Big news!

I’ve been a bit quiet for a while, but now I’m excited to announce that I’m ramping up my freelance side biz, and have just launched my new website – zoewrites.com.au. 

I am focusing on content creation and editing/proofreading, but I’m open to all types of related projects, so get in touch if I can help you out!

I won’t be updating this site much anymore, all new content will be featured at Zoe Writes. So make sure you check it out!

Get moving with Museum Moves

FORGET the gym and yoga studio, the latest place to get your morning workout is at Melbourne Museum.

Museum Moves is an innovative exercise program which sees people doing stretches, sprints, push-ups and pliés among the exhibits.

Exercise instructor Jo Lloyd leads groups of up to 20 people through dance, yoga and traditional moves — all before the museum opens to the public.

Museums Victoria chief executive Lynley Marshall said the “original and energising” program was part of a strategy to maximise exciting and stimulating experiences at the iconic attraction, and to attract diverse groups of people.

Phillip Adams BalletLab developed the program, and artistic director Phillip Adams described it as a “creatively aerobic workout” with art, history and exercise rolled into one.

I was lucky enough to participate in a class this week — and was it a workout!

We warmed up by stretching in the shadows of the massive whale vertebrae.

We made moves in the Wild room with hundreds of stuffed animals seemingly watching on, which was slightly unnerving!

We did sprints of the museum’s corridors.

The railing in the Forest Gallery was used for barre ballet moves, and we cooled down among the trees as the sun came up.

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Exercise instructor Jo Lloyd. Picture: Melbourne Museum

The hour-long sessions are suitable for any fitness standard.

I’m not overly fit and I survived, and I had a smile on my face the whole time.

Breakfast is included and comes in a handy takeaway box in case you have to head off to work.

The sessions run this week, Tuesday to Thursday from 7.15am for a 7.30am start.

Details: 13 11 02.

Up, up and away with Global Ballooning

Floating through the clear sky over the Yarra Valley, I can’t help but feel completely at peace.

Breathing in the crisp but not overly cold air, taking in the amazing views, snapping photo after photo.

But this was not the feeling I had before taking off with Global Ballooning.

Before the trip, I was excited, of course, but slightly nervous.

I’m quite scared of heights. And going up in the air in a balloon was slightly unnerving.

I got the call-up the day before to say I’d be flying.

The email came through with specific instructions to check in the night before to make sure I had the most up-to-date weather information (the pilots liaise with the Bureau of Meteorology) and so I could leave my contact details.

A word of warning – read the instructions properly and make sure you follow them!

I think I was one of THOSE people who didn’t, and ended up calling a few numbers (very early) the next morning to ensure the flight was still on.

And it IS an early morning – Global suggests checking their website again about 4.15am to get the final flight information.

And then it was out to the meeting spot – Balgownie Estate in Yarra Glen – for the 5.40am leaving time.

After checking in and getting final directions from our crew, our group of about 14 boarded a minibus bound for our take-off spot.

Just outside Yarra Glen, in a paddock that was still in pre-sunrise darkness, we stood in groups as the crew tested the wind’s speed and direction by releasing small helium balloons into the sky.

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Given all manner of technology these days I found that quite funny.

We were told the wind direction and speed can vary at different altitudes, so pilots use that  to determine which way they will fly and to move the balloon – which is “lighter than air” – to where they want.

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Then the balloons (three on this morning) were slowly inflated.

We were told there was some audience participation along the way, so some people helped the crew get the balloons ready.

As we got into the basket (also known as a gondola) we were told to stay in the same spot so the balloon could be configured based on the weight.

And to anyone thinking these baskets are flimsy – they are anything but.

A few more instructions, including what to do when we landed, and it was time for lift-off.

By this stage, all the nervousness had disappeared as we started to float over the picturesque valley.

Over vineyards, paddocks, the Yarra River, Yarra Glen Racecourse.

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We saw kangaroos hopping through fields, and they even stopped to take in the sight of our balloon floating above them.

