By Mark Chipperfield
Widely regarded as one of the world’s great road trips, the 621 mile touring route from Melbourne to Adelaide also showcases some of the finest coastal scenery and regional wine and food experiences in southern Australia.
Both the Victorian and South Australian legs of the journey provide more than just sumptuous countryside – there is ample opportunity for exciting outdoor adventures, such as kayaking, hiking, surfing and scuba diving, plus a chance to see kangaroos, wombats, sea lions and other native species in the wild.
For those who enjoy all things aquatic the Southern Ocean Drive, which hugs the coast, is the obvious choice.
This route includes the much-admired Great Ocean Road.
Once across the state border into South Australia, the route takes you to the Coorong, the Murray River, Kangaroo Island and the Fleurieu Peninsula.
Allow at least seven days to complete this trip in comfort. Alternatively, take the inland route from Melbourne to Adelaide via Halls Gap.
This itinerary includes some of Victoria’s famous gold mining belt around Ballarat and an introduction to the stunning Grampians mountain range.
From the Grampians the road takes you southwest to the Coonawarra wine region and then to the Murray River and in South Australia.
Those who want to extend their journey can make a side trip to Kangaroo Island, one of the world’s most important wildlife sanctuaries.
There is a regular ferry service from Cape Jervis which takes just 45 minutes.
Allow six days to complete this journey, with extra time needed to explore Kangaroo Island.
Robe & Coonawarra – the start of the great Australian road trip
If you are following the Southern Ocean Drive your first stop on the South Australian side of the border is the picturesque coastal village of Robe.
This beautifully preserved colonial fishing port is a popular resort for people from both Adelaide and Melbourne who keep swish holiday houses here.
The town itself has a good selection of cafes, upmarket eateries and historic pubs.
Highlights include the Cape Dombey Obelisk built in 1853 and the Caledonian Inn built from timber salvaged from Chinese trading ships wrecked nearby.
Robe still has a working fishing fleet – the lobsters here are sensational.
There are good beaches, good pretty coastal walks and a decent range of shops.
Wine lovers should take a pleasant drive inland to the Coonawarra.
This cigar-shaped wine region is famous for its robust red wines, especially cabernet sauvignon, grown on the famous terra rossa soil here.
There are over 25 wineries in the Coonawarra, many with excellent cellar doors and vineyard restaurants.
The region has a strong association with Mary MacKillop, Australia’s first Catholic saint, who founded a school at Penola.
The Coorong National Park
The Coorong, where Australia’s longest river – the Murray River – meets the sea, is one of Australia’s most iconic national parks containing some 275 plant species and over 200 different bird species.
The Coorong has been declared a wetland of international importance for waterbirds under the Ramsar Convention in 1985.
The distinctive landscape is an important breeding area for the Australian pelican and is a refuge for ducks, swans, cormorants, terns, grebes and numerous species of migratory birds.
Prior to European settlement, The Coorong was occupied by the Ngarrindjeri people for thousands of years and remains of great cultural importance to Aboriginal Australians.
Consisting of a series of shallow saltwater lagoons, the 90-mile long park is separated from the ocean by a narrow strip of sand hills known as the Younghusband Peninsula.
The easiest access point for the park is from Hindmarsh Island, near Goolwa. Hiking, four-wheel drive tours, river cruises and guided kayaking tours are all available.
Founded in 1845, Mount Gambier is South Australia’s second largest city, and a population of around 30,000.
Set amid an ancient landscape of volcanic craters, lakes, caves, sinkholes and mysterious underground waterways. The city boasts two important attractions: the Cave Gardens Reserve and the Mount Gambier Volcanic Complex, comprising the Blue Lake, Valley Lake, Brownes Lake and Leg of Mutton Lake.
The famous Blue Lake fills the crater of a dormant volcano and changes color from steel grey in winter to a brilliant turquoise in summer.
Climb to Centenary Tower for remarkable views of the city and surrounds. Umpherston Sinkhole’s sunken garden is also worth visiting.
Just 11 miles from the state border, Mount Gambier makes a convenient stop before proceeding west toward The Coorong, The Murray, Fleurieu Peninsula and Adelaide.
