At half-past something someone from overseas or interstate will call or email Wendy and Phil Watson at their Birks Harbour B&B and ask what Goolwa is like.
For this couple, sharing an amazing passion for everything in this river port town especially wooden boats, the answer is simple and they proceed to deliver this amazing description of a town like no other.
It really is unique when considering only the grand Mississippi River, USA also has steam trains meeting paddle steamers presenting wonderful cultural flavour and quaintness – and Goolwa is also flanked by spectacular beaches.
Yet, in a rather peculiar way Wendy would like to tell potential visitors – those who call nearly always visit – another reason why Goolwa is special. It’s about a lady who knocked on Wendy’s door one day and asked whether she knew her dog was out sitting by her front gate only to be told her dog was inside.
“It’s how people think,” Wendy says. “I know it sounds silly, but it’s the way they care about you and I think it shows when people visit our town.”
With 15 years experience in the cellar door wine industry, three years on the Fleurieu Tourism board, and a seven-year involvement with the SA Wooden Boat Festival until 2013, Wendy paints a fabulous picture of Goolwa for the tourists inquiring with much of it flowing from how they too were drawn here originally from Victoria in 1998, starting with visiting to enjoy their first wooden boat nine years earlier.
Birks Harbour is a beautiful B&B gem nestled 1km out of the town surrounded by one of its few clusters of magnificent trees including Norfolk Pines, Port Jackson Figs and gums creating a stunning haven for bird life.
The marina is also home to some classic boats including Wendy and Phil’s own century-old Fairy Queen and Progress.
“I talk to tourists about how there is so much to experience like the nature walks, cruising, paddle steamers, steam trains and then everything else that every other town has like restaurants, art galleries, cellar doors, shopping and nice eateries and markets,” Wendy said. “There are the wine regions and how close we are to McLaren Vale.
“We are distinctive because we have the river and the ocean, and in that regard it’s fantastic. And on top of all of this, people can jump on a boat and go down the Coorong.
“When people book with us I give them a list of our recommendations of fun things to do in Goolwa. When Phil and I travel we’ll drive out of a town and think, ‘gee, if we knew about that we would have gone there’. It’s because no one tells you. You get inundated with brochures and it becomes an information overload, so we offer our personal recommendation of what we think are good things to do in the area and a lot of our visitors tick them off.
“I will list them in groups like foodies, boaties, shoppers, steam buffs, adventures, history trails, golf and whatever you are into, and it doesn’t just include Goolwa.
“The reason I do the list is that if all the people who stay with us spend $10 here and $5 here or buy a painting or a bottle of wine, how good is it for the economy of the town? I try to say to other B&B operators, if you are full keep them in Goolwa because that is how everyone survives.
“We came to Goolwa because for us it ticked all the boxes. For starters, it has history, and the list just goes on and on.”
But while Wendy and Phil easily sell what Goolwa has to offer – since 2009 they have also managed Birks River Retreats, a magnificent property opposite the marina owned by Robert O’Callaghan and Pam O’Donnell who own Rockford Wines – they treasure the perhaps less obvious qualities shared by those who live here.
“Goolwa is a destination, not a drive-through town, and I believe that is an advantage because it creates it’s own identity,” Wendy said. “Goolwa was put on the map with Storm Boy (a 1976 classic Australian film based on a boy and his pelican), but when we received arts funding a few years ago for the Just Add Water experience it really presented Goolwa as a serious arts centre instead of just being another town with local exhibits. We have magnificent galleries.
“I believe when you have good art in a town it creates a lot of flavour because it encourages quality people to live there. That should not be confused with people having money, but the character of the person. This is what boating also brings to Goolwa; it draws a wonderful environment of people who can only afford a little dinghy and those with a huge boat. There is no class distinction, and it reflects in the town.
“This isn’t Noosa, Sorrento or Portsea… okay, there are certain areas where the houses may not be as grand, but I genuinely believe there is a really nice balance of people who make the town special. It’s about people from all backgrounds sharing the same passion for their town, and that really sums up Goolwa.”
The town is also noted for being the first in Australia in 2007 to earn Cittaslow status – meaning ‘slow town’ – an international movement started in Italy in 1986 from the worldwide rejection to the growing ‘fast food’ industry. Cities and towns combine the efforts of local government, the business community and residents to improve the quality of life for all who live and work in their town, and its principles include fostering local culture and tradition, achieving a better sustainable environment, supporting and encouraging local produce and products, and promoting healthy living especially among younger people.
Cittaslow International will hold its general assembly in Goolwa in May next year, and Wendy said it represented a wonderful opportunity to promote its ideals which had always been very much a part of Goolwa’s culture.
“A lot of the success of Goolwa is a result of the people getting behind things like Cittaslow and making them happen,” Wendy said. “There are charities, and everyday people willing to help someone else out. It is a nice community. I know every town says that, but there are some natural elements here easily highlighted.
“To me, what has made Goolwa so good are all these semi-retired people who have given their bit as volunteers to make things happen. That has been fantastic for Goolwa. Our friends in Adelaide say to us, ‘gee Goolwa has changed, hasn’t it gone ahead… it’s got a lot of flavour’. I love hearing that.
“Someone also said to me last night; ‘everyone says hello; everyone is friendly’, and I said it has always been like that. I put it down to the fact all the dogs are happy so they must have happy owners. Just have a look at the wagging tails down the beach; it’s just so nice to experience.
“There are not too many places on this earth where you can walk along a spectacular beach with the dog in the morning and in the afternoon go sailing along the river from the marina – in between working, of course. (she laughs).
“This also might sound crazy, but another thing I love about this town is the fresh air; it’s unbelieveable and you don’t realise it until you go away from here.
“And when we come home Phil and I always say to each other, ‘it’s pretty good here isn’t it… Goolwa is hard to beat.’ It really is.”