Justine Costigan discovers how a mighty river, local growers and great food combine to make Mildura a must-see city.
I'm on a small tractor train in a citrus orchard about a 10-minute drive from town. We're about to begin a tour of the property but, before we do, Orange World owner Mario Mammone treats us to a silly quiz, with prizes. His humour is of the vaudeville kind: jokes, puns and lots of audience engagement. He could be a warm-up act for a TV chat show, except the slow, creaky jokes are pure country, not city. It takes just a few minutes before we're all laughing and a disparate group suddenly feels connected - we're all in this fun together.
It's a warm spring day. This part of the Murray is big-sky country, where a few wisps of cloud emphasise the deep blue above and all around us vineyards and orchards stretch to the horizon. You need a hat and sunscreen but the heat isn't ferocious; the warmth feels good and you want to stretch, slow down and enjoy the sun.
Mammone finishes his banter, hands over to our guide and tosses each of us an orange so we won't get parched. The peel is to be thrown at the base of citrus trees. We learn that peel is one of the three "Ps" essential for healthy trees. The other two are poo (chicken) and pee (human).
The tour of orange and avocado orchards is a combination of horticultural lesson and stand-up comedy. Our guide is a poetry-reciting, true-blue bloke with stories to tell. And we admire the trees around us, smelling the heady orange blossom, staring up through cool tunnels of trees at branches laden with ripe avocados.
At tour's end we drink cold, freshly squeezed juice and taste home-made marmalades. We can buy avocados and oranges to take with us but we've got more driving to do and I don't want to leave the fruit in a hot car. Besides, we've seen produce stands up and down the highways and back roads. Once you leave a main town it might be a long distance between petrol stations but you're never far away from a bag of fruit.
It doesn't matter where you go in Mildura, you're constantly reminded of the town's agricultural heart. A trip along the Murray River on the PS Melbourne, an original paddle steamer built in 1912, only reinforces the connection. Although there's plenty of argument about how the river has been treated, you can't help but admire the ingenuity and perseverance of William and George Chaffey, whose exploitation of the waterway helped generate the region's wealth.
The PS Melbourne operates daily cruises. At a little more than two hours, the journey traverses through Lock 11, built to bypass the weir. Watching as the Melbourne is lowered to the downstream level and then raised again on its return leg is one of those fascinating engineering exercises that adults and children seem to love. I love the views from the vessel's upper deck. Once you get out of the town waters, it's all bush and wildlife. It's peaceful and beautiful and gives you a brief glimpse of what the river might have looked like before white settlers arrived.
Once a week another vessel, the 1881-built PS Rothbury, makes a day tour of the river, which includes a stop at Trentham Winery, but we prefer to get there under our own steam. With a cellar door on the banks of the river, this is one of the loveliest winery locations in Australia.
Heading back to Mildura, we wash off the dust in our room at the swish Mildura Grand Hotel and make it to our booking downstairs at Stefano's cellar restaurant just in time. Chef Stefano de Pieri also owns Stefano's cafe bakery (where you can buy the best cannoli in Mildura) and the Cellar Door and Bar, next door to each other.
We've spent the day riding and walking through orchards, admiring vineyards and exploring the countryside. In a region devoted to growing superb produce, eating food prepared by someone who appreciates its quality makes perfect sense.
Mildura is about 540 kilometres or six hours' drive from Melbourne and about 1000 kilometres or a 12-hour drive from Sydney. QantasLink, Virgin and Rex fly return from Melbourne to Mildura (80min) and from Sydney to Mildura via Melbourne. See qantas.com.au; virgin.com.au; rex.com.au. V/Line operates a train service from Melbourne to Swan Hill with coach connection to Mildura; see vline.com.au. The XPT from Sydney to Melbourne has a connecting bus service at Cootamundra to Mildura; see countrylink.info.
The 1891-built Quality Hotel Mildura Grand on Seventh Street has double rooms from $115 a night, including breakfast. Phone 1800 034 228; see qualityhotelmilduragrand.com.au.
The Grand Hotel's eateries include Stefano's and Seasons, a cafe specialising in "slow food" using regional produce. Stefano's cafe bakery, called 27 Deakin, and the Cellar Door and Bar, are next door to each other in Deakin Avenue.
Mildura Houseboats has two- to four-berth vessels available for a three-night minimum hire from $600 until December 19. Houseboats have fully equipped kitchens and a barbecue. You don't need a boat licence to captain one. The Darling River meets the Murray at Wentworth, near Mildura. Phone 1800 800 842; see mildurahouseboats.com.au.
The PS Melbourne is an all-weather vessel. It cruises the Murray River most days from 10.50am to 1pm and again from 1.50pm to 4pm. Tickets are available at the visitor information centre or at Mildura Wharf. Adults $27, children $16. The PS Rothbury operates cruises on Friday and Saturdays and a winery cruise to Trentham Estate on Thursday between 10.30am- 3.30pm. Adults $62/$30 children. Phone (03) 5023 2200; see visitmildura.com.au.
Orange World is about a 10-minute drive from Mildura and hosts daily tours 9.30am-4pm; see orangeworldmildura.com.au.
The Chaffey Trail takes in nine sites including Rio Vista House (the home of William Chaffey) and the Old Mildura Homestead. Entry costs vary depending on which trail sites you visit. Phone the Mildura Information Centre, Deakin Avenue, Mildura, on 1800 039 043.
The Inland Botanic Gardens — the first semi-arid botanic garden in the southern hemisphere — is on River Road, Buronga, a short drive from Orange World. Phone (03) 5023 3612; see aibg.org.au.