There's an inexplicable sense of magic in the Dandenong Ranges, less than an hour's drive from Melbourne. Tudor-style tearooms are as popular as ever and refurbished fine-diners serve hundred-year-old stories alongside garden produce.
Yes, there's still a queue to get into Miss Marple's Tearoom and tourists will always dangle their legs out of Puffing Billy between Belgrave and Gembrook, but if you know where to go, there are some new places to explore as well.
Friday Night Bites
First you need to sort out a home base – stay in Olinda, Mount Dandenong or Sassafras to be in the thick of it all. Valley Ranges Getaways manages more than 30 refurbished cottages from $250 a night (though for extra zen – and extra splurge – book the Japanese Mountain Retreat in Montrose, just 10 minutes north of Mount Dandenong).
You could consider a night in by the fire: swing by the Deli Platter in Olinda before it closes at 5.30pm to pick up some wholesome take-home meals, as well as imported cheese to go with a couple of bottles from Olinda Cellars.
If you're arriving late, Wild Oak Restaurant is in the belly of Olinda. City slickers might find the fitout dated, but dishes like kangaroo tartare with salty potato crisps and a devilishly creamy custard apple bombe Alaska promote seasonal ingredients without any big-city fanfare.
Sculptures at William Ricketts Sanctuary. Photo: Sofia Levin
Early Start Saturday
Up and at 'em – you need to get to the 1000 Steps before the crowds. Officially called the Kokoda Track Memorial Walk, it's a steep uphill trek through dewy native flora and mushroom-speckled logs.
Maintain well-deserved feelings of righteousness with breakfast at Evolve Fair Foods in Belgrave. Here, coffee comes with positive affirmations; have a shot of the house metabolism booster and a colourful bliss bowl piled with pumpkin, falafel and other nourishing local ingredients.
Whether you want to stroll, jog or picnic in the sun, the National Rhododendron Gardens in Olinda is your next stop where every season shows off a different side of nature.
Boost your energy levels at the Kalorama Post Office – perhaps the area's best-kept food secret. It doubles as a pie shop with pumpkins and honeycomb skeletons arranged on the communal table. Ingredients are local, the pastry flaky and the pies piping hot (try the lamb). Make sure you get there before it closes at 1pm.
From there, William Ricketts Sanctuary is a four-minute drive up Mount Dandenong Tourist Road. The Sanctuary is artist William "Bill" Ricketts' legacy, where 92 kiln-fired clay sculptures of Aboriginal people are carved into rocky crevasses and mingle with moss and mountain ash. Ricketts worked here until he died in 1993, aged 94. His ashes rest beneath The Tree of Life in the sanctuary where the inscription reads, "Returned to mother earth."
Coonara Springs in Olinda. Photo: Wayne Taylor
After so much walking you've earned a long lunch. There's no better place for it than Coonara Springs. Established in 1893, the restored Victorian weatherboard houses antique furniture, crackling fireplaces and views across the 2.8-hectare property, including beautiful Edna Walling-style gardens and a vegetable plot. Seasonal, eggy mushroom pappardelle features not just button but swiss, enoki and king mushrooms. Must-order golden dauphine potato spheres transcend seasons, as does a decadent tower of chocolate mousse with salted caramel ice-cream and honeycomb.
If you can move after lunch, this is your only chance to explore Sassafras village. You're probably acquainted with the standouts: the novelty teapots and shelves of blends from Tea Leaves and the quirky one-stop-gift-shop Smits & Bits – have a contented wander, then it's onto the Independent in Gembrook for dinner. Good for lunch as well, this Argentinian restaurant has a beer-hall feel with exposed timber beams and polished concrete floors. The crowd is mixed, the vibe pumping and you'll think it doesn't get any better than dishes like grilled ox tongue with house pickle and maple syrup roasted carrots – until a pre-ordered suckling pig emerges from the kitchen and lands on another table.
Inside the Independent in Gembrook. Photo: Wayne Taylor
Sleep in; you've earned it. Just be prepared for a short wait if you plan to brunch at the General Food Store in Emerald because all the locals have the same idea. It has everything you want from an inner-city cafe: Industry Beans coffee, indie magazines, pot plants and a white-tiled counter. There's even a monthly poster printed on the cork wall listing the season's harvest and community messages. The anything-but-boring brunch menu surpasses smashed avocado with plates of poached eggs served with Toulouse sausage, pickled red cabbage and roast cauliflower, as well as treats like chocolate orange Belgian waffles.
You could also head to Shannon Bennett's Piggery Cafe on the historical Burnham Beeches property in Sherbrooke. Flanking the 1930s art deco mansion (which is awaiting council approval to become a sustainable resort) is one of the Dandenong Ranges most enchanting spots – the Alfred Nicholas Gardens.
Your lungs bursting with fresh air, it's time to head back to the city, revitalised. Unless of course you visit again in summer, when you should hit the U-Pick Trail and take home berries and cherries to make into jam – that should last through to winter again.
Shannon Bennett's Piggery Cafe and Burnham Bakery in Sherbrooke. Photo: Sofia Levin
The Deli Platter 1/1514 Mount Dandenong Tourist Road, Olinda
Olinda Cellars 7/540 Mount Dandenong Tourist Road, Olinda
Wild Oak Restaurant 232 Ridge Road, Olinda
Kokoda Track Memorial Walk (1000 Steps) Tree Fern Gully Track, Tremont
Evolve Fair Foods 64-68 Monbulk Road, Belgrave
National Rhododendron Gardens the Georgian Road, Olinda
Kalorama Post Office 1209 Mount Dandenong Tourist Road, Kalorama
William Ricketts Sanctuary 1402 Mount Dandenong Tourist Road, Mount Dandenong
Coonara Springs 129 Olinda-Monbulk Road, Olinda
Tea Leaves 380 Mount Dandenong Tourist Road, Sassafras
Smits & Bits 381-383 Mount Dandenong Tourist Road, Sassafras
The Independent 79 Main Street, Gembrook
The General Food Store 377 Belgrave-Gembrook Road, Emerald
Piggery Cafe 1 Sherbrooke Road, Sherbrooke
Alfred Nicholas Gardens 1A Sherbrooke Road, Sherbrooke
U-Pick Trail visitdandenongranges.com.au
The author visited with assistance from Yarra Ranges Tourism.