The first thing visitors need to know is ‘The Dandenongs’ are very different to ‘Dandenong’. Do not mix these up. The second thing you need to know is that the Dandenong Ranges are about MUCH more than laced doilies, monstrous tourist buses and scones with jam & cream.
They have all those things in abundance, obviously, but if you chat with the locals who live ‘on mountain’, you get a very different picture. More of a fern-covered nature retreat, with solid cafes, boutique brews, fruit everywhere and more oxygen per square inch than anywhere else in Melbs.
Here are 12 things to do in the Dandenongs that aren’t Devonshire Tea (...plus some recommendations for Devonshire Tea).
Photography: Mangana | Instagram
Browse Antiques At Mangana
Mangana is the sort of place you see on Postcards on a Sunday afternoon. A super cute antiques and homewares store, smack bang in the middle of Olinda. Anyone who passes through The Dandenong Ranges is pretty much guaranteed to pass through the overstuffed aisles at Mangana. It’s a good place to come if you’re in the market for globes, reproduction antique furniture, wooden mallards (can never have too many), oriental rugs, jewellery, chess boards and vintage, industrial miscellany. PS. we’ve got our eye on the small His Master’s Voice dog statue, so hands off.
Grab A Pie From Pie In The Sky
Olinda’s other star attraction. This place gets seriously rammed on weekends—we recommend skipping the table service and grabbing a few pies to go. You can eat them on the bench, just down the main road, or pack a picnic and hit up any of the nearby gardens. Pie In The Sky, like EVERY country pie bakery in Victoria, proudly markets itself as ‘Victoria official #1 pie shop’. We haven’t checked the judges ruling on that one, but the pies are bloody good. Go the classic ‘Aussie Meat Pie’ (a gold medal winner, allegedly), and back it up with a beef and mushroom. Delish.
Photography: Visit Victoria
Wander The Alfred Nicholas Gardens
One of The Dandenongs proper hidden gems. Unless you spent some time researching the Ranges beforehand, you’d never know the Alfred Nicholas Gardens existed. You have to turn off the Mt Dandenong Tourist Rd at Sherbrooke, just before Sassafras, then follow the road till you get to a carpark on the right. These gardens were planted by Alfred Nicholas and his brother George, the guys behind Aspro painkillers. They’re a sloping collection of mountain ash, ginkgoes, maples and liquid ambers (seriously, stop by in Autumn and prepare to be blown away). Our favourite bit is the ornamental lake at the bottom of the hill. A proper Kodak moment.
Open Mic Night At The Mt Dandenong Hotel
Most Dandenongs tourists turn back once they hit Olinda (at least if they’re driving in from the south), but if you push on for another few minutes you’ll hit the township of Mt Dandenong. Home to the warm and welcoming Mt Dandenong Hotel. The food is your classic pub fare, but there’s a surprisingly good range of craft beers and cider (60+ beers and 35 ciders, at last count. More importantly, it’s also home to the longest running open mic night in the region. BYO instruments, set up on stage, and get ready to rock the Ranges. Open mics run every Sunday evening.
Visit The Kalorama Lookout
Just beyond Mt Dandenong (if you’re driving north), is Kalorama, possibly the tiniest town in the world. There’s a cafe (which we’ll get to in a sec), and a lookout, aaaaand...that’s pretty much it. The Kalorama lookout is our favourite kind of lookout, because it requires zero effort to reach. You can literally park the car, get out and enjoy an uninterrupted view over the eastern valleys, all the way to the Silvan Reservoir. Pro tip: if you drop your gaze slightly, you’ll see a sweet picnic area at the bottom of the grassy slope. Good spot for a cool drink and some of those pies you picked up earlier.
Brunch At Destiny Point Cafe
Kalorama’s second claim to fame. Destiny Point must have the best cafe views of any venue in Melbourne. The big bay windows give you an epic vista over the Kalorama Lookout, and there’s a cute patio where you can sit outside and brunch to the sound of warbling kookaburras. The menu is on-point too—not cutting edge Melbourne stuff by any means (pesto is still big in the Dandenongs), but the servings are more than generous (seriously, the smashed av must come with $5 worth of snow-white goats cheese alone). Out top pick for mid-morning Dandy brunch.
Go Plant Shopping At Sassafras
There are a few great nurseries in the Dandenongs (the natural volcanic soil of the mountain, plus the cool, moist climate is basically Plant Paradise). One of our favourite green thumb stores is Conifer Gardens Nursery, on the road into Sassafras. Unlike a lot of nurseries, which stockpile smaller house plants and fragile flowers that self-destruct as soon as you get them out the car, Conifer is big on trees—Japanese maples (very big on the Mountain), Black Pines and rare conifers. If you’re lucky enough to actually own a Melbourne backyard, and you want to turn it into a magical forest wonderland, this is where you come.
