Fleur Bainger writes a love letter to her lifelong holiday escape, the South Australian coastal town of Robe – no. 36 on your list of Top 50 Aussie Towns.
Find the complete list of the Top 50 Aussie Towns here.
You know croissants are important to a small town when no less than three artisan bakers serve its 1542 residents. Robe, on South Australia’s limestone-clawed coast, takes its flaky French pastries seriously – they’re usually sold out before noon.
Demand may have something to do with the 15,000 visitors it greets each summer, though I suspect locals are generally at the front of the queue. Well-placed Robe is about 335 kilometres from Adelaide, 520 kilometres from Melbourne and only a 40-minute drive from the cattle farm where I grew up.
Seasonal highlights in Robe
It was my family’s holiday idyll, loved across every season; a place to run uncontrollably down sand dunes, to walk for miles along spirit level-flat beach and to boogie board in gently frothing white water until our hands turned blue and our feet lost feeling.
Long is the operative
word to describe Long Beach. (Image: Josh Geelan)
For a beachy destination, Robe can be cold, particularly in the ocean. In winter, roaring waves carve cliffs in the dunes – once, the water surged up the beach and engulfed us on a sandy evening stroll.
My dad scrambled free, but my siblings and I copped the icy, direct from-the-Antarctic ocean right up past our shoulders. It was a shock, but the enthralling sense of energy has never left me.
Spring is a time for thawing. Coastal wildflowers peep through swaying khaki-green succulents and grasses, winking at the reviving sunshine. Sunsets seem to compete, each evening a richer, deeper saturation of crimson bleeding into fuchsia as the minutes tick by.
Summer is when Robe becomes an extrovert, its wine bars, cafes, boutiques and two pubs thronging with holidaymakers who oscillate between the main street and the many beaches rimming the rugged peninsula the town sits on.
Aptly named Long Beach draws the biggest crowds. Stretching for 14 kilometres and open to cars, it’s a magnet for families who set up beach cricket and shade shelters, often staying until they need headlights to return to base.
Stroll along Long Beach in the summertime. (Image: South Australian Tourism Commission)
I’ve lost count of the hours I’ve spent there. Despite living in Western Australia, I return to Robe each year, now with my own children. Visiting in autumnal April, we are astonished to see a change in the charming town centre, characterised by its row of cream, limestone buildings dating to the 1850s.
It seems the COVID shutdown gave Robe time to polish itself into an Instagrammable haven of smallgoods stores, hipster-chic cafes and heritage-listed shops strung with bunting – and not just any bunting.
Cape Dombey Obelisk
This kind is fashioned with the town’s icon, a circa-1855, red-and-white striped monument known as the Cape Dombey Obelisk – a place I visit without fail, to marvel at its ever-receding limestone platform that’s gradually being ravaged by the ocean.
The Insta-famous Cape Dombey Obelisk , constructed in 1855. (Image: Thomas Cowey)
A string of miniature obelisks hang above wine barrels that serve as leaning posts at Woodsoak Wines’ convivial cellar door; people cluster outside the corner property, wine glass in hand and conversation on the lips.
An antique wooden bar is rolled out to the courtyard each day, and three of the 10 wines on offer are named after the owners’ children. You can’t help but want to be there.
The Drift Cafe
It’s a similar vibe up the road, at Drift Cafe, where the sourdough from next door’s baked goods haven, Rise of Robe, is served with eggs and avocado among mid-century stonework and whitewashed beams.
Inside the Drift Cafe in Robe. (Image: South Australian Tourism Commission)
Serving cafe staples like tacos and fries. (Image: South Australian Tourism Commission)
Karrata Wine Store
A sky-blue kombi is parked in the driveway, its rear window lifted to reveal an espresso machine pumping out takeaways for passers-by. A few steps away, the Karatta Wine Store doubles as a tasting house and art gallery. Like Woodsoak, it’s family-owned, sourcing grapes from vineyards patchworking the countryside just out of town.
Karatta Wines doubles as a tasting house and wine store. (Image: Fleur Bainger)
The Caledonian Hotel
Another nearby watering hole, The Caledonian Hotel serves local drops in its beer garden and dark wood, English-style interiors that have been loved for 160 years. Fondly known as ‘The Caly’, it hosts live music and fills to bursting point between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
The historic Caledonian Inn was first built in 1858 by Scotsman Peter McQueen.
Having little kids, I’m now less barfly and more nature fan. Together, we cross the esplanade bridge over an outlet that links ocean to wetlands.
Robe offers much in the way of natural delights. (Image: South Australian Tourism Commission/Adam Bruzzone)
We search for fragile white crabs and watch feathery green seagrasses wave in the current. Tracing the rise and fall of Robe’s limestone ridge on one of the many paved walking trails, we dart into pine thickets and search for resident seals who pop up in the sometimes turquoise, often teal-hued bay.
Before we leave, we follow our curiosity into a new streetwear shop – seemingly incongruous in this town of stone, linen and seashells. It’s run by a local artist who creates the garments’ surf, skate and skull designs under the brand Snixley.
I recognise her – Hadley Johnson – as the daughter of the man who gave me my first job, at what was once the busiest gallery-restaurant in Robe. It was famous for its cinnamon scrolls that no other operator has ever managed to fully replicate (many have tried).
I was 16 and a terrible waitress, but I had a ball. We buy T-shirts, one with a Robe-o-saurus painted in the Obelisk’s colours. It’s become my son’s favourite. And with that, another generation falls for Robe.