If you love soaking in the flavours of the yesteryears, if you look forward to relax on an idyllic paddle steamer or go camping near a quiet riverside, if you enjoy kayaking/ canoeing along serene creeks or are fond of exploring regional fauna and bird-watching, if music festivals rev you up or you are cognoscente of fine food and dining, then Echuca is the place calling you out loud!
Echuca, to be honest, was not on top of our list when we were planning a trip on the long Easter break! In fact, my husband came up with the idea almost at the eleventh hour. We browsed through a couple of websites and checked the attractions in and around the Echuca-Moama district; all that I read on the net was enough to make me sure that there was much fun in the offing!
Echuca, the paddle steamer hub of Australia, inspirits one's senses with gaiety almost immediately! The climate is just perfect for a holiday any time of the year - a maximum of 30 C in the summers while a minimum of 4 C in the winters.
It is fairly close to Melbourne - 205 kms, about 2.5 hours from CBD on the Hume and Northern Hwys. Be sure to stack some munchies and water with you, esp on hot summer days, since there are not too many gas stations en route.
Personally, I love long drives in the countryside, and on this trip I simply basked in the splendid pastoral glory! What made the three-hour drive even better was groovy Rock 'n' Roll music from the swinging sixties and a great book to read. Did I also mention a husband to chauffeur and chaperone me along? ;)
Well, since our trip was planned at the last minute, we were obviously not lucky to pick the best place to stay, so did the next best thing - booked the first hotel that had vacancy! We booked an Executive Spa Suite in SportsLander Motor Inn. It is located at the corner of Cobb Hwy & Perricoota Road, a stone's throw from the Moama Sports & Bowling Club and fairly close to the Rich River Golf Club.
The resort enjoys a lovely country setting with 10 acres of garden and lawn. Apart from a huge playground, there are plenty of other attractions for the kids - swings, slides and trampolines. There is a solar heated, salt water pool bang in the middle of the property, with lounges under the shade to relax and soak up the sun! If you feel like a BBQ dinner by the poolside, then you must hit the gazebo area, which can cater up to 50 guests under cover.
In one word, our Executive Spa Suite was - good. It was an individual unit, with a designated car park in the front and a perfect garden seating arrangement in the hind.
The room was well furnished. There was a huge, comfy bed with an electric blanket (the temperature plummets significantly after sunset.) The weather, however, was nice during our stay so we didn't use the room heating or the air conditioning. The unit had a comfortable sofa, a huge dressing table, ironing equipment, a dining table and chairs, a big TV and DVD player - the CD's for which you can procure from the reception at a nominal price.
The unit also had a self-help kitchen area, a stocked, mini refrigerator and ample glasses and crockery. Home-cooked breakfast could be ordered in advance, though we always chose to eat out! Soft drinks were always in the offing, what with the vending machine in the rear garden.
But undoubtedly, the best part of the unit was the double spa bath with great Jacuzzi. The spick-and-span bathroom was tastefully done in white and gold, which rendered a great imperial look. There was a decent shower (a li'l small in my opinion), a tidy stack of towels of various sizes. The spa and Jacuzzi were excellent, esp to relax after a long drive and great deal of hiking and canoeing! They provided organic soaps, bath gels and other toiletries to suit all skin types.
Once we stepped in our unit, we didn't need to ask for anything, the information brochures, and tourist guides helped plan our daily activities. We browsed through the brochures and the yellow pages before booking our canoeing trip and paddle steamer cruise.
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You can alternately choose your accommodation from the numerous cottages, resorts, hotels, houses, motels, bunkhouses, hostels or bed and breakfast. For a more adventurous experience, you can pick a houseboat or camper trailer, or book yourself a caravan at the Caravan and Holiday Park along the river, which is what we plan to do on our next visit.
A little history: Echuca and Maoma were founded by two ex-convicts.
In 1845, James Maiden established a punt and an inn on the NSW side of the Murray. It came to be known as Maiden's Punt before being christened 'Maoma' in 1851.
In 1850, another ex-convict, Henry Hopwood, set up a rival punt. In 1854, the place became known by an aboriginal term meaning "meeting of the waters" - Echuca.
The two towns were connected after the sentencing of both the convicts on the same day and the same jail.
Echuca was even nominated as a possible country capital in 1981.
Though around the turn of the century, there was a decline in river trade what with the advent of railways. But the redevelopment in 1974 has literally served as the manna from heaven for the Port!
Attractions/ Activities: There are umpteen activities on the things-to-do list in the Echuca-Moama district. The piece de resistance, however, is the Port of Echuca, one of the finest heritage icons of the nation and home to the largest riverboat fleet in the world!
The wharf was first built in the 1860s for the booming river trade, however, it later became unsound until its restoration in 1973. What was once the largest inland port of Australia, with a wharf extending up to over 1.2 km, is now a great recreational retreat for people of all ages.
At Port of Echuca, you can book a paddle steamer cruise. The price, however, varies for different paddlesteamers e.g. if you book a lunch or dinner cruise on M.V.Mary Ann, a licensed Five Star cruising restaurant, then it could cost you more again depending upon you choice of the meal. It also offers Live music on dinner cruises.
If you wish to take a less fancy cruise, you can hop onto a day cruiser, most for which charge around AUD 20 per person for one-hour cruise along the mighty Murray at Echuca.
However, there is much more to the Port than just the world-famous paddlesteamers, some of which date back to the 1860s. The place bursts at the seams with olde worlde charm, from riding a horse and carriage to a visit to the underground bar and escape tunnel at the Star Hotel (which we learnt dates back to the 1890s), from finding shipbuilders at work to the quaint wharf itself!!
