At Victoria's very north-western tip, remote Mildura might seem like an unlikely gourmet mecca. But as one of the state's richest agricultural areas (thanks to irrigation), it makes a lot of sense.
You can add a few generations of immigrants into the cultural mix as well. For decades it's drawn those willing to till the soil and pick the crops, from southern Italians in the '50s and Vietnamese in the '70s, to recent arrivals from Somalia and the South Pacific Islands, who've progressively infused the once rollicking, rough-and-ready river port with a spirit of cosmopolitanism.
This is also a very pretty place, with a majestic river at its heart and towering red gum forests shading the banks. Beyond the river's reach, the outback landscapes make for more extreme landscapes. A few hours north into NSW, Mungo National Park is brimming with extraordinary natural wonders, such as ancient eroded dunes, saltbush plains and sand hills.
With a seven-hour drive through endless wheat plains and /or semi-desert, this weekend definitely requires an airline ticket. QantasLink
and Virgin Blue
take an hour and the airport has the usual car hire operators.
When you get there
Sample local delicacies at the Spanish Bar and Grill
, named not for any Hispanic tendencies, but for the original Mildura
restaurant obviously a sentimental favourite of the same name. The mallee beef polpette
(meatballs) with spicy fig relish are a great getting-to-know-you local dish.
While visitors do come here for the sunshine and big skies alone, most are lured west for the food. If you're in town on the first or third Saturday of the month, the Sunraysia Farmers' Market
has local legends such as Tabletop Grapes
strutting their delicious stuff (Australian Inland Botanic Gardens
, River Road, Mourquong; phone (03) 5025 2342).
Otherwise, producers like Varapodio Olive Oil welcome visitors and conduct tours of their olive-crushing facilities as well as selling, naturally, olives as well as olive oil-based cosmetics. You can sample their unctuous olive oil ice-cream even nicer with a pinch of Murray salt flakes on top.
Choose a place for a quick lunch at the cafe strip along Langtree Avenue, or assemble your market bounty into an alfresco spread. The Mildura Arts Centre has a great little collection (including a Degas pastel), and you can wander down to the Old Mildura Homestead, where there are picnic tables and river views.
Spend the afternoon swimming; 2km up river at Apex Beach is an ideal spot, and boasts inland Australia's only lifesaving club. Or tee off at the Mildura Golf Club or Riverside Golf Club (Park Street, Nichols Point).
If that sounds just too damn relaxing, make an early start and save the picnic for Mungo National Park. It's a couple of hours hard driving (partially unpaved), but you'll be rewarded with unforgettable desert landscapes. There's an easily negotiated boardwalk from which to view the hauntingly beautiful Walls of China a 30km "lunette" or sand formation.
Hattah-Kulkyne National Park is a little closer; it's a lovingly regenerated piece of mallee country, with its characteristic low scrub, native pine and vestigial coastal tea tree. Wildlife especially of the feathered variety abounds. Wild Side Outdoors do tours.
Dusk calls for drinks at Stefano's new cellar door and bar (it doubles as a gallery showcasing local artists as well as the work of contemporary art stars like Mike Parr who have done residencies here), then descend the legendary staircase to the Grand Hotel's basement. This is degustation dining, albeit a relaxed, earthy Italian version of it. Five courses are concocted according to the whim of the kitchen and the season's best produce given it's Stefano di Pieri at the stove and the quality of local ingredients, you're in for treat.
From April to October, you could opt to spend the whole day at Mungo National Park. Harry Nanya tours are owned and operated by Indigenous Australians and the outfit's guides are all from the local Paakantyi tribe. In summer tours are at sunset, so you'd need to keep another night free for dinner at Stefano's.
Do a quick breakfast of coffee and Italian custard bombe from Stefano's
bakery, or freshly-flipped crepes from the Mildura International Patisserie
(Shop 3, Deakin Central, 138-164 Deakin Avenue; phone (03) 5022 9999), before it's time to take it to the river. There are a number of paddleboats
that still ply the Murray. See the Visit Mildura
website for details, or book at the Mildura Wharf
or Visitors Centre
Trentham Estate Winery is an ideal spot for lunch, right on the banks of the Murray. Choose between the mod Oz, if rather meat-heavy, menu of the dining room or the very reasonable barbecue-your-own option. The plantings here include chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, merlot, shiraz, viognier and petit verdot; the Italian varietals are especially good in this region.
If you're looking for one last activity after a long lunch, head to Rio Vista (part of the Mildura Arts Complex), for some high-Victoriana care of William Chaffey, the Canadian who brought irrigation to the area.
What to bring home
Pink Murray salt flakes and a vitamin D hit.
Where to stay
This is a big, bustling country town, and there is no shortage of chain motels to choose from. Finding a unique place to stay is another matter. These are the pick of the bunch:
Quality Hotel Mildura Grand is a grand old girl. It's been hit with the Quality Hotel's bland stick but it's still one of the town's best places to stay, especially with its palm trees and pool, and, of course, a short clamber down to Stefano's in the basement.
Pied-a-terre is a cheerful B&B. It doesn't look much from the outside but has five smartly designed bedrooms within.
There's no better way to appreciate the Murray than floating on it, and Willandra
Houseboats don't require any compromise in comfort (most of the fleet come with full kitchens and deck spas).
Got any other suggestions? Share your insight below.