South Australia's Limestone Coast: Four reasons it's an incredible holiday destination

What it's  like to holiday on the Limestone Coast, South Australia.
Blue Lake, Mt Gambier; Bowman Scenic Drive, Beachport; Naracoorte Caves National Park. Photo credit: Newshub.

Kiwis looking for inspiration on where to plan their next international holiday should consider the Limestone Coast of South Australia.

It's got the amazing beaches, food and wine that holidaymakers know to expect from most Aussie destinations but, in addition, the once volcanic area features several unique and iconic natural wonders that make a trip there unforgettable.

Air New Zealand restarts direct flights from Auckland to Adelaide today, meaning South Australia is once again just a few hours away.

The state has plenty of great destinations and is increasingly popular for travellers from Aotearoa looking beyond the usual Sydney, Melbourne and Gold Coast getaways.

The Limestone Coast is becoming a favoured summer destination for Aussies, but it's time more New Zealanders got in on the fun as well.

Its limestone was created by coral and other sea life that lived millions of years ago on what was then a huge beach. Volcanic activity then moved a lot of that about, leaving in its wake mind-bogglingly vast cave systems, magnificent ponds and sinkholes, and cobalt blue lakes, among other wonders.

After spending a week in the region this year, here are four reasons I'd recommend it.

The amazing caves

Perhaps the biggest tourist attraction of the Limestone Coast is the Naracoorte Caves National Park.

This really is an amazing cave system spanning several kilometers, many of which are easily accessible and set up excellently to entertain and inform.

Being used to the relatively small cave systems tourists explore in New Zealand, I was stunned when we got into the first major cavern in the Victoria Fossil Cave. Wow. Just a short stroll from the entrance, we were in a huge cave, packed with amazing stalactites and stalagmites to gaze upon.

Victoria Fossil Cave tour of the Naracoorte Caves National Park.
Two of the chambers included on the Victoria Fossil Cave tour of the Naracoorte Caves National Park. Photo credit: Newshub.

That was just the first chamber - there were plenty more to come, each of which I wanted to spend ages in just staring at the captivating speleothems.

These caverns alone attracted people to the caves for nearly a century. Then the fossils were found.

Kilometers of further caves were discovered in 1969 beyond a wall of the known system, including an unbelievable treasure trove of fossils collected over hundreds of thousands of years as animals fell through the surface openings to their deaths below.

The site was officially recognised in 1994 for the importance of its fossils when it was inscribed on the World Heritage List.

You can expect a knowledgeable guide on your tour explaining how all of this happened and showing you some of the ancient skeletons of giant kangaroos, marsupial lions and all sorts of other cool creatures.

A paleontologist fossil skeletons.
A paleontologist's dream come true at Naracoorte Caves National Park. Photo credit: Newshub.

That's great and all, but much more engaging than a guide speaking is the audiovisual display set up deep within the Victoria Fossil Cave. It's basically a custom-made video projected onto the cave wall that wonderfully illustrates what the animals looked like and how their remains came to be strewn around you.

It takes about an hour to do the tour of the Victoria Fossil Cave, but then that's just one of the tours to do at the national park. And then there are loads of other smaller cave sites around the Limestone Coast to experience as well.

An unforgettable road trip

A holiday to this part of the world is best enjoyed with your own vehicle. There are so many places to check out that public transport would be impractical, but your own vehicle also means you can stop wherever you like, whenever you like to take in the spectacular views or stop in charming little towns you hadn't even intended to.

Driving around this part of South Australia for a few days made for an unforgettable road trip. I wish I had a lot more time to explore further.

You can expect plenty of the nice, long straights in 110km/h zones that you get on most Aussie road trips. although few are as scenic. It's also the sort of road trip where you're never driving for more than a few hours before getting to a destination you could spend the night, which is different to many other places in the country that have much longer slogs.

There are several coastal towns in the region that I highly recommend checking out. Beachport is a former whaling town that's now a fishing, crayfishing and tourism spot, so kind of like an Australian Kaikoura. Do not miss the nearby Bowman Scenic Drive, one of the more breathtaking coastal drives I've ever enjoyed.

Robe is another crayfishing town turned tourist hotspot, albeit quite a bit more advanced and chic than others in the region. Expect beautiful white sand beaches with about one percent of the crowds you get on a typical Sydney beach, but you also get surprisingly cosmopolitan cafes and stylish galleries for a small town.

I loved my sunset walk on a track near the Robe Obelisk, which gave stunning views of the rugged coast as well as the obelisk itself.

Photos don't capture the rugged beauty you can expect of Robe.
Photos don't capture the rugged beauty you can expect of Robe. Photo credit: Newshub.

Inland there are the likes of Penola and Coonawarra - each of these historic, delightful towns is well worth staying at for a night or two, before moseying on to the next.

Road tripping was a meaningful and rewarding way to drink the region in, with so many Instagram-worthy places to stop on the roadside you want to make sure you have a super relaxed schedule to really take your time and savour all the beautiful views.

