In the Dandenong Ranges, gardens are not just gardens.
They are markers of history, they are backdrops for wining and dining and music, and you can visit many of them in a day.
Among the most stunning spots in the hills is the Alfred Nicholas Memorial Gardens, with its towering mountain ash trees and other exotic and native vegetation.
The garden is named after Alfred Nicholas, who with brother George developed the Aspro painkiller formula, after he bought the land in 1929 and started turning it into what it is today. Alfred died in 1937 and the property had many ownership changes after, falling into disrepair before being taken over by Parks Victoria.
Today, the winding walking paths that lead down to a spectacular ornamental lake and boathouse are easy to navigate for most people.
It’s about 700m to the lake, but there are two options – take the stairs (which is a bit steeper), or the road with its gentle slope.
The lake is the picture-perfect picnic spot, surrounded by waterfalls, water features and greenery.
For just a look around, give yourself about an hour to meander through.
And don’t worry if you don’t pack a picnic, because next to the gardens is Burnham Beeches, the historic property now owned by celebrity chef Shannon Bennett and business partner Adam Garrisson.
Their vision for the whole site is nothing short of extraordinary, and consists of the Piggery Cafe, a rustic but modern place with views of the property.
Grab breakfast or lunch, or have a coffee with a selection from their cakes and baguettes inside.
But don’t fill up too much because there is another garden gem not too far away that is blooming.
Olinda’s Coonara Springs continues to transform into a destination that offers something for everyone.
The 123-year-old, 2.8ha estate – which overlooks the Silvan Dam and Yarra Valley – reopened earlier this year after a three-year makeover thanks to new owners Adam and Sally Whitford.
Over summer, they’ve added live music in the garden on weekends, featuring local acts in genres from jazz to acoustic rock.
Enjoy the sun while relaxing at a table with a glass of wine and a choice of grazing platters – from the meze featuring house-made turkish bread and hummus, labna and eggplant dips, to the more substantial portuguese chicken.
There are bigger communal tables for groups, couches for an even more relaxed afternoon, and all are serviced with a smile.
Then for more outdoor delights, take a quick drive down the road to Cloudehill Gardens.
The gardens started as a flower farm run by the Woolrich family for about 100 years. When Jim Woolrich died in 1991, current owner Jeremy Francis took over and started work on Cloudehill the next year.
And he hasn’t stopped. His passion and dedication to the garden is clear.
From the dwarf kalmia that Jeremy says is the only specimen in Australia, to the magnificent maples and many types of borders , the garden is designed to have something on show year-round.
There are art pieces dotted around, including artist Graeme Foote’s Eminent Australian Women series featuring notable females like Dame Elisabeth Murdoch and Stephanie Alexander.
With a nursery and restaurant also there, it’s easy to while away a few hours.
For theatre and music lovers, there are regular events in the gardens, including OZACT performing Shakespeare’s Macbeth on December 30 and New Year’s Eve.
For a change of pace as you round out the day, take a tranquil walk through William Ricketts Sanctuary in nearby Mt Dandenong.
The 10ha site features a 1.7ha outdoor gallery with more than 90 clay sculptures made by Ricketts and incorporated into the forest of mountain ash trees, ferns and other amazing vegetation.
His work, inspired by his visits to Central Australia and India, reflects on his feelings about nature, people and the earth.
You can walk around the sanctuary by yourself, or hire an audio guide that features recordings from Ricketts.
Whether it’s for some history, some entertainment or just some fresh air – the gardens of the Dandenong Ranges will leave you feeling replenished.
This was originally published as a guest post at visityarravalley.com.au