By Max Anderson
What’s the greatest luxury in South Australia?
Perhaps a bottle of 1951 Penfolds Grange Hermitage, pressed from Barossa grapes and last sold at auction for $50,000?
Or maybe the Virgin Rainbow opal, unearthed in Coober Pedy in 2014 and valued at $1 million?
Or maybe something more humble, like the Coffin Bay oyster, or the King Saul blue vein cheese from the Adelaide Hills, the world’s most expensive cheese at $300 per kilo.
Actually, no. The greatest luxury in South Australia is space.
Australia’s fourth-largest state is more than twice as large as California, yet home to fewer than 1.7 million people – most of them living in the capital city, Adelaide.
The state has 3000 miles of wild coast, some of the world’s finest and most beautiful winegrowing regions, mountain ranges that harbor evidence of the planet’s earliest life forms and the island known as Australia’s Galapagos.
So when it comes to five-star experiences, visitors have some especially wide horizons to indulge in.
Most people start their South Australian adventure in Adelaide, and so shall we.
Adelaide can’t match the constellation of luxe hotels found in bigger cities on the eastern seaboard, but the five-star retreats have a certain intimate chic.
Prince among these is the new Mayfair Hotel, which has resurrected a superb deco building on King William Street, furbished it with real personal flair and crowned it with a glam rooftop bar. They even have their own specially-made mattress that will cure the most deep-set jet lag.
The Mayfair is also flanked by the three city highlights that perfectly sum up what Adelaide is all about: (1) the North Terrace Cultural Precinct (the broad and handsome edifice of 19th century institutions including the state museum, art gallery, library and Botanic Gardens); (2) the new Adelaide Oval (redeveloped in 2013 to become Australia’s finest stadium and energizing the city beyond everybody’s wildest dreams); and (3) the nexus of bar-lined laneways around Peel and Leigh Streets which have quickly become an inner-city haven of alternative thinking and drinking.
One of the city’s greatest indulgences is food and wine, which is as it should be given that some of the world’s finest comestibles come from South Australian seas and soils. There are dozens of primo restaurants, but three lend especially interesting perspectives for visitors.
Windy Point Restaurant gives diners an eyeful of Adelaide, a city that has the Southern Ocean on one side and steep hills on the other. The fine diner is an old favorite, and the restaurant’s elevation reliably serves up views to match the contemporary menu, with sunset bookings ensuring a city lightshow par excellence.
Orana Restaurant however is a radical young gun, fusing European and Aboriginal cultures with a fixed tasting menu that has challenged the city to rethink Australian flavors. Diners are taken on a journey like no other by Scottish chef Jock Zonfrillo, who has placed new value on ancient ingredients like saltbush, Davidson plum and even green ants on the menu.
The Hill of Grace Restaurant offers the world’s only in-stadium fine dining experience. It overlooks the 144-year-old grounds of the brand new Adelaide Oval. If chef Dennis Leslie’s degustation matched with Henschke’s famous wines isn’t heavenly enough, night-time dining beside the turf made famous by Don Bradman and the Bodyline series is certainly a religious experience for some.
Fine wines and Luxury
Australia is the world’s fourth-largest wine exporter, selling some 720 million liters around the world each year. South Australia produces more than half of this, including famous wines like Penfolds Grange, Jacob’s Creek, Yalumba and Henschke Hill of Grace.
Luckily for South Australia, acreage under vine and blue skies makes for sublime vistas; throw in some interesting 1850s German migrant history and a few kangaroos, and the setting becomes perfect for some five-star R&R.
Upmarket retreats can be found in three of SA’s most famous wine regions.
In the Barossa, you can’t go past The Louise. It’s located close to wineries like the fabulous Seppeltsfield estate (complete with artisan craftspeople and design hub) and the creek that graced a bazillion tables, owned by one Jacob (visitors are invariably surprised to find Jacob’s Creek is real, and rather picturesque at that).
The Louise is a favorite with gastronomes for its restaurant, Appellation, known for a degustation that does justice to both the locally grown produce and of course Barossa winemakers. Another jewel in the Barossa crown is the fixed menu of The Restaurant at Hentley Farm winery, serving only food that’s chiefly grown, raised or foraged locally.
In the Clare Valley, the owners of Thorn Park by the Vines have been wowing small-group guests for close to 30 years with their country chic aesthetic and talents in the kitchen. The retreat is located near historic Sevenhill Cellars, where Jesuits have been making wine since 1851.
In the McLaren Vale The Vineyard Retreat lays it on to perfection for guests within a 15-acre working vineyard. The restaurant scene is also particularly good in the region, home to heroes like the Salopian Inn, Star of Greece (overlooking the beach) and d’Arry’s Verandah.
Guided tours of wine regions in a private vehicle can give you the benefit of local knowledge, access to some less-visited cellar doors and of course provide a driver to ensure no one has to worry about tasting too many wines. Private guides such as Rich+Lingering and Tastes of South Australia are like good sommeliers: they’ll ascertain your likes, make recommendations and tailor a tour to suit. Barossa Daimler Tours will even lay on a 1950s Daimler once used to carry the Duke of Edinburgh.
None of these regions is further than two hours from Adelaide, however to taste the apogee of South Australian winemaking, you don’t have to leave the city limits.
