Take the Cycling Tour: South Australia at its Raciest

South Australia at its raciest

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Rob Griffith / AP

Santos Tour Down Under riders pass beautiful lakeside scenery near Gawler, South Australia

It’s the most important cycling race outside of Europe, and it loops through one of the most famous winemaking regions in the world. Yet unless they’re involved in competitive cycling, most people won’t have heard of the Santos Tour Down Under, the inaugural event of Union Cycliste Internationale’s annual racing calendar.

Held this year from Jan. 20 to 27, the tour (tourdownunder.com.au) kicks off in the South Australian capital of Adelaide with a closed-circuit road race that lets spectators get up close and personal with some of the world’s best riders. Over the next six days, they’ll sprint past the beaches, historic villages and rolling green hills flanking the city, before heading farther afield to the vineyards at Barossa, Clare Valley and Moss Vale.

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The tour is a great excuse to sample South Australia‘s award-winning wines as well as artisanal cheeses, chocolates and small goods made by the descendants of Lutherans who sought refuge here in the 19th century. For it was the state’s founders’ vision of religious tolerance — not the fact that greater Adelaide is home to a remarkable 749 churches — that earned it the moniker City of Churches.

“South Australia deserves much,” wrote author Mark Twain in 1897, “for apparently she is [a] hospitable home for every alien who chooses to come, and for his religion too.”

Whether fleeing the advance of a challenging rider or a holiday in a more clichéd part of the antipodes, there are countless reasons to visit South Australia this season. Here are five of the best:

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1. Kangaroo Island
One of the few places in the world where you can sunbathe with endangered Australian sea lions and New Zealand fur seals, swim with bottlenose dolphins and fish for King George whiting, Kangaroo Island — or KI to the locals — is regarded as the Galápagos of Australia. And with 15 wilderness areas, geological exclamation marks like the Remarkables, plus powder-white beaches cut straight out of Tahiti, KI also stakes a claim as the jewel in the crown of South Australia’s natural treasures.

Explore it by kayak or quad bike with Kangaroo Island Outdoor Action (kioutdooraction.com.au), on an inflatable speedboat with Kangaroo Island Marine Adventures (kimarineadventures.com.au) or through the eyes of U.K.-born painter Neil Sheppard at his studio-gallery (shepstudio.com.au) near the salt flats at Emu Bay. His most recent collection of works, “Of Guts and Gold,” reflects upon the island’s rugged colonial past — a time when roo shooters, seal hunters and lighthouse keepers eked out a living in bleakly beautiful surrounds. “In this hectic world, KI has preserved an otherworldliness,” Sheppard says, “a time warp the rest of the world is slowly discovering.”

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2. Hahndorf
This tidy little village in the Adelaide Hills was one of 69 places in South Australia that had its name anglicized (in this case to Ambleside) following anti-German sentiment during World War I. Nearly 20 years would pass until the original name was restored to this rural idyll founded by Prussian craftspeople in 1839.

Their influence is seen today in the traditional fachwerk, or timber-frame architecture, of Hahndorf’s cottages and churches and the Germanic cuisine sold in the delis, bakeries and groceries of Main Street. Pick up a chili mettwurst from Taste in Hahndorf, tel: (61-8) 8388 7388, an apple strudel from Otto’s Bakery, tel: (61-8) 8388 7579, or a jar of blood-orange marmalade at Beerenberg Farm (beerenberg.com.au).

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3. Penfolds Cellar Door
In a reign that started in the early 1950s and lasted until his death in 1994, Penfolds’ chief winemaker Max Schubert stunned wine connoisseurs around the world with shiraz blends that won every accolade in the book.

Step into Schubert’s shoes at a Make Your Own Blend Experience at Penfolds headquarters (penfolds.com) at Nuriootpa in the Barossa Valley, 90 minutes northwest of Adelaide. A hands-on version of the wine tastings offered at the Barossa’s 80-odd cellar doors, it sees visitors don white coats in a laboratory setting while experts show them how to blend wine on their own using shiraz, grenache and mourvèdre varietals.

4. Barossa Bike Trail
Running 7 km between Nuriootpa and Angaston, the Barossa Bike Trail ambles past vineyards, roses and the historic Angaston Rail Precinct.

Rent a mountain bike from Barossa Bike Hire (barossabikehire.com.au) and explore it on your own, or join daily bike tours that include stops at wineries, the Barossa Farmers Market and great restaurants like Roaring 40’s Cafe (40scafe.com.au), South Australia’s most awarded pizzeria.

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5. The Fire Station Inn
A short distance from the trendy cafés and heritage-listed pubs of North Adelaide, the Fire Station Inn (adelaideheritage.com) is set within a Victorian bluestone manor built in 1866.

Lovingly restored by veteran antique dealer Rodney Twiss, this heritage property incorporates three luxurious sleeping options: a penthouse with squashy leather sofas and Juliet balconies, a lover’s retreat with an Italian courtyard in the back and the quixotic Fire Engine suite on the ground floor. Crammed with firefighting memorabilia collected by Twiss and gifted by visiting firemen from as far as Lithuania and the U.S., the room features an authentic fireman’s pole near the TV, fire-engine-red dinner plates and a mint-condition 1942 International fire truck that takes up half the space. It’s every childhood firefighting fantasy brought to life.

“I have found in life most people are scared to be different and like things to be gray,” Twist says. “But I like things to be red.”

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