After leaving the city make sure you make time to visit Mayura Station, near Millicent, which raises some of Australia’s finest wagyu beef. The station’s tasting room, voted the best steak restaurant in South Australia, serves dinner on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays – bookings are essential.
Separated by a narrow strip of ocean from the mainland, Kangaroo Island (KI) is like another world.
Life is slower, more considered and less complicated.
Thanks to its relative isolation, lack of predators and small population, the island has emerged as a major conservation zone.
On Kangaroo Island nature lovers have the chance to see koalas, kangaroos, echidnas, dolphins, sea lions and other native species in the wild.
The island is also becoming known as something of a foodie hub, producing Ligurian honey, ocean fresh oysters, King George whiting, sheep’s milk cheeses, boutique wines and locally distilled gins and vodkas.
For those who like to get active in the great outdoors, KI offers a wealth of exciting things to do – from surfing, kayaking, hiking, and cycling and scuba diving.
The island has a good choice of accommodation to suit every budget. With its magnificent surf beaches, pristine national parks, abundant wildlife and vibrant food scene you might want to allocate some extra time on KI.
Before driving south to Victor Harbor, Goolwa and the Murray Mouth, take a short detour to Langhorne Creek, one of South Australia’s smallest but most welcoming wine regions.
Settled in 1850 by Frank Potts on the banks of the Bremer River, Langhorne Creek was one of Australia’s first grape growing districts – it’s now one of the fastest growing.
Vineyards sprawl in all directions on the river’s floodplains, where natural flooding provides irrigation.
There are only a handful of wineries, including, Angas Plains Estate, Bremerton, Rusticana, Lake Breeze and Bleasdale, which was established by Frank Potts and features a giant red gum wine press.
Some of the more boutique labels can be tasted at The Winehouse, which also sells the excellent local brew, Meechi Beer.
The compact size of the region makes wine tasting here a delight – and the visitors will find a good range of eating options, from smart vineyard restaurants to country pubs.
The Winehouse is also open for meals. There’s plenty of accommodation if you want to stay for a few days.
Goolwa and Victor Harbor
From Langhorne Creek turn south towards the picturesque river port of Goolwa, located at the mouth of the Murray River.
Once the site of a thriving paddle steamer trade, the town maintains its affection for all things steam driven.
There’s an authentic 105-year-old, wood-fired paddle steamer PS Oscar W and a popular local steam railway known as the Cockle Train.
Goolwa offers great pubs, a microbrewery, restaurants and cafés, as well as being the gateway to the Coorong National Park and the lakes system.
Explore the local waterways by taking a cruise on the lower Murray River or an eco-cruise into the Coorong.
Goolwa also fronts the Southern Ocean where a sand dune boardwalk provides great coastal views.
The nearby beach is a popular swimming surfing and off-road driving spot.
Locals gather cockles (pipis) on the beach throughout the summer months. Nearby is the family-friendly holiday town of Victor Harbor.
The laid-back town offers an impressive range of old school pubs, safe swimming beaches and a horse drawn tram.
Nearby Granite Island is a sanctuary for little penguins. As you drive across Fleurieu Peninsula, make a quick stop over at Strathalbyn, a mecca for lovers of antique furniture and quirky bric-a-brac.
Although the Fleurieu Peninsula has carved out a name for itself as the producer of great wine, its attractions go well beyond the grape – or even its growing reputation for craft beer and artisan ciders.
True, the Peninsula is home to one of Australia’s most respected wine regions, McLaren Vale, but it is also a place of spectacular natural beauty – everything from old growth forests to windswept headlands and white sand beaches.
Just 45 minutes from Adelaide, the Fleurieu Peninsula is a gateway for all kinds of year-round fun.
The region is also making a name for itself as one of Australia’s most diverse and progressive food regions.
Drop into one of the region’s many farmers’ markets to sample a superb range of fresh fruit and vegetables, artisan cheese, game meats, yabbies and other products.
Outdoor types can laze on Normanville beach, camp with kangaroos at Deep Creek Conservation Park or hike part of the Heysen Trail.
There’s plenty of accommodation and good choice of cafes, pubs, and restaurants, plus a great range of cellar doors. Load up the car with your favorite tipple in McLaren Vale before the last leg to Adelaide, stopping a swim at Aldinga Beach or Maslin Beach before reaching the southern outer suburbs of Adelaide city.
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.