This past weekend Lisa and I escaped Sydney to add another Australian state to our list (yes, they have states here – and also a territory. How retro!). South Australia is unlike any of its U.S. “South” first name sharing states; it has none of the pulled pork of South Carolina, and none of whatever South Dakota has. The weekend had everything, but most importantly it celebrated Lisa’s birthday.
We flew into Adelaide and immediately headed for the Barossa Valley, probably the best known wine region in all of Australia. The countryside is manicured to precision – and in the middle of growing season everything was incredibly green. Since our flight arrived late, we visited the Tsharke vineyard, which was small and new. The building they use for the “cellar door” (meaning basically a public facing storefront for wine sales) was brand new, and I wish my Uncle Cy could have seen the construction of the perfectly cut timbers and a-frame ceiling.
We hit the B&B that Lisa had reserved- a great place called the Barossa House. We met Judi, one of the owners, and she’s exactly the kind of person you want to own the B&B you stay at. Her husband Lee is a gardening savant – in the U.S. their yard would be maintained by a full time staff of 20 people.
Then we hit the 1918 bistro and grill for dinner. How did I start liking places for the taste of the food? When did this happen, when quantity and calories no longer dominate my appetite? I can no longer simply judge a meal using a scale, then deducting points for cream sauces, mayonnaise, and swiss chard. Regardless, the meal was awesome, the staff wasn’t pretentious, and the place reminded Lisa of the East Side Cafe in Austin, simply the best mix of down to earth character and crazy good food.
We crashed early in anticipation of the next day ahead of us.
Lisa wanted one thing and one thing only for her birthday: A Hot Air Balloon Ride. I capitalize these words because this activity is not even on my list of things I’d ever want to do. Hot? Not a fan of heat. Air? Sure, you have to have it to breathe, but not my favorite element. Balloon? Associated with clowns and other undesirables. Put them together, sprinkle in the occasional vertigo that I get with unstable heights, and I could see Lisa’s birthday turning into a four hour rescue attempt after I try to exit the basket at altitude.
However, despite my trepidation, from the moment I woke up, I knew the day would be a great one. We met our balloonist, Michael, a former pilot who now runs Barossa Valley Ballooning, and from there we were off, releasing small balloons with LEDs to determine wind speed. The funniest part about ballooning is you basically go where the wind takes you. This seems obvious, but once you’re up in the air, you realize that you only get to land in the direction you’re going. So you don’t really get to pick where you land except “somewhere along the path where the wind takes us”.
The landing was not soft or gentle – ever see movies where the guy in the parachute is dragged along the ground because his ‘chute is still open? Every balloon landing is kind of like this if you have any wind at all – the basket will tip, and bounce several times with you in it. Best part of the ride.
After a high class brekkie at the Novotel, we were off to “Wombat Rise“, the house of Bob, a confessed “wombaholic” who rescues all sorts of Australian animals after they’ve been injured or abandoned. The next hour at Bob’s house was one awesome surprise after another: a baby joey hopping out of the house to see us and jump in a bag held by Bob (essentially a cloth pouch), Bilbo the super-aggressive-tank-shaped digging machine (an older wombat who you would not want to meet in dark alley), a whole yard of Eastern Grey, Western Grey, and Red Kangaroos, and baby wombats that we held in our arms (Fidget and sibling-whose-name-I-can’t-remember).
If you’re ever in South Australia near Barossa and you have a chance to stop by, just phone ahead to let Bob know, and leave a generous donation. Raising 50+ rescued animals isn’t cheap!
Cycling in Clare Valley
And the day had barely started. Back in the car we sped over to Clare Valley, checked in, and found the place where I had arranged a bike hire. We biked the Riesling trail and visited the Tim Adams vineyard (small and awesome), the Sevenhill Cellars (fantastic jesuit church nearby – worth the visit), and Penna Lane wines (where Mark charmed us, and we had to finally scram to bike back to town to return the bikes on time).
Clare Valley Motel
The final surprise of the day was that we ate dinner at the Clare Valley Motel. Normally “motel food” would mean eating a pack of peanuts from the lobby vending machine or maybe having pizza delivered. We asked at several places in Clare and each one said “have dinner at the Clare Valley Motel”, which happened to be where we were staying. We also heard that Andre was an amazing chef, which was confirmed by his food. Slightly amusing was the fact that the waitress had to keep checking with Andre for things like whether or not we could order a side salad.
Barossa and Clare?
You couldn’t find two places that are known for the same thing, yet that are more different. Barossa is all about presentation and Clare is all about hiding the good bits.
Barossa has giant white arches welcoming you to town, which are cheesy and overdone. Every vineyard is manicured and the entrance is dramatic, with roses or some other pastoral eye-candy, and the cellar door feels more like a marketing campaign than someone inviting you into their home.
Clare is, honestly, quite ugly in places. The small town isn’t much to see. We had flashbacks to parts of the Southern U.S: about 50% of the adults that live there are seriously obese. The vineyards are hidden – yes there are signs on the road, but the vines aren’t on display – in fact the Riesling trail takes you along a path where you see rusted equipment, tin shacks, junk yards, and you have to leave the path to find the vineyards. But once you get there, they are family owned, personable, and excellent.
On to Adelaide
After a long night’s sleep, we scrambled to find breakfast in Clare (not easy), we headed back to Adelaide. We had heard that Adelaide was in the top 10 most livable cities in the world. I found the source (the Economist), and well, Melbourne is #1, Sydney is #6, and Perth is #8. I think the criteria might have a slight Aussie bias. Though the Economist also described Australia’s political system as “a non stop Punch and Judy show.” Regardless, we found Adelaide excellent. The day before, we had asked our balloon flight companions from South Australia what we should do in Adelaide. After Henley Beach, they ran out of suggestions and began to offer shopping malls, and continued even after we said we didn’t want to shop.
When we discovered Adelaide for ourselves, we loved it. Even though the weather was brutally hot, the CBD (central business district: “downtown” is an American term) is the best in Australia (that I’ve seen) – an open plan, wide streets, not dominated by tall buildings which choke out the sunlight, and surrounded by great parks, museums, gardens, and galleries. While it doesn’t have the amazing Sydney harbour, just trot a few k’s South and you’re at the aforementioned Henley Beach, which runs forever in either direction, and so there wasn’t a crowded spot to be found anywhere. Bike lanes ran out of town in all directions and traffic wasn’t nearly as insane as we’ve seen in the other cities.
The atmosphere is much more relaxed, the population is about 1 million, and it’s the capital of its state. Austin, anyone?
While I don’t know if visiting Adelaide for more than a couple days would make sense, it’s by far the most livable city in Australia – but Perth, Brisbon, Hobart, Darwin and others are still to be seen!