The Murray Princess.
The Murray Princess. Ann Rickard

Paddleboat dreaming on the Murray

OUR anticipation as we headed to Mannum in South Australia for a three night cruise on the Murray Princess was tinged with guilt knowing that the energy of the river and the vibrancy of the bird life were a result of something that has brought grief to so many.

Flooding brings renewed life to rivers, and the Murray's lower lakes are full, allowing the first significant releases of water through the Murray mouth since 2006.

But the first sight of the stately Murray Princess sitting grandly alongside the wharf helped assuage guilt. This was one regal lady. Her giant paddlewheel at the stern conjured up romantic notions of a past age.

The Murray Princess has been designed as an authentic representation of vessels that plied the Murray in a bygone era. Just to look at her brings on fantasies of crinoline and bustles, flouncy hats and tailored suits.

Fortunately, more comfortable attire is appropriate for today's passengers and we climbed on board dressed in our casual chic. After being greeted by the crew in the Paddle Lounge, with the massive paddlewheel powerfully handsome behind floor-to-ceiling glass panels, we were escorted to our state room, ready to unpack and take off for a Murray River adventure.

After welcome champagne in the Sturt Lounge with its red leather seats, wooden tables and brass rails, we were briefed by Captain Hunter and given an invitation to join him and his officers in the wheelhouse any time throughout the cruise. Then the giant paddle began turning, we were up on the decks, waving and sailing down the river in fine fettle.

Graceful weeping willows lined the banks, dipping their green petticoats in the water; giant rust-coloured limestone cliffs towered above us; smart house boats were moored sedately in front of luxury holiday homes; water ski-ers flashed past us, and on both sides of the banks the ubiquity of the Australian bush was enchanting.

Swans, swamp hens, wood ducks and frogs have returned to the river in abundance; plant life thrives with Lignum bushes in flower; rushes and reeds now have a vibrant green to them. It was a privilege to be on such an iconic river.

While nature and beauty is one thing – and we loved it very much – food and drink is quite another, and as over-indulging is synonymous with cruising, we approached the Sturt Dining Room each day with a sense of expectation.

Breakfasts are served buffet-style with all the indulgences you do not permit yourself at home. Lunch and dinner are gourmet affairs with five-star food including fresh seafood, excellent steaks and rich desserts. Coffee, tea and cookies are available all day.

Fellow passengers had come from as far as the UK, New Zealand and the US for this cruise and enjoyed the Australian names of the menu items as much as the food itself: Jolly Jumbuck in a Tuckerbag (lamb fillet in pastry) and Meddling Matilda Chicken (chicken breast in a creamy sauce.)

Laid-back entertainment came from Bill on keyboard each night and was perfectly suited to the location, the atmosphere and the “mature” bunch of passengers that we comprised. There was some restrained shuffling around the dancefloor after dinner each night and a couple of quirky games – and that was as much revellery as we were up for.

Shore excursions include bush discovery walks and an evening camp fire – not available to us on this cruise due to a fierce heat wave and fire ban, but substitute activities were provided.

As each day passed in languid routine, it was impossible not to relax and forget all cares back home. Sitting in the air-conditioned Paddle Lounge with a morning cup of coffee watching the giant paddle throwing up a waterfall onto the glass was simultaneously relaxing and thrilling and gave a great sense of the power of the paddlewheel.

On day two we stopped at the historic town of Murray Bridge, known as Edwards Crossing prior to the opening of the road bridge in 1879 when it became the first permanent crossing over the River Murray in South Australia. Members of the Murray Bridge & District Historic Society greeted us and gave us interesting history detail inside the Round House on the river bank, a house used by the local authority of the time which later became council chambers, then the post office and a community house. Now it brims with antiques and old object d'art.

Informative talks on board outline the history of the river, once a vital inland road. “What would have taken months to transport by bullock could be transported in a day on the river,” Peter Harden our guide told us. “In 1881 there were 100 steamers and 200 barges on the river. The town of Murray Bridge was a major port when the river trade exploded.”

Three gentle days on the river with the glorious scenery had us sleeping deeply, relaxing outrageously and giving ourselves permission to be spoilt and gain a kilo each day.

The Murray Princess takes just 120 passengers accommodated in two-bed cabins and three-bed staterooms. The lounges, bar and dining rooms are light and airy with large windows so none of the river views are missed when cocktailing, lounging or dining. You can't ask for more than that.

Ann Rickard was a guest on board the Murray Princess.

CHECKLIST

The three nights Discovery Cruise departs every Friday at 4.30pm and prices start from $777 per person, twin share.

The four nights Outback Heritage Cruise departs Mannum every Monday at 4.30pm and prices start from $1039 per person, twin share.

The seven nights Murraylands & Wildlife Cruise departs Mannum every Friday and Monday at 4.30pm and prices start from $1599 per person, twin share.

Prices include all meals, accommodation, most tours, scenic coach transfers from Adelaide or onsite car parking and all onboard facilities including use of two spas, two saunas, sun deck, two bars, two lounges, single sitting dining saloon and entertainment.

Murray River Princess, Captain Cook Cruises, www.captaincook.com.au.


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