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The world's largest paddlesteamer flotilla cruises on by

The world's largest paddlesteamer flotilla cruises on by

The British nature has a lot to answer for. As part of Mr and Mrs Bruce snr’s three-week whistlestop tour of Oz, they’d been booked onto a dinner cruise aboard the P.S. Emmylou, one of Echuca’s vintage paddlesteamers. Despite a price tag of $95 a head for three courses, Bruce and Fran headed there with expectations low.

Perhaps it’s the result of childhoods spent at lacklustre seaside resorts such as Margate (in Bruce’s case) and its former Bembom Brothers amusement park or Southend (in Fran’s) where, prior to the smoking ban, non-smokers could experience the effects of a 20-year, two packs-a-day habit merely by sitting down to play bingo for half an hour surrounded by monolithic grandmother-mother-and-baby teams in which the baby’s dummy must surely have been covered in nicorette patches. Or perhaps, as many Aussie friends will observe, it’s just the innate doubt of an English test batsman coming to the crease.

Either way, if the choice had been soup or pate followed by fish and chips, burger or vegie pasta for main and ice cream for dessert neither would have been surprised. Perhaps they’d all have to wear sailors’ hats (Fran was quite excited about this) and sing awful seas shanties too.

In the end there was pate – but that’s where the similarities ended. The deck of the Emmylou was set out as well as an old wooden paddlesteamer can be to represent a fine dining establishment – the only criticism being a slight squash to accommodate the Easter Sunday crowd – with a good selection of food and decent wine list. A bottle of bubbly was quaffed as the menu was perused – Japanese okanomi yoki pancakes, brochette of scallops with proscuitto, fennel and rocket, muscovy duck, ocean trout and a platter of ridiculously rich desserts to name just a few.

“Aaarrrrggghhhh! I think I might be having the best time of my life,” screeched an overexcited Fran on more than one occasion as the Emmylou floated past riverside bbqs and cabins lining the north shore of the Murray.

The Bruce family's Easter Sunday dinner drew quite a crowd

The Bruce family's Easter Sunday dinner drew quite a crowd

Then it was time for the main event. At the time of booking, Bruce had been unaware that Easter Sunday was one of two occasions in the year when Echuca’s entire fleet of commercial and privately-owned paddlesteamers gathered for a sail past of the town’s heritage port. So, dessert polished off and red wine still flowing the boat turned around and led a procession past thousands gathered on the quay. Many of the boats lit flares, others sounded their horns (rather confusingly they sound just like those on trains and the footy siren at the MCG), thousands of camera flashes flickered.

Once past the quay, a firework display lit up the sky and Bruce wondered if the folks of Echuca could do anything more to make his parents’ visit memorable.

The following day was accompanied by a chorus of kookaburras on a scale reminiscent of Hollywood’s greatest musical excesses of the 1920s and 30s and a trip even further back in time along Echuca’s historic walk: ducking into the escape tunnel underneath the Star Inn for an impromptu knees-up; posing for an utterly ridiculous Victorian family photo; marvelling at the various nutcases making a living with magic tricks and performing cockatoos – and the woman charging $9 for 100 grams of fudge.

“We should come back here every other weekend,” exclaimed Fran, still giddy from the previous night.

She’ll get her wish, although not quite that often, as at just 2 1/2 hours drive from Melbourne, it would be rude not to return. Proclaiming ownership of “The world’s largest flotilla of paddlesteamers” may be akin to having the world’s largest collection of foil tops from orange Calippo ice lollies made between 1994 and 1997 but Echuca remains a charming corner of Victoria. And it’s not Swan Hill.

"Oooh!" "Wow!"

"Oooh!" "Wow!"

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What's so "special"?

What's so "special"?

In the guest book at Ironbark Cottage a smitten, hill-dwelling lass on a romantic retreat for her beau’s 21st wrote of a “special” view that “money just can’t buy”.

Now, it wasn’t the finest of days when Bruce and Fran arrived, yet was still clear enough to see from the top of Mount Dandenong across to the far side of Port Phillip Bay, but they weren’t overly impressed. Yep, there’s the sea, there’s the land and – what’s that whopping great white thing in the middle? Oh, Chadstone shopping centre. Gorgeous…

Still, the cottage itself – one of four tin and timber affairs set among well-maintained gardens and the Mount’s towering timbers – was great: all quaint and cosy inside like a trip back in time to The Waltons, with wooden ducks on the wall and a log fire. But, no matter how long Bruce and Fran gazed at the view, they couldn’t summon Miss Lover Lover’s depth of feeling.

Then they popped out to grab dinner and a couple of pints of Hargreaves Hill from the tasty selection of boozes at the log cabin style Kelly’s on the Hill in Olinda. Before they returned, the sun dipped over the horizon and night fell. And then they understood what she meant by the “view” as a shimmering blanket of lights unfolded before them…

Suddenly, they felt like Marge and Homer on an early date. What’s more, the cottage had a large spa by the window and they’d remembered to collect some cleanskin sparkling on the way.

It was enough to help Fran forget her Wolf Creek-inspired concerns about the cottage’s owners, concerns caused by nothing more than the chap’s combination of thick, greying Merv Hughes ‘tache and surrounding heavy stubble beard with a tattered lumberjack shirt. Bruce knew that was no sign of danger; the large collection of romcoms on DVD in the office and the welcoming CD featuring the “soothing sounds of love” were a greater indicator of serial killer potential.

But, like the land of Puffing Billy, with its leafy walks, lakes and cakes, the owners were nothing less than lovely – and the cottage only 45 minutes drive from the CBD.

Even better – money can buy the view – a couple of hundred bucks a night should do it, spa, log fire and tranquility included.

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