Dani Wright cycles through vines in McLaren Vale, and down laneways filled with street art in the city, on a weekend break in South Australia.

Nothing is quite as it seems in the small South Australian town of McLaren Vale. Take d'Arenberg Cube, a cellar door with a difference, where you can enter an alternate reality before you've even had a sip to drink.

The idea for the Cube came to Chester Osborn, fourth generation of the Osborn winemaking family, when he drew parallels between the Rubik's Cube and the complexities and puzzles of winemaking.

It's hard to know just how to describe the result, other than to say it's a mix between Willy Wonka and Alice in Wonderland, with a healthy dose of psychedelia thrown in.


On the ground level is the alternate realities museum; rooms overflowing with an onslaught of interactive elements. Higher up, there's a restaurant and then a wine bar, where I take a seat in a brightly coloured patchwork chair to enjoy a Premium Wine Flight, overlooking the juxtaposing calm of rolling vine-filled hills.

The distinctive style of the Cube has had a polarising effect on the town — people love it or loathe it. But, like the cheerily-named Pollyanna Polly Chardonnay Pinot Noir Pinot Meunier NV I'm sipping, the overall effect is a not-so-subtle reminder to lighten up and always look on the bright side of life.

Even at the more conservatively-decorated Wirra Wirra, things aren't what they first appear. This winery, down picturesque country lanes, has a history as flavoursome as the wine.

It was founded in 1894 by eccentric cricketer Robert Strangways Wigley, who was banished to the countryside by his uncle — then Lord Mayor of Adelaide — for unruly behaviour in the city. Following Wigley's death in 1926, the vineyard fell into disrepair until the late Greg Trott and his cousin Roger rebuilt it from the remnants of two walls and some slate fermenting tanks.

Now, there are surprising features like the Scrubby Rise vineyard, a flat landscape with a viewing platform christened "The Jetty", which looks over vines, rather than a body of water. There's even a surrealist sculpture of a man in a suit and bowler hat rowing a boat across the vineyards.

"It's all about serious fun in McLaren Vale," explains Simon Burley, founder of Coast & Co, who is hosting me on an e-bike cycle tour of the area. We hop back on the bikes and head to a local gallery called Red Poles, run by Ros Miller. The gallery focuses on indigenous art, with an exhibition rotating every eight weeks.

Alongside the paintings, bought direct from the artists so the money goes back to the indigenous communities, there are interesting jewellery pieces made with native seeds — and a cellar door for Sparkke Change Beverage Company, a female-led social enterprise raising awareness and funds for social issues through award-winning beers, ciders and wine.

Our next stop is Primo Estate, where I meet Daniel Grilli, whose market gardener-grandfather Primo bought the vineyard in the 1970s after a particularly good year growing potatoes.

Daniel Grilli at McLaren Vale winery. Photo / Dani Wright
Daniel Grilli at McLaren Vale winery. Photo / Dani Wright

Daniel pours me La Biondina Colombard, a refreshing fruit-driven white wine; Merlesco Merlot, inspired from the Italian carafes brought into restaurants straight from the vineyard; Joseph Nebbiolo — which he says is Italy's version of pinot noir and with the same obsessive following; and the festive Joseph sparkling red NV, which is made with museum vintages dating back to the 60s.

My gastronomic journey continues in Adelaide, where I rush out of the rain into Andre's Cucina & Polenta Bar, an unassuming restaurant surrounded by office blocks.

It turns out to be surprisingly warm, busy, noisy and fun and I people-watch multi-generational family gatherings, romantic first dates and groups of friends huddled around long tables being served beautifully-presented Northern Italian regional dishes.

I choose a light option — bagna cauda, a garden selection of seasonal raw and blanched vegetables served with a hot anchovy dip and grilled crostini. It arrives arranged as a vegetable wreath with the dip in a little brass pot, retaining its heat no matter how many different-coloured carrots or radishes I dip into it.

It's matched with a glass of nebbiolo from another of South Australia's standout wine regions, the Clare Valley, and I enjoy every sip and crunch until I'm left only able to squeeze in just one more bite — of melt-in-your-mouth caramelised white chocolate mousse, seasonal berries and oat crumb.

The next day, I take an EcoCaddy street art tour through the grid-like Adelaide streets and the four distinctly different neighbourhoods.

"Adelaide is a big rectangle grid — there's always one part of town busy each night," says Toby, the tour guide.

"A little bit of local knowledge goes a long way."

E-bike tour with Coast and Co, in South Australia's McLaren Vale. Photo / SATC
E-bike tour with Coast and Co, in South Australia's McLaren Vale. Photo / SATC

He pedals down alleyways and points out street art, giving the history of the artist, as well as the background to some of the streets and buildings.

There are plenty of local insights and tips for things to do and restaurants to visit — such as a little Chinese restaurant open late, where all the best chefs go after their own restaurants have closed, or Adelaide's beloved Luigi Delicatessen with its famous breakfast platters and "theatre of food" experience.

Dropped at Bread & Bone Grill — a diner in a tunnel joining two Adelaide streets — I have a refreshing Aperol Betty Spritz and a soft-shell crab burger with the perfect crunchy combination of chilli kewpie heat and butter lettuce cool, and decadently salty french fries on the side.

On the way to the bathroom under the stairs, I notice a round door. Behind it, I find a "secret" bar hiding a Prohibition-era-inspired cocktail bar, Maybe Mae, named after Mae West.

Even in Adelaide, nothing is quite as it seems and in just one weekend, I've discovered South Australia is a surprisingly exciting part of the country to visit.



Air New Zealand

flies direct from Auckland to Adelaide, with one-way Seat fares from $299.

Adelaide's Majestic Rooftop Garden Hotel is near popular Rundle St shops, with fresh local produce in the hotel restaurant and a rooftop garden.
In McLaren Vale, stay in a winery at Serafino McLaren Vale set in lush gardens with a lake, vines and 200-year-old gum trees.