Ro­mance on the river

Es­cape to the Mur­ray in hi-tech style

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Australia - CHRISTINE McCABE

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. • the­

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

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