We went over houses on the outskirts of Yarra Glen, waving to people in their backyards.

Our pilot Grega (pictured) controlled the altitude of the balloon with carefully timed blasts of the stainless steel LPG burners.

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He was also in constant radio contact with the crews of the other balloons, and monitoring the conditions.

One of the interesting things while in the air is that the temperature varies depending on altitude, but isn’t too much different to that on the ground.

Luckily on this morning, the temperature was in the mid-teens, and with the burners going plus no wind chill, it was a comfortable ride.

There were quite a few photo opportunities, too, as we got pictures taken of the group by Global’s camera tethered outside the basket.

But you can bring your own camera as well and take as many photos as you want – just make sure you don’t drop any equipment over the edge!

The flight went for about an hour but the time flew by (pardon the pun), because before I knew it, we were landing.

We took our landing positions and with a gentle bump we came back to earth.

A couple of people got out of the balloon at a time so as not to upset the balance or cause it to fly off.

There is a reason you shouldn’t wear shoes too stylish – we landed back in the paddock, which I soon found out was full of cow poo!

And after landing was also where the audience participation came back into play.

We all helped put the balloon back into its covering, which I likened to trying to stuff a massive sleeping bag back into its case.

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Helping pack up. Photo: Global Ballooning

By the time that was done, we had definitely earned breakfast.

We got driven back to Balgownie Estate, where a buffet champagne breakfast was waiting for us.

We chowed down on bacon and eggs with all the extras, plus pastries, cereals, Nespresso coffee and other refreshments.

And we got to view the photos that were taken on our flight, which are available on USB to buy.

I left the experience with a head full of amazing memories and a belly full of delicious food.

And for anyone thinking twice about getting in a hot air balloon, conquer those fears and take a ride – it will be a trip you’ll never forget!

This post was originally posted at visityarravalley.com.au

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Up,up and away! Picture: Global Ballooning

 

 

Bowling up for breakfast + a FREE recipe!

I have not always been a breakfast person. I never really skipped it, but I always used to have the same thing and was not fussed about it.

But now it’s my favourite meal of the day, and I love new ideas to try.

Enter Breakfast Bowls, a new book by Melbourne author and nutritionist Caroline Griffiths.

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Caroline believes breakfast sets you up for the day, and encourages people who don’t normally eat it to try it out.

“Even if you’re rushing during the week, it’s still nice to be able to give yourself a chance to enjoy breakfast, and with a little bit of forethought it can set you up for a beautiful day,” she said.

“It might be a big step for someone, but think about enjoying it and it fuelling your body and your mind.”

With that in mind, there are 52 recipes in the book, ranging from smoothie bowls with different fruits, to seed and grain bowls like chia puddings, and savoury options like a smoked salmon salad bowl.

And there are some recipes out of the box – how about some orange blossom bread and butter pudding, or morning coffee oatmeal?

Many can be made the night before, so people can still enjoy some extra sleep in the morning.

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Caroline’s personal breakfast favourites are smoothie bowls, porridge, and asian-style breakfasts like pho and congee.

“Porridge… can be boring but you can jazz it up so many ways – with stewed fruit, and I make my own muesli so there’s something crunchy to add to the top,” she said.

Caroline caters for people with different diets, including vegan, and gluten, dairy and grain-free. All of the recipes are free of refined sugar.

Breakfast Bowls (Smith Street Books, RRP $29.99) is Caroline’s second book, coming about a year after her debut, Incredible Bakes, which also showcases refined-sugar-free recipes.

She has contributed to many cookbooks, food magazines and other projects for more than 25 years and also previously worked for the Australian Women’s Weekly.

For anyone who follows me on Instagram, you might have seen me cook up the strawberry and rose chia pudding bowl.

