The Adelaide Hills put on a striking show for guests at luxury lodge Sequoia, writes Kendall Hill
On arrival at Sequoia, Australia's latest luxury lodge, guests should expect a bit of drama. When lodge manager Russell Madre Deus opens the door to my suite, it suddenly comes alive.
Chill-out music fades in, mood lights spring to life and, at the far end of the tiered room, a vast blind slowly rises to reveal the vast, dynamic canvas of the Piccadilly Valley.
It's a show-stopping sight. The landscape, a patchwork of forests and farms unfurled across autumnal hills, changes mood as the sky blushes and fades through the day. In the distance, if you squint, lie the shimmering Adelaide Plains and Southern Ocean.
Sequoia Lodge opens officially on July 31 at Mount Lofty House, a 170-year-old pile run as a luxury hotel since the 1980s. The lodge's 14 suites sit in a gated enclave beside the estate, hugging the escarpment edge.
Both the house and the 35-room lodge stand at the highest point of the Adelaide Hills. A short drive – 20 minutes – from downtown Adelaide, the Hills were once the summer retreat of colonists escaping the searing heat of the plains. Today they're a picturesque tourist haunt famed for orchards and market gardens (the local footy team, the Uraidla Demons, are known as the Cabbage Cutters), charming towns and a thriving wine scene.
Mount Lofty Estate owner David Horbelt conceived the lodge as a calm, private oasis where "the view has to be mind-blowing as you enter each suite". Mission accomplished.
The accommodation is immensely comfortable. Inspired by elite Australian properties such as Saffire and Southern Ocean Lodge, suites are generous in size (75sq m) and equipped with every comfort and mod con from heated bathroom floors to intuitive touchpads that control lighting and music, blinds and Bluetooth.
Interiors are strikingly South Australian. The spotted gum flooring and finishes, the fireplace faced in local stone, the ceramics and glassware from artists at the JamFactory, the state's design incubator.
My favourite touches? The proscenium-style balconies, like stages inviting guests to perform above the Piccadilly Valley. Breakfast in the guest lounge, the sun burning along the horizon like a lit wick. The rose-scented Jurlique bathroom products, made in the Hills. And, just opened, three spring-fed hot pools perched over the valley. During my visit, the team is still putting the finishing touches to Sequoia. Still to come: a stone amphitheatre with firepit and a delivery of wallabies and kangaroos from nearby Warrawong Sanctuary, for up-close wildlife encounters.
The lodge's other drawcards include wellness – there's a serene spa in the 19th-century gatekeeper's cottage where manager Alison Dubsky dispenses wise advice ("If you find a good facialist, stick with her!") and soothing therapies.
Gastronomy ranks highly too. The three-hat Hardy's Verandah Restaurant [Australian Good Food Guide], is the signature experience. Lodge guests dine on a covered veranda with panoramic views, usually opting for head chef Jin Choi's seven-course degustation menu (A$205pp), which might involve charred beetroot and vegan chocolate alongside King George whiting and squid in kombu butter. There's a monumental wine list, with prices to match, of cult South Australian, Australian and European vintages.
Impressive cellars come as standard in the Adelaide Hills, one of Australia's younger – and larger - wine regions, renowned for cool-climate pinot noir and chardonnay.
Nestled in the foothills among Adelaide's leafy eastern suburbs, Penfolds Magill Estate is an essential stop en route to or from Sequoia. Dr Christopher Penfold began dispensing fortified wines as tonics from his house ("The Grange", now an atmospheric museum) in 1844. Visitors still flock here to stock up on Penfolds' medicinal wares, especially the shiraz, and specifically the Grange, first made in 1951 by chief winemaker Max Schubert and now a byword for exceptional Australian wine.
Book an Ultimate Penfolds Experience (A$150) to tour the historic property and its underground cellars before tasting six wines including the latest Grange. There's also a smart-casual cellar door and eatery, Magill Estate Kitchen, and their three-hat restaurant Magill Estate (where a 1951 bottle of the first Grange will set you back A$120,000, penfolds.com).
