks make their peace with their past. Paul Kelly, now a bald man in a suit and a bona fide Australian national treasure, was duly dragged back to receive his honorary doctorate from the University of Adelaide a couple of years ago. I bet he had a great time.
It hasn’t taken any horses or men to drag me back to South Australia regularly over the past 20 years. Every time I’ve had a rich and extraordinary experience. I’ve pottered around refined North Adelaide, then tippled through the Barossa Valley. I’ve Land Cruisered north through the Clare Valley to Wilpena Pound and up to scorching Parachilna – Outback proper. Then I’ve flown beyond: over Lake Eyre to Coober Pedy, over the Painted Hills, the huge mines and huger cattle stations. I was in cooler, wildlife-rich Kangaroo Island when the Southern Ocean Lodge opened – the best resort this side of the Tasman Sea. The common element: Adelaide is base camp, the starting point for all those varied and incredible adventures.
Back to where we started. It sounds like the sneakiest backhanded compliment, but one of the reasons Adelaide is great is because escape from it is so easy. The gate is open and there are wonders galore beyond. I’m putting it out there: if you’re looking for an introduction to Australia, or to renew your acquaintance, it’s the best city to fly into. Nowhere else in Australia does Australia in a nutshell quite like it.
And now there’s a new and totally bizarre reason to fly in and drive out.
The McLaren Vale wine region is another idyllic little spot you can get to from Adelaide in no time at all. The climate is Mediterranean and anyone who loves the open vistas and valleys of France’s Lot Valley or Languedoc will feel at home here. But beneath the low hills and terraces of vines lies an epic geological history that makes this one of the most varied and unpredictable areas for wine growing anywhere in Australia.
Speaking of unpredictable, lunch with Chester Osborn at the d’Arenberg winery is just that. D’Arenberg is South Australia wine breeding at its finest: Chester is the fourth generation to run these 180 hectares overlooking South McLaren.
When you go to meet Australian farmers or winemakers who’ve been on the land that long, you prepare yourself for a taciturn bloke straight from an R M Williams ad: trusty Akubra hat, dusty boots, faraway stare. Chester is a bit more rock’n’roll than that. His jeans have seen more than a few vintages, while his shirt, one of a range he designs himself, is a chaotic blend of candy stripes, tartan and floral. With his goatee and tumbling grey-blond hair, his looks are a toss-up between Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin and the lion from The Wizard of Oz.
And he can talk, can Chester. They’re bringing the vintage in and he apologises that he won’t have time to have lunch with us on the terrace of his fine Verandah cellar door restaurant. An hour later, with the empty plates competing for table space with wine glasses in various stages of consumption, we still haven’t started on the reason I’m here: The Cube.
Australian winemakers have always been pretty good at attracting people to their properties with an intoxicating mix of tastings, cool restaurants and quirky retail outlets.
Then there’s this.
The d’Arenberg Cube is a five-storey pile of green and white glass boxes piled on top of one another and plonked among the estate’s Mourvèdre vines. It looks like a giant sci-fi version of a Rubik’s cube some extraterrestrial hasn’t managed to complete. Chester likes puzzles – all d’Arenberg’s wine names are a tease of some kind – and he spent 10 years puzzling how to let his fellow directors let him build this thing.
Finally, he cracked it. When it opens later this year, its protean walls and floors will house an interpretation centre, function rooms and a new fine dining restaurant. South Australia will have a new landmark less than an hour from Adelaide’s central business district.
It’s another reason to stay in the city: and escape from it.
Garden in the city
Paul Baker, the head chef at Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens restaurant, has the best larder in the world. He just strolls into the elegant lawns and paths outside his restaurant and there’s a treasure trove of native berries, leaves, vegetables and trees – and they’re all his to use.
Botanic gardens are more usually associated with tea and scones. But in transforming the 19th century pavilion into a temple of contemporary Australian cuisine, he’s also helped turn this venerable institution, founded in 1854, into a very compelling 21st century destination.
The collections span ecosystems and architectural styles – from the exquisite 1877 Palm House to the modernist Bicentennial Conservatory opened 112
years later – but the quirkiest display is the Santos Museum of Economic Botany, a collection dedicated to useful plants. If you have spent your life in search of historic papier-mache models of fruit, your quest is at an end.
Three exceptional South Australian wineries
I remember this place when it was just the owner, an old slab cottage and a few bottles. A couple of decades on, it’s owned by Hong Kong’s Yingda Investment Company. Inside there’s a swish, low-lit tasting room and a very highly regarded restaurant: Upstairs at Hollick.
An antidote to the increasing glam and sophistication of Oz cellar doors – just a simple, unfancy, family-owned place with first-class wines.
Magill Estate, Adelaide Hills
The five-star hotel of tasting rooms – Penfolds goes to town (or just above it) with a fine dining restaurant, café and expert staff in very cool uniforms.