Words by Max Anderson.
Which of these tourist attractions gets the most visitors in a single year: Westminster Abbey, the Florida Everglades, the Kremlin Museum – or the village of Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills?
It’s a trick question, because they all get the same, about a million. What’s surprising is that Hahndorf, a relatively obscure town of 3000 people in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills, can be mentioned in the same breath as Westminster Abbey. Moreover, a million visitors would easily put Hahndorf among Australia’s busiest attractions.
So is it true?
I live near Hahndorf, and have been driving through its Main Street every week or so for 14 years. When I first arrived, it was a colourful strip of faux-Bavarian kitsch with lots of cuckoo clocks, lederhosen and pubs spreading beery cheer and ‘Gemütlichkeit’.
In truth it looked a bit dodgy, although its historical credentials were rock-solid. Hahndorf has 49 early 19th-century buildings listed on the state heritage register, most of them on the kilometre-long Main Street. These distinct stone and timber-framed ‘Fachwerk’ structures were built by Lutheran émigrés who settled the sublime valley in 1839. They were Prussians, from the flatlands of Silesia mostly, on the Polish border.
But Bavarian they certainly were not.
The Bavarian/Alpine schtick was first dreamed up in the 1970s when a bunch of canny publicans decided to rejuvenate their dying businesses after Highway 1 diverted traffic from the town.
As it happens, busty stein-serving wenches worked quite well, and by the early 2000s, it was being claimed that 900,000 people reliably visited Australia’s oldest German village each year.
Again, I wasn’t convinced. Firstly, the kilometre-long strip of commerce on the Main Street just didn’t appear to have that sort of volume. And secondly, no-one could produce a report to show where this hallowed number (very useful when it came to rounds of local funding) had actually come from.
Cut to mid-2017 – and a lot has changed.
There are 130 businesses operating along the strip, with many of the stone cottages now home to retailers of top local produce – operators like Udder Delights (fine cheesemakers and home of the $300 a kilo King Saul cheese) and the Farmgate Providore, as well as carefully tailored café/restaurants like the Seasonal Garden, Kitchen 2C and The Haus.
The street now hosts five cellar doors: Scott & La Prova (home to Fiano supremo Sam Scott), Bendbrook (housed in a beautiful stone cottage), Somerled (where people kick back on a vine-draped terrace to drink $40 bottles of sparkling), Landhaus and the Adelaide Hills Wine Centre operating out of an old stable. Barossa winemaker Wolf Blass has also chosen Hahndorf as the site of his new museum and cellar door, slated for a late-2017 opening.
And there’s proper attention being paid to the original settlers with a German Migration Museum in the beautiful 1859 Hahndorf Academy, as well as some renewed appreciation of the town’s most famous son, artist Sir Hans Heysen. In May, The Haus Restaurant paid a record $110,000 to secure a recently-discovered Heysen watercolour, The Camp at Wonoka Creek, which now hangs in the dining area. And next year sees the nearby Heysen home and studio, The Cedars, starting work on a $5m cultural centre, a project that is supported by director Scott Hicks and comedian Barry Humphries.
Over the past five years, the narrow street has thickened with visitors (just ask anyone who has to drive the new 40km/h limit). At the weekends, it’s all daytrippers up from Adelaide, many of them looking to taste wine in the big name wineries that surround Hahndorf, including Nepenthe, Shaw+Smith and The Lane. During the week, coaches disgorge parties of retirees, cruise passengers, Chinese tourists and schoolkids on cultural visits.
No wonder some local operators are beginning to think the magic number has finally come home to roost.
Jason Duffield grew up in Hahndorf (indeed his father Noel was one of the canny publicans who struck up the oompah music in the 1970s). As well as owning The Manna 4-star motel and The Haus, he heads up the Hahndorf Business and Tourism Association.
“That number has been around for 20 years,” says Duffield, “even if in reality it was probably closer to 400,000 or 500,000. But these days, Hahndorf is really getting its act together.”
Duffield admits the town is still without a proper visitor survey but a back-of-envelope calculation shows it has 100,000 people over-nighting each year (which doesn’t include 50,000 people in caravans who pull into the Hahndorf Resort, nor bums in the beds of 20 Air BnBs).
“Day-trippers easily outnumber overnight guests by 10 or 15 to one. If we’re getting 100,000 overnight, that’s a million people right there.”
These substantial numbers could be owing to two factors. Hahndorf is a year-round attraction, as seductive in winter (think firesides, osso buco and Shiraz) as it is in summer (pavement tables under an avenue of plane trees). And while it has the same other-world charm as Daylesford or Leura, you don’t have to slog two hours from the city to get there: Hahndorf is only 40 minutes from the centre of Adelaide.
Andrew Holmes is manager of the Hahndorf Inn, the tourist honeypot that does a menu of German sausages, including a metre-long hot dog. “I can tell you we’re doing 250,000 lunches a year. I’d guess you could add another 200,000 lunches to that from the other two pubs in town. And that’s before you count the 40-odd cafes up and down the street.
“I’d say it’s at least a million visitors passing through town in a year.”
Of course, nothing lies like a statistic, and Hahndorf will never be in the league of the Sydney Opera House (8 million a year) or Federation Square (10 million). But it is in the league of Uluru (260,000), Whitsundays (600,000), and the Australian War Memorial (one million).
Whichever way you slice the sausage, that’s a lot of Gemütlichkeit.
Beerenberg Farm: Now famous for its jams and sauces, the farm was originally a dairy established in 1839 by Johann Paech. Still run by the Paech family, the Beerenberg shop and strawberry fields (where you can ‘pick your own’) sees around 120,000 visitors a year.
The Hahndorf Academy: The Academy in the very centre of town is a two-storey stone edifice originally opened in 1859 to provide "a sound and good English and German education”. Today it’s home to the German Migration Museum, a small gallery of Heysen works, exhibitions by local artists and an especially fine shop of artisan jewellery and crafts. The Hahndorf Visitor Centre is also in the building, which received 47,759 visitors in 2016.
Hahndorf Hill Winery: HHW is Hahndorf’s closest vineyard (under a kilometre from the Main Street), complete with a light-filled Cellar Door and ‘Chocvino’ wine and chocolate tasting experience. It sees around 20,000 visitors a year.
The Hahndorf Inn: The Inn is an institution, first making for lively evenings in 1863. Very much part of the Bavarian reinvention of the 1970s, it’s never really looked back, with ‘Ein Prosit’ still cheering on 230,000-270,000 lunchers per year. Like most of Hahndorf, the Inn has been proactive in getting ‘China ready’ with pinyin menus and Chinese-speaking staff ensuring it’s a favourite with Asian visitors.
The Cedars: The home and studio of the Heysen family is a national treasure, a sublime retreat of gardens and forest, as well as repository of works done by both Sir Hans and his daughter Nora. It is still however a relatively unsung hero, with the seeing only 10,000 visitors a year.