An army marches on its stomach, and ours are in for a treat. There are almost two dozen of us, women and men of all ages, lined up in our ‘combat fatigues’ – waterproof khaki dungarees with in-built gumboots. Our mission: to ‘soak up’ the atmosphere at “the only Salt Water Pavilion oyster tasting experience in the world”.
“Forward the light brigade!” Thus begins our crusade. Into Coffin Bay’s waters we wade. Will we make it, we wonder?
Splish, splash, squelch. The water rises over the gumboots. So far, so good – no one’s sprung a leak, no one’s socks are getting soaked. By the time we’re up to waist level, our apprehension has turned into giggles. Taking a dip in the sea without getting wet is fun.
In no time, we’ve taken up position in the Salt Water Pavilion – two semi-submerged rows of picnic tables and benches in Coffin Bay, on the south-western tip of South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula; home to some of the most prized oysters in the world.
The locals are friendly: they have wine chilling in ice buckets and are preparing platters of oysters plucked straight from the water, as fresh as can be, for us to sample. Sip, slurp, sip, slurp.
Now for serious business: weapons training. Platoon leader Ben Catterall, co-owner of Oyster Farm Tours, brandishes the shucking knife. This is how you shuck an oyster – his demonstration is deft; he’s as dab a hand with the blade as Hugh Jackman in Wolverine.
It’s our turn. We don protective gloves, the knife is passed around the table. Everyone has a decent stab at opening their oysters, but I mangle mine. Even so, they taste delicious. As I wash them down with Riesling, I can’t help thinking what a serene experience this is, to be imbibing while immersed in a scenic bay.
If you don’t want to wade out for oysters, there is a simple alternative: report to Oyster HQ! This is Oyster Farm Tours’ waterfront restaurant, which boasts the best views of Coffin Bay and has a comprehensive menu. Eyre Peninsula seafood is the obvious specialty, but there’s something for everyone. Even coming here for a coffee is worth it, then head out to Golden Island Lookout in Coffin Bay National Park.
Coffin Bay is an easy half-hour drive from Port Lincoln, “the seafood capital of Australia” (famous for its southern bluefin tuna). The city, which has a population of 16,000, is a great base from which to explore the region. It overlooks Boston Bay, the largest natural harbour in the country (three times the size of Sydney’s), and the surrounding attractions, such as the scenic offshore islands, are best viewed on day trips offered by Adventure Bay Charters.
Yes, thrillseekers converge on Port Lincoln for encounters with great white sharks, either from an underwater cage or the safety of a glass sub. But if you want something more sedate, snorkelling with the gorgeous sea lions – aka the playful puppy dogs of the sea is the way to go.
The sea lions reside mostly on Hopkins Island, a 45-minute boat trip away; the great white sharks, thankfully, congregate some 40km further south, preying on Australia’s largest colony of long-nosed fur seals on the Neptune Islands.
Landlubbers typically head for Lincoln National Park, 13km south-west of Port Lincoln, but you’ll need a 4WD and a special key to get a coveted slot into the Memory Cove Wilderness Protection Area, where only 15 vehicles are allowed per day (for more, go to parks.sa.gov.au).
Where to stay in the Eyre Peninsula
• Port Lincoln: All rooms at the stylishly refurbished Limani Motel have ocean views (limaniportlincoln.com.au). The Port Lincoln Hotel also has an impressive outlook (portlincolnhotel.com.au). As does the Marina Hotel at the plush Lincoln Cove Marina (marinahotel.com.au).
• Coffin Bay: Stay a stone’s throw from the beach at LongBeach Apartments (longbeachapartments.net.au).
Where to eat in the Eyre Peninsula
• Port Lincoln: The Line & Label Restaurant, at 31 Whillas Road (Fridays to Sundays only; peterteaklewines.com).
• Coffin Bay: Oyster HQ, 100 Esplanade (oysterfarmtours.com.au).
When to go to the Eyre Peninsula
The warmer months! (Some restaurants and cafes take a winter break.) Sea-lion swim tours typically run from late September to mid-June.
How to get to the Eyre Peninsula
Qantas and Regional Express have daily flights between Port Lincoln and Adelaide. From Adelaide to Port Lincoln by car, via Port Augusta, is a 650km/seven-hour drive. Using the Wallaroo to Lucky Bay ferry across the Spencer Gulf will save 340km, but take up roughly the same time.