The first inland port in Australia took shape on the lower reaches of the Murray River in the 1850s.
Goolwa’s wharf, still intact today, allowed goods to move along the Murray without ships having to navigate the treacherous waters at the river’s mouth.
In the 1930s a system of barriers were constructed near the mouth to keep the river’s salinity down, and you can head to the Goolwa Barrage to watch boats negotiating the lock, and to savour the big skies and twinkling waters.
Modern Goolwa is an arty kind of place, with a surfeit of galleries in old heritage buildings.
And in keeping with the historic theme, you can go on a steam-to-steam journey aboard a paddle steamer from 1908 and then a steam train along the sandy coast.
1. Goolwa Wharf Precinct
The heritage of Australia’s first inland port is preserved at Goolwa’s riverfront wharf, where independent shops, galleries and restaurants all take precedence.
This is the place to board a steamboat for a trip up the Murray, embark on a guided tour of the Coorong, or travel along the Fleurieu Peninsula in style on the Cockle Train.
There’s ample green space blessed with distant views across the Murray’s lower reaches, and you can soak up the scenery with a beer in hand from the Steam Exchange Brewery, which makes an IPA, American-style “Steam Ale”, a stout and a dark ale.
There are popular, twice-monthly markets right here (more below), as well as “At the Wharf”, a live music and culinary get-together on the last Friday of the month during daylight saving months.
2. Goolwa Beach
The distance from riverfront to oceanfront is negligible in Goolwa, and you could easily walk or cycle down beach road to see the full majesty of the Southern Ocean driving into the coast.
Goolwa Beach is enormous, especially at low tide, and is walled from the town by high dunes.
You have to come at any time of year to see wave after wave rolling in from the boardwalk in the dunes, even in winter when temperatures barely break into the teens.
There’s a Surf Life Saving Club and a cafe sitting in the dunes, as well as KingoSurfing, offering lessons to anyone who wants to tame those waves.
3. Coorong National Park
Goolwa is the nearest large settlement to a national park of immense ecological importance.
“Coorong” comes from the local Aboriginal word for “narrow neck”, which describes the long finger of land here that shields a lagoon system.
This is a Ramsar Site cherished by birdwatchers, as a breeding ground for terns, swans, cormorants, ducks and Australian pelicans, and visited by more than 230 species of migratory birds each year.
You can journey into the park by boat, kayak, 4WD or on walking trails, in search of salt lakes, windswept ocean beaches, dunes and sheltered bays.
The Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal people have resided in the area for many thousands of years, and there are ancient reminders in the form of burial sites and middens composed of piles of seashells discarded millennia ago.
4. Goolwa Barrage
Down the Murray River you can see one part of a huge water management project that changed the character of the river hundreds of kilometres inland.
The Goolwa Barrage is a long barrier spanning the river between the Sir Richard Peninsula in the south and Hindmarsh Island to the north.
This is punctuated by a lock, more than 30 metres long and six metres across.
The purpose of this and the four other barriers around the mouth of the Murray is to lower the salinity in the lower reaches caused by the tide.
Lower salt levels have been detected at Swan Reach , 250 kilometres upstream.
The Goolwa Barrage was completed in the late-1930s, and can be crossed on foot for dreamy views of the Murray Mouth, particularly early and late in the day.
There are informative plaques about the barrage, and close-up views of birds like pelicans, swans, quail, black-shouldered kites, plovers and sacred kingfishers.
5. Paddle Steamer Oscar W
There’s a real, wood-fired paddle steamer docked at Goolwa’s wharf.
With steel topsides and a red gum hull, The Oscar W was launched at Echuca, Victoria in 1908, and more than a century later continues to take passengers out on the Murray.
Goolwa itself has a shipbuilding pedigree, assembling as many as 60 paddle steamers and barges between 1853 and 1914. On a typical voyage aboard the Oscar W you’ll travel down to the Goolwa Barrage and back towards the town, chugging under the Hindmarsh Island Bridge.
Before or after your trip you have to make time for the Goolwa Riverboat Centre, which has information about the Coorong, scale models of paddle steamers, historic photographs of the wharf and an old beam engine that used to pull vessels up the slipway at the shipyards.
6. Cockle Train
The second part of a steam-to-steam experience in Goolwa involves a ride on Australia’s oldest steel-railed railway, dating back to 1887. This line was built to connect the Fleurieu Peninsula’s ports with the mouth of the Murray River at Goolwa.
The last freight trains rolled through in the 1980s, and the line became a heritage railway soon after.
The 20-kilometre journey to Goolwa is a joy, as you travel in historic Brill or Redhen railcars along cliff-tops above immense ocean beaches and dunes.
The line has a fleet of steam and diesel locomotives going back to 1913. During the school holidays each train is pulled by a steam locomotive, and diesel engines are used at other times.
7. Goolwa Wharf Markets
The charming wharf precinct is the venue for a thriving market on the first and third Sunday of the month.
Under the towering Norfolk Island pines are upwards of 80 stalls for second-hand books, collectibles, arts and crafts, textiles, fashion accessories and freshly made food and drink, from spinach and feta pastries to cappuccinos.
