Twenty reasons to love the Dandenongs

1. EXPLORE: THE RANGES

No other Australian capital can boast such a wealth of attractive towns and regions so readily accessible from it than Melbourne. But while the likes of the Mornington Peninsula, the Goldfields and the Yarra Valley have won the hearts of many an interstate visitor, the Dandenong Ranges, by contrast, have failed to register. Nowadays, with a range, as it were, of better places to eat and stay, the Dandenongs, just an hour from Melbourne, will do just dandy, thanks. See visitdandenongranges.com.au

2. DRIVE: THE ROADS

Motoring around the Dandenongs remains a real pleasure of any visit. It's fairly hard to get lost in the ranges since it's dominated by Mount Dandenong Tourist Road, which runs right through the heart of the ranges, and its off-shoots thoroughfares. Don't forget to wind down the windows of your vehicle to take in the fragrance of the forest and the sounds of its birds. If you've driven from Melbourne consider taking a different route back to the big smoke to fully appreciate the area. See visitdandenongranges.com.au

3. STAY: VALLEY RANGES GETAWAYS

The best way to experience the delights of the Dandenongs, which has been for too long relegated to day-trip status, is to stay in one of the many gorgeous, and often historic, houses nestled in superb bushland and formal garden settings. Book with Valley Ranges Getaways, a highly-professional operation which manages, with a few hotel-style touches, high-standard private homes for local owners. See vrgetaways.com.au

4. VISIT: THE VILLAGES

It's no surprise that one of the favourite pastimes for visitors to the Dandenongs is "village-hopping". The ranges, after all, are dotted with a chain of charming, if at times a tad twee, villages and hamlets brimful of restaurants, cafes and shops, all of which, including Sassafras and Olinda, are situated in delightful settings. A good time to visit the villages is during the week when there are fewer day-trippers from Melbourne and when you'll get a better opportunity to commune with the locals. See visitdandenongranges.com.au

5. STAY: BEECHMONT GARDEN RETREAT

Described as a sophisticated "country house" and owned by Cherrie Mirikilis-Pavlou, owner of Melbourne's Flowers Vassette florist in inner-city Fitzroy, the four-bedroom Beechmont is one of the many private houses in the Dandenongs available to visitors to stay in. Located just outside of the Olinda township and including a large and magnificent garden, it may also be the best. See vrgetaways.com.au

6. EAT: THE PIGGERY CAFE

Many of the stuck-in-the-mud (or is it sty?) locals fail to appreciate it, but the relatively recent arrival of Melbourne star chef Shannon Bennett in the Dandenongs is exactly what the rather dowdy, at times, region needed. Housed in a former piggery and stables, Bennett's cafe at Sherbrooke is part of the Burnham Beeches estate where a famous art deco hotel is being slowly restored. Serving sophisticated city-style comfort food in a gorgeous bucolic setting, the Piggery Cafe quickly, and rightly, become the place for breakfast and lunch in the Dandenongs these days. And another revolution awaits the Dandenongs once Burnham Beeches is finally opened. See piggerycafe.com.au

7. MARVEL: MOUNTAIN ASH TREES

The Dandenongs are dominated and distinguished by this towering species of eucalypt trees, native to southeastern Australia and Tasmania. Along with billowing ferns, the trees line every main road in the Dandenongs and make for a sublime natural setting for visitors and locals alike. One of the world's tallest trees, mountain ash, or eucalyptus regnans, can grow nearly 100 metres, though usually to about 85 metres. See visitdandenongranges.com.au

8. OBSERVE: WILDLIFE

The Dandenongs is a haven for wildlife, particularly for birds. It's not uncommon to wake up at your accommodation to the unmistakable cackle of multiple kookaburras lined up along a rustic wooden fence outside. Keep an eye out, too, for parrots, including crimson rosellas, lyrebirds wombats, wallabies, possums, and, if you're really fortunate, platypus. See parkweb.vic.gov.au; See visitdandenongranges.com.au

9. DINE: COONARA SPRINGS

This is oldest restaurant in the Dandenongs, and it may possibly also be one of the oldest in Australia with origins that can be traced dating back to the late 19th century. Coonara Springs is conveniently just down the road from the aforementioned Beechmont and, below, Moorabina, is set in a historic weatherboard house two-sided open fireplaces. The unpretentious, though skilled, cooking, is as fine as the views. There's no better, or classier, place in the Dandenongs at which to linger over a languid lunch and a fine Victorian drop than here. See coonarasprings.com

