So good they've bottled it

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Flip Byrnes finds the Riverland is rich in vineyards, heritage, fine food and great fishing - and its waters are a tranquil place in which to mess about on boats.

Location

Limestone cliffs, red gums, willow-tree parks, vineyards, orchards and citrus groves line the Murray River. If you jumped into a kayak below its source in the Southern Alps, you'd travel 2756 kilometres through NSW, Victoria and South Australia, the last kilometres of river nudging Adelaide, before meeting river's end at Lake Alexandrina.

The third longest navigable river in the world, steam boats began travelling the Murray in 1853, trading produce at townships along the way. By the 1880s, more than 100 paddle steamers were working the route. Most have since gone up in smoke, been scuttled or are resting in museums but historic settlements rich in local produce and a diversity of activities remain - from Murray Bridge, 75 kilometres from Adelaide, to Renmark, 253 kilometres from the capital.

Places to eat

From fine dining to market produce or simple pub fare, you won't starve on the Murray. Scenic views are the icing on the cake. If you're driving from Adelaide, stop at Cottage Box Chocolates in Murray Bridge (SA's largest town) for a perfect example of local industry at work - while nibbling on a hand-made and wrapped liquorice bomb.

The Murray Bridge Hotel's award-winning menu has seasonal specials and cold ale, or you can peruse Balinese furniture and gifts while munching on gourmet tarts at Uccello Cafe & Giftware.

If you've hired a boat to cruise the Murray, and many visitors do, moor your vessel next to the Pretoria Hotel and drop in to the riverside Boathouse bar for a bite.

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One of the best riverside pubs on the Murray is in the hamlet of Blanchetown, 133 kilometres north-east of Adelaide. Originally intended as a major port, "Blanche" missed the boat, so to speak, when a railway line was built. Now a quiet ferry crossing, the town's 151-year-old pub, made of local cliff stone and red gum, is a star attraction.

Forty-odd kilometres upriver you hit Morgan, where you'll find Mallyons on the Murray Bush Cafe and Gallery. The cafe serves home-cooked meals using certified organic products. Take away a jar of jam or delicious sauce from here or from the Orange Tree Gift Mania in nearby Waikerie.

Do save an appetite for Berri, however, originally part of Cobdogla Station and a mooring place for paddle steamers, and now a town of 7500 people with a gorgeous riverfront. Mix with locals at the Saturday farmers' markets and taste locally-grown olives, farmed emu and goat meat. Eat riverside or head to the former shearing shed that now houses the award-winning Mallee Fowl Restaurant. It's packed to the rafters with memorabilia.

Wineries and cellar doors

The "glug, glug" you hear while exploring the Riverland is not just the sound of slow-moving boats; a quarter of all Australian wine is produced here, making it the nation's largest wine-grape producing region. The Riverland Food and Wine trail begins at Blanchetown, where you'll find a dozen cellar doors, large and boutique. Begin at Burk Salter wines, a vineyard nurtured by three generations of vintners, where guests can explore the grounds in a 1927 open-topped Chevrolet before tasting the merlot cabernet 2002 (first-place winner at the New York Tasting, 2003.)

Angove's at Renmark is one of Australia's oldest family-owned winemakers and one of the largest, boasting 800,000 vines producing 19 grape varieties. You might not want to walk the 1500 kilometres of vines but do try their St Agnes Brandy at the cellar door.

At Luxton you'll stumble (if you've already been sampling) across the boutique Torambre Nissen Hut Wines (built in a 1940s hut once used to house soldiers). The setting is unique, as is the wine, ranging from a verdelho grown during the cracker year of 2007 to a grenache syrah mouvedre.

If you're thirsty before Blanchetown, pause at Bleasdale, established in 1850 at Langhorne Creek. Explore the property's domed, National Trust-listed cellar where a 118-year-old redgum lever press is still operational and the French and American oak puncheons brim full of cabernet and shiraz, before sampling at the door. It's the winery's 160th anniversary next month; help them celebrate.