And you are in luck, because Caroline has generously allowed me to share the recipe with you! So here it is:

Ingredients

  • 125 g (4½ oz) strawberries, hulled
  • 60 g (2 oz/₁/3 cup) chia seeds
  • 20 g (¾ oz/¼ cup) shredded coconut
  • 250 ml (8½ fl oz/1 cup) fresh or unsweetened coconut water (or water)
  • 100 ml (3½ fl oz) tinned coconut milk
  • 1 teaspoon rose water, plus more if required

To serve

  • sliced strawberries
  • pomegranate seeds
  • shaved fresh or dried coconut
  • fresh or dried rose petals
  • chopped pistachios

Method

  • Place the strawberries in a mixing bowl and crush with the back of a fork until roughly mashed and very juicy.
  • Add the chia seeds, shredded coconut, coconut water, coconut milk and rose water and stir well.
  • Cover and refrigerate for at least 1–2 hours or overnight, stirring occasionally, until thickened. If the pudding becomes too thick, thin with a little water, coconut milk or coconut water to the consistency you like.
  • Taste the pudding and, if necessary, add a little more rose water to balance the flavour to your liking.
  • Serve the chia pudding into bowls and top with the strawberries, pomegranate seeds, coconut, rose petals and pistachios.

Makes 4

Refined-sugar free | Vegan | Gluten free | Grain free

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Strawberry and rose chia pudding bowl. Picture: Chris Middleton/Breakfast Bowls

Main picture credit: Richard Serong/News Corp

Have an ale of a time in the Yarra Valley

The Yarra Valley is one of Australia’s most popular wine regions but the area is also ripe for cider and beer-lovers to get their fill of top brews.

And for people who aren’t sure where to start, the Cider & Ale Trail is the perfect way to sample the wares of 11 local spots, all within a 20km radius.

One of the more well-known locations on the trail is Kellybrook Winery, which is known for its vino, but its Kelly Brothers Cider and Riders Brew Co beer are just as popular.dscn5310

Attentive staff provide tastings to everyone from tour groups to hens parties and they know their stuff.

Forget the commercial ciders that are packed with sugar and flavours, the Kelly Brothers’ cider takes up to six pieces of fruit to make each bottle.

They have the traditional method sparkling cider (formerly known as the champagne cider) which is fermented in the bottle, plus apple and pear varieties.

The Kelly brothers, Phil and Gus, added beer to their repertoire in 2014, and they now have their Easy Rider golden ale, the Loose Trucks porter, Pale Rider rye pale ale and XPA India pale ale.

It’s easy to spend a whole day there, with sprawling gardens including a 120-year-old oak tree another drawcard.

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But for more cider and beer, head to Coldstream Brewery.

The place has become so popular they no longer have the room to brew on site but the drinks are still true to the original recipes.

A $12 tasting paddle gets you samples of their Czech pilsener, golden ale, Australian pale ale, grand porter, and apple and pear ciders (as shown in the main story image!).

The brewery also has a specialty beer, which at the moment is a German-style Hefeweizen.

For another drinks stop, which also has amazing food options, Hargreaves Hill in Yarra Glen is a great option.

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The cellar door and restaurant has been in the town’s main street since 2007 and has gone from strength to strength despite the original brewery in Steels Creek being destroyed in the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.

Their meals feature amazing local produce and range from snacks, to fresh and healthy options, a variety of burgers, and mains.

It was hard to go past specials like handmade gnocchi with wild mushrooms and goat’s cheese, and scotch fillet steak.

Wash it down with a tasting paddle of Hargreaves Hill beers, featuring a golden ale, Hefeweizen, pale ale, extra special bitter, Abbey Dubbel and the 9.6 per cent Phoenix.

The cider and ale trail also includes smaller establishments like Buckley’s Brewery in Healesville.

Owner Brendan Murnane is basically living any beer-lover’s dream – to turn his home-brewing passion into his job.

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He didn’t have any interest in beer until about six years ago when he got into craft brews.

Mr Murnane and wife Julie took over Buckley’s Brewery – housed in an industrial space – about a year ago, in a move he described as “serendipitous”.

