The Dandenong Ranges is an undeniably beautiful spot. If it weren't I wouldn't have lived here for twenty years. Just 35km from Melbourne, it's a well-travelled path for day-trippers from the inner suburbs; in the hills they enjoy the relaxed feel, the beautiful scenery, relatively little traffic, delicious food and cute shops. But the standard daytrip - a drive up the Mt Dandenong Tourist Road, afternoon tea at the famous tearooms, well, it's a little bit yawn-worthy for families.
Let me talk you through the hidden gems (and the worthwhile of the famousy things) of the Dandenong Ranges.
To get the most out of any trip to the hills, you have to head outside. Breathe in that fresh air, feel the breeze from the gum trees – and maybe even have a daring adventure:
Trees Adventure in Belgrave has only been here for a couple of years and caused quite the stir with locals. It's great fun, and kids from the age of five can join in adventuring through the tops of some of the Dandenong Ranges' oldest trees. (You'll need to book ahead, so head to their website and phone or email before driving up.)
Puffing Billy is the biggest name in the hills, and it deserves the reputation. Take the train ride from Belgrave to Emerald for a fantastic day out. You’ll enjoy the views and the kids will love sitting in the train’s window… just don’t forget to let yourself be a kid for a while too. Not that I'd do such a thing of course. Oh wait...
Take a walk in the Dandenong Ranges National Park to really experience this area. There are heaps of walks to do, but some of the best short walks depart from Grant’s Picnic Ground (a spot to avoid, other than to park for a walk, unless you’re into queuing to feed birds) and the Upper Ferntree Gully entrance to the national park. For a really short walk that's beautiful, head up to Olinda Falls.
The gardens of the Dandenong Ranges are well worth seeing, and make stunning locations for a picnic. The picks of the crop are the Alfred Nicholas Gardens (make sure you walk down to the lake) and the Cloude Hill lookout.
Afternoon tea in the hills has become a tradition for many. Which is lovely, if you're mad for a scone or two. I say give it a miss to find some other great spots that are a little off the tourist radar:
Cooks Corner, in the gorgeous little town of Kallista, is a new favourite eatery among locals. The food is amazing - fresh, local where possible, and with a beautiful outlook over the forest. And it's kid friendly - not in a 'we have a token kids menu' kind of way, but in a really welcoming 'we have toys and activities for them' way. (What? Good food AND a kids area? That alone is worth the drive!)
Kelly’s is the best pub meal in the hills. With a fireplace for the cooler weather, boutique beers on tap and all the best pub standard meals plus some more exotic offerings, this is a great place to come with the family or with a few friends to spend some time. We've been known to while away many a winter's afternoon here.
Coonara Springs is good for a child-unfriendly night out. Great food (you can choose your sauces and meats separately) and beautiful views.
When visitors come up the hill for a day, most of them take the traditional route: a drive up the Mt Dandenong Tourist Road. Take the road a little less travelled to find some amazing scenery through the national park:
Monbulk Road is, in my opinion, the best drive in the hills. It’s right in the midst of the national park so you’ll have a great outlook over the forest as you take the short drive between Belgrave and Monbulk.
Sherbrooke Road is another great drive (but don’t do this if you’re uncomfortable on windy roads; it has some of the hills’ sharpest bends), and will take you from Kallista over to the Tourist Road.
Belgrave-Ferny Creek Road is one of the steepest options, but it’s beautiful. The top of the road winds down from the Tourist Road through the forest, ending up right in the township of Belgrave.
Olinda-Monbulk Road offers beautiful views around bendy roads, with lots of restaurants along the way.
Let’s be honest: shopping isn't the big drawcard to the hills. But a little retail therapy never goes astray. Here’s where you’ll find the best the hills has to offer:
The shops of Sassafras are very cute, so spend some time strolling. If you love tea, clothes, ice-cream, plants, antiques, old-fashioned toys (Gepetto’s Workshop has become a hills institution) or a mixture of all of the above, you’ll enjoy the stores in this touristy town.
Kallista has some good options too: antiques, toys, organic food and a market every Sunday.