It was an ill wind that blew me into the land of fruity shiraz and top tucker. The tail end of cyclonic gales that had been battering Adelaide for almost a week forced the postponement of a sailing trip, so I found myself with time to explore the Fleurieu peninsula, south of the city.
It looks interesting on a map. A pointy bit of land jutting towards the Southern Ocean, it is full of lyrical place names dreamed up by early settlers – Golden Grove, Happy Valley and One Tree Hill.
Its collective name was acquired in 1802 from a French explorer who proclaimed it in honour of his patron, the Navy Minister Charles Pierre Claret, Comte de Fleurieu. The original pronunciation escapes Australians, who make it sound like fluoride.
There is nothing distasteful about it, however. Fleurieu is a land of plenty – in its rolling green countryside between forested hills and the sea there are plenty of vineyards and farms producing fine wines and food referred to in the vernacular as “top tucker”. Think of a Champagne landscape with gum trees.
I had briefly sampled the charms of Adelaide, a laid-back community dubbed snootily by residents of Sydney and Melbourne as the biggest country town in Australia.
It is true it has a small-town frontier feel in suburbs of 19th-century bungalows, and streets of old shop fronts, where sweat-stained figures in bush hats on horseback would not seem out of place. The compact city centre is surrounded by parkland, and most of the time the loudest sounds are the clanging bells of trams.
“What we’re known for is food and wine,” confirms my guide for the day, Greg Linton. “I know the guy who’s growing my food, that’s the beauty of it. So they can call us a country town if they like, that’s fine with us.”
The hub of the local wine industry is McLaren Vale, a real country town replete with “cellar doors” where visitors can sample the best that winemakers can offer. Big fruity reds are the speciality, notably shiraz, and Greg says his appreciative American clients are often dismayed by the prohibitive cost of shipping them home. “I have seen grown men cry,” he says.
It’s a bit early in the day to quaff vino, so we opt for a coffee and home-baked sultana cake in the Blessed Café, and watch the world go by. It goes by slowly, and a bunch of club cyclists out for a spin decide it’s time for a refuelling break in the café. “We’re never in much of a hurry here; there’s always time for a drink and a chat,” Greg says.
This is apparent at our next stop, a weekend farmers’ market in Willunga. Greg is well known here and every few steps we are stopped by one of his cronies happy to pass the time of day. The market is popular, and by midmorning a cheese-maker says he has sold all his blue cheeses and the butcher next to him has run out of venison steak pies.
We continue south on country roads winding among green fields that are prime grazing land, judging by the well-fed look of the resident cattle and sheep. Farm houses nestle in the shade of eucalyptus trees, a bit like hobbit houses, and there is a sense that nothing much ever disturbs them.
We are heading for the coast, and some exercise. Enlightened civic officials have created a 20-mile “Encounter Bikeway” from the seaside resort of Victor Harbor to the river port town of Goolwa, following the route of South Australia’s first railway. The plan is for me to cycle about half of it, meet Greg in his van, and drive back to a restaurant along the way for lunch.
We hire a bike in Victor Harbor, and the gently undulating path by the sea turns out to be one of the world’s great little cycle rides. Happily the wind is at my back as I cruise by a bowling green and croquet lawn, the greens busy with ladies and gentlemen in their whites engaged in weekend tournaments. Soon I am alone, cresting a rise to a headland and passing expensive properties with glass fronts gazing over the Southern Ocean towards Antarctica. The air is bracing, filled with sea spray and the chatter of gulls, and I am profoundly happy.
This is a favourite mating and breeding ground for southern right whales, so-called because the slow-moving gentle giants were considered the right ones to hunt. In the 1790s they were slaughtered by American whalers based at Victor Harbor, but now their annual migration from sub-Antarctic waters attracts sightseers instead of harpoons.
It is late in the calving season and I don’t see any of the mums with their new families, but I glimpse a magnificent white-bellied sea eagle wheeling above the surf.
The peninsula is a birdwatcher’s heaven, with 230 species of birds, notably in the wetlands and lagoons of the lower Murray River that teem with ducks, egrets and black swans. Off shore there are dolphins and seals, and leafy sea dragons that look like sea horses on steroids.
There are also garfish. This is a meaty, delicious white fish that Greg and I tuck into in the Flying Fish Restaurant and Café in Port Elliot. The seafront restaurant is as close as one can get to Southern Ocean swells crashing and booming on rocks and reefs without actually being in them.
We order the aforesaid fish with chips in paper cones, and a locally brewed pale ale drunk straight from the bottle, Aussie style, and admire the tumultuous view. Lunch by the sea doesn’t get any better.
Our way back to Adelaide passes through Strathalbyn, a country town of historic stone buildings that has become a treasure trove of antiques shops. It was established by Scottish immigrants in 1839 by the banks of a meandering river, and its old heart hasn’t changed much. One half expects to encounter a big highlander with a red beard emerging from one of the jumble-filled shops. Instead I encounter a woman in bangles and beads offering to check the chakras of a customer.
My wedding anniversary is approaching, and I find a little old brass Buddha for my wife that will be attractive when years of grime are cleaned from it. Greg suggests we celebrate the purchase with coffee and mixed-berry cheesecake in the Appleseed Café across the road. I agree, and muse that it was an ill wind that blew me good fortune for a day.
Qantas flies daily to Adelaide from Heathrow from £899 return in economy and £2,999 in business class ( qantas.com ).
The Adelaide Hilton has rooms from £145 (0061 8 8217 2000; hilton.com ).
Greg Linton guides day tours of wineries with lunch for £161pp and can arrange other itineraries (323980; winedivatours.com.au).