Meandering down the Murray River aboard a luxury houseboat is a relaxing way to spend time together.
Waking early in the morning, I breathe in the promise of another enchanting day on the river. The air is still cool and fresh, but the sun’s rays are dancing on the water as I step out onto the back deck of our luxury houseboat.
The timber decking is already warm under my feet and I dip my toes into the water. The refreshingly cool water tempts me in. There’s no one around and I toy with the idea of an early morning skinny dip but decide instead to slide back between the sheets and enjoy the indulgence of spending a few more hours in bed.
The second time I wake, it is to the smell of bacon sizzling on the barbeque on the back deck. My husband, who thinks the only thing better than a cooked breakfast is a cooked breakfast eaten outdoors, has prepared a feast. We eat it in near silence, content to listen to the chatter of birds and watch graceful pelicans skimming across the water.
Opposite our quiet mooring spot, on a riverbank studded with giant river red gums, burnt-orange cliffs rise from the water to meet an unblemished sky. These craggy cliffs, which frame much of the River Murray, have an incredible depth of colour that is mirrored in the water’s glassy surface, so far undisturbed by boats and activity. I reflect on the cliffs’ change of colour since last night’s sunset and wonder what stories they could tell, having passively observed hundreds of years of changing river life.
They were there when Aboriginal tribes lived on the river, eating shellfish, native berries, kangaroos, birds and grubs. They were there when the first European settlers arrived in the 1800s. And they were there in the glorious era of the paddle-steamer, when steam-powered wooden boats chugged steadily down the river, paddle wheels turning noisily at the side or rear.
Today, they keep watch over pretty little river towns, which rely on the river to irrigate plentiful fruit crops and vineyards, and a busy recreational scene of houseboats, watersports and fishing. The Murray stretches more than 2500 kilometres from source to sea and is well used by both locals and holidaymakers, yet you can always find a quiet spot to appreciate its beauty.
For me, a week on a houseboat is one of the most relaxing and romantic holiday options in Australia. While houseboats, which became commercially available in the 1960s, were once nothing more than basic accommodation with very noisy engines, you can now choose from a huge range of stylish and even luxurious boats with all the mod cons. While most of the romance comes from the scenery, it is also in the nature of the experience. From the time you step onboard, you have absolutely nothing to worry about, other than whether 3 PM really is too early to open the champagne! Everything is at your fingertips and you can go a whole week without speaking to another soul if that’s what you want to do.
You can lazily fill your days swimming, reading, sleeping or, if you choose one of the luxury boats, even watch movies, as the river flows by. If you want to get out and about, most houseboats have a small dinghy you can use to explore creeks, and access some of the many sandbars you will find along the river. You can take a picnic and enjoy your own “private beach” for the day. You don’t need a boat licence for a dinghy with a small outboard motor, just as you need nothing more than a driver’s licence and a quick lesson to hire a houseboat.
Of course, a certain amount of planning goes into a houseboat holiday. While some operators will happily stock the boat according to your wishes, most require you to bring your own food and drinks onboard. The boats are usually equipped with crockery, cutlery, linen and other basics, but you need to do a pretty big shop if you are going away for a week.
A week is probably the ideal length of time for a houseboat trip. Any less than that and you might not get a chance to completely wind down, while many people find it too long to stay for more than a week. It depends on whether you are the sort of person who can be happy doing very little and just spending time with your partner, or whether you need a bit more activity.
When it comes to choosing a houseboat, the options are seemingly endless. Probably the best way to go is to choose a starting point, then see what boats are available. Two of the most popular places for houseboat hire are Mannum, an hour east of Adelaide, and the Riverland, two-and-a-half hours northeast of Adelaide. Renmark is the best starting point in the Riverland, as it has a large range of boats to choose from. Towns in Victoria that offer houseboat hire include Echuca, Swan Hill and Mildura.
Then it is a matter of deciding how much luxury you want and what you are prepared to pay: you can pay anything from $2,000 per week to more than $5,000 per week. The price usually applies to the boat itself, so it is cheaper if you holiday with another couple.
If total luxury is what you want, the grandest boat on the river is the River Dream Boatel, which is moored at Mannum in South Australia. Designed by a leading Adelaide architect, the Boatel is more like a luxury hotel, with marble bathrooms, fluffy white towels and everything that opens and shuts with the push of a button. You can lie in bed in the morning and push a button to raise the blind, then choose whether you shower with a magnificent floor-to-ceiling view of the river or push another button to lower a blind for privacy.
The Boatel has five bedrooms and is usually hired out by two or more couples, at a cost of $210 per person per night (a minimum length of hire applies, depending on the number of people onboard).
Other luxury houseboats include those in Mannum’s “Unforgettable Houseboats” fleet. Many of these have sunken spa baths onboard and are perfect for honeymooners and other couples looking for a romantic break. Or perhaps you prefer the sound of a rooftop spa, which you will find on boats in the “Executive Five Star Houseboats” fleet, which is based at Echuca-Moama, on the Victoria-NSW border.
While the scenery is constantly changing along the length of the Murray, from dramatic cliff faces to low-lying floodplains and rich wetlands, most people choose, as the river asserts its calming influence, not to travel very far. It is ideal to cruise for a few hours each day, then stop in the afternoon when you sight a pretty place to moor for the night. Then all you need is a bottle of wine and a few nibbles, or perhaps a few things to throw on the barbeque, and you have the perfect place to watch sunset hues being replaced by a spectacular star-studded sky.
When to go: Houseboating is a year-round activity, but most popular in summer, when you can expect long hot days and warm nights.
How to book: The easiest way to find a houseboat is through The Houseboat Booking Centre, which represents about 150 boats for hire on the River Murray. Phone (08) 8396 5266 or go towww.houseboatbookings.com. More information: Contact the South Australian Tourism Commission on 1300 655 276,www.southaustralia.com, or Tourism Victoria on 13 28 42,www.visitvictoria.com. For luxurious river cruising, check outwww.dreamboatel.com.au
Images: Courtesy of South Australian Tourism Commission, Tourism New South Wales and Victoria, and River Dream Boatels.