In the Hills proper there are more than 50 cellar doors. It's easy to self-drive between them but wiser to book a tour provider.
Simon Burley at Coast & Co (coastandco.com.au) secures me insider access to two of the oldest Hills vineyards. Tapanappa was founded by Aussie wine guru Brian Croser, who planted his first vines here in 1978. Today he presides over one of its most coveted chardonnay sites with a smart cellar door where operations manager (and his son-in-law) Sam Barlow leads tastings of Croser's finest chardonnays and an extraordinary pinot noir grown on the Fleurieu Peninsula (tapanappa.com.au).
At Deviation Road, another Hills stalwart, Champagne-trained winemaker Kate Laurie makes a tight but terrific range of sparkling wines all in the methode champenoise. The most refined is the 2014 Beltana Blanc de Blancs; 100 per cent chardonnay, very Champagne-like and best enjoyed alongside an antipasto platter on the deck, with fire blazing and bush views (deviationroad.com).
Do visit the circa 1867 Uraidla pub, an eclectic institution with a new (opened November), 3500-bottle wine cellar in a repurposed water tank (uraidlahotel.com.au). Showman sommelier Owen Colin hosts entertaining tastings in The Tank with tips on where to spend your money. He reckons the 2021 SA vintage is a corker. "It's going to be a vintage for the ages."
Just up the road past the Uraidla pub lies the Basket Range, Australia's most exciting vineyard scene and the epicentre of natural or low-intervention winemaking.
Few makers have cellar doors; most sell directly to top restaurants and bars in Australia and abroad, but with the right contact – such as Matthew Kurko at Small Batch Wine tours – it's possible to tap into the Basket Range grapevine (smallbatchwinetours.com.au).
The first stop should be Ochota Barrels where Amber Ochota is honouring the legacy of her late, trailblazing partner, Taras, carrying on his tradition of producing wines of extraordinary finesse and minimal fuss. Amber, and Taras' trusted lieutenant Louis Schofield, have just barrelled the '21 vintage, and they're thrilled with the results.
"I'm so happy with what's down there in the barrels," Amber says as she siphons tastes from each, from a McLaren Vale syrah and a Piccadilly Valley gewurztraminer to Texture Like Sun, a red-ish blend of up to 12 different grapes, from grenache to pinot gris.
There's also a silky, mouth-pleasing pinot noir, Father's Milk, that they make with next-door neighbour Gareth Belton. Belton and his partner, Rainbo, are marine scientists who forsook a life of seaweed research to make wine. Their Gentle Folk winery is high in what Belton calls "goat country", far too steep to grow grapes so most winemakers buy in fruit from elsewhere.
The Beltons make a range of wines from sangiovese to a skin-contact rosé of pinot grigio and gewurztraminer grapes, all based on a simple philosophy of "trying to make delicious wines".
On a former sandstone quarry, New Zealanders Kirstyn and Brendon Keys (she's from Te Puke, he's from Whakatāne) started making wine in the Hills in 2007. Brendon's a fan of fermenting in concrete; their shed has a purpose-built egg fermenter (filled with pinot gris) and a row of water tanks repurposed as wine barrels. Their most delicious, for me, is the 2020 Carte Blanche, a blend of four white varieties that leaves me craving spicy noodles to go with it.
For Belton, the appeal of the Hills, and especially Basket Range, lies in its people. "There are food people, there are art people … it's more of a rounded community," he explains. "There are beautiful pubs and restaurants, you've got lovely neighbours. We're blessed."
INSIDER TIP: The free-range Cleland Wildlife Park in the Adelaide Hills is one of the few places in Australia where you can cuddle a (very well-cared-for) koala. The park is home to more than 160 native species, from potoroos – like chubby rats – to wombats and wallabies, clelandwildlifepark.sa.gov.au.
CHECKLIST: ADELAIDE HILLS
Air New Zealand flies 3-4 times per week between Auckland and Adelaide. Connections are available from all Air New Zealand-serviced domestic airports. airnewzealand.co.nz