A family member had sat next to the brewery owner’s wife at a fundraising event and they got talking, leading to the opportunity to buy the place.

Mr Murnane has played around with a few of the beer recipes, and currently offers four types – an English pale ale, a pilsener, a bitter and a dark bock – which you can sample on a $10 tasting paddle.

Mr Murnane still works his day job in sales but hopes to make the move to the brewery full-time in the next few years.

His dog Missy is already a regular fixture at the establishment.

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Another small gem on the trail, a few minutes’ walk down the road, is Watts River Brewing.

Watts River’s cellar door has only been open for a few months, and is brought to you by Aaron Malmborg and Ben Hamilton, brewers who went out on their own after their former employer, the White Rabbit Brewery, moved to Geelong.

They have just started brewing on site and have three beers on tap to sample – a blonde, an IPA and a stout.

The brewery is full of eclectic furniture, including a pianola which got a good workout from punters while we were there.

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Now if you’re getting peckish after the drink samples, the Public Brewery in Croydon has the answer.

With plenty of indoor and outdoor space, it’s an ideal place to relax with friends and some food.

Think snacks like southern fried chicken, mains like beer-battered fish and chips and a lamb salad with flatbread and mint yoghurt, and substantial sharing plates.

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And you can not only drink beer there, you can brew your own, too!

Sessions on Thursdays to Sundays take a few hours to brew a batch which makes about five slabs of beer, and then you can go back about a month later for bottling.

They also have a bottle shop full of local and interstate beers, wines and spirits.

There is so much cider and beer to try in the Yarra Valley that it is worth more than just a day trip, but what better excuse to spend more time in this beautiful part of the world?

I was a guest of Yarra Ranges Tourism and visityarravalley.com.au, and my guest post can be found here.

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Nat Kringoudis: a collective approach to health

Nat Kringoudis is a doctor of Chinese medicine, an acupuncturist, author, speaker and natural fertility expert – and she is one busy woman.

In between jetting (or driving) off for regional stops of her Wellness Collective Tour, she runs the online Wellness Collective community, has recently launched a line of nut mixes (cheekily titled Yo’ Nuts) and has also brought out a collection of inspirational cards.

That’s also while she runs her acupuncture clinic The Pagoda Tree.

It’s a wonder she had time to sit down to chat with me, but I’m very grateful she did!

I’ve been a fan of Nat’s for a few years and have previously had some treatments at her clinic.

I love how she tells it like it is and is about empowering women to give them as much information as possible so they can make their own decisions on their health, particularly when it comes to fertility and hormones.

“I felt women had pieces of the puzzle when it came to their health… they might have known they had PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), fertility problems. There’s a couple of things they need to do but haven’t figured out why that’s happening,” she said

“The issues I was seeing from a (gynaecological/obstetrics) point of view were new and not anything that was being taught in tertiary-level education. So I decided it was time to do more research.”

Nat founded The Pagoda Tree clinic in Albert Park a decade ago and has since helped thousands of women with fertility and hormone problems.

“Chinese medicine is a form of medicine the same way modern medicine works, it influences the body to behave in a certain way, but if the back end isn’t there… none of its going to work,” she said.

“Women are looking for answers outside of the regular. Nobody has all the answers, but the fundamentals don’t really change – how do we get your body to behave in the best way we know with the information we have at the moment?”

She has looked to use Chinese alongside modern medicine, saying she tries to move away from “alternative” to “complementary” medicine.

“I think the idea of complementary medicine is that sits alongside other things, what we’re advocating for, it’s proven,” she said.

Nat encourages women to get a “cheer squad” of practitioners to help them on a path to health but said there was no “magic bullet”.

“You can’t expect your body to do amazing things if it’s not functioning in the right way,” she said.

“It’s really unfortunate that we’ve adopted the attitude of ‘there’s a pill for that’, when there’s not.”

