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From the 1860s until 1942, cruises on Port Phillip Bay operated from Railway pier at Port Melbourne or the Yarra River near Queens Bridge to resorts at Queenscliff, Portsea and Sorrento. The first true excursion steamer, not just one involved in regular trade, was the Williams in 1872. Bay cruises for pleasure or trade picnics became immensely popular, with luxurious paddle steamers being built in Glasgow especially for Melbourne. The pride of the fleet was the Hygeia, which ran from 1890 to 1931 and which was one of the fastest paddle steamers in the world with a speed of over 21 knots. Between 1910 and 1917 she operated in conjunction with the Ozone and Weeroona, the three beautiful paddle steamers together capable of carrying over 4700 passengers. Proud fathers would show their children the gleaming cranks of the engines and the big paddle wheels, while women would display their fashionable clothes. People always remembered the whistles of the steamers as they prepared to leave. Trains on the Port Melbourne line were packed with excursionists going to the pier. Rival vessels, such as the screw steamer Courier, sometimes raced the paddle steamers down the bay, to the delight of the passengers. One of the most loved was the veteran Edina, which carried excursionists to Portarlington and Geelong until 1938, by which time she was the oldest seagoing steamship in the world. Efforts to revive the bay excursion trade in subsequent years have been unsuccessful.

On the Yarra River, excursion services operated on a smaller scale, but boats regularly left the landing at Princes Bridge to take passengers to places such as the Hawthorn Tea Gardens, or to Williamstown and the Maribyrnong River. Smaller boats also took passengers on the river above Dights Falls. River cruises were a cheap outing in the days before widespread motor car ownership. Apart from regular punts and ferries, the first excursion steamer on the Yarra, the Gondola, took passengers to the Cremorne Gardens at Richmond in 1854. The heyday of the Yarra cruises was the interwar period, with great rivalry between the boat companies. Some boats would be used for dances in the evening, with the Fairyland regarded as better than the sprung floor at Leggett's ballroom. The river excursion trade, almost completely dead by the 1960s, has come back into popularity since the 1980s, in particular with the use of new boat landings at Southbank.

Colin Jones