One of South Australia’s oldest towns, Robe is situated on the beautiful Limestone Coast — a bit under four hours’ drive south-east from Adelaide.
In the second half of the 19th century Robe was the second busiest shipping port in South Australia. Today this charming holiday town has an abundance of heritage-listed buildings and a scattering of famous landmarks.
A visit to Robe offers something for everyone. Be dazzled by the stunning coastal scenery and enjoy the region’s beautiful beaches. Indulge in some retail therapy at unique boutiques or treat your taste buds at one of the town’s many cafés and restaurants. The local fishing industry ensures that seafood is always a good menu choice.
Here are eight great things to do in Robe.
1. Step back in time at Customs House
Robe Customs House is a very attractive limestone building built in 1863. It may be small in stature, but it houses a museum big on fascinating facts about the past. Besides exploring local maritime history (such as the many shipwrecks that occurred off the hazardous coastline and tales of adventurous explorers), you’ll learn about the thousands of Chinese migrants who came ashore here during the gold rush and walked overland to the Victorian gold fields to avoid a poll tax. Fittingly, a gold coin donation is all it will cost you to enter.
2. Explore more of the town’s backstory
There are plenty of others references to Robe’s intriguing past to be found around town. Along Obelisk Road, The Encounter Signal is a memorial to Matthew Flinders and Nicholas Baudin. The English and French explorers famously met in Encounter Bay in 1802 while charting Australia’s southern coastline. Today you’ll find many places that bear names bestowed by one or the other during their expeditions — including Guichen Bay, on which Robe is located.
Further along the coastline is Robe’s famous Obelisk — erected in 1852 to guide ships along the treacherous coastline and into the bay. The jaunty red bands were a later addition (1862), after complaints that the obelisk was too difficult to see. To get to the obelisk, you’ll pass the ruins of the Old Robe Gaol. It had a short and rather chequered 20 year history (including a number of escapes).
Back down in town, see busts of Flinders and Baudin at the Seafarers Memorial in Royal Circus. Nearby, the red Chinese Arch at Robe Beach, with the brilliant blue ocean as its backdrop, is a definite photo opportunity. The arch and memorial mark the spot where those 16,500 Chinese would-be prospectors landed between 1856 and 1858 and began the 500-kilometre walk east to seek their fortunes. Many died along the way, some gave up and returned home, and some stayed and prospered. It’s an epic tale!
3. Feast on local lobster
Robe’s fishing industry was established in the first half of the 20th century and is renowned for the exportation of the southern rock lobster. At one time it was possible to go down to the marina and buy fresh lobsters straight off the trawlers. That’s no longer an option, but you can visit Sky Seafoods and choose a fresh lobster from their tank. For fish and chips, try Robe Seafood and Takeaway or the historic Caledonian Inn (circa 1858). Down at the entrance of the marina, the Fishermen’s Memorial is a poignant commemoration of local fishermen lost at sea.
For those with an interest in Australia’s ‘big things’, a 30-minute drive up the Southern Ports Highway will net you a doozy! Like Robe, the coastal town of Kingston SE is famous for its seafood and is home to The Big Lobster — a 40-year-old veteran of the bigs scene and much loved by locals (who refer to the giant crustacean as ‘Larry the Lobster’).
4. Drive on the beach
Beach lovers are spoilt for choice in Robe. Long Beach, as the name suggests, is a lengthy 12 kilometres of golden sand and is without doubt one of the best beaches in Australia. If you enjoy the thrill of beach driving in a 4WD, this is the option for you. The beach is just a short drive north of town.
Closer to the tourist centre are Hooper Beach, Fox Beach and West Beach. However, Town Beach is the most popular with travellers as it’s just a minute’s walk from the main street. Relax on its pure white sand or paddle in the crystal clear water. If you’re feeling just a little energetic, swim out to the pontoon. It’s a great way to work off the fish and chips!
5. Choose a flavour, any flavour
We all scream for ice cream while on holiday, and fabulous Robe Ice Cream answers the call. This funky shop with chess boards on each table has loads to look at while you tuck into a delightful sweet treat. The hardest part is deciding which flavour to go with (I couldn’t go past the hazelnut chocolate, and I’m still licking my lips!).
6. Shop ’til you drop
A relaxed spot of shopping is another time-honoured holiday pastime, and the main street of Robe has some wonderful boutiques to browse in (and many are situated in charming heritage buildings). As you walk into Loaves and Fishes, you’re hit by a soothing scent that gives the shop a lovely ambiance. The store has a great sense of style and is filled with gorgeous homewares and gifts. You’re sure to find a piece of beach-chic to take home with you.
Ladies, if you have a passion for fashion, Retail Therapy stocks stylish pieces and accessories. Also check out Me and Miss Jones for boho wear and wares. Fellas, don’t you feel left out. Check out Steve’s Place — established in 1966 by none other than Steve — a boy from the bush who was searching for that perfect wave. He fell in love with Robe and started his own surf store. Fifty years on, you’ll will find his son Sam in charge.
7. Eat out
For such a small place, Robe is big on culinary highlights. Nothing beats the smell of freshly roasted coffee to get the day off to a great start. Fresh waffles will also do it. You’ll find them both at Mahalia Coffee. Enjoy the quirky vibe of this ‘not so secret’ garden, where time can easily slip away.
I mentioned the historic Caledonian Inn (known locally as ‘the Cally’) for your seafood dining pleasure, but you’ll find a much wider menu here (including a great selection of steaks). The main heritage building is beautifully maintained and offers plenty of atmosphere.
Straight over the road, Sails at Robe does a modern Aussie menu (again, with an emphasis on seafood), served in a contemporary setting. The Project cafe and restaurant has lots of interesting upcycled touches and a menu of pizzas, pastas and share plates.
8. Try a local tipple
If you’re a wine lover, wander a little further up the road to the Attic House — the cellar door of Governor Robe Wines. You can sample a range of their wines, then sit back and relax with a glass of your favourite drop and a sharing platter of delicious bites.
Those who prefer a cold beer or cider should make their way to the Robe Town Brewery. This micro brewhouse produces 21 different brews (so you may need to visit more than once if you want to sample them all!). The beer is made using old fashioned straw filtration with wood fired kettles and open fermentation. Make sure you try the pungent Moby Dick Ambergris Ale. Fun fact: It’s made with actual ambergris — a secretion that forms in the gut of a sperm whale, then washes up on the beach! It tastes a lot better than it sounds.