Come the really raw bits of winter, our gut instinct generally tells us to bunker down in our own homes with blanket forts and hot comforting stews. Nothing says 'let's stay home in our pyjamas tonight' like frosty air and something trashy on TV. But don't fret — mini-holidays are still achievable (even in winter) and in Melbourne weekends away are at your fingertips. All you have to do is jump into your car and go for a little spin.
Cold places can make for beaut weekends away, and Melbourne's Dandenong Ranges are a very valid option. Only 35 kilometres east of the CBD, The Hills, as they're affectionately known, will make you feel like you're in a tiny European village at the best of times, or lost in the forest at the worst (hint: take a map with you). Stretching from the southern ranges to Belgrave, the foothills and hilltop villages like Sassafrass and Mount Dandenong, here are some tips for a weekend away in the area filled with woodfires, ferns and a plethora of dessert options.
Heading up to stay a few nights? Feeling cosy in Airbnb cottages are what it's all about up there, so have yourself a gander at this one. Hideaway Cottage is right up the top of the mountain in the area actually called — fittingly enough — Mount Dandenong, and it's a sweet little stone cottage house embodying all things quaint. There's a loft bedroom up a spiral staircase, a fireplace for those wintry times and even a veranda as an added bonus. You'll be sitting out the front wrapped in your blanket cocoon saying things like "this is what life is all about" before you know it — not even minding that your toes have gone a bit numb.
If you want to step it up a notch and go full forest, head up to the Linden Rainforest Retreat; it's also in Mount Dandenong, but a whole level above when it comes to indulgence. You can choose from one of four 'designer suite' retreats, there's room service, and you can even pre-order a cheese platter and/or rose petals to be strewn about your bed before you arrive. It's prime fare for a couple celebrating something special, or just for a single really going for it in the treat yo'self stakes. 100 points for you.
Alternatively, just go bush and camp somewhere in the basically enormous expanse of green camping possibility that the Dandenong Ranges are. There are a bunch of well-equipped camping grounds dotted around the ranges — here's a list to start you off. But a warning to you, the Dandenongs do tend to hover a few degrees lower than the mainland down below at all times, so nights outdoors in winter will be frosty indeed.
EAT AND DRINK
Contrary to popular opinion, it's not all about scones up here. Okay, it is a little bit. A hot tip is avoiding the over-touristy and over-priced Miss Marple's Tearoom in Sassafras and heading a few doors down to Ripe. The café has a produce store attached, a heated deck so you can sit amongst the ferns, and a Devonshire tea that includes a hot drink in the price (unlike Miss Marple's). For those who aren't all about lashings of cream and jam, Ripe also does a solid baguette menu — and it almost goes without saying that the prosciutto, quince paste and brie is the winner over here.
Cafe de Beaumarchais
If you've done a fair whack of walking around the mountainous surroundings, it could be high time for some sweet treats. Café de Beaumarchais (also in Sassafras) has you sorted with a fairly hectic cake display and great coffee, and a general vibe making you feel like you're in a tiny village in France. For heavier fare head to Woods Sherbrooke — the Sri Lankan chef and owner's contemporary Asian menu will warm your belly on a cold winter's night.
Drinking holes are a little harder to come by in the hills, so our first suggestion would be to make a big vat of your own mulled wine and drink it by the fireplace in your cottage. If you're very keen to venture on out, Belgrave is probably the place to go. Sooki Lounge on Burwood Highway isn't the hallmark that the bar it replaced, the famous Ruby's Lounge, once was, but it still does live music and organic tapas. Oscar's Alehouse, also just down the road, is a bit of Brunswick in Belgrave — there's a heap of different craft beers and you can even BYO pizza in.
Getting around in the Dandenongs can be slow-going — thanks to the one-lane Mount Dandenong Tourist Road starting at Tremont and running all the way up to Montrose — so don those old runners, flex your feet and set off on foot. It's like the hills are urging you to go a-hikin' through them, and there's plentiful walks to be done.
A tip is avoiding the tourist-saturated 1000 Steps Walk on a weekend because it ends up being more of a shuffle/whoops-avoid-the-family-of-five-plus-their-dog type affair. Instead, head to the huge RJ Hamer Arboretum in Olinda. Here stand over 150 different types of trees and, when the leaves start to fall in cold weather, it has a real resemblance to Narnia. The National Rhododendron Gardens nearby are also beautiful, covered in colour, and quite hilly so you can get a bit of cardio in at the same time.
Rainier days might see you heading into Belgrave's Cameo Cinemas, an eight-screen effort showing arthouse and cult hits as well as blockbusters, with an outdoor cinema in the warmer months. But if you want some more R&R (that is, if watching the new Tarzan isn't relaxing enough for you), the Japanese Mountain Retreat in Montrose has more mineral springs and massage therapies than you could have time for over a single weekend.
Shopping-wise, Sassafras has options that range from homey and fragrant (Tea Leaves) to tasty pantry things (Cream), to kooky wooden puppets (Geppetto's), if that's your jam. Or, if you're up there between November and April, take home some edible souvenirs from Blue Hills Berries & Cherries by picking your own strawberries, raspberries, or cherries as fresh as they come.
Sherbrooke Falls Trail
ALRIGHT, LET'S DO THIS
Public transport is sparse, but you can jump on a train and take the Belgrave line out to Upper Ferntree Gully Station, then wait for the 688 bus (every half hour or so), which runs along the Mt. Dandenong Tourist Road up the mountain.
The drive is quicker — about 50 minutes from the CBD. The Burwood Highway and Mount Dandenong will take you up there pretty swiftly.