Places to stay

You're spoilt for choice and price, from resorts and country clubs to hotels, riverside B&Bs and pubs. For a true Murray experience, however, the houseboat rules. Transport and accommodation in one, captaining your own vessel requires a driver's license. The Houseboat Hirers Association (1300 665 122, hha.asn.au) has a free holiday guide explaining design and pricing on hire boats from Murray Bridge to Renmark.

Or you can put yourself in the hands of an experienced captain and jump onboard the 112-year-old, wood-fired PS Marion at Mannum. Restored by locals, she runs both day and overnight cruises.

If you don't want to travel by boat but do wish to stay on one, Ramblers Retreat is a houseboat moored on the riverfront at Renmark, a short walk from cafes and shops. The vessel has solar panels with battery storage (12 volts only) so no noisy generators disturb your peace.

If you drive the Riverland, the country club at Barmera is located mid-golf course for those who like to tee-off with their tea, while budget travellers have a choice of riverfront camping sites or cabins.

Main attractions

On the river, it's easy to be lulled into a state of deep relaxation - or be active. At the Breeze Hire in Mannum, rent a jet ski, knee board, wave board, water skis or kayaks. At Murray Bridge, take an interpretive-signed walk around the wharf under which 29 paddle steamers and barges lie, before stopping at St John the Baptist Cathedral, considered the world's smallest (seats 80).

The Pomberuk Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Murray Bridge has a unique collection detailing the Ngurunderi Dreaming: how the Murray came to be. Mannum is steeped in Murray history as the birth place of the paddle steamer, farm machinery and Australian cars (some farm machinery is displayed at the visitors centre). Mannum's Olde Days and Olde Ways Museum hosts three sheds of memorabilia. To really step back in time, Tailem Bend, 96 kilometres from Adelaide, is a replica of a pioneer town, with 110 buildings, rail museum and the perfect lunch-stop pub. Some would argue the restored morgue at Morgan is dead boring, yet it finds its place among an hour-long historical walk. Indeed, most Murray River towns have these walks (contact the visitor centres).

Landscape, history and cuisine have attracted an active art and craft-making community in the region, too. Drop by the Murray Bridge Regional Gallery, the Wool Shed Gallery and the Lameroo Craft Shop in Mannum.

Natural features

Riverland is a magnet for emu, koalas, western grey 'roos, bearded dragon lizards, red-rumped parrots, black swans, pelicans and, at the river's end, dolphins. Bird lovers flock to Waikerie (an indigenous word for the giant swift moth "wei kari") and the adventurous can take to gliders to ride the same thermals as birds. Pilots love the weather patterns, too - the Waikerie International Soaring Centre arranges joy flights and a bonus is the incredible river views.

To get the best of river life and wildlife, Riverland Leisure Canoe Tours takes guests exploring through the backwaters, lagoons, channels and creeks around Lake Bonney, in the UNESCO-listed Riverland biosphere area.

Local secret

Barossa boats shirazes, Coonawarra cultivates cabernet, the Clare Valley is rich in rieslings. But when moseying down the Murray, try the malbec. Murray vineyards, such as Longhorne, have it in abundance and is one of the best places to try this underestimated grape. Grab some bottles and let your taste buds explore a new realm. Time your visit with local events and you'll really see Murray at its best. The Barmera Country Music Festival is held each June, Berri's Riverland Wine Festival and Renmark's Rose Festival in October, Loxtons' Harvest Festival and Great Grape Stomp is held each March.

Just up the Road

You could drive to Mt Barker and on to Adelaide. However, consider leaving the car at Mt Barker and spending the day with the SteamRanger Heritage Railway volunteer team (1300 655 991, steamranger.org.au). The team host steam and diesel-hauled round trips from Mt Barker to Goolwa and Victor Harbour via the southern Mt Lofty Ranges, long-abandoned station sites and Strathalbyn's old township on selected Sundays between June and November. Vintage wooden passenger cars, circa 1920, are the go here. Goolwa is at the mouth of the Murray on Lake Alexandrina, where the river meets the sea. Once a thriving commercial port, Goolwa's historic wharf awaits Murray River wanderers.

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