I will say this though: Don't always trust Google Maps. While exploring Port MacDonnell, I was using the app to get to a lighthouse that looked interesting. It took me past a house with an unhappy looking local giving me the eye, just moments before I saw a sign on the side of the road spray-painted with an uncensored version of the phrase: "Private, f**k off".

I did.

The awesome sinkholes

The unique limestone make-up of the land in this area means that it's home to countless natural sinkholes that have attracted tourists for decades.

In addition to the cave systems at Naracoorte Caves National Park and beyond, there are loads of sinkholes to check out, with several located within and around the city of Mt Gambier.

This is where you'll arrive at the Limestone Coast if you choose to fly there instead of drive from Adelaide.

It's easy to spend a few days on the sinkholes and ponds of Mt Gambier alone, but if you're only heading to one I'd recommend the Kilsby Sinkhole. It's on private land so you must book a visit and the snorkelling tour is the one you want, unless you're into scuba diving.

Richard Harris photo of diving the Kilsby Sinkhole.
The Kilsby Sinkhole offers unbelievable clarity. Photo credit: supplied/Richard Harris

Basically, this is the clearest water you can imagine, making it a bucket list location for divers from all around the world. There's no fish to check out in the 60m deep hole, but spending an hour or so in its water is a very special experience due simply to the insane visibility.

The tour also includes a short seminar on the sinkhole's history, which is surprisingly interesting, particularly how it was used by the Australian military for research purposes.

Beyond Kilsby there's the Umpherston Sinkhole or 'Sunken Garden', which is in the city and home to an impressive range of flowers and shrubbery. Entry is free, as is use of the barbeque and picnic tables onsite.

At night, floodlights illuminate the park and you can hand-feed friendly possums.

Then there's the Piccaninnie Ponds and Ewens Ponds to visit, as well as other sinkholes within Mt Gambier itself.

You definitely don't want to leave without checking out the Blue Lake, too. Like Lake Taupo it was once an active volcano but is now a 72m deep crater filled with stunning sapphire water.

Ghost mushrooms in Mt Gambier, South Australia.
Ghost mushrooms. Photo credit: supplied/Ockert Le Roux

Beyond caves, ponds, lakes and sinkholes there are, of course, many other natural attractions in the area, like trippy 'ghost mushrooms' that can be enjoyed on a guided walk. These luminous shrooms emit a green glow at night due to a chemical reaction between fungal enzymes and oxygen.

Superb wining and dining

Any holiday in South Australia should take advantage of the state's famed wines and restaurants and the Limestone Coast is no exception.

Fans of seafood, beef and a wide variety of wine are able to enjoy truly world class examples produced locally and prepared by experts.

The finest meal I had during the trip was at The Barn, a restaurant and countryside accommodation offering around five minutes' drive out of Mt Gambier.

At the steakhouse I savoured juicy fresh oysters and superb beef tataki to start before a main course of locally raised wagyu eye fillet cooked just right over mallee coals. Each course was matched with a local wine - the Barn has an award-winning cellar that features over 750 selections, mostly from Limestone Coast wineries.

A wonderful meal at The Barn Steakhouse, Mt Gambier.
A wonderful meal at The Barn Steakhouse, Mt Gambier. Photo credit: Newshub.

After a suitably delicious dessert to cap it all off I had that immensely satisfied feeling where you basically float out of the restaurant feeling high, the food was just that good.

For people who take their love of steak even more seriously a trip to Mayura Station should be strongly considered. This is the largest full-blood wagyu beef farm outside of Japan, where the cattle are fed lollies and chocolate to fatten them up and sweeten their meat.

There's a paddock to plate restaurant on-site called The Tasting Room and be warned: If you eat there, you may never be able to accept a normal steak again. The Mayura quality just raises the bar too high.

As for wineries, the region may not be as renowned as the likes of the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Clare Valley to the north, but this part of South Australia definitely holds its own.

Coonawarra is famous for its cabernet sauvignons and boasts two dozen cellar doors in a relatively small area. I can personally recommend Hollick Estates, which has a wider range of wines on offer than many of the other wineries, making for a more diverse tasting session.

Hollick Estates winery, Coonawarra.
Hollick Estates winery, Coonawarra. Photo credit: Newshub.

Given the character and history of the Limestone Coast, the best places to stay in the region are the boutique accommodation offerings.

The best I enjoyed was the Delgattie Estate, a grand country manor in Mt Gambier that's been expertly converted into three luxurious modern suites while maintaining the historic charm of the homestead, which was built in 1902.

It's priced reasonably when compared to a luxury hotel and offers more than you would expect at one, like your own private garden and your own private sitting room compete with a cocktail kit.

The Delgattie Estate is a stay I won't forget because of how unique it was. I could say that for much of my time on the Limestone Coast - unforgettable, unique places that really do make for a great holiday.

Newshub travelled around the Limestone Coast as a guest of the South Australian Tourism Commission