How to go on a road trip around the Yarra Ranges in Australia

There are multiple ways to drive to the Yarra Valley but there is only one right way: head north from Melbourne and through Kangaroo Ground, a leafy little town where you’re very likely to spot a local marsupial grazing in the paddocks. Why? It’s all about the big reveal, when the trees suddenly thin out and you’re left with the lush, green valley spread out before you, protected by the nearby mountains in a huge natural amphitheatre. All other ways cut through the mountains and take you suddenly into the valley, skipping all the drama.

Paul with Dash and Raff inside the Puffing Billy workshop in Belgrave
Paul with Dash and Raff inside the Puffing Billy workshop in Belgrave

We are on a family road trip, so drama is normally something we avoid, but a drive through the Yarra Ranges is never hard work. Located just an hour northeast of Melbourne, this region, which combines the Yarra Valley — where the mighty Yarra River starts its journey to Melbourne as a mere stream — and the Dandenong Ranges, is dotted with mountain villages that make for perfect weekend retreats. The Yarra Valley is full of top-class wineries and sprawling dairy farms — bucolic pastures with a variety of microclimates that produce a huge array of grape varieties — all protected by the tall mountain ash forests of the Dandenongs. But what was once a haven almost exclusively for wine snobs now offers more variety, from microbreweries and world-beating distillers to vast European-style gardens and gourmet small bars.

Day 1

Pretending to be a galah — a small Australian cockatoo — at Healesville Sanctuary
Pretending to be a galah — a small Australian cockatoo — at Healesville Sanctuary

The goal across our three-day adventure is to keep everyone happy — furry animals for the little kids, local gin and tonics for the big ones. It’s a nice mix that suits everyone, like the road trip playlist that Dashiell and Rafferty — my two sons aged 11 and eight respectively — are curating in the back seat as we hit the switchbacks that wind down into the Yarra Valley. My wife, Adrienne, likes a bit of Aussie band Augie March; creative and a little quirky. I’m straight-up rock ’n’ roll, so it’s You Am I and Royal Blood. Dash is the chatterbox and is into his Aussie hip-hop like Hilltop Hoods. Raff is an old soul who likes prog-rock like Queen. We travel the tree-lined, single-lane Eltham-Yarra Glen Road into the valley, but at the town of Yarra Glen — with a small main street full of old buildings from the era of the Victorian gold rush — we turn left towards Healesville, the area’s biggest town and the starting point for most visitors. Healesville was first settled during the 19th century gold rush and named after then-premier of Victoria, Richard Heales; now, it’s better known as a foodie town, from the small bar called Herd, tucked behind the period shopfronts, to the pick-and-mix menu at urban winery Giant Steps.

But we just need a snack to keep the hangry at bay, so we stop at Habituel Bakery & Coffee Roasters, whose use of wild-yeast fermentation makes the best bread for miles. Raff is our croissant connoisseur and declares these in his top three.

Zoo o’clock

The kangaroos in Healesville
The kangaroos in Healesville

First stop for the kids is Healesville Sanctuary just outside of town. This rural outpost of Zoos Victoria specializes in native animals and is set in a woody wilderness of trails and creek crossings. Dash is our nature boy, spouting off facts about the animals gleaned from school textbooks. “Do you know that koalas only move for two hours a day and sleep for 22?” he asks in his best nature show presenter voice. “That’s because the eucalyptus is really hard to digest!” Raff, meanwhile, loves all things fluffy, so he looks as though he’s hit the jackpot when he finds a baby wombat asleep in its den hugging a teddy bear for comfort.

At the aviary, a sign warns us that the white-eared honeyeater is on the lookout for nesting materials and may try to steal strands of hair. Sure enough, the minute we set foot inside the aviary, the emerald-green bird lands on Dash’s head and starts pulling at his locks, before it starts harassing Adrienne and Raff. My nesting materials had fallen out years ago, so I escape unscathed.

We grab some lunch at the café, check out some more wallabies, Tasmanian devils and tree kangaroos and then head back to the car. Dash has a final fun fact for us: “Did you know the Tassie devil is related to koalas? It’s the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world.” At least he’s paying attention at school.

The rustic farmhouse exterior of the Yarra Valley Dairy
The rustic farmhouse exterior of the Yarra Valley Dairy

Gin o’clock for the grown-ups

After the local fauna, we now catch some of the local flora — in a glass. Four Pillars Gin, the Yarra Valley’s award-winning distillery, puts quandong (native peach) and macadamia nuts into its Modern Australian gin. We do a quick tasting on a long table full of aromatic dried herbs used in the gin’s production; some of the gins here don’t even require tonic and are sipped neat instead. In a valley known for its wine — particularly those made with the signature Chardonnay grape — the Four Pillars guys are a welcome breath of fresh air.

