Lately, we’ve been spending our weekends exploring some of Victoria’s lesser-known regions that are packed full of incredible locations we never knew existed. Out of all of our road-trip travels, the one spot that’s totally flipped our proverbial pancake when it comes to jaw-dropping visuals, amazing feats of nature and, um….cake, *has* to be Cactus Country in Strathmerton—part of Sun Country on the Murray. Ten whole acres filled with cacti, as well as frozen margaritas on tap. And it’s only three hours’ drive from the city… I mean, WTF?
The landscaped garden is a mecca for all things green and prickly, making everything from cake to jam out of the desert plants, and is only one of the destinations on the Farm Gate Trail—a self-guided tour of the best things to eat, drink and do along the Murray River, directly north of Melbourne. Drooling aside, the most amazing thing about this crazy garden has to be the sheer height, size and variety of plants you’ll find on the property.
So, how the hell do you decide to grow ten whole acres of nothing but cacti? This labour of love began almost 28 years ago, when owner Jim Hall planted a handful of cacti that his dad had nurtured in a half-acre plot. The cacti were a hobby, supplemented by zucchini and squash farming, which flourished due to the climate and soil in the region.
Jim’s wife, Julie AKA The Cactus Queen—the star of our video—got on board too, making cactus cake, cactus ice-cream, cactus jam, aloe products and installing a frozen margarita machine on site (Julie, we like your style…). Soon, the cacti were taking over most of the Halls’ farm, with artist residencies, a Mexican-style café and a speciality cacti store added to the site.
But Cactus Country isn’t the only thing we discovered on our weekend adventuring in Sun Country on the Murray. We hit up the locals for some tips on the other hot-spots worth visiting on our long weekend. We discovered everything from mouth-watering chocolate cakes to serene lakes, complete with wild kangaroos and emus to boot.
#1: Café 3641 Is Your Cake And High Tea Go-To
When it comes to cakes, we’re all about maxing out our cals on the most indulgent slice we can find. Julie at Cactus Country recommended the chocolate ganache cake at Café 3641, which is literally a five-minute drive from the cactus farm, and it did NOT disappoint. The café itself is stunning, especially if you’re a fan of vintage pastels and actual teacups, served complete with saucer and silver spoon. Looking for the ultimate in indulgence? Book in for the full high tea and get ready for a feast of scones, cakes and perfectly brewed tipples.
#2: Nuts, Nougat And Almond Blossom Honey At Aintree Almonds
If you’re stuck for some smoked, dry roasted, or spiced almonds to nibble during your Murray River road-trip, you can’t do much better than stopping into Aintree Almonds. This boutique almond orchard is flourishing with blossoming almond trees, which not only produce the raw ingredients for heaps of take-home goodies, but also provide sustenance for the local bees, which means honey that tastes unique to the area. Delish.
#3: Ulupna Winery For Vino... An Essential, Obviously!
Drawing inspiration from Italy’s expansive vineyards, Ulupna Winery is home to almost 50,000 vines that produce some of the best grapes in the region. And, while grapes are all well and good, it’s the vino that has us hooked. Having won awards around the world for their cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and chardonnay, ditch the stop-off at the local Dan’s and pick up a bottle or two here—whether for taking home to Melbourne or for sipping on a spring evening on your travels.
#4: Bush Tucker, Native Plants and Spices, And Rainbow Chickens?! Meet Cobrawonga Estate & Nursery
When the team at Cobrawonga Estate and Nursery casually mentioned that they had a pen full of rainbow chickens—dyed with animal-friendly food dye, may we add—we obviously headed straight to the coop, ready to debunk the claim. But no, this nursery that specialises in native plants, which it turns into bush tucker blends, dukkah and traditional spices, is also home to some particularly colourful silkie chickens (you know, the ones that look like fluffy feather dusters?). An absolute must-visit, for stocking up on spices and snapping some weird wildlife.
#5: Cruising On Barmah Lake = Bliss
Sun Country on the Murray is full of hidden lakes and inlets that snake through the riverbanks. While you’ll find inland beaches dotted throughout the region, we’re head-over-heels for the tranquillity of the Barmah Lakes and the narrows on the Murray River, situated right on the edge of Barmah National Park and camping grounds. The best way to experience the internationally recognised wetlands is to jump onto the Kingfisher Cruises’ boat, which run two-hour trips every Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. Keep your eyes peeled for kangaroos and emus on the riverbanks!
#6: Bright Yellow Canola Fields Are The Instagram Backdrop You’ve Been Waiting For
If you didn’t get your fill of gram-worthy moments at Cactus Country, just take a drive through the Cobram surrounds and you’re guaranteed to spot the incredible canary yellow canola fields en route. So. Much. Yellow.
Keen to plan your very own trip to Cactus Country and the surrounding area? Check out the garden’s opening hours and visitor info online, and visit the Farm Gate Trail website for more ideas of where to add to your itinerary.
Melbourne’s an incredible city, but sometimes we all need to get out of town for a weekend. The Urban List has partnered with Visit Victoria to bring you our Get Out Of Town! series—the ultimate guide to Victoria’s rural gems. For more ideas about where to wander in Sun Country on the Murray, click here.
Video credit: The Phoenix Effect