After another night of sleeping at a shoddy rest area along the highway, we straightened our clothes, brushed our hair and rolled through the lovely Coonawarra wine region to Penola.
After a quick stroll through the museum and gallery in the John Riddoch Visitor Centre, we strolled around town and had a fast and fatty bite of hot chips and chicken cheese balls to carb up before an afternoon of wine tasting.
Penola was established in 1850 and was the home of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop, Australia’s first saint. She was born in 1842 on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy before being sent to South Australia to be a governess to her uncle’s children at a station near Penola. She died in 1909 but did a world of good while she was alive, resulting in her canonisation in 2010.
Mary Mac of the Hood teamed up with Father Woods to found the Sisters of St Joseph, Australia’s first religious order. She was also responsible for putting together a schoolhouse for poor and disadvantaged kids. The original historic building that was built in 1867 is still in Penola, next to the Mary MacKillop Interpretive Centre.
PLACES OF INTEREST
John Riddoch Visitor Centre
As usual, the local visitor centre proves to be the place to get all the goss about the area. Apart from maps and a few tidbits about town, there is also a local history display and the John Straw Neilson Acquisitive Art Prize Gallery, which exhibits great pieces by local artists.
Penola Pools & War Memorial Park
Right next door to the visitor centre is a War Memorial Park with BBQ and picnic facilities, the most beautiful public toilets with gorgeous old English tiling, and an awesome playground.
Adjacent to the park is the Penola Pools, a free community service with a cold outdoor pool, smaller children’s pool, toilets and cold showers.
Only 8km north of Penola, this Victorian style mansion is believed to be the best preserved home in the country. We drove out to have a look first thing in the morning and while the gates were open, the actual building and its possible residents looked to still be in slumber so we did a lap of the grounds and left.
This historic lane has been State Heritage listed since 1997 and features a few cottages that were built in the 1800s. One of those includes Sharam’s Cottages, built in 1850 by Chris Sharam. He was a shoemaker and his wife Ellen was a clown car who gave birth to 15 children. While we didn’t get to walk through the original cottage or the additional cottages built to accommodate the large family, there was a great herb and vegetable garden in the backyard that you could explore and modestly pick from (herbs and flowers only).
Father Woods Park
About 21 km north of Penola is a roadside stop that exhibits seven wood sculptures, red from lacquer. These shiny sculptures depict the lives of Father Woods and Mary MacKillop, who we reckon had a bit of a fling while they were out to save the world.
Food & Wine
The word Coonawarra means honeysuckle in the local aboriginal tongue and is home to the most famous vineyard soil in Australia. Located just north of Penola, this cigar-shaped portion of terra rossa soil stretches for 27km and is the residue from ancient submarine deposits, making the soil the oldest and most fertile on the Limestone Coast.
It is a premium wine producing region with 60% of grapes being cabernet sauvignon. It all started in 1890 when a Scotsman – John Riddoch –planted his first vines in 1890 and had his first vintage in 1895. His winery is now known as Wynn Connawarra Estate. Unfortunately, between the time of RIddoch’s death in 1901 and 1950, the Coonawarra region experienced hardship and was nearly sold off to become a dairy region. Luckily, Samuel Wynn came along and started a renaissance of the area.
The people of the area are passionate about wine and viticulture, and the district has achieved more Jimmy Watson trophies for great wine than any other. Check out our post on our wine tasting spree in the Coonawarra Wine Region.
Aussie Take Away
We needed to prepare for our day of wine tasting with some hot chips, and the Aussie Take Away shop was recommended by the girl in the visitor centre.
We headed over and ordered minimum chips and two chicken and cheese balls. They were cooked quickly and to perfection – crispy and well seasoned with chicken salt – and the balls were absolutely delicious! We wanted to go back for more but didn’t have time.