What are the best things to do in Port Elliot, Middleton and Goolwa? Read why travellers fall in love with these South Australian seaside towns.
Between them they count galleries and cafes, white sandy beaches, the Murray mouth and whale watching amongst their many attractions. Located around an hour south of Adelaide, you could spend a day, a weekend or longer exploring these beach-side towns.
In winter and autumn, the hills are often several degrees cooler than on the plains so have an extra layer handy. In summer, be aware that some attractions might close if there are fire bans.
1. goolwa beach
This is a great spot for surfing, playing on the sand or cooling off in the waves. In summer there is a patrolled area where you can swim safely. You can hire surf boards, grab some hot chips from the café or go for a very long beach walk.
There is 4WD access to the beach and you can drive to the Murray mouth. The entrance onto the beach can be soft so check the conditions and your tyre pressures. It’s about a 10 kilometre drive to the mouth where you can camp. It is also a popular fishing spot.
2. Goolwa wharf
The wharf precinct in the heart of Goolwa hosts regular markets and food and wine events. The Steam Exchange Brewery and the Wharf Barrel Shed are both great places to relax and take in the ambience of the historic riverfront.
The wharf is home to the PS Oscar W. On weekends one hour cruises are available. They are a great way to get onto the water and get a different view of the town.
3. SA Wooden boat festival
This Biennial event is one to put in your diary. The two day festival features 150 boats and includes everything from paddle steamers to sail and model boats. There are boat building competitions, races and a spectacular grand parade along the river.
The next Wooden Boat Festival is in April 2021.
4. Cockle Train
The Cockle Train runs between Goolwa and Victor Harbor with stops at Middleton and Port Elliot. It is a half hour journey and a great way to get between the towns. The steam trains look, sound and smell amazing and the restored carriages are a joy to ride in.
On the short ride you’ll see everything from farmland and beaches to some impressive holiday houses. Look out for the blue sheep near Victor Harbor! The train is an icon of the area. Be ready to do lots of waving as people stopped at the train crossings say hello.
5. Encounter Bikeway
Also connecting Goolwa and Victor Harbor is the 31km (one way) Encounter Bikeway. The path goes on a combination of dedicated bike paths and roads. From end to end, it takes you from the lower reaches of the Murray River in Goolwa to the spectacular Bluff in Victor Harbor. It is a great way to explore the area at your own pace.
It is a shared use path popular with joggers and walkers as well as cyclists. The off-road sections along the coast and through reserves are perfect for families.
6. Murray Mouth
If you like to check off geographical landmarks, seeing the mouth of the Murray River must be on your list. It can be accessed by 4WD from Goolwa Beach. A much easier option is to go over the bridge in Goolwa to Hindmarsh Island.
From there, follow the bitumen and the signs to the Murray mouth lookout. You can walk onto Sugars Beach and farewell the river as it heads out to sea. No doubt the experience will generate an appetite so afterwards, go to the Coorong Café for some of the best fish and chips you will ever eat.
7. Coorong Cruises
For a closer look at the Murray mouth and the Coorong there are a variety of cruises and guided walks available through Spirit Australia Cruises. Learn about the area’s history, wildlife and indigenous culture on any of the tours.
Some of the cruises include lunch and have options to take guided walks around the Coorong’s sand dunes. You’ll also see where some scenes from the movie Storm Boy were filmed. Tours depart from the Goolwa Wharf.
8. Goolwa Barrage
This is a great spot to visit. The Goolwa barrage is one of five barrages constructed to stop sea water making its way into the river system. Take Barrage Road that runs between the river and the ocean. Go past the Goolwa Yacht Club, the Fleurieu Function Centre and the Bristow Smith Reserve bird hide, and you’ll come to a carpark. The barrage is just a short walk from there.
It is a spectacular place with plenty of black swans and pelicans usually in the area. The highlight is out at the lock. Lookout out for the New Zealand fur seals that have taken to lounging around on the lock’s wooden pylons.
