Yarra Valley and Dandenongs
A totally different perspective awaits visitors on the circle tour east from Melbourne through tall timber country, which includes some of Australia's best eucalypt forests and vast stands of mountain ash, the world's largest flowering tree. The road through Eltham and Yarra Glen passes through the Yarra Valley wine region. Much of the Dandenongs, the Yarra Valley and the high country farther north has been planted over time with European trees which create a riot of colour in autumn (fall) from about April.
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The Yarra Valley is a haven for wine buffs with 35 wineries open for tastings and cellar door sales. Many of the vineyards have won national and international acclaims for quality. Top wineries include the joint venture with the French Champagne house of Moet et Chandon, Domaine Chandon, and top Australian names such as Coldstream and De Bortoli. Born of the area's reputation as a wine producer, gourmet restaurants featuring the best of local produce abound. The Yarra Valley Dairy, incorporating a restaurant in an old dairy building, produces more than 20 varieties of hand-made cheese, which many visitors claim rival the best in France and Italy.
Healesville Sanctuary, 60km east of Melbourne, is great way to meet the fascinating, often strange birds and animals of Australia. A highlight of any trip to the Yarra Valley, Healesville Sanctuary has more than 200 species living in a bushland setting. Kangaroos, wallabies and emus wander the grounds. Presentations are held throughout the day to introduce visitors to unique creatures like the koala, platypus and wombat. Healesville was established in 1934 and many of its inhabitants were born there. It is famous for its work with the platypus. Open daily from 9am to 5pm.
A 16km side trip to Toolangi township through the Toolang State Forest is well worth the drive if time permits to see the Toolangi Forest Discovery Centre, Toolangi Pottery and the Singing Gardens of CJ Dennis, a memorial to one of Australia's great writers.
The tour route continues to Marysville and Steavenson's Falls. At 80 metres it is Victoria's highest waterfall, floodlit at night. Marysville is the hub for 3 beautiful forest drives - the Black Spur, Lady Talbot Forest Drive and the Acheron Way. Marysville is also the gateway to a major cross-country skiing region in winter. There are more than 40km of groomed ski trails.
The road turns south at Cumberland Junction then west to return to Melbourne through Warburton with its scenic lookout at Mt Donna Buang. Much of it travels though the Yarra Ranges National Park and the scenery is spectacular. Half way to Lilydale at Woori Yallock a branch road turns south leading through the equally beautiful Dandenong Ranges National Park, looping north through Mt Dandenong and Olinda to Lilydale.
The Dandenongs have long been a very popular getaway for people living in Melbourne, and is thick with cafes, restaurants and small art and craft galleries. It is a garden lover's delight with 5 of Melbourne's Great Gardens and countless private ones surrounded by bushland. The cool climate suits many European varieties as well as Australian natives. Many city dwellers treat themselves to lunch in the Dandenongs. Only an hour's drive from Melbourne, the area is easy to get to, especially on the Burwood Highway through Upper Ferntree Gully.
Famous gardens abound in the Dandenong area. One of the finest formal gardens is the Alfred Nicholas Memorial Gardens in Sherbrooke Road, Sherbrooke. Originally part of the home estate Burnham Beeches, was owned by the family which developed the world famous Aspro analgesic, this 13 hectare site is open daily. The William Ricketts Sanctuary is a relatively small but very interesting combination of native and exotic plants growing together on a hillside. About 3km away at Olinda on the border of the Olinda State Forest is one of the greatest exotic (foreign) shrub gardens in Australia. The National Rhododendron Gardens in The Georgian Road include 15,000 rhododendron plants, 12,000 azaleas and 3000 camellias.
Train buffs and children of all ages will just love a trip on Puffing Billy, the only survivor of several narrow-gauge steam trains, which connected Melbourne with nearby country areas at the end of the 1800s. It generally runs 3 or 4 times a day from a special station at Belgrave, a short walk from the last stop on the Belgrave suburban train route running east from the city. Puffing Billy runs to Emerald Lakeside Park (1 hour one-way) or makes a longer trip to Gembrook (1 hour 45 minutes). It makes an intermediate stop at Menzies Creek, which has a steam train museum open on weekends and public holidays. The Emerald Lake Model Railway at Lakeside Park is the largest in Australia with more than 2km of track. Puffing Billy steam locomotives have to be replaced with diesels at times when there is a danger of bushfires.