There’s also a contingent of fresh produce stands where you can buy fruit and vegetables from the grower, as well as traders selling all sorts of cakes, jams and pastries.
You can catch additional markets, every Sunday in January and on Good Friday.
8. Bristow Smith Reserve
On the Murray River, Goolwa’s favourite local park has lots of handy features right in the middle of town.
For kids the nature-themed play space is as good as it gets, with climbing nets, a water play area, stepping logs, basket swing and an old restored fishing boat, 10 metres long.
The play space is also sprinkled with sensory elements, like music and sound installations, interpretive art and a sensory wall, made possible through a grant by the Fleurieu Philanthropy Foundation.
There’s also beach access on the calm Murray riverfront, together with a boat ramp and jetty close by.
9. Victor Harbor
When the Cockle Train pulls into this historic port and whaling station in Encounter Bay there’s a long list of things to get up to.
Granite Island needs to be your first destination.
Once occupied by whalers, this craggy mass is famed for its rock formations and colony of little penguins.
It lies a few hundred metres offshore and is linked to the mainland by a causeway, which you can cross on one of the last remaining horse-drawn trams in the world.
Meanwhile, from May to October Victor Harbor is a nursery for the southern right whale.
This species, growing to as much as 18 metres long, loves Encounter Bay’s comparatively warm winter waters, which makes Victor Harbor one of the best places in the world to spot whales from land.
10. Horseshoe Bay
Take a short drive to Port Elliot and you’ll find the sheltered Horseshoe Bay, shaped exactly as its name implies.
The beach is partly closed off to the Southern Ocean by granite reefs and the low Pullen Island.
This made the bay a good location for a port in the 1850s (a breakwater survives from this time), and the high lookout atop Freemans Knob on the south side became a whaling post to spot southern right whales.
You can still do this between May and October, when the southern right whale comes close to the Fleurieu Peninsula to calve.
The beach meanwhile is a joy, backed by Norfolk Island pines at the Commodore Reserve, and with a crescent of soft sand.
The waves are low and the waters are transparent, but there are tricky currents a little further out.
11. Goolwa Animal Farm
For an excursion sure to please the smaller members of the family, there’s an open farm in the picturesque Fleurieu Peninsula countryside, just outside of Goolwa.
Kids will have the chance to meet, feed and interact with goats, ducks, turkeys, alpacas, pigs, guinea pigs, chickens, wallabies, kangaroos and ponies.
And of course there are seasonal arrivals to cuddle, from kid goats to lambs and chicks.
Goolwa Animal Farm organises plenty of side activities like pony rides and tractor trailer rides, and has a play area and peaceful garden area.
12. Goolwa Motor Museum
Tucked into a warehouse on Goolwa’s industrial outskirts is a polished private collection of 45 vintage and classic cars.
These date from the 1920s to the 1970s, including everything from muscle cars to quirky compacts, and are all presented in near-perfect condition.
They all belong to one man, Michael Finnis, who will be glad to share his knowledge.
A few picks are the 1948 Allard K1 Sports Type 71K, the 1950 Jaguar XK 120 2, the 1937 Morris 840 Tourer and the 1960 MGA 1600. These vehicles are complemented by a big display of posters, photographs, flags, car accessories, helmets, goggles and model and toy cars.
13. Art@Goolwa Inc
There’s a lot to love about this gallery/shop in the heart of Goolwa.
Art@Goolwa Inc is in a pair of historic buildings, and the first one that greets you on Porter Street belongs to the National Trust, which has a little museum next door.
This entrance room is the Bargeboard Cottage, dating from the mid-1850s and moved here piece by piece from Goyder Street in 1986. Behind it is an old prefab building that served as the Barrage Paymaster’s house along the river.
Now, the name Art@Goolwa Inc refers to a collective of 25 local artists who display award-winning and purchasable work at this space.
They work in a whole spectrum of media, from mosaics to photography, wood, metal, glass, ceramics and textiles.
14. Artworx Gallery
Moments from the Wharf Precinct, this art space is housed in another historic building, a stone cottage built in the 1850s.
Artworx Gallery is touted as the top contemporary gallery on the Fleurieu Peninsula, where you can sample the work of talented artists from South Australia and further afield, and make a purchase that you’ll treasure.
The gallery is curated by long-term Goolwa residents, Liz and John Francis, and blends painting with sculpture, ceramics and glass but also handmade scarves, bags and whimsical things to brighten up your home.
15. Goolwa Visitor Information Centre
A lot of the entries are made a little easier by a visit to the visitor information centre at the wharf.
Here you can get hold of tickets for the PS Oscar W, and obtain permits to camp at Coorong National Park.
A wide range of tours and accommodation across the Fleurieu Peninsula can be booked at the centre, as well as tickets for the Sealink crossing to the nature-rich Kangaroo Island.
The souvenir and gift shop is packed with handy field guides and books specific to the region, as well as postcards, mugs and locally-made clothing and jewellery.