Long overlooked by interstate visitors in favour of South Australia’s coastline, the Riverland is no longer a land of humble shacks and bulk wine. In recent years an armada of operators has emerged to champion small-scale local produce and bring a touch of luxury to the region. But life in the fertile agricultural strip between Blanchetown (less than two hours’ drive from Adelaide) and the Victoria-NSW border still revolves around the slow-flowing Murray. So set your watch to river time and explore the oxbow lagoons, flourishing wetlands and cliffs that lie between the region’s growing food hubs.
Eat and Drink
Renmark is the region’s main settlement, and the best place to start the day is Arrosto. Housed in a former fire station, this cafe and roastery is usually busy from the moment the house blend of Colombian Tolima and Guatemalan Huehuetenango starts pouring. Cold drip, coffee liqueur and coffee-and-wattleseed gelato will satisfy every caffeine fiend’s needs, and on weekends they’re joined by the locally famous breakfast burgers.
Stop at one of the roadside stalls along the highway to pick up fresh and dried local fruit before you get to sampling the Riverland’s most famous agricultural product. More than a quarter of Australia’s total wine grapes come from the region, but only the tiniest fraction head to small producers like Glossop’s 919 Wines, which produces around 2500 cases a year. The straw-bale cellar door hosts tastings of organic varietals that thrive in the warm climate (think petit manseng, touriga nacional and durif) alongside a range of fortifieds – don’t leave without trying the elegant manzanilla-style apera (a dry, Australian-made sherry).
Mediterranean grapes are matched with food from the region at cellar door restaurants such as Salena Estate’s Cucina 837 between Berri and Loxton. Furnishings by the on-site maintenance team sit atop a polished terrazzo floor, and the kitchen strikes a similar balance between rustic and modern. Order a frosé – made using a custom base wine that boasts richer colour, more punch and lower alcohol than usual – alongside huge servings of classic dishes like the 10-hour slow-cooked ragu with pork belly, shin and cotechino sausage. At Eleni’s at Mallee Estate in Renmark, you’ll find local olive oil, capers and vegetables for sale, and a menu of Greek dips, pastries and chargrilled meats. The homely feel is accentuated by the presence of the eponymous Markeas family matriarch; if you play your cards right she might offer you one of her homemade biscuits after dinner.
With around 5000 barrels of maturing spirit, St Agnes distillery is undoubtedly the centre of the brandy industry in Australia. You can tour the Renmark facilities every morning and taste some of the liquid gold they’re producing. The 20- and 40-year-old expressions rival anything coming out of Cognac and Armagnac.
Another venerable name is Black Bottle Brandy, which is now produced at Renmark’s Twenty Third Street Distillery alongside a range of gins, vodkas and whisky. A bar and beams made of reclaimed wood, and old wine tanks converted into booths show off the site’s heritage, and cocktails and flights are accompanied by a menu of woodfired pizzas and upscale takes on classics (some infused with the house spirits).
In summer, the river attracts crowds of waterskiers, and in the cooler months its surface remains largely undisturbed beneath a layer of morning mist. But getting on the water is always rewarding, and there are few guides better than Ruth Roberts of Canoe the Riverland. She and her husband have created a network of trails through creeks and lagoons for one-, two- and four- hour loops rich in birdlife such as sacred kingfishers, whistling kites and red-rumped parrots. With a houseboat you can extend the journey over several days, and there are plenty of operators all along the river. But only Wilkadene Houseboats equips your vessel with a keg of freshly brewed beer (try Judas the Dark, a smooth brew with roasted wattleseed that tastes of chocolate, hazelnut and coffee).
Though the river moves sluggishly, it has created towering cliffs at the larger bends and these ochre bluffs change colour as the sun moves through the sky. There are many viewpoints, but Headings Cliff Lookout just north of Renmark is among the best, especially at sunrise. And while you’re enjoying the views, don’t forget to look up at night – the recently proclaimed River Murray International Dark Sky Reserve celebrates some of the best night skies in the world.
Pike River’s spacious clifftop eco villas look out over a huge floodplain and bird habitat, and the retractable ceilings mean you can also enjoy views of the night skies from bed. More budget-friendly is the old woolshed, which preserves most of the original fittings and the large deck but now provides comfortable accommodation for up to six guests.
And if you don’t feel like making plans, The Frames in Paringa will take care of that. On a rise overlooking a bend in the river, these three sumptuous villas boast large decks, their own pools and massage beds, as well as a fridge well stocked with local food and drinks. All-inclusive stays include activities such as a food safari of local producers and boat trips up narrow side channels to rarely visited spots on the river.