Adrienne winding the day down at Banyon Park with a glass of wine
Adrienne winding the day down at Banyon Park with a glass of wine

As the sun comes down, we race to catch the farmhouse shop at Yarra Valley Dairy. The valley was home to cattle ranchers long before the winemakers moved in, and this handmade cheese shop is bringing cheese back in a big way; the must-have here is their trademark Persian fetta. Cheese requires wine, so we pick up some Italian reds at Soumah, a small, privately owned winery in a section of the Yarra Valley where the paddocks start turning into hills — the view from Soumah alone is worth it — then it’s back in the car and off to our night’s accommodation.

We are staying in Banyon Park, a property listed on Youcamp, a kind of Airbnb for farmlands. It helps farmers earn a bit of extra cash, and gives campers access to some amazing private plots of land for the night. We’ve passed on the option to pitch a tent and instead are staying in an on-site Winnebago, one of the glamping options.

Roasting marshmallows over a fire at Banyon Park
Roasting marshmallows over a fire at Banyon Park

Banyon Park has some of the best views of the Yarra Valley I have ever seen, and owners Carole and Garry Baxter have given us a rundown on the personalities of all the nearby farm animals. The goats, horses and sheep are friendly, but the bull isn’t a big fan of humans so we give him a wide berth in his own private paddock. Our  “Winnie”, the couple’s mobile home when they travel Australia, is massive and is perfectly placed to catch the setting sun over the valley; the feeling of space is incredible and Adrienne, who is not the biggest fan of city living at the best of times, looks instantly relaxed now that she has her country hit. We crack the red, open the cheese and a few assorted snacks and then turn in for the night.

Day 2

For our second day in the valley, we decide to copy the previous day’s pattern: run Dash and Raff ragged somewhere in the morning — young boys are a bit like puppies in that respect, so we front-load the physical activity — then pursue grown-up activities as the day winds down. The spot for the kids to expend some energy, Alowyn Gardens, is the brainchild of architect and landscape gardener John Van de Linde and his wife Prue. John had come to Australia from the Netherlands, bringing with him that country’s strong tradition of curated European gardens; formal arrangements that he applied to local Australian trees and shrubs, as well as some imports. When John and Prue found Alowyn, it was just a neglected stud farm, and John went to work creating birch and casuarina forests, a parterre or formal garden and the country’s largest Japanese wisteria arbor — perfect for a long, dramatic wedding entrance march — that makes it a huge hit with the Yarra bridal crowd. While the kids explore the various gardens, Adrienne and I conserve energy, sipping coffee in the quirky café decorated with hanging gourds harvested from the gardens.

It's great to see the kids getting as much pleasure from piling up sticks as they do from playing games in Roblox
It’s great to see the kids getting as much pleasure from piling up sticks as they do from playing games in Roblox

Wine stop

For lunch we drive over to Rochford Wines, one of the classic big wine producers that made the Yarra Valley region famous. The vineyards are also well-known across Victoria as the site of A Day on the Green concerts that sell out each year. At the winery’s restaurant, we feast on sharing plates of  jalapeño and smoked cheddar croquettes, delicious ’nduja (spreadable Italian salumi) and a terrine. Suitably fed, we climb to the Rochford lookout and wander the grounds where Dash and Raff spot the place where we slid on our stomachs in the mud at last year’s A Day on the Green. I sense an annual family tradition in the making.

Meal prep in the Rochford Wines kitchen
Meal prep in the Rochford Wines kitchen

After lunch, we begin our drive up into the Dandenong Ranges, the range of mountains that joins to the Yarra Valley and is just as jam-packed with farm gate produce and killer bakeries (but minus the wineries). This is road trip heaven, with windy roads and some seriously steep drops making for a dramatic drive, and every few kilometers you find a small mountain town.

Our base for the night is Beechmont Garden Retreat in Olinda, a mountain getaway owned by Melbourne florist Cherrie Miriklis-Pavlou of Flowers Vasette (there are fresh blooms and bouquets in every room). This country estate is set on 4ha of gardens with a sloping lawn at the rear of the house leading down to a pond, and the property is protected by stands of mountain ash, blackwood wattles and beeches that swallow up the boys for the rest of the afternoon. It’s great to see the kids getting as much pleasure from piling up sticks as they do from playing games in Roblox, and as we wander around, it’s a good time to chat with the kids without the pressure of the daily grind. These light and happy conversations are what Adrienne and I live for.

Enjoying the analog life with a game in the great outdoors
Enjoying the analog life with a game in the great outdoors

The house has a welcome pack from Sassafras Providore that takes care of afternoon snacks and dinner (with our leftover wine from the valley). The kids love their room, decorated with pages of superhero comics, and the adults love that the kids fall asleep quickly, tired from a big day out. Adrienne, the reader of the family, curls up in the library (with books arranged by color) and I start a fire.

Day 3

Waking up in the palatial surrounds of Beechmont Gardens, I can almost imagine a different life for the kids. It’s about this time I start the conversation with Adrienne about a tree change, but then she reminds me that I do love the city too much; the back-alley bars and live music venues of Melbourne. We rally the troops and head out for breakfast instead.

