A toast to the coast

by John Corbett

On the Limestone Coast of South Australia, past and present meet in a happy equilibrium.

“Robe,” grumbled the Governor of South Australia in 1846, “is the best of a bad lot.” As an anchorage on a lee shore so unforgiving that its first Harbourmaster and Customs Officer also held the title of Receiver of Wrecks, Robe was vulnerable to fierce storms that swept in, suddenly, from the Southern Ocean. But like the other seaports – Beachport, Kingston S.E. and Southend – which dot this part of the coast of southeastern South Australia, Robe was necessary for the growth of a new colony.

By the 1850s its single jetty was handling almost as much wool, wheat and timber as the port of Adelaide, and by the 1870s its charm was sufficient to make Karratta, a handsome 1863 mansion which still stands beside the fishing port, the Governor’s summer residence. There are stranger places to find yourself than in an old seaport halfway between Adelaide and Melbourne, but few where the past still seems so vividly attendant.

Take a stroll amongst the carefully preserved stone cottages, hotels, institutes and public buildings which line the seafront and the two main streets of Robe and it feels as if the past has just stepped around the corner and will be back soon. The buildings are an obvious reminder, but the real link between past and present, here and throughout the region, is the landscape itself.

It begins three hours’ drive to the north where the Murray River empties itself into the sea through a wilderness of salt marshes and brackish lakes. From there, good and sometimes eerily empty roads take you through landscapes straight out of Mad Max and then, for nearly 200 kilometres, past the pure-white sand dunes, dry salt lakes and lagoons that form the haunting stretch of country known as the Coorong, or Endless Coast.

Everywhere you go here the land makes its presence felt, to the point where looking at a seascape or at the tan-coloured grasslands which stretch away into the interior also makes you see them through pioneer eyes; a century and half ago, that must have been daunting. The still sparsely settled region even takes its name from its distinctive white rock that has created beautiful cave formations, built most of its towns and gives the local wines their full-bodied flavour.

If you are a devotee of national parks, nature trails and indigenous archaeology, there are many attractions for you – but man’s accommodation to the landscape is also being expressed in other ways.

Travellers can break the journey from Adelaide to Robe with stops at emerging wine regions at Langhorne Creek near the Murray, and at Cape Jaffa/Mount Benson, 30 minutes north of Robe. At Langhorne Creek, the award-winning Bremerton Wines’ cellar door and café draws food and wine lovers from near and far; at Cape Jaffa, the distinguished Australian wine maker Ralph Fowler (formerly of Tyrrell’s and Hungerford Hill in the Hunter Valley and Leconfield in the Coonawarra) is quietly making a carefully selected range of wines including an excellent shiraz and an opulent viognier.

The wine list at Saints at Robe, justly regarded as the best seafood restaurant in the region, also reveals that vineyards close to Robe are producing labels to watch such as Governor Robe and Cape Thomas. And the town’s fishing fleet, which these days operates from a secure harbour fashioned from a small seaside lake, consistently delivers some of the best lobsters, crab and other seafood in Australia.

From Robe, armed with a Limestone Coast Real Food Trail guide book, it’s an easy stretch to explore the modern food and wine culture that is increasingly putting the region on the map. Just to the south of the rural service town of Millicent (named after the daughter of the first Anglican Bishop of Adelaide), is Mayura Station, a “cellar door for beef” which produces some of the finest full-blood wagyu meat in the nation.

Lunch or dinner at Mayura’s Tasting Room or private dining room, with the opportunity to try dishes such as slow-cooked wagyu in char sui with an Asian-inspired slaw of fresh radish, ginger and carrot, created by talented 27-year-old chef Kirby Shearing, is a must.

A 50-kilometre drive inland from Millicent takes you to Penola, recently world-famous as the home town of Australia’s first saint, Mary MacKillop. Penola is also the main centre of the famed Coonawarra wine region, with a clutch of excellent eateries whose standards match the best of those in Adelaide and other Australian main centres. Start with breakfast at say, diVine Café & Gourmet Deli in the centre of Penola or drive a few minutes out of town to Fodder in Memorial Drive, Coonawarra.

The obvious choice for lunch is Upstairs at Hollick’s at Hollick Wines in Coonawarra, where dishes like smoked Limestone Coast trout tortellini with broad beans, celery, manchego and lemon oil reflect chef Tim Foster’s inspirational commitment to local and seasonal ingredients.

After a day of visiting and tasting amongst Coonawarra’s 24 cellar doors, head for Pipers of Penola, a multiple winner of South Australian Regional Restaurant of the Year Awards, including 2010.

50 kilometres to the south, the regional city of Mount Gambier is also emerging as a wine region and recently gained its own geographical indication (appellation). The focus in this cool-climate area, where fogs often drift in from the nearby coast, is on lovely, silky pinot noirs such as those produced by Herbert Vineyard, whose cellar door is on the northern outskirts of the city. Sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot gris from Mount Gambier’s eight current producers are also worth a try.

Past and present mingle again in the unique “Coast” way at Mount Gambier’s The Barn. Originally a road house and dance palace where several generations of “Mount Gamb-ians” misspent their youth, The Barn has been transformed by a 2009 refurbishment into the city’s best place to stay and eat. Its expansive and luxurious guest rooms and suites, set amongst five acres of landscaped gardens, are rated 4 stars and the retro style of its renowned Barn Steakhouse extends beyond the carefully preserved décor. From a menu which hasn’t greatly changed for 30 years (there are too many complaints whenever it does), you can enjoy prawn cocktails, chicken liver pâté (served with slivers of crisp toast), steak diane, filet mignon and surf and turf. They’re all blasts from the past to be sure, but with a modern gourmet twist.

Head chef, Alfons Couldrey, char-grills the finest local grass-fed beef over a fire of mallee coals that burns continuously every day of the year and the wine list, which is pleasingly biased towards the fine wines of the nearby Coonawarra, is impressive. Here on the palate, as with many other things on the Limestone Coast, past and present meet in a happy equilibrium.

FACTS:

Air New Zealand flies direct to Adelaide (from Auckland) 5 times a week www.airnewzealand.co.nz
Bremerton Wines www.bremerton.com.au
Budget Rent a Car www.budget.com.au
Hollick Winery www.hollick.com
Mayura Station www.mayurastation.com.au
Merlot & Verdelho – Luxury accommodation in Penola, SA – www.merlotverdelho.com.au
Pipers of Penola www.pipersofpenola.com.au
Regional Express Airlines (Rex) Rex operates daily scheduled air services between Adelaide and Mount Gambier, www.regionalexpress.com.au
Sails at Robe Ph: +61 8 8768 1954
South Australia Tourism www.southaustralia.co.nz
The Barn – Luxury accommodation and dining in Mount Gambier – www.barn.com.au
White Sails – Luxury apartment accommodation in Robe, SA – www.robewaterfront.com.au
Wynn’s Coonawarra Estate www.wynns.com.au