Romance on the river
Escape to the Murray in hi-tech style
I HAVE a small battery of remote controls sitting on my bedside table for the television, blinds and drapes, even the bed. With the push of a button I can raise the head or foot of this king-size billet, activate a massage facility, attempt “zero gravity’’. Or I could just manually plump the squishy pillows and have a wee lie down because I’m a bit tech-lagged.
Since checking in to the Pastiche villa three hours ago, I’ve had a soak in an oversized bathtub boasting needle spray and waterfall settings and an almost invisible control pad that sends taps up and down like periscopes. I’ve sweated it out in an infrared sauna, activated a remotecontrolled cascading curtain of water in the courtyard pool, and made a cuppa with a kettle boasting a racy digital thermostat that displays the temperature rather like the speedometer of a bullet train.
This hi-tech hotel experience is not taking place in Tokyo or downtown New York but at The Frames, three uber-luxurious villas perched above the rust-red Paringa Bridge near Renmark in South Australia’s sun-drenched Riverland, 254km northeast of Adelaide.
Viewed from the water below, the villas organise themselves as futuristic cubes jutting out above the river landscape. But seen from the security gate at the rear of the property, approached through a nondescript residential enclave, they become the Tardis, apparently compact and narrowly rectangular at first glance, but opening to reveal vast interiors featuring plunge pools, barbecue decks and over-sized bathrooms.
Designed by Adelaide architect Paul Pruszinski, who has a particular passion for the Murray (he’s the man behind the Boatel, Australia’s first hotel-style houseboat), the three modernist villas are configured to frame the lovely view upriver, where broad, green-brown waters wend their way through forested hinterland towards Paringa’s 1927 steel suspension bridge. On the opposite bank, campers and caravaners shelter beneath the gum trees, adding a folksy summer holiday note to this quintessential river scene.
Owned by local wine grape and fruit growers Rick and Cathy Edmonds, the villas are the last word in contemporary, bells-and-whistles luxury, the sort of thing you’d expect to find in Bali or Miami. For a couple who run more traditional B&Bs in Victoria, South Australia and Broken Hill, they represent a leap of faith.
No expense has been spared on push-button luxury: slick gas log fires, double-headed rain showers with spa jets, smart TVs loaded with dozens of movies and large, private outdoor living areas featuring pools and al fresco kitchens. The palette of each villa — Pastiche, Collage and Montage — varies but all reflect the hues of the river landscape in colours of sand, olive, rust and taupe.
My indoor kitchen is equipped with every imaginable appliance, the fridge is stocked with local wine and ales, the table piled with fruit from the farm and Cathy has ar- ranged bunches of old-fashioned roses from her garden in the bathroom and bedroom.
Roses grow like weeds in the Riverland; there are 50,000 alone at the nearby Ruston’s Roses, home of the National Rose Collection and keeper of one of the most comprehensive catalogues — some 4000 varieties — to be found anywhere in the world (if you’re in town in October be sure to check out the annual rose festival).
But you can’t eat roses so the villas are also stocked with breakfast provisions and, if you wish, delicious homemade dinners (just heat and serve), making The Frames the perfect romantic bolthole.
All this big-city luxury meets old-fashioned country hospitality makes it tempting to stay put in the villa, swimming or fiddling with the Italian toaster that looks like a miniature Ferrari. But I defy even the most lovedup couple to ignore the lure of the mighty river, beckoning through floor to ceiling windows.
And the Edmonds have the answer: chef Stefano de Pieri’s original Gondola on the Murray. Star of the ABC television series of the late 1990s, this jaunty little wooden boat now docks near The Frames and is all yours for a sunset cruise.
Nothing could be finer than chugging along, quaffing a Whistling Kite biodynamic chardonnay, made just up the road, while swans and pelicans drift by and a paddle steamer sounds its horn before sending out a broad wake to rock our little boat. Rick snuggles the gondola close to shore so we can observe koalas nibbling on saplings, before pottering upriver. Sunset and the red gums are silhouetted like paper cutouts against a tangelo sky.
Back at the villa I’ve finally mastered its myriad technical complexities thanks to The Frames’ patient manager and local bushman, John Little, who provides a comprehensive tuition for all guests when they check in and is on call 24/7. He’s also your man for river tours, knowing this part of the world like the back of his hand.
His son Joel has even customised a tinnie for backwater cruising. Featuring smart, leather upholstered seats and a sort of stump-jump outboard motor, the vessel is easily able to navigate log-jammed tributaries and billabongs.
Unlike any other section of the Murray, the river near Renmark is cuffed by hundreds of kilometres of creeks, lagoons and backwaters; mysterious watery B-roads lined with downy-topped bulrushes and dotted with sentinel red gums, home to a rich diversity of bird life.
We head up the gorgeous Ral Ral Creek, then the Bulyong tributary and into No Duck lagoon where we cut the engines to listen to the birds and rustling reeds while large whistling kites circle overhead.
Lost in a watery labyrinth we noodle along for a couple of hours, a million miles from modernity, a zillion miles from the nearest remote control. Heading back into the broad, fast-moving river feels for a moment like entering a motorway. Further upriver we branch off again to dock at Wilkadene, Australia’s most picturesque boutique brewery, housed in an old shearing shed above the river.
Sheepdogs doze in the sun, staff doze behind the bar recovering from a wedding the night before. A rich aroma of lanolin lingers as weather-beaten locals and shiny young backpackers nurse their ales. Constructed using a native pine frame, the cathedral-like shed once supplied paddle steamers with chaff but in its new incarnation is a zero-waste brewery feeding spent grain to livestock.
A bottle of “Cherax destructor” (or yabby) India pale ale hits the spot before we clamber back down to the tinnie and head downriver to home.
Pelicans soar overhead like battalions of B52s. In Renmark, more wooden paddle steamers chug through town, bowed willows trail their limbs in the fast-moving waters.
It’s a scene out of time, very All the Rivers Run for those old enough to remember the miniseries, but back at Pastiche, with the push of a couple of buttons — fire on, waterfall running, massage bed jiggling — I’m back in the 21st century. • theframes.com.au
Christine McCabe was a guest of The Frames.
The Murray beckons through floor-to-ceiling windows, top; three modern villas at The Frames, above; courtyard pool, above right