Down by the Riverside
The historic port of Echuca comes to life once more.
Once a booming river port, the town of Echuca straddles the Murray River on the border between NSW and Victoria. Thanks to a multi-million dollar restoration project that has reinstated the historic wharf to its former glory, the town has become a mecca for tourists seeking a glimpse of colonial Australian life.
The township was first established in 1850 by former convict Henry Hopwood, who bought a small punt to ferry people and goods across the Murray River. The small colony known as ‘Hopwood’s Ferry’ eventually grew into a township and was renamed Echuca as its population grew. By the time Hopwood died in 1869 he left behind a thriving township that was to become an integral part of the shipping system that shunted people and goods long the Murray river, opening up large areas of NSW and Victoria for settlement along the way.
The Paddlesteamer days were a time of great prosperity for Echuca – with its close proximity to Melbourne, the river town soon grew to become the third largest Port in Australia and the largest inland port in the country, opening up trade routes throughout the land. But with the rise of industrialisation, the modern world began to encroach on the riverboat trade and the fortunes of the town began a slow demise, eventually Echuca’s famous port was shut down in 1920.
However the recent restoration has revitalised this historic district. While the town’s role as a major port may be a thing of the past, its new position as a major tourist destination that offers visitors a slice of colonial life, has just begun!
A visit to Echuca must start with an inspection of the wharf. This impressive wooden structure has been beautifully restored and functions once more as a working wharf. Granted it may not shunt supplies to the township any more but it does a bustling trade in riverboat journeys up the Murray Darling river system as tourists eager for a taste of colonial times jump aboard the paddlesteamers to explore the river and its surrounds. In fact Echuca has the largest fleet of paddlesteamers operating in the world.
The paddlesteamers themselves are somewhat local celebrities, with several featuring in movies and TV shows – most notably the PS Pevensey in the Sigrid Thornton, John Waters teledrama, All the Rivers Run. Step on board one, whether it’s for an hours journey up river to a local vineyard or an overnight journey downstream and it’s like revisiting a less hectic time. You can’t help but relax as you wind your way along the river, watching life go by. For our river experience we opted for an short paddlesteamer journey up the river to Morrisons – a local vineyard.
Nestled amongst native bush on the shores of the Murray River, Morrisons is a popular spot for locals and visitors alike. With beautiful grounds, Morrisons makes an ideal location for a wedding or party, and the vineyard boasts an award winning restaurant that overlooks the river and offers up a splendid variety of food for the discerning foodie coupled with a selection of there most popular wines.
The restaurant also doubles as a cellar door so you can opt for a cheese platter and a glass or two of one of their fabulous drops if you so desire, then stretch out on the lush green lawns surrounding the growing vines and take time out to contemplate life.
Morrisons restaurant should definitely please visitors from the big smoke who will undoubtedly love chef Brendan Mullane’s menu which livens up traditional dishes with a few whimsical touches or the addition of local produce.
The citrus cured salmon is definitely worth ordering as is the beef cheek, which absolutely melts in the mouth. Dessert lovers will adore the chocolate brulee with orange and mandarin sorbet (just the right element of sharp and sweet to cut through the rich chocolate). While those that lack a sweet tooth will be perfectly happy with the cheese platter. The best discovery of the meal though was the vineyards frozen muscat – rather like an alcoholic slushy - which was a perfect accompaniment to the dessert. It was impossible to leave without ordering half a dozen bottles to take home.
Returning to the wharf aboard our paddlesteamer, we spent the afternoon wandering around the port. Strolling through Echuca is like stepping back into a bygone era. Shipwrights and blacksmiths are hard at work, a horse and dray traipses tourists through town pointing out the sights. Handcrafted items are the order of the day – from local iron work (we bought a giant wrought iron triangle to ring in the day and call our errant toddler in for dinner) to handmade chocolates (mmm) and local wines. There’s plenty to get you reaching into your pocket for your wallet.
Further exploration of the wharf also offers up another side to the township’s famous past – the timber mill. Echuca was once the largest producer of milled red river gum in the land. With the expansion of the railway network the red river gum was in high demand for use as railway sleepers. Today the red river gum have been virtually milled out of existence in the Echuca region, but at one point, the riverbanks were lush with the majestic trees.
Other surprises at the wharf include the Star Hotel – the town’s orginal public bar – it sports a secret tunnel and underground speakeasy – where locals would come to drin during prohibition.
The Cock ‘n’ Bull
Those seeking something a little different will appreciate the many historical properties available to stay in Echuca. If a boutique hotel experience is what you are after consider the Cock n Bull hotel – just minutes from the heart of town. This small boutique hotel has been lovingly restored by husband and wife team Judy and Murray and consists of 5 self-contained suites.
For the first night of our stay we resided in a one-bedroom suite with spa. From the minute we arrived at the hotel and stepped forth on to the classic verandah via the beautiful rose gardens we felt as though we had stepped back in time. Nestled on the banks of the Campaspe River, the Cock N Bull hotel provides a tranquil spot to relax once you’ve finished your tour of the township. Each suite blends old world charm with modern convenience from the four poster bed with its traditional linens to the streamlined kitchen and cosy lounge – to the deep spa bath that offers sheer luxury. Relaxing is easy at the Cock ‘n’ Bull.
After refreshing ourselves with a fresh plunger of coffee and some quick ablutions we set off to explore Echuca’s nightlife.
A visit to Echcua wouldn't be complete without a night out at Radcliffe’s. Originally starting life as a garage in the 1920s, the historic building was converted to a restaurant and wine cellar in the 1980s called the Cellar Door Restaurant before finding its new moniker and guise as a modern restaurant and function centre in 2000.
Radcliffe’s (named for the street upon which it resides) is now one of the premier dining spots in Echuca and is often sought after as a location for weddings and special events.
Modern Australian cuisine is the name of the game at Radcliffe’s and the menu is carefully thought out to include most of your favourites with a little twist to add their own mark. Crusty ciabiatta is served up with herbed butter rather than the usual olive oil and balsamic, salt and pepper calamari comes with a crunchy Asian salad with a dressing that zings, twice cooked duck opts for a Vietnamese flavour rather than the traditional French influence and arrives with bok choy a sweet sauce and jasmine rice. Fish of the day is succulent sweet barramundi and dessert of lemon tart with raspberry coulis and king island cream is the perfect finish to the meal.
Lovingly restored, the Clocktower is another of Echuca’s fabulous accommodations. The building itself originates from the 1879 and was once the site of the old Echuca Post Office.
Tree-changers Carolyn and Bob Campbell are passionate about returning this building to its former glory and the lengthy restoration project has resulted in an impeccably finished building whose apartments suites benefit from gorgeous timber floors, high ceilings and Carolyn’s enthusiasm for ensuring the room’s furnishings reflect a balance of the old and new.
All the modern conveniences are available from Miele appliances to Wi-Fi and flatscreen TVs, plus a luxurious double shower, but if you’re after period charm the Clocktower also has this in spades with the bedroom completely decked out in tastefully chosen period furniture.
Weary travellers will appreciate the little touches – like the fresh milk, ground coffee, juice and quality tea selection and the fresh crusty bread and butter – and did we mention the complimentary bottle of wine?
The Clocktower’s location is also ideal for exploring the town – everything is within walking distance – from the pub across the road to the local stores and even the Holden Museum, ensuring you can make the most of your stay.
For more information on Echuca visit echucamoama.com