10. VISIT: COOL CLIMATE GARDENS

Although the densely-vegetated Dandenongs is effectively one giant garden, the region is graced by a plethora of impressive formal gardens with access for the public that thrive in the cool mountain conditions. These include the National Rhododendron Gardens, the George Tindale Memorial Garden, Cloudhill and the William Ricketts Sanctuary, considered the most iconic of them all. See visitdandenongranges.com.au

11. EAT PROSERPINA BAKERY

On the site of an erstwhile nursery in the main drag of the village Sassafras this bakery and cafe, with a focus on artisinal-style organic breads, opened only earlier this year. Aside from those loaves, you can also buy pastries, pies, sausage rolls and soups. The wheat used for the bread comes from southern NSW and was once judged by the CSIRO to be the most nutritional in Australia. See visitdandenongranges.com.au

12. VISIT: ART COMMUNITIES

The beauty and quietude of the Dandenongs have long been an attractive lure for artists to the ranges. Each year in May, Dandenong Ranges Open Studios allows visitors to interact with emerging and experienced artists and craftsmen and women right across the region. The event, which has been running for more than a decade and includes a month-long group exhibition, is held in Burrinja. See visitdandenongranges.com.au

13. EAT: RIPE CAFE

There's no shortage in the Dandenongs of quaint cafes serving Devonshire teas to eager day-trippers. But if you're staying here overnight or, ideally, a little longer you'll find this cosy, no-nonsense cafe a good breakfast option. Popular with locals and not just tourists, Ripe Cafe is located on the main street of the village of Sassafras. See ripecafe.net

14. STAY: MOORABINDA

Robin Boyd was the acclaimed Melbourne architect who authored the seminal book from the early 1960s, The Australian Ugliness. But there's nothing that could be considered unsightly about this three-bedroom hillside house, next door to the Coonara Springs restaurant, which Boyd designed in 1962 at Olinda and which guests can nowadays stay and experience. Characterised by open interior spaces and lavish floor-to-ceiling windows designed to allow the outside world and light to filter in, it was in its day a revolutionary modern house. Architecture buffs will love it. See vrgetaways.com.au; robinboyd.org.au

15. VISIT: CUCKOO RESTAURANT

If you fancy a taste of the Dandenongs of yore then pop in for a gander at the Cuckoo Restaurant right at the opposite end of the dining spectrum to new generation places like The Piggery and The Independent (see below). Christmas in July is big in the Dandenongs and nowhere is it more enthusiastically celebrated than here at the Bavarian-style Cuckoo Restaurant which dates to the late '50s. See cuckoorestaurant.com.au

16. DETOUR: THE YARRA VALLEY

Even though they neighbour each other, the Yarra Valley, with is acclaimed wineries and hatted restaurants, has robbed the Dandenongs of much of the attention once afforded it. But these days it's a snitch to combine both stunning regions on a visit and using one or the other as a base for exploration. See visitdandenongranges.com.au

17. RIDE: THE PUFFING BILLY

Aside from its glorious natural setting, the one attraction for which the Dandenongs is renowned is this world-class, and extremely well-operated, tourist train that puffs and steams its way for 24 kilometres from Belgrave to Emerald or Gembrook. Despite being known as a daytime attraction, nowadays you can experience the Puffing Billy by night. Steam & Cuisine After Dark allows passengers to dine aboard the train in restored first-class carriages well after the last of the tourists have headed home. See puffingbilly.com.au

18. TOUR: PRIVATE GARDENS

Each October, as part of the "Secret Gardens of the Dandenong Ranges" event, many of the owners of Dandenong's impressive private homes open their gates and allow the public in for a stroll around their botanic treasures. Those who sign up and take part to experience these showpiece gardens are fortunate since for the rest of the year are largely hidden behind hedges and fences. See visitdandenongranges.com.au

19. THE INDEPENDENT RESTAURANT AND BAR

The Independent, located in Gembrook just across from the main station for the Puffing Billy tourist train, is just the thing you thought you didn't need: an Argentine restaurant set in a cavernous former mechanics shop. But this is one of the few Dandenong entries in the Good Food Guide, published by The Sydney Morning Herald. See visitdandenongranges.com.au

20. ADMIRE: THE VIEWS

At 633 metres above sea-level at its highest point, the Dandenongs is home to many easily-accessed lookouts where superb views of Melbourne and its surrounding Port Phillip Bay can be savoured. One of the most popular, and touristy, viewing spots is SkyHigh Mount Dandenong which also includes a restaurant, maze and forest walk. See skyhighmtdandenong.com.au; See visitdandenongranges.com.au

Anthony Dennis was a guest of Yarra Ranges Tourism, Visit Victoria and Valley Ranges Getaways