Echuca, the paddle steamer hub of Australia, is a perfect holiday destination any time of the year. The climate is good – a maximum of 30 degrees in the summer while a minimum of 4 degrees in the winter. It is fairly close to Melbourne – 205 km, about 2.5 hours from the CBD on the Hume and Northern Hwys. Be sure to stack some munchies and water since there are not too many convenience stores en route.
A little history: Echuca and Moama 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 'Moama' 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.
The wharf at Port of Echuca was first built in the 1860s to support the booming river trade. It was later restored in 1973. What once was 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.
Attractions/Activities: One of the most popular places within the Echuca-Moama district is the Port of Echuca. It is one of the finest heritage icons of the nation and home to the largest riverboat fleet in the world.
A paddle steamer cruise is a must-do for everyone. The cost varies for different paddle steamers e.g. if you book a lunch or dinner cruise on M.V. Mary Ann, a licensed Five Star cruising restaurant, then it would cost you more again, depending on your choice of the meal. It also offers live music on dinner cruises. If you wish to take a less fancy cruise, hop on a day cruiser. Most of these cruises cost around AUD 20 per person for a one-hour cruise along the Murray. However, there is much more to the Port than just world-famous paddle steamers, some of which date back to the 1860s.
The place has a magical old world charm about it. Ride a horse-drawn carriage, visit the underground bar and escape tunnel at the Star Hotel (which apparently dates back to the 1890s) or observe shipbuilders at work. For a more physical activity try canoeing or kayaking down the river. And for those who think the river is too crowded there are a few solitary creeks a few kilometres off the town. Talk to the locals and keep a map of the area to find your way to these spots, where you can also do bird-watching and spot some native animals such as koalas and kangaroos.
For automobile buffs, 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; or tee off into a relaxing afternoon at the Mini Golf course.
The Sharps Magic Movie House and Penny Arcade is an early 20th century picture theatre and an antique penny arcade with rare penny machines operated by fair dinkum pennies. If anything the aroma of fresh fudge will pull you inside. They make fresh gourmet fudge of many varieties and encourage sampling.
The Billabong Ranch is a place for wholesome family 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.
Food: Apart from a unique experience of dining aboard an ancient paddle steamer in star luxury, there are numerous award-winning restaurants, eateries, cellar doors and cafes scattered all around the historic precinct.
Oscar W's Wharfside is a great venue along the river front offering dinner, bar, coffee, cake and a spectacular view. Antonio's on the Port offers authentic Italian food and good service. Do try the sumptuous risotto, gnocchi and parmigiana, and their wood-fired oven pizzas are absolutely delectable.
Hit Nik's Taverna to salvage your Grecian tastebuds or Double Dragon for authentic Chinese cuisine. The River Thai spoils its guests with an elaborate vegetarian and non-veg carte du jour. Radcliffe's (which is a converted early 1900s warehouse) and Ceres will surely impress even the most difficult connoisseurs of fine food.
One of the most popular eateries in the region is Beechworth Bakery. It offers a smorgasbord of cakes, doughnuts, tarts, scones, puddings, pies, croissants, focaccias, breads and drinks. They have a top-floor deck which offers quite a view of the town on the one hand and the Murray on the other.
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. Apart from these Echuca is dotted with bars, grills, bistros, bakeries, pizza places and the omnipresent fast food chain cafes.
And while you're there you must visit at least one of the many vineyards and wineries around the region. Learn more about the wines you enjoy – the cellars in beautiful rustic and modern estates. You could visit Chanter Estate Winery & Military Museum, Monichino Wines, Restdown Wines and Morrisons winery among others. For a more luxurious outing book a wine tour aboard a swank limo. You feel like a celebrity as they drive you around the estates, vineyards and cellars as you sample some of Australia's finest wines. For more options check out Echuca Moama Wine Tours.
Shopping: There are numerous souvenirs shops along High Street trading in things such as scented candles, showpieces, handmade dolls, scrapbooks, picture frames, designer goods, rodeo garbs and a host of stores stock fresh local products like butter, preserves, marmalades, marinated olives, olive oil, etc. One of the most popular stores is the Echuca Heritage Sweet Company shop (also on High Street) that sells a variety of fudge, chocolates, nuts, novelty confectionery, liquorice, lollies and other irresistible sweet treats.
Bead On Echuca offers not only jewellery made of recherché beads but also a variety of sterling silver adornments, women's bags, hats and other accessories. Even if you haven't tried the craft of beading and jewellery-making, you will find it hard to resist picking exquisite beads and a how-to book.
There are many book stores that sell new and old paperbacks, hardbacks and collectors' editions at bargain prices. I found first editions of some of my favourite classics at very reasonable rates.
Heather's Quilting Emporium is also worth a stopover. The Echuca Moama Market at the Moama Soundshell Gardens is a general market trading in crafts, clothing, local products, food and wine. There are live bands too; and you are bound to queue up to grab some fresh, creamy donuts.
Accommodation: There are lots of options 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 a caravan at the Caravan and Holiday Park along the river.
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 by the bonfire in the evening.
My first time in Echuca was a few years back at a friend's wedding. It was one of my favourite weddings, not only because of the company, but also for the location. The wedding and reception both took place on a paddle steamer and for the entire weekend all the guests stayed in caravans lined along the riverbank. Highly recommended as an option for those who are planning their wedding.