History oozes from every pore in Penola. After taking in the head-turning quirks of nature in Mount Gambier, Penola soon beckoned further north in South Australia’s Limestone Coast. The region takes its name from the bewitching subterranean landscape of limestone caves and sinkholes that lure so many., In addition to the staggering rock formations, there’s celebrated wine to savour and snoozy, atmospheric towns to explore. But no other town has been endowed with such saintly gravitas quite like Penola, the region’s oldest settlement.
As the spiritual home of Mary MacKillop, my convivial bunch of fellow travellers on board our Great Ocean Road and Beyond tour, pulled into Penola to pay homage to Australia’s first saint, who was canonised as St Mary of the Cross in 2010. Beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1995 after accepting the miraculous cure of a woman suffering leukaemia, Pope Benedict canonised the nun after evaluating the testimony of an Australian woman who claimed that her terminal cancer had disappeared after she called upon MacKillop in prayer.
Mary Mackillop co-founded the Sisters of St Joseph school in 1866 and the historic site has been lovingly preserved to please the pilgrims. The rustic old church and schoolhouse – where she taught the poorest of the children of the district - has been thoughtfully safeguarded and enriched by the Mary Mackillop Interpretative Centre, which delivers an illuminating walk-through of her selfless life and visionary passion for education. She was the first Australian nun to set up an order and the first to go outside the cities, administering to the rural poor.
After admiring the pilgrimage site, our group were even more enthralled by the heart-stealing charm of Petticoat Lane, which backs onto it – like a soothingly secular step back in time. The 19th century cottages that flank the lane were bought and refurbished by the Penola National Trust, delivering an indelible glimpse into the lives of the region’s early settlers, such as boot-maker Christopher Sharam.
Many cottages also brim with local arts and crafts, vintage clothing and a help-yourself-within-reason herb and vegetable garden. This head-turning trove of timber and stone cottages is movie-set perfect, and we loved discovering stories about some of the characters we called these houses home, despite the best efforts of the weather gods to rain on our parade. Petticoat Lane's character is all the more amplified by cottage gardens, ranging from red gum kerbing and rose plantings to the lavender and herb farm which sports 60 varieties of lavender. Who knew?
As we farewelled prim and proper Penola, the seductive pull of wine country soon shuffled into view, as the sweeping vineyards of the Coonawarra region wrapped around us, like a wreathed fabric of green. With more than 25 cellar doors beckoning you to taste their wine, Coonawarra is no newcomer to wine production - the first vintage was produced in the 19th century. If you have the time to whet your whistle from this terra rosa (red earth) region of naturally mixed limestone and clay soil, you’ll rejoice over their signature spicy Cabernet Sauvignon, while Coonawarra’s Shiraz and Chardonnay win accolades aplenty, too.
The gables at Wynns Coonawarra Estate will be instantly recognisable to anyone with a passing interest in wine as they feature prominently on the label of their famous wines. Wynns’ cellar door dates from 1896, the oldest Coonawarra winery, built by Penola pioneer, John Riddoch. It also doubles as a museum about the history and geology of the area. If you want to try your hand at being a winemaker, you make your own blend session in the laboratory, putting together their own wine from cabernet, shiraz and merlot to take home in a personalised bottle.
A slew of recognisable wine names line the Riddoch highway, like St Hugo, Balnaves, Hollicks and Rymill. You’ll love Rymall’s modern cellar door and their Sauvignon Blanc is very agreeable. Our last overnight stop, on-tour, before the final push to Adelaide was spent in Naracoote, brimming with splendid old limestone buildings and proudly home to South Australia’s only World Heritage-listed treasure. The Naracoorte Caves National Park were officially recognised in 1994, underpinned by the significance of the fossils in the caves. There are over 20 known fossil sites here preserving the bones of megafauna that became extinct between 25,000 and 60,000 years ago. The caves acted as pitfalls for at least 500,000 years with animals tumbling in and perishing, their bones preserved underground.
The discovery of an ancient fossilised marsupial in these chambers raised palaeontologic eyebrows across the world. In 1969, two explorers squeezed through a gap in Victoria Fossil Cave and discovered a massive “tomb” full of fossilised remains. The visitors centre has done a sterling job crafting life-size reconstructions of extinct animals like a marsupial lion, giant kangaroos, a colossal echidna, diprotodon optatum (koala meets grizzly bear) and megalania prisca, a 500kg monster goanna. With many tour options through the caves, you can walk through these other-worldly chambers with illuminated stalactites and stalagmites.
The tour guides do a cracking job imparting their knowledge on the history of the caves, excavation techniques, current work and the World Heritage listing. Our group ventured through Alexandra Cave, which was absolutely breath-taking, festooned in needle-like crystalline stalactites and massive twisting columns. Like a journey back in time, these breath-taking caves have plenty more secrets still to reveal.
Great Ocean Road and Beyond combine awe-inspiring sightseeing, local secrets and sparkling company with elegant four-star accommodation options, throughout this four day tour from Melbourne to Adelaide. Breakfast and lunch is included, at characterful cafes and eateries where you get to mingle with the locals, while dinner is up to you, from the plethora of local hospitality options. Savour the variety of Southern Australia on this unique four day tour, which is leisurely paced and loaded with memorable experiences. Soak it all up, in style and comfort. https://greatoceanroadandbeyond.com.au/
Are you planning a great escape to the diverse riches of South Australia? Make your first stop the official tourism website, awash with trip inspiration and touring ideas. www.adelaide.co.nz
Award-winning Air New Zealand fly non-stop from Auckland to Adelaide, four to six times a week, whisking you direct to the delights of South Australia, eliminating the hassle of airport transits and onward connecting flights. For best fares and seats to suit, jump to www.airnewzealand.co.nz
Mike Yardley is our Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.