Photograph by Dan Westegren
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Seated between the dry hills of South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula is the world-class McLaren Vale wine region.
Photograph by Dan Westegren

Exploring South Australia’s Capital and Wine Country

Adelaide and the Fleurieu Peninsula have it all.

On a recent trip to the state of South Australia, National Geographic photographer Dan Westergren discovered a land brimming with wildlife, world-class wine and food, pristine beaches, and some of the friendliest people he’d ever met. The sea, hills, and outback of South Australia rank among the country’s most scenic, and, as he says, “Everywhere you go there are kangaroos and emus.”

With its top-notch restaurants, vibrant bar and café scene, and exciting festivals, the capital city of Adelaide is both cosmopolitan smart and down-home friendly. Some even refer to it as a boutique city. Posh 19th-century sandstone buildings vie for attention with modern architecture, and the city center is anchored by a spiffy new walkway along the River Torrens. “The river walk is probably the first place you want to go,” says Dan. “It’s especially pleasant first thing in the morning.” You can then explore much of the city and its many parks and green spaces on foot.

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For a breathtaking introduction to Adelaide, take on the rooftop climb at the Adelaide Oval, home to the South Australian Cricket Association since 1871. The climb offers a white-knuckle overview of the city.

Highly recommended is a visit to the Adelaide Oval, a short walk from the city center. The 50,000-seat stadium is considered the most picturesque cricket ground in the world, but that doesn’t begin to describe how wild the Australians are about this unique sport. “They’re crazy for it,” Dan says. The Adelaide Oval is also a key venue for rugby, soccer, tennis, and concerts.

A novel way to take on the Oval is the RoofClimb, where you can scramble up and over the grandstand heights for breathtaking views. The two-hour, 3/4-mile walk courses up and down ladders and stairs and across catwalks, more than 150 feet above the ground. You’re always well harnessed, so there’s nothing to worry about except fear of heights. “It’s kind of scary,” Dan relates, “but the view is well worth it. You see the whole city, the river, the downtown, St. Peter’s Cathedral.”

Heading down into the Fleurieu Peninsula, less than an hour’s drive from Adelaide, Dan soon found himself in the lovely McLaren Vale, one of the country’s top wine regions. McLaren Vale surrounded by rolling hills on one side and beautiful beaches on the other, includes a number of unique vineyards such as D’Arenberg. The vineyard had just opened its new cellar door, known as “The Cube”, which looks something like a giant glass Rubik’s cube. The vineyard, a fourth-generation family operation, dates back to 1912. The Cube and its fevered contemporary art are the product of a dream by its chief winemaker, Chester Osborn. Inside, guests will experience an inhalation room, a virtual fermenter, and an “alternate realities museum.” “You could tell right away that this is going to be the centerpiece of this whole wine region,” Dan predicted. D’Arenberg features 60 wines and an award-winning restaurant in an enclosed verandah that provides magnificent views of the valley and vineyards.

Another favorite is the Wirra Wirra vineyard. In a land of eccentrics, this place is no exception. “A lot of wines have names like Hiding Champion,” Dan explains, “based on the personality quirks of Richard ‘Greg’ Trott, the owner who rebuilt the original winery. You go to taste the wine, but you end up getting the story.” Ask about the Catapult wine, and be prepared to laugh while you’re tasting in the shadow of a medieval trebuchet, which was built in Trott's memory. He used to joke about using a catapult to hurl bottles of wine into neighboring vineyards, and in 2010, they made his dream a reality by constructing a device used to launch watermelons.

Getting deeper into Fleurieu, a number of gorgeous beaches framed by photogenic rocky headlands, adorn the landscape. “A lot of South Australia’s identity is tied to the seashore,” Dan says. “At times it’ll be beautiful, hot and calm, and then these ridiculous winds will come whipping in and big waves pop up. You look out, and it’s just wide open all the way. As the locals say, ‘There’s nothing between us and Antarctica.’”

An experience not to be missed is swimming with tuna in the clear waters of Encounter Bay at Victor Harbor. The floating pen here resembles ones used for mariculture off Port Lincoln, but this one gives people a chance to see the big fish up close. Don a wetsuit and mask, then duck under for an amazing look at the powerful swimmers. You can feed them pilchard and try to touch them as they glide by. For those who prefer staying dry, an underwater viewing area gets you almost as close and provides the opportunity to learn about tuna ecology and the tuna industry.

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Thoroughbred racing is an important part of South Australia’s social and economic fabric. One of the best ways to witness the colorful spectacle is by attending twilight races at Strathalbyn Racing Club.

The Fleurieu Peninsula offers a myriad of incredible activities. From sailing, snorkeling, and whale watching to kayaking and horserace watching, there’s something for everyone. Dan’s only advice: Bring your sense of fun and adventure.

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