One of the big problems when visiting wineries in Australia is that they tend to be found in gorgeous rolling countryside (aka the middle of nowhere) which means either you have to stay overnight (pricey), someone has to drive and not drink (irritating for them) or you get stuck on a wine bus tour with people you may or may not get on with.
However, if you want to do a wine tour in McClaren Vale near Adelaide there’s a fourth option – the Trailhopper McLaren Vale Wine Bus.
The Trailhopper is basically a hop-on, hop-off bus service rather like the sightseeing buses you find in many big touristy cities – but instead of going to lots of different tourist attractions, it goes to one thing – wineries.
You basically choose which of the big list of vineyards they stop at you’d like to visit and they drop you off. One hour later the bus circles back and takes you to your next stop.
Repeat until 4 pm which is the last pick up of the day.
For people who don’t like being herded from A-B that much, it sounded perfect.
Our Day With Trailhopper McLaren Vale
We were picked up by our driver, Amber, in the middle of Adelaide at 10 am.
The bus was a small minibus and there were about six other small groups on board – each of us with our own individual tour in mind.
Over the course of the day, we visited four wineries, which is the suggested number on their itinerary, and were dropped off back in town, seven hours later.
Now we could have chosen some big names to visit during this time – Trailhopper visits Hugh Hamilton, Leconfield/Richard Hamilton, Chapel Hill, Coriole, Hardy’s and Oliver’s Taranga as part of their McLaren Vale wine tour, but obviously, as this is Differentville, we wanted to go to places with something a bit quirky about them, so I chose the four below…
The Quirky Wineries of McLaren Vale
Alpha Box & Dice
I loved the sound of the Alpha Box & Dice winery and it absolutely didn’t disappoint.
The tasting room is a cross between your nan’s lounge, the local youth club and a barn.
You’ll find old pinball machines, stuffed animals, a working piano and random bits of old technology like phones and typewriters dotted around the place.
You can sink into an old armchair with a full glass of wine, or, join the free tasting of their list at the large wooden table stretched across the room. We chose the latter. And again didn’t regret it.
Alpha Box & Dice’s other quirky little touch is that they want to bring out a wine beginning with every letter of the alphabet – so far they have 20 letters covered, six to go – and they definitely have fun with their naming.
We tried bottles named things like Tarot which was a lovely light red, the richer Rebel Rebel and my favourite Zaptung, their Prosecco. The tasting was fun, you could be serious about the notes in the wine if you wanted to but also if you just wanted to wander around taking in the super cool interior that was fine too.
We had just long enough to get through all of the wines on our tasting menu before Amber and the Trailhopper bus appeared at the front door. It was off to our next stop.
d’Arenberg – and the d’Arenberg Cube
This was my entire reason for coming to McLaren Vale. I wasn’t even bothered about tasting any wine at this stop – I just wanted to go into what’s known as the d’Arenberg Cube.
This five-storey structure contains a tasting room, a restaurant and a ground floor referred to as the Alternate Realities Museum.
It cost d’Arenberg owner Charles Osborn about $15 million to build and it’s frankly, bonkers. From the first moment you walk in to find a plastic cow at the reception desk to the liberal smattering of pictures of Carry on Star Kenneth Williams around the place, you can tell this is not somewhere that takes itself seriously. – even if the wine is top-notch
When we arrived there was a queue to get in.
The tasting room on the top floor has a limited capacity of 150 people and they were at max (it was Easter Monday). I was a bit concerned at this point that this would mean our allotted one hour wouldn’t be enough.
If that is the case though it’s no biggie, you just give Amber a call and she comes back to you on the next round of the bus giving you two hours at the winery – however, while one hour might not be enough, I was pretty sure two hours was going to be too long so I was pleased when we quickly reached the front of the queue.
I’m not going to go into exactly what you’ll find inside the cube in this post – there’s a full article on the d’Arenberg Cube here where I do that – but, even if you don’t like all the weird stuff you find inside the cube, the tasting room is beautiful and the views over the area from that height are incredible.
I loved the place. Good news is that we did get everything done within an hour and so we were onto our next stop.
This went on the quirky winery list for two reasons, it has an art gallery attached and offered beer tasting which pleased The Boyfriend. However, it was also where we stopped for lunch.
Admittedly, this is the one tiny criticism I had of the Trailhopper experience.
When we got on the bus in the morning, Amber was (rightly) very careful to warn us that this was not a booze cruise, if you were whammoed at any point on the trip they would stop taking you to wineries.
This is fair enough, but as part of that, they also want you to eat.
She asked us who had brought a picnic (deathly silence) and then said ‘those of you who haven’t made a lunch reservation will have to do so before you get off the bus’.
Now, while we manage to travel a fair bit, The Boyfriend and I are not made of money and prefer to spend our cash on things other than expensive food – and so the idea of having to fork out for a pricey winery lunch filled us with horror.
Admittedly, we hadn’t actually thought about where we were going to eat – we figured we’d grab a cheese plate somewhere. For the next ten minutes, I was in a bit of a panic.
Thankfully, Amber has all the winery menus on the bus and Trailhopper have also negotiated a number of deals – and Red Poles came up with the goods.
They offered a lunch platter for $45 for two including two glasses of wine that seemed like excellent value. Amber ordered that in advance for us so we wouldn’t be waiting around – another reason Trailhopper like you to have a reservation is that the wineries are prepared for your quick turn around in order to meet the next bus.
It was a good point, I understand all the reasons they do it, but I think they need to just explain in advance that you will need to either pack your lunch or book somewhere to avoid that ‘oh crap’ moment that we had.