Walk/Struggle Up The 1000 Steps
Ahhh, stairs. Our old adversary. One thousand of them to be precise, built to commemorate our fallen soldiers at Kokoda. Except the Kokoda ANZACs had more to worry about than those smug people in activewear sprinting past while you wheeze and grasp at the side rail. The 1000 Steps is probably the busiest walk in Melbourne’s east. People travel for miles to trek this thing, so it’s worth getting in early. We recommend departing before 8am if you want the trail mostly to yourself. By 10am the place is swarming with Lululemon disciples, baby strollers, lattes, families with 20 kids, Olympic athletes and old people. Make sure to stop and read the plaques along the way—it’s a good excuse to stop and quietly regret getting out of bed, and the history is fascinating.
Follow The U-Pick Trail
It’s a little-known fact that The Dandenong Ranges are surrounded by some of the best fruit orchards and berry fields in the state. And the guys at VisitDandenongRanges.com.au have helpfully mapped out every peach tree and raspberry bush. They’ve created a tasting path called U-Pick. Basically, you can start at The Cherry Boys near Wandin, and work your way through Rayner’s Orchard, Strawberry Springs (guess what they grow...) and several other fruiteries, picking and scoffing as you go. Most of the working farms have cellar doors where you can buy some local produce, and in the summer/spring months they run picking sessions where you can grab a bucket and go for your life.
Photography: Valley Ranges Getaways
B&B Like Nobody’s Watching
If Melbourne has a B&B capital, The Dandenongs is it. Seriously, bed and breakfasts pretty much outnumber actual homes up here. You’ll spot olde-worlde little signs everywhere as you drive along the Mt Dandenong tourist road, nearly all of which have the word ‘cottage’ in them. Our pick? Twilight Cottage in Olinda. It’s everything you come to The Dandenong Ranges for: crackling fire, smooth jazz on the CD player, red bricks and a big spa bath. And don’t forget the high-speed WIFI, Foxtel and artisan breakfast box. In this case, the B’s stand for ‘bitchin’ and ‘badass’.
Indulge In A Day Spa
Daylesford and Hepburn Springs might be Victoria’s spa capitals, but The Dandenongs are no slouch. We recommend saving this one for winter. Wait till you get a frosty weekend, full of classic Melbourne drizzle, then book in a toasty spa sesh at any of the local day spas. Balance Mountain and Elle Natural are good choices, or you can properly splurge with a luxe package at The Japanese Mountain Retreat Mineral Springs & Spa. It’s one of the most exclusive (and expensive) day spa retreats in Melbourne. They’ve even got an indoor Roman bathhouse.
Pick Up Some Rare Spirits
We’ll admit to some inner-Melbourne snobbery with this place. The first time we walked into Olinda Cellars, we weren’t expecting very much. But daaaaamn were we proven wrong. The range in here is as good or better than the best boutique cellars in the CBD. You could spend a happy 30 minutes just working your way through the craft tinnies (some of which we’d never even SEEN before). They also have a fantastic selection of local and imported whisky, gin, rum, vodka and wine (label and cleanskin). Olinda Cellars also broker their own collection of rare and vintage wine—so if you’re in the market for something special, get chatting to the staff behind the counter.
And If You Must Devonshire Tea...
You’re only human, right? Pretty much everyone who visits The Dandenongs heads to Miss Marple’s Tearooms in Sassafras. But with wait-times of up to two hours, and (frankly) average scones, there are better options. Here are a few of our favourites:
It’s not trendy, by any means, but Sassafras Cafe has heart. And you can’t fake that sh*t. The owners are always happy to have a chinwag up at the espresso machine, and the scones are some of the best on the Mountain. Huge and pillowy, still warm from the oven, dusted in flour and served with chilled clotted cream and a homemade berry jam. A popular spot with cyclists.
Photography: Visit Victoria
Cloudhill is worth a pit-stop for the beautiful gardens alone, particularly in autumn when the leaves turn and the whole place transforms into a fiery red wonderland. The Seasons restaurant is a good lunch spot, but we usually swing by for a cheeky scone, jam & cream. You can burn off the calories with a quick walk ‘round the gardens. Admission is $10.
Most drivers will blitz straight past Brunch without giving it a second thought, but experienced locals know better. It’s a cute little cafe on the Mt Dandenong Tourist Rd, between Mt Dandenong and Kalorama. It might not look like much from the outside, but this place has picked up multiple gold medals at the Royal Fine Food Awards. And we reckon it’s the scones that clinch it. About as perfect as Devonshire Tea can get.
Want to road trip in the other direction? Here are the best vintage warehouses in Geelong.
Image credit: WikiCommons