In 1844, a doctor named Christopher Rawson Penfold set up his medical practice on the fringe of Adelaide. He called his cottage The Grange and planted French vine cuttings to make wine, which he believed had health benefits.
The full story – including how the 2008 Grange scored a perfect 100 points from US critics – is told on the same property, now the home of Penfolds and the place to do the Ultimate Penfolds Experience, complete with tastings of wines from the history-making vintner.
Wildlife and Luxury
Lots of space plus low population pressures adds up to bountiful wildlife. And nowhere is this best illustrated than on Kangaroo Island , a walloping chunk of land that offers miles of beaches, native forests, cliffs, dunes and bucolic farmland.
Kangaroo Island is isolated from pests (rabbits and foxes) and protected by more than 80,000 acres of national park, so native animals, including several endemic species have thrived. In the past 20 years, the island has become the go-to place to see Australian wildlife.
Southern Ocean Lodge is in the remote and rugged south-west corner. It enjoys a reputation as one of Australia’s finest five-star experiences for its fusion of modern architecture, superb dining and incredible clifftop location that seems to draw energy from the ocean pounding below.
Since KI (as it is known to the locals) measures a full 90 miles across, the lodge offers private touring to make sure you see all the wildlife (koalas, echidnas, native kangaroo species and wallabies) as well as experience highlights like walking with rangers among a sea lion colony in Seal Bay.
Not that you have to leave the mainland to appreciate South Australian coast.
On rugged Eyre Peninsula, you can enjoy a barefoot five-star experience with a Goin’ Off Safari. David Doudle collects greenhorn city slickers arrived from New York, London and Beijing and takes them to a different world.
After showing them the seafood capital of Port Lincoln (home to the Australian tuna industry and the largest fishing fleet in the southern hemisphere) it’s off to beaches that do not see another soul.
He helps guests fish and forage for the like of oysters, abalone, mussels, salmon and kingfish – before returning them to their guesthouse to show them what fresh seafood really means.
Guests can also have their safari itinerary fitted with gilt-edged wildlife experiences including swimming with dolphins and sea lions in beautiful Baird Bay, and cage-diving with great white sharks out of Port Lincoln.
Australia’s longest river is the Murray River; by the time it reaches the ocean after travelling 1500 miles from the Australian Alps, it’s a broad sluggish beast of a thing that moved Mark Twain to draw comparison with the Mississippi. You can watch its stately progress from the comforts of The Frames, three super-contemporary villas on a river bluff near Renmark. They’ve been appointed in a way that guests should never want to leave, though the Frames’ gondola cruises into the nearby river wetland offers a regional perspective few outside of Australia get to see.
The little port of Goolwa is unusual for having both an estuarine coastline on the mouth of the Murray and a coast facing the Southern Ocean. It’s also the gateway for the vast ecosystem that is the Coorong (a 90 mile lagoon behind towering sea-facing dunes) as well as sheltered bays to the west where Humpback and Southern Right whales come to calve between May and September. For both, you can base yourself at The Australasian Circa 1858, a small and perfectly formed upmarket boutique hotel in the historic part of town, much loved by those who discover it.
The wide, arid lands of northern South Australia are rich in bird and animal life, much of it adapted to the harsh conditions. But ‘outback luxury’ – like the outback itself – is worthy of special consideration.
The Flinders Ranges, some six hours north of Adelaide, are stumps of ancient Himalayan-sized mountains. Today, the jagged ramparts and deep shady gorges offer evidence of the first lifeforms to move on the earth, as well as long connections with the indigenous Adnyamathanha peoples who are still custodians of the region after tens of thousands of years.
Luxury options in resort properties like Rawnsley Park Eco-Villas and Ikara Safari Camp can properly connect you with these many layers of Flinders life. Join guided tours to learn more about wildlife, the remarkable Wilpena Pound formation and Brachina Gorge for the earliest lifeform story. For an entirely different perspective, take to the air on a flight-seeing tour over Wilpena and the salt lakes; or join a balloon flight when the dawn air is still cool.
Arkaba is perhaps the finest of the luxury options in the region, fashioned from an 1850s homestead on a private 60,000-acre concession. Arkaba also offers three-day walking safaris over the property and into Wilpena Pound with guests enjoying luxury ‘swags’ (traditional canvas-clad sleeping bags) and starlit, chef-prepared dinners along the way.
Outback luxury doesn’t end at the Flinders. Within the less visited (and similarly ancient) Gawler Ranges, you’ll find some far-flung safari-style comfort in Kangaluna Camp, offering great wildlife and a vibe that seems to bring the artist out in people.
Finally, there’s one of the world’s most unusual boutique hotels to be found in the opal mining town of Coober Pedy. After a day exploring landscapes that have frequently doubled as apocalyptic Earth in movies, you can sleep underground in rooms quarried from the rock in the Desert Cave Hotel. For your convenience, the Hotel comes complete with an underground bar and gaming room. Of course.
International carriers fly direct into Adelaide, including Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific and Malaysian Airlines. Qatar Airways will begin daily flights into Adelaide from May 2016. Virgin Australia and Qantas fly to Adelaide from all major Australian cities (flights from Sydney and Melbourne are under two hours).
Major hire car companies are at Adelaide Airport.