Crisp air, clear skies, golden leaves. It's this trifecta of soul-nourishing pleasures that makes autumn the perfect time to escape Melbourne for a short break in the regional Victorian town of Echuca.
Just two hours and 45 minutes' drive north, this romantic, riverside spot is best known for its nostalgic paddle steamers. And while a ride along the Murray in 19th-century style should be on everyone's bucket list, there's a whole lot more to explore. Think cycle paths dotted with cellar doors and gourmet food stops, canoe trails through the world's biggest red river gum forest, and antique train carriages transformed into beautiful accommodation.
EAT AND DRINK
Even though the drive is pretty easy, you'll no doubt be hankering after a coffee as soon as you roll in. So make your first stop The Black Pudding Cafe, which also does a mighty breakfast burrito, with cheesy scrambled eggs, bacon, hash brown, black beans and barbie sauce, alongside several other generous brekkies. Meanwhile, enjoy country chic at The Sweet Meadow, where you'll find Allpress Coffee and a 100 percent vegan menu, from banana and buckwheat pancakes to beautifully presented baked donuts. Find this plant-based health bar in a 1920s corner cottage that has been revamped with pink paint and an array of Instagram-worthy florals.
Come lunchtime, Henry's Bridge Hotel is the place to go for hearty pub classics, including burgers, grill and fish 'n' chips. It's the oldest pub in town, having been built in 1859 by ex-convict Henry Hopwood, and scored a $1 million revamp in 2016. From there, move on to The Mill, another glammed-up historical spot, which started out in 1881 as a five-storey flour mill. These days, it's a restaurant and bar, dotted with lounges, vintage timber and magnificent chandeliers. Enjoy a quick craft beer or local wine, or stay a while for share plates based on local produce, such as slow-braised pork belly with parsnip puree, bok choy and star anise reduction.
Another champion of local farmers is Junction, perched right on the confluence of the Murray and Campaspe Rivers. The architect-designed space offers a choice of atmospheres, from an outdoor terrace overlooking gardens to a warmly lit cocktail lounge. Wherever you are, linger over beautifully composed share plates — such as Wagyu beef carpaccio with wild mushrooms and daikon remoulade — and signature cocktails, like the Ultimate G&T (Four Pillars gin, bergamot bitters, tonic, rosemary and mango). Finally, for an indulgent Italian feast, there's Ceres, where chefs Simone Di Domizio and Amanda Santurbano serve up decadent dishes informed by years of training in traditional and fine dining restaurants across Europe.
Waterfront wineries are a knockout feature of the Murray region. There are two within cooee of Echuca: Morrisons Winery, to which you can travel by paddle steamer, and Cape Horn Vineyard, which sits on a lovely hill between the Murray and Goulburn Rivers, affording dreamy views. Should you fancy arriving on horseback, give Billabong Ranch a buzz.
A good way to get your bearings around Echuca is with some exploration on foot or by bicycle. To that end, the Echuca and Moama Recreation Trails carry you through an idyllic blend of river frontage, forest and historical town streets. Along the way, have a breather at St Anne's Cellar Door, where you can sample a bunch of light whites, big reds and fortified wines perfected over three generations of wine-making, as well as Echuca Farmhouse Cheese, for irresistible triple bries, blues, tasties and more.
Once you've experienced Echuca on land, you'll want to see it from the water. The classic way to do this is via paddle steamer, but for a more active adventure, consider a canoe. Echuca Boat and Canoe Hire or River Country Adventours will sort you out with a vessel, from where you can spend an hour or two splashing about on the Murray or set off on a longer voyage, such as a multi-day canoeing-camping escapade through Barmah National Park, home to the world's biggest river red gum forest. Also nearby is Edward River, a quieter alternative to the Murray. To see the area from a local perspective, book an overnight tour with Southern Side Eco Tours, who'll take you to Barmah's most remote spots, cook you dinner over a crackling campfire and pop you into a luxury bell tent for a super-comfy sleep.
Houseboats of all kinds bob about on the Murray, waiting for weekend visitors. If you're with a group of luxury-loving pals, then go with Magic Murray Houseboats, whose vessels feature slick design, or Executive Houseboats, which have the mod cons. As many as 12 can sleep aboard these boats at once, with room for everyone in the queen rooms, around the dinner table and in the spa. Loads more boat hire possibilities, whatever your budget, can be found on the Visit Victoria website.
Another left-of-field stay is The Carriages Vineyard, about 20 minutes' drive west of Echuca. Here, owners David and Lyndall Johnson have been planting grapevines since 1996 and, at the same time, turned four 1890s train carriages into a gorgeous three-bedroom sleepover. Think stunning polished timber, comfy armchairs and outdoor decks surrounded by vineyards. You can even indulge in a wine tasting without leaving your station.
Back in town, there's the Cock 'n' Bull, which was built in 1876 on the banks of the Campaspe River. Take your pick of five self-contained apartments, from the retro Emmylou Suite to the light, airy Henry Charles Suite overlooking the water.
Last but not least, to stay as close to the Murray as possible — and without spending a cent — pack your tent. There's a bunch of pretty beach campsites near Echuca. Betts Beach is the most rustic, being facility-free, while Christies Beach gives you toilets, barbies and picnic tables, and Wills Bend, toilets only. Alternatively, let someone else do all the hard work for you and go glamping at Talo Retreat, where you'll get to snooze in a Mongolian yurt with a skylight for stargazing, plus a private spa and balcony.