An hour east of Melbourne, the Dandenong Ranges (visitdandenongranges.com.au) have always been a day-tripper and weekend favourite for hikers, romantics and anyone seeking an easy country escape. This lush area of rolling forested hills and deep valleys carpeted with ferns extends over 500 square kilometres and is a collection of five national parks with excellent walking trails. Winding roads connect a half-dozen cutely named villages where curio shops and cafes abound, and guesthouses and B&Bs snuggle behind the trees. Who could resist visiting Sassafras, Emerald or Gembrook once they've spied them on a map! The rich volcanic soils make for perfect growing conditions - public and privately owned gardens are ablaze with rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias.
For magnificent colours head to the Dandenong Ranges Botanic Garden (formerly the National Rhododendron Garden) or wander through the Alfred Nicholas Memorial Gardens, with its waterfalls, rock pools, magnificent lake and boathouse. Another of the region's public gardens is William Ricketts Sanctuary, where 97 Aboriginal-inspired sculptures are hidden in ferny glades beyond the pathways. (parkweb.vic.gov.au)
Unleash your inner Tarzan at the Trees Adventure Park (treesadventure.com.au) where a series of zip-lines and aerial ropes are set up at various heights to suit all comers and ages. Art lovers should check out the Burrinja Cultural Centre (burrinja.org.au) in the lower ranges' village of Upwey and if visiting on the second Saturday of the month, head to Emerald for the Hills Art Market (hillsartmarket.com) where all works are crafted by locals. A popular summer pastime are the outdoor movies at Belgrave's Cameo Cinema; pull up a striped deckchair or bring your own blanket for first-run movies nights. (cameocinemas.com.au).
If you're over the hipster, inner-city vibe then the quaint and downright old-fashioned Dandenong Ranges' attractions will warm the heart. Hop aboard the Puffing Billy steam train at Belgrave and ride the rickety narrow gauge tracks over trestle bridges and even dangle your legs outside the carriage (puffingbilly.com.au). Tuck into the enormous buffet at the Bavarian-themed Cuckoo Restaurant in Olinda believed to be the restaurant that introduced Aussies to the "smorgasbord" in 1958. There's sauerkraut, goulash, schnitzel, strudel and steins of beer, while the entertainment runs to yodelling and a wood-chopping slap dance. Still on the twee scale is Miss Marple's Tea Room in a Mock-Tudor house in Sassafrass where black and white photos of Margaret Rutherford who played the TV sleuth for years adorn the walls and square-shaped scones are mysteriously on the menu (mismarplestearoom.com). Kids are in heaven at Geppetto's Workshop toy store also in Sassafras, which brims with wooden toys, puppets and nostalgic playthings like spinning tops, dolls' houses and boxes of Fuzzy Felt. (geppettosworkshop.com.au).
Following a three-year restoration, beautiful Coonara Springs restaurant has reopened in an 1893-built cottage said to be the oldest restaurant in the Ranges. With a new chef, Adrian Upward, offering "refined French dining", it's a steal to visit on Wednesday when a $50 three-course chef's dinner, which changes every week, is on offer (see coonarasprings.com). For tapas and casual fare in retro baroque surroundings with live music (and the option to bring your dog), Sooki Lounge in groovy Belgrave is a must (sookilounge.com.au).
A visit to Skyhigh Mount Dandenong puts the Ranges into perspective. At 633 metres above sea level Sky High (comprising lookout, bistro, English gardens and a maze) has sensational views of Port Phillip Bay and Melbourne some 50 kilometres away. See skyhighmtdandenong.com.au
There's something romantic about a secret gate into a secret garden and that's in store for guests at either Woolrich Cottage or the Garden Retreat, both on the same two-hectare expanse known as Woolrich Woods. The cottage, built in 1920 by nurseryman Ted Woolrich has art deco features, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, open fire and woodland views from bay windows and verandah. A four-person Jacuzzi is positioned under the skylight for stargazing. The one-bedroom Garden Retreat also has open fire and a spa bath and is next door to the secret gate that opens into neighbouring Cloudehill Gardens, one of the most beautiful in the region. See woolwichretreat.com.au
Hiking is the best way to gets among the foliage. Test your fitness and pay homage to fallen soldiers on the 1000 Steps Kokoda Walk.
Caroline Gladstone was a guest of Woolrich Retreat.