11. Kayaking and jet ski hire
You will also find Goolwa Jet Ski on Barrage road. Even if jet skis aren’t your thing, they also hire canoes and paddle boards. Two hours is plenty of time to paddle to the barrage and through the lock. The seals have been known to drop into the water and come over to say hello. It’s also a relaxing way to up close the Coorong’s abundant birdlife.
12. Whale watching
Between June and September, Middleton is a prime location on the Fleurieu Peninsula for whale watching. Basham Beach and Middleton Point are both great spots for seeing adult southern right whales with their calves.
There is a purpose built viewing area at Basham Beach with tiered platforms, information and binoculars. There is also plenty of parking. If the whales are about, there is also great viewing from the beach. Keep in touch with the South Australian Whale Centre in Victor Harbor for the latest news on whale sightings.
Middleton Beach is a popular spot for surfing. If you don’t have your own gear you can hire it at the beach. Lessons are also available. Check out the team at Kombi Surf if you want to hit waves.
14. Art and craft Galleries
If you would rather stay dry, Middleton is full of galleries and craft shops. Looking through Blue temper iron works, Artworx gallery, Ocean Street art gallery, Gunther George Paukner gallery, Kiri Kiri aboriginal art gallery should fill in the morning!
15. Horseshoe Bay
Although devotees of the local bakery might debate this, the centrepiece of Port Elliot is Horseshoe Bay. The protected crescent shaped beach is a wonderful place to spend the day. There is plenty of sand and rock pools to explore. There is a small jetty at one end of the bay which is a popular fishing spot.
If you want a break from feeling the sand between your toes, right behind the beach is a grass reserve, chairs tables and picnic facilities. The views are beautiful. From Horseshoe Bay you can also enjoy a few of Port Elliot’s other attractions.
16. Flying Fish Café
Located at Horseshoe Bay, the Flying Fish Café is a Port Elliot institution. Named after a boat that came to grief in the bay in 1860, the café serves everything from coffees, ice creams and fish and chips to restaurant quality food. With its views across the picturesque bay you can understand why it is such a popular spot.
17. Harbourmasters walking trail
At Horseshoe Bay, near the jetty, you’ll find the Harbourmaster’s walking trail. The walk takes you up from the bay and over the headland to Rocky Bay, Green Bay and Knights Beach. The 2km circuit also has great views back over Horseshoe bay.
On top of the headland, you’ll see the Port Elliot Obelisk and get a great introduction to the history of the area. The remains of the harbourmaster’s cottage, built in 1852, are still there. Freeman lookout has great views of the bays and beaches towards Victor Harbor.
Freeman Lookout is also accessible by road and has plenty of car parking.
18. Boomer Beach
From Freeman Lookout, the long stretch of sand you see is Boomer beach. Its name comes from the sound of the big dumping waves that can roll in here. If you are after a family friendly beach, this probably isn’t it. Popular with surfers, one description of ‘Boomers’ on a surf forecast website says to be careful of rocks, rips and sharks. Maybe stick to making sandcastles rather than venturing too far into the water!
19. Port Elliot Bakery
We have never seen queues at a bakery like those at the Port Elliot Bakery. It is a credit to the staff that you never seem to have to wait too long. On our most recent visit the line was only to the front door, but we have seen it stretch out the door and some way down the street.
Pies, cakes, coffee, vegan or gluten free, there is something for everyone. Keep an eye out for their doughnut of the month. At the time of writing it is a key lime cheesecake theme but check their Facebook page for the latest creation.
20. Main street History
The main street and side streets of Port Elliot are full of historic buildings, quirky shops and eateries. You can follow two heritage trails around the town – the red walk and the blue walk – that both begin near the Port Elliot train station.
As a nod to the town’s retro vibe, in 2017 Port Elliot was transformed into 1950s Goolwa for the remake of the classic Australian film Storm Boy.