As it turned out the lunch was delicious and I didn’t regret paying out for it for a second! Ironically, because he was enjoying his glass of wine, The Boyfriend didn’t actually get a chance to taste the beer!
Now, while I still had 13 more wineries I could have chosen from at this point, I couldn’t actually decide on a fourth to visit. I couldn’t see anything quirky about any of them and, even I wasn’t sure if I would want more wine so The Boyfriend and I took the option to be dropped off in McLaren Vale town for a look around (that’s his code for – and go to the pub and get a beer).
I thought we’d be the only folk jumping ship after winery three but actually, half the bus had the same idea – turns out though McLaren Vale town had a final grape-based surprise in store.
This Cellar Door was directly opposite where the bus dropped us off and so, out of interest, I wandered into the grounds where I saw a sign that said ‘Viewing Platform’. Intrigued I headed that way, opened a door and was confronted with a blast of wine scent! The viewing platform overlooks the grape vats Hardy’s use to make their wines.
Because it was a public holiday there wasn’t a lot going on but it was worth a visit for that smell alone!
I spent a little while inhaling – and looking at the exhibits on the platform then wandered to meet The Boyfriend in the pub. They were serving Zaptung – my day ended as it started with a lovely glass of Prosecco from Alpha, Box & Dice.
So, Would I Recommend the Trailhopper Bus in McLaren Vale?
Absolutely. At $69.95 a head it’s a lot cheaper than most of the structured wine tours and it did make the whole process super simple.
I really liked that I could choose to see the wineries that appealed to me rather than having to fit into a planned itinerary. As I said, neither The Boyfriend nor I am a fan of being herded about on bus trips, but this was the perfect mix of convenience and independence – and, even the thing over the lunch didn’t work out so badly.
I suppose the only potential criticism was that we didn’t really learn that much about the wine. This wasn’t a concern for us, but if you’re looking for a ‘proper’ wine tasting day you might want to try a more formal tour (there’s a few suggested below). If you just want a stress free day in beautiful countryside drinking nice wine and eating all the cheese though, Trailhopper is perfect!
The Useful Info
What Wineries does Trailhopper visit in McLaren Vale?
The full list at the time I write this is…
Alpha Box & Dice, Angove, SC Parnell, d’Arenberg, Oliver’s Taranga, Beach Road (seemingly a popular stop for lunch), Molly Dooker, Coriole, Chapel Hill, Kay Brothers Amery, Maxwells, Red Poles, High Hamilton, Richard Hamilton and Hardy’s Tintara
But do check with them beforehand if there’s somewhere specific you want to go as things could change.
NOTE: As with all things in 2020, as I write this some of the things have changed with the ways the wineries in McLaren Vale work. A lot of them have suspended free tastings and are charging a small fee (it can be as little as $5 a head) and some are asking you to book slots. Trailhopper gives you all the details on their website about what the deal is in all the venues they visit and they can talk you through how to organise everything.
Where do they pick up? How do the timings work?
In the morning, you’re collected at 10.10am outside the Stamford Plaza Hotel in Adelaide which is close to the casino and riverfront.
You arrive in McLaren Vale about fifty minutes later and are dropped off at your first port of call.
You then have an hour there before you’re picked up and driven to your next stop.
Obviously, they’ll pick up other people before or after you – so you actually get to see every winery the other people on your tour stop at, which I quite enjoyed. If you see something you like that you hadn’t planned to visit, no problem, you can just jump off and get picked up later.
However, it’s suggested that to minimise the time you spend on the bus, you go to the wineries in the order in which they appear in the list above.
Can you walk between wineries rather than wait for the bus?
Not always – we originally wanted to do this so we could spend more time at d’Arenberg but with no pavements on the small, windy roads it’s not necessarily the safest idea.
Other wineries are closer together though and walking is feasible – for example, I toyed with going to Wirra Wirra which has some strange quirks on their property and that was just over the road from Red Poles and so you could walk between the two if time allowed.
Best bet, if there’s another winery you want to visit, ask how feasible it is. They can’t actually drop you off there, but they might be able to suggest how to make it work.
How do I book?
That’s easy – you can book it here.
You can also book directly with them on their website above.
They also do trips to the Barossa Valley and the nearby Germanic town of Hahndorf. You can read more about both of these places in our guide to easy day trips from Adelaide.
What Other Options are There?
As I said, the Trailhopper bus suited our independent natures, but if you’d prefer a more structured wine tour that teaches you about the wine as well as just letting you drink it, there’s plenty available.
If you’re watching the pennies, this half-day tour compares well with Trailhopper for the price. It takes you to three different wineries including the famous Chapel Hill winery. You finish this tour at the beach in Glenelg in time for sunset which sounds like a lovely end to a day of good wine.
If you want to learn about wine, then look at this tour. It offers a small group – no more than 15 people – and the chance to visit both big and more boutique wineries to learn about what they offer. There’s also potentially a gin distillery on the list.
Want to see wine – and potentially some cute things. This tour combines a trip to two wineries in McLaren Vale (including d’Arenberg) with a trip to nearby Victor Harbour and Granite Island where you’ll get on a boat to nearby Seal Island – guess what lives there!!
Prefer to travel around McLaren Vale by pedal power – this is no problem on this tour. You’ll be picked up by bus in Adelaide (thankfully) and then, once in McLaren Vale you’ll don your cycle helmet, pick up your e-bike and set up for a day’s tour of the countryside and a few wineries to boot. I take no responsibility if you start to wobble at some point!
If none of these float your boat, or pop your cork, or some other daft analogy, there are plenty more tours out there. You’ll find a good selection here.
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