Sue Wallace explores the watersports and wine, the history and the fine food of this thriving city on the Murray.

Nothing quite prepares you for the rush of cold water as you plunge into the Murray River at Albury's Noreuil Park, even on the hottest of days.

For many locals a dip in the refreshing waters and a float down the river is a daily ritual and a perfect way to escape the heat, even if it is known to take your breath away. As children we used to play a game to see who could stay in the longest and one by one we would emerge, shades of blue and covered in goosebumps.

The Murray River separates Albury and its twin city, Wodonga, and also forms the NSW and Victorian border. Many Australians have passed through Albury at some stage and those living on the east coast have fond childhood memories of stopping at the border town during a holiday trek from one state capital to another. What do they remember? Usually the old fruit-fly checkpoint where you had to surrender your fruit, a dip in Lake Hume and the best milkshakes at one of Albury's Dean Street milk bars.

With a population of more than 46,000 it's a vibrant holiday destination. Lake Hume sits at its back door, it's close to the ski fields of Falls Creek and Mt Hotham, a short drive to the great wineries of Rutherglen and not far from the charming former goldmining towns of Beechworth and Yackandandah.

One of the biggest events in the city's life was the completion last year of the Hume Freeway, which residents had been debating and anticipating for more than 30 years, in particular the choice of an internal or external link. The 17.4km route that links Ettamogah (to the north) and Wodonga via the outskirts of Albury has cut travelling time almost in half. It used to take about half an hour to drive the 15.7 kilometres through the city's streets; now it takes a mere nine minutes.

Albury resident Jill Hogan believes the freeway is the best thing to happen to the city. "I used to go through 17 sets of traffic lights to get to work in Wodonga," she says. "Now it's a breeze. It made such a difference to traffic in Albury."

But not all agree. Another resident, David McCraw, says the freeway should not have been internal. "It should have been external and bypassed Albury. It should have taken heavy traffic around Albury, not through it."

Early history

The Wiradjuri people remain strongly linked with the area through the Ngan Girra (Bogong Moth) festival held mid-November, which celebrates indigenous cultures and commemorates the gathering of ancestors. Its name and symbol are taken from the ritual of tribes who, after their meetings and ceremonies, would head into the high country in search of the migrating bogong moth.

The first of the early explorers were Hamilton Hume and William Hovell. On November 16, 1824, Hume discovered a large river and to commemorate the event Hovell named the river after his colleague. Five years later, Charles Sturt discovered this waterway was in fact the upper reaches of an already known and named river and so the Hume became the Murray.

Despite this short-lived naming, the explorers' names remain linked to the region. Hovell carved his name in the bark of a tree, now famously known as the Hovell tree, a huge eucalypt that still stands on the river bank. The CSIRO has grown saplings from seeds of the precious tree for future generations.

Albury developed as a stopping place for many people venturing to and from the nearby goldfields.

Lake Hume

This spectacular man-made aquatic playground is considered one of Australia's great engineering feats. Work started on the Hume Dam in 1919 using horse power, steam engines and manual labour and was completed 17 years later. Releases from the dam and downstream tributaries supply water to Victoria, NSW and South Australia.

Despite the recent years of drought, there's still plenty of water in Lake Hume. In good years the lake can hold up to six times the capacity of Sydney Harbour.

Visitors are being enticed with great holiday packages. Near the lake are Wymah Valley Retreat (1800 776 523, http://www.aspenparks.com .au), Lake Hume Resort (6026 4444, http://www.lake humeresort.com.au) and Lake Hume Tourist Park (6026 4677, http://www.lakehumetouristpark .com.au). Recent rain has greened the resorts, which offer a range of activities including mini-golf and waterslides.

There are many picnic and camping sites and the lake is popular for sailing, water-skiing, sailboarding and fishing. If you don't have any luck fishing, you can call into the nearby Hume Weir Trout Farm (6026 4334) and buy dinner. A track opposite the farm will take you to a spot where you can view the dam wall from downstream.

Art and culture

Albury is home to the Flying Fruit Fly Circus, founded in 1979. It presents a bunch of ordinary kids doing extraordinary things and tours regularly with new shows in Australia and overseas. There's also the Flying Fruit Fly Circus School (www.fruitflycircus.com.au), the only one of its kind in Australia.

The Hothouse Theatre Company, which was established in 1979 as the Murray River Performing Group, is a professional theatre company that has staged more than 70 new works since its inception. Performances are staged in the intimate Butter Factory Theatre on Gateway Island (www.hothousetheatre.com.au).

The Albury Performing Arts Centre also presents a rich and entertaining theatre season each year.

Art lovers will enjoy a visit to the Albury Regional Art Gallery, home to many of the finest works of Russell Drysdale, and a visit to the new Albury Library Museum is recommended.

Food and wine

Albury's food culture has been strongly influenced by the migrants who settled here after World War II. Between 1947 and 1971 more than 300,000 people from 31 countries, including Holland, Greece, Poland, Yugoslavia and Germany, passed through the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre. They established restaurants and cafes, bakeries, delicatessens and smokehouses that provided familiar food for homesick arrivals but also introduced local people to the pleasures of European cuisine.

Bonegilla, which last year celebrated its 60th anniversary, has a commemorative centre, Block 19, called the Beginning Place, which pays tribute to the bravery of these migrants (10km north-east of Wodonga, open 9.30am-4.30pm daily, http://www.bonegilla.org.au).

One of the best places to pick up fresh picnic supplies is at the Hume Murray Food Bowl farmers' market at Gateway Island, Wodonga, on Saturday mornings. The market's former co-ordinator, restaurateur Noelle Quinn, is passionate about the local produce. "There's everything here," she says of the region, "Murray cod, smoked and fresh trout, quail, rabbit and beef, delicious Rutherglen lamb, olives, fruits, nuts, rich Milawa cheeses and breads, shiraz-filled chocolates, quince pastes, Gundowring ice-cream and Tabletop figs. It is such a wonderful area to live in and visit.

"We are also lucky with the influence from migrants and now have some of the best German kasseler, weisswurst, Italian sausages and prosciutto; many of the recipes have been passed down from generation to generation.

"Then there's the great wines of the area: chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir, rich cabernet sauvignon and sparkling shiraz and muscats and tokays of Rutherglen."

For fine dining, try Source dining (664 Dean Street, phone 6041 1288). For casual meals there are Quinn's new cafe, Q Food (555 Dean Street, phone 6021 1994), and Electra Cafe (3/441 Dean Street, phone 6021 7200). For great coffee go to Zo'i (440 Dean Street, phone 6023 6000).

For views

For some of the city's best views, head to Monument Hill, with its 30-metre tall war cenotaph, at the top of Dean Street. And even if you are not travelling by train, visit Albury Station, one of the grandest railway stations outside the capital cities. When the rail gauges in Victoria and NSW differed, the station had to accommodate two trains on the longest platform in the country - it has more than 455 metres of classic Victorian wrought-iron lattice work and other structures.

Albury's century-old Botanic Gardens, at the top end of the main street, are a great picnic stop. And if you aren't up for that dip in the Murray, hire a canoe (Murray River Canoe Hire, phone 6041 1822) and start paddling.