The Murray River, Australia's longest river and once a thriving commercial trade route, is now the lifeblood of a fertile agricultural region and a favourite playground of anglers and boaties. Vineyards, olive groves and acres of sunshine lend it a Mediterranean feel at times, but the pioneering spirit of the early settlers is always there, never more clearly than on a cruise downstream by century-old paddle steamer.
The Murray's best-known dining room is Stefano's at Quality Hotel Mildura Grand, where slow-food enthusiast Stefano de Pieri and chef Jim McDougall fashion sophisticated set menus from the finest seasonal and local produce. Stay overnight in one of the Mildura Grand's suites, and save room for a meal at the Spanish Bar and Grill. It's not Spanish at all, but it does serve rather good steaks cooked over red gum and mallee roots.
Mildura has a thriving festival scene for its size - listen out for the International Music Festival, Wentworth Arts Festival, the popular Mildura Writers' Festival, and the Jazz Food and Wine Festival.
DINE & WINE
There's good eating to be had along the river's route at farm-gate kiosks selling olive oil, fruits and vegetables, honey and cheeses. Get acquainted with the local producers at the Hume Murray Farmers' Market, held every second Saturday in the Victorian border city of Wodonga. In Echuca, book ahead at Oscar W's for a memorable meal overlooking the river and the world's largest paddlesteamer fleet. Taste delicacies such as Nanneella milk-fed veal and saltbush lamb from Womboota while enjoying one of the country's finer wine selections.
The riverland wine industry is growing more sophisticated with each vintage. Check its progress at Trentham Estate, a family-owned vineyard that produces consistently good value wines about 15 minutes from Mildura on the banks of the Murray. At the other end of the Victorian border, just outside Echuca, Cape Horn's boutique wines are backed by 150-years of Murray viticulture. Taste single grape varietals such as verdelho, shiraz and petit verdot - not to mention their olive oil - at Stevens Brook Estate in neighbouring Moama.
Detour off the Murray Valley Highway to visit Monichino Wines at Katunga, renowned for its Piedmontese-style barbera and other Italian varietals. East of here lies Rutherglen, famous for the quality of its fortified wines such as muscat and topaque, though local winemakers are also dab hands at chardonnay, shiraz, marsanne and sangiovese.
Get an aerial view of Sunraysia's lakes and sunbaked plains with a dawn balloon flight over Mildura. There are myriad houseboat operators along the Murray, but few offer the chic finishes of Rich River Houseboats' eight-person Icon, or their Ultimate 1 and Ultimate 2 five-suite cruisers where even the bathrooms have floor-to-ceiling views.
For a closer, more relaxed look at river life, grab a canoe or kayak and paddle under your own steam.
There are no fewer than 41 listed golf courses along the Murray's length, from Victoria and New South Wales down to South Australia. The 18-hole championship course at the Murray Downs Golf and Country Club in Swan Hill is one of the best regarded; beware of water hazards.
This online feature was published on the Gourmet Traveller website in October 2012.