Melanie Ball steps back in time in a landmark hotel that began life as a coffee palace.
Did you hear the story about the teenage porter who eventually bought the hotel? Of all the anecdotes that contribute to the history of the Quality Hotel Mildura Grand, that one most captured my imagination the first time I visited the Murray town. And planning my return with my husband, en route to the Flinders Ranges, the Seventh Street establishment, built in the early days of the Canadian Chaffey brothers' irrigation colony, is my pick.
Opened in 1890 as the Mildura Coffee Palace and described in the Sunraysia Daily as a "thing of beauty", the hotel was the Windsor of country Victoria (Melbourne's landmark hotel was also originally called the Grand) and became popular as a holiday destination for Mallee farming families.
The Mildura Grand was arguably Victoria's best country hotel in 1956, when 15-year-old Italian migrant Don Carrazza started there as a porter. By the time he bought it in 1987, it was run down. But with the help of Carrazza's new son-in-law, Stefano de Pieri, the family returned it to the upper echelons of country accommodation. While the Grand is now part of the Choice Hotels group, Carrazza still owns the building, and de Pieri, with wife Donata, still runs his signature restaurant in the cellar.
Stefano's is closed the night we are there, so we book in to another of the hotel's six eateries, but that's a few hours and a G&T away when we arrive on a sunny afternoon.
Our room is on the first floor (no lift) of the Chaffey wing, originally the Chaffey brothers' office. It is one of four rooms opening on to an elegant, wide balcony overlooking the garden and the Chaffey fountain, in which magpie-larks take turns to enthusiastically bathe.
The room itself is a good motel size and the dominant colour of the recent refurbishment is clay, with complementary carpet and curtains. There is a flat-screen television with a free in-house movie channel, a minibar, an iPod dock and free wi-fi, none of which we use. The queen-size bed proves to be extremely comfortable. With the fountain's tinkling water as a lullaby, we are not long awake on retiring after dinner.
And then we ate There is little that's Iberian about the new Spanish Bar & Grill, despite it being named after the Grand's popular Spanish Grill, which closed in 1989. Paddock products are the focus and the "meat matters" blurb on the menu convinces us to suspend, for now, our policy of eating only grass-fed beef. We wash down succulent grain-fed Mallee steaks with The Guilty, a full-bodied shiraz from the boutique Mildura winery Shinas Estate.
The included breakfast is a continental and pre-cooked hot buffet eaten under hanging extravaganzas in the Chandelier Room.
The deal maker The Grand's historic charm shines through the recent contemporary corporate refit and the lobby lounge is a gallery of black-and-white photographs illustrating the changing fashions in exterior and interior design - some more appealing than others - over the hotel's life. Staying here also puts you at the heart of foodie Mildura, and across the road from the twice-monthly Sunraysia Farmers Market.
Stepping out Take a day tour to World Heritage-listed Mungo National Park, in southwest NSW. Wentworth, where the Darling River meets the Murray, is a short run downstream, but there's lots to see and do in Mildura, too. Explore the diverse memorabilia in the Langtree Hall Museum or check out current exhibitions at the Art Vault.
Address Seventh Street, Mildura, Victoria 3500.
The verdict A companionable marriage of modern facilities and heritage at the happening end of town.
Price Grand Rooms $175 a couple a night, Grand Executive Rooms $210; includes cooked breakfast. Packages available.
Bookings Phone toll-free 1800 034 228 (24 hours); see qualityhotelmilduragrand .com.au.
Getting there A six-hour drive via the Calder Freeway/Highway into southern Mildura.
Perfect for Couples and families exploring the Mallee region and on the way to outback South Australia and NSW.
Wheelchair access Some parts only, with assistance.
While you're there Stock up on Mallee foodstuffs. Drop in at W.B. Chaffey's grand home, Rio Vista House. Step back in time at Old Wentworth Gaol and toboggan down the Perry Sandhills on cardboard, just north of Wentworth.
Weekends Away are reviewed anonymously and paid for by Traveller.