Fresh orchard loot
Fresh orchard loot

Did I mention that Raff likes croissants? I expect him to go absolutely nuts at Proserpina Bakehouse, a bakery set in a former nursery and a passion project of Gary Cooper and Carolyn Deutsher, who ran a series of fine diners in the Dandenongs before deciding they wanted to redefine the country bakery. Proserpina mills its own flour on site and keeps the germ of the wheat that the commercial flours discard; the result is better colors
and flavors to the incredible baked goods here.

“Gary has added some extra butter to the croissants this morning,” Carolyn informs us, and Raff looks like a kid let loose in toy store. We get some plain croissants and breakfast pizzas and discover the best pain au chocolat we’ve ever had. Raff is convinced it’s the extra butter that does it.

Checking out the fine selection of cheese and baked goods at Yarra Valley Dairy
Checking out the fine selection of cheese and baked goods at Yarra Valley Dairy

Riding the rails

We drive down a winding road to the foot of the mountains where we swap our car for a train ride. The must-do kiddie activity in the Dandenong Ranges is Puffing Billy, a famous steam locomotive (actually a few different ones on rotation) that climbs the fern-covered rail line up into the Dandenongs. Puffing Billy is a Melbourne legend — it became a day-trip destination in the 1900s until a landslide, a common occurrence in the hilly Dandenongs, closed the line in the 1950s. It was the passion of volunteers that saw this small-gauge rail line open once again from 1962, and it is volunteers that keep Puffing Billy chugging along today.

Dash in the Puffing Billy dining car
Dash in the Puffing Billy dining car

Just about every kid in Melbourne has done the trip once in their life, with legs dangling out the window, and ash flying past as the vintage engine worked hard on the climbs. We get a special tour of the Puffing Billy workshop, where we can see the engines being repaired, and we see a tiny engine that sometimes gets dressed up as Thomas the Tank Engine at weekends. Today we’re doing lunch in the period dining cars of the Steam & Cuisine Luncheon train — these decommissioned passenger carriages once traveled the West Coast Wilderness Railway in Tasmania. Now you can relive the romance of old-school travel and enjoy three-course meals as the train winds up the famous Puffing Billy small-gauge track. We’re thrown back in time as our meals are delivered amid the swaying motion of the carriages; the interior decked out with curtains and swinging lanterns made to recreate the golden age of rail travel.

A stunning sunset view of the valley
A stunning sunset view of the valley

Nearby, we have a plan to work off our meal. Trees Adventure is a zip-lining and rope-climbing adventure that sees you swinging through the Dandenong forest and shimmying through aerial courses. We split up: Dash and I head for the high courses; Adrienne and Raff for the lower-down options. By the end of the two-hour session, my arms are burning, but the kids are keen to do it all again.

It is time to go, however, and we drive out of the mountains and into the Melbourne suburbs. We are home in less than an hour, and already making plans to return; the Yarra Ranges are like that, easy to explore and hard to forget.

. . .

The ultimate family trip guide: Paul and Adrienne’s road rules

  1. No screens. This might sound like a recipe for disaster, but it has taught our kids to look out the window and see more. The only exception is for updating the roadtrip playlist.
  2. Fed and watered. There’s nothing worse than hitting the highway only to hear, “I’m thirsty/hungry”. Make the kids fill a backpack with snacks and water, and have it on standby in the car.
  3. Do some research. Kids are impatient, so know where you are going, and what you want to see there, so you can hit the ground running.
  4. Play some games. Get everyone in the car to put in a single word into Spotify to see what song comes up (be wary of some of the more expletive-laden options).

. . .

Check out these spots for your own Yarra adventure

Getting a workout in at Trees Adventure
Getting a workout in at Trees Adventure

Habituel Bakery & Coffee Roasters. 314 Maroondah Hwy, Healesville; habituel.com.au

Healesville. Sanctuary Badger Creek Rd, Badger Creek; zoo.org.au/healesville

Four Pillars Gin. 2A Old Lilydale Rd, Healesville; fourpillarsgin.com.au

Yarra Valley Dairy. 70–80 McMeikans Rd, Yering; yvd.com.au

Soumah. 18 Hexham Rd, Gruyere; soumah.com.au

Alowyn Gardens. 1210 Melba Hwy, Yarra Glen; alowyngardens.com.au

Rochford Wines. 878–880 Maroondah Hwy, Coldstream; rochfordwines.com.au

Valley Ranges Getaways (Beechmont Garden Retreat). vrgetaways.com.au

Proserpina Bakehouse. 361 Mount Dandenong Tourist Rd, Sassafras

Trees Adventure. Old Monbulk Rd, Belgrave; treesadventure.com.au

Go Wild Ballooning. gowildballooning.com.au

This article first appeared in the November 2018 issue of Smile magazine.

Written by

Paul Chai

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