In a region where stalwarts reign and new offerings rarely emerge, the reopening of the retreat following extensive refurbishment in January has been causing a bit of a buzz. And for good reason. Four luxurious chalets are tucked away amongst 11 acres of vines, making it the ideal place to get back to nature and appreciate the simple things in life. The decor is hunting lodge-inspired: there are skin rugs, antique wrought-iron and antler chandeliers hanging from the vaulted ceilings, chunky logs of firewood to feed into the wood combustion fire and deep, chocolate-coloured leather lounges to sink into. The major drawcard, however, is the view of the patchwork quilt of vines that stretch out from each chalet, which we spend a good couple of hours ogling from the wraparound balcony.
Half an hour’s drive away, however, is an even more preposterous view from the limestone clifftops above Port Willunga beach: a stupefyingly white arc of sand edged with Grecian-clear waters, where a single linen and flower-laden table stretches for almost a hundred metres.
We’re here for the Love Velo dinner, a silver service affair for 550 people held in conjunction with the Tour Down Under bike race, which has aided the region’s ten percent year-on-year increase in visitors over the past few years. The event brought $7 million to the region last year, and is expected to exceed that figure this year.
After some corralling, everyone manages to find their way down onto the sand and into their seats for some South Australian sparkling and antipasti, just in time to watch the golden orb of the sun slowly ease itself down onto the water. It’s breathtaking.
What isn’t quite so breathtaking, however, is the service during the remainder of the meal. Organisers have given diners the option of pre-ordering either lamb or chicken. It seems rather ambitious, given the size of the crowd and the sheer length of the table, and proves to be just that. The lamb runs out early, and the rest of the food arrives lukewarm and in a particularly haphazard fashion. Thank goodness for the live jazz floating across the sand, and for the fire dancers flitting about by the edge of the sea.
A mid-morning cheese platter at local stalwart Blessed Cheese is the perfect way to start day two in the vale. Buzzing with locals, visitors and too many lycra-clad cycling enthusiasts to count, the artisan cheesery (which is also part providore, daytime wine bar and eatery) feels like the true heart of the town. Cabinets and shelves heave with local and imported cheeses, dukkhas, homemade relishes, oils and other gourmet goodies. This would be the ideal place to fortify oneself before a day of wine tasting, especially since they offer cheese-and-wine trail packages which include a hamper and a progressive picnic with visits to four wineries throughout the day.
For those keen to indulge in more artistic pursuits, however, the nearby Bella Cosa Sculpture Park is, as the name suggests, a collection of sculptures by local artists scattered throughout a picturesque pine forest. The civilised way to experience this is to order a glass of wine from their gallery tapas bar and take it for a stroll through the park. There’s an oversized cello sculpture here, a huge metal horn sculpture there and some other more abstract creations hidden amongst the trees, as well as an array of ceramics, textiles and paintings in the quaint indoor gallery.
Drive just five minutes through the undulating landscape and you’ll discover another destination that successfully melds food and wine with art, Red Poles licensed cafe and gallery. Nab a table on the shaded, vine-fringed verandah overlooking the sun-drenched garden, sip an excellent 2012 Dry Dam riesling from nearby d’Arenberg vineyard and sup on sensational creations from chef Chris Chilvers’ menu. The gnocchi with goats curd, Swiss brown mushroom, broccolini, porcini butter and salsa verde, is superb.
It’s well worth a post-prandial stroll through the gallery housed in the barnyard-style space behind the restaurant, which displays some impressive works from South Australian contemporary artists that change every six weeks. Red Poles also offers a range of art classes and workshops, but you mightn’t have time for any of those. Not if you’re in a hurry to get back to The Vineyard, to throw on some fluffy white bathrobes, and to scuttle up the top of the hill where a bubbling hot tub awaits.
I travelled as a guest of South Australia Tourism
READ MY STORY ABOUT WINEMAKING IN MCLAREN VALE HERE
The Vineyard Retreat: 165 Whitings Rd, Blewitt Springs, 0420 370 310
Blessed Cheese: 150 Main Rd, McLaren Vale, (08) 8323 7958
Bella Cosa Sculpture Park: Kangarilla Rd, McLaren Vale, (08) 8383 0270
Red Poles: McMurtrie Rd, McLaren Vale, (08) 8323 8994
THREE MUST-SEE MCLAREN VALE VINEYARDS
The Blending Bench at d’Arenberg, one of Australia’s great wineries, is a truly special experience during which wine-lovers learn how to blend their own bottle of personally labelled take-home wine. Lunch next door at d’Arrys Verandah Restaurant is also unmissable. Blending Bench $60 per person, bookings at firstname.lastname@example.org. Osborn Rd, (08) 8329 4888, darenberg.com.au.
2 Wirra Wirra Vineyards
There’s a gigantic catapult on the lawn of this biodynamic vineyard, but don’t let that put you off trying their top-quality wines including the Church Block red, one of Australia’s most loved wines. McMurtrie Rd, (08) 8323 8414, wirrawirra.com.
3 Chapel Hill Winery
The cellar door at Chapel Hill is a stunning 19th-century stone church, which sells the vineyard’s own olive oil, sambal, dukkah and verjuice alongside their delicious wines, and which also hosts exhibitions from South Australian contemporary and indigenous artists. Corner Chapel Hill and Chaffey’s Rd, (08) 8323 9245, chapelhillwine.com.au.