What we enjoyed most was canoeing along a solitary creek, a few kilometers off the main district. The quiet setting made not only for a romantic paddling experience but we also spotted koalas, kangaroos and some exotic birds.
For automobile freaks like my husband, The National Holden Museum is a must-see. There are over 40 wonderfully restored Holdens, rare prototypes, souvenirs and even historic film footage on display.
Find your way around the Oz Maze - in the shape of Australia - as you hop around Melbourne-Sydney-Perth-Alice Springs...!! Tired? Then you only need a relaxing afternoon putting and teeing on the Mini Golf course!
You must also visit the Sharps Magic Movie House and Penny Arcade; an early 20th century picture theatre and an antique penny arcade with rare penny machines operated by fair dinkum pennies. If nothing, the aroma of fresh fudge will pull you inside. They make fresh gourmet fudge in various flavours, which you can taste for free before your purchase.
Visit the Billabong Ranch for wholesome entertainment. From having fun in the park to horse riding, horse-drawn carriage rides to indoor activities, the place is meant for people from all age groups. You can spot Billabong Carriages strutting around the town.
You can even book a caravan in the caravan hamlet along the river. Hundreds of caravans lined along the river offer an unusual yet marvellous experience as you find yourself fishing during the day and cooking a deluxe meal by the balefire in the evening.
If you fall for the place completely (which won't be a surprise) you can even plan you wedding there! We ourselves, witnessed numerous 'I Dos' all along the river... some on the quaint-est of paddlesteamers while others on the most modernistic ones!
Once you're in Echuca, you won't run out of ideas how to spend your days as the options are aplenty.
We've heard much about the Winter Blues Festival that takes places around the end of July, the sole purpose of which is to kick away the dismal winter blues. The fest that reverberates the entire town has been running for 10 years and is dubbed as Australia's premier regional music events. We learnt about the performances from the likes of Chris Wilson and the George McFloyd band. We plan to witness the festival this year.
Food: A trip to Echuca is not just a treat for the eyes and body but the palate too. Apart from a unique experience of dining aboard an ancient paddlesteamer in star luxury, there are umpteen award winning fine-dine restaurants, eateries, cellar doors and cafes scattered all around the historic precinct.
Oscar W's Wharfside is a great venue along the riverfront offering dinner, bar, coffee, cake and a spectacular view. Antonio's on the Port offers authentic Italian food and a great service. Enjoy their sumptuous risotto, gnocchi, parmigiana and wash it down with the drink of your choice! I couldn't resist trying one of their wood-fired oven baked gourmet pizzas for an out-of-the-world experience!
Hit Nik's Tavern to salvage your Grecian tastebuds or Double Dragon for authentic Chinese cuisine. Go to The River Thai to be spoilt with not just an elaborate vegetarian and non-veg carte du jour but a great service too. Radcliffle's (which is a converted early 1900s warehouse) and Ceres will surely satiate even the most difficult connoisseurs of fine food.
MD Provender Gallery restaurant offers gluten-free cakes and snacks and a host of vegetarian dishes in a lovely indoor and outdoor setting. We did not try the Rich River Golf Club Resort Tatalia, but heard rave reviews about the place, which offers great views across the west golf course.
Don't miss Beechworth Bakery for the world - it offers a smorgasbord of cakes, donuts, tarts, scones, puddings, pies, croissants, focaccias, breads and drinks. Trust me, you will be spoilt with the choice! They have a top-floor deck which offers quite a view of the town on the one hand and the Murray on the other.
Apart from these, Echuca is flooded with bars, grills, bistros, bakeries, pizza places and the omnipresent KFC, Red Rooster, McDs, Subway, Gloria Jeans et alia. Most of the restaurants are located along the High Street, the food hub of the town, and some places even boast of home-grown vegetables.
You must visit at least a couple of the numerous vineyards and wineries. Learn more about the wines you enjoy - the cellars in beautiful rustic and modern estates. You could visit Chanter Estate Winery & Military Museum or Monichino Wines or Restdown Wines or Morrisons winery and restaurant just to name a few...
For a more luxurious outing, you can book yourself a wine tour aboard a fashionable limo for a truly divine experience. They will drive you around the estates, vineyards and cellars and you can sample the wines whilst being treated like a celeb!
Shopping: Trust me you will burn a big hole in your pocket collecting souvenirs and mementoes from the beautiful shops along the High Street. The choice is vast. From scented candles, showpieces to handmade dolls and other artifacts, from books, albums, picture frames to designer goods, from fresh, local produce of olives, oil, marmalades to rodeo garbs.
My husband dreaded the sight of my eyes widening with amazement at a shop window. My most prized purchase is a small photo frame intricately adored with pearls on copper.
Being a self-proclaimed bookworm, I was thrilled to find many book shops selling collector' editions, hardbacks, first prints of some of the greatest books of all times, at prices I couldn't resist. I ended up buying a huge heap from each shop.
Don't miss the Echuca Heritage Sweet Company shop (also on High Street) selling a smorgasbord of fudge, chocolates, nuts, novelty confectionery, licorice, lollies et al. Here too, irrespective of your age, you will end up buying a huge bag of goodies.
A jewellery and bead shop (I can't recall the name) offers not only jewellery made of recherche beads, but also a variety of sterling silver adornments, women's bags, hats and other accessories. Even if you haven't ever tried your hand on beading and jewellery-making, you will find it hard to resist picking exquisite beads and a book on how-to-bead!
Heather's Quilting Emporium is also worth a stopover.
The Sunday market on the park ground should not be missed, as local tradesmen display their wares. Live bands rev the flee-market-type of atmosphere as you will compulsively find yourself in the endless queue to grab fresh, creamy donuts!!
All in all, Echuca - the largest inland Port of Australia - is a perfect holiday destination that is heads up any time of the year!
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