Nat’s tips for hormone health:

  • get your gut in working order – probiotics are a great start
  • manage stress – exercise and meditation can be helpful
  • look after your liver – drinking more water and eating green, leafy vegetables can help with the detoxification process

And she said people labelling themselves was also not helpful.

“You might have endometriosis, but you’re not endometriosis. It’s about detaching from labels, about trying to break down the barriers and advocate for our own bodies,” she said.

“Women aren’t taught how their bodies work properly. I had no correlation with ovulation and pregnancy, and the amount of women that we see that still don’t know that… I think this is really important information we don’t necessarily get a chance to learn.”

Her latest venture, the Wellness Collective, is an online community where subscribers get access to the latest research in women’s health, to Nat directly.

“I was getting a lot of emails and private messages from women who were at their wits’ end, heartbroken (about their health)…. and I couldn’t answer that in a email,” she said.

“I created the Wellness Collective so women could get new information, talk with me, talk with each other and try and create that community where women  could solve problems because most women aren’t alone, someone else has similar experiences.”

Nat’s non-negotiables?

EXERCISE: “I recognise for me stress is a factor so I do short, sharp bursts of exercise. I need to do that for my body and mental health, almost every day.”

SLEEP: “I also love to, every night, just sit and write down three things I’m grateful for, and three things on my mind, and any other ideas. I find that really powerful. A lot of research about going to bed after looking at things you have rather than things you don’t has a profound affect on sleep. I try and get eight hours’ sleep. Routines can create unnecessary pressure but I like to have a shower and read for a bit to wind down before bed.”

NUTRITION: “You cannot skimp on that. People do try and get away it but it fuels every cell in your body and it matters so much. Food is medicine – it’s either benefit or deficit, nothing in between. It creates unnecessary stress when fixated on it, so how can we adapt an 80/20 approach that’s achievable?”

She is also taking the Wellness Collective tour around Australia, heading up speaking events that put women in touch with local services.

She’s recently been in Mildura, Warrnambool and Adelaide, and is continuing around Australia before a big Melbourne event mid-year.

And it all started because someone asked her to visit Bendigo to give a talk.

“The feedback has been amazing,” Nat said.

“Women are just happy that someone’s taken the time to go to their area and educate.”

If that’s not enough, she’s just brought out a line of nut and seed mixes, Yo’ Nuts, with blends designed to help women – a hormone loving mix, one “for the love of  hair”, a balancing cleanse shake, and a seed cycling mix.

“I had wanted to make up this cleansing shake, and people were asking me about what they could do for their hair,  and I was sick of telling people to mix ingredients, so then one day we put it together,” Nat said.

The products will roll out in shops around Australia.

Nat has also created a collection of cards with her favourite quotes and musings – aptly named Cards of Change – with 20 per cent of proceeds going to charity.

And there’s more on the horizon, including two new books.

One will help men and women understand the menstrual cycle: “It will go through the cycle, and moods, and how you can nurture someone.”

And another, a young women’s guide to hormones, “but good for all women”.

“There will be a section to track the menstual cycle, because while apps are great, there’s something in writing it down and looking at it, especially if you’re learning about it or if you haven’t ever had to understand it before,” Nat said.

“Like my other books, there will be recipes, but I really want it to be a guide that any women, especially young women, can pick up and learn about themselves.”

For more details, go to natkringoudis.com.au

Main picture credit: Valeriu Campan/News Corp

Styling with the Queen of Confidence

Calling yourself the Queen of Confidence is a big claim.

But it’s pretty apt for Erika Cramer, or “Erika from America” as she also calls herself.

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I previously wrote about Erika for the Knox Leader (read it here) and was lucky enough to be invited to her Styling Confidently event recently at Westfield Doncaster.

This is no ordinary styling event.

Yes, you get a guide to your body shape and you can try on clothes. And there is plenty of food and champagne to go around.

But anyone feeling self-conscious or down about themselves would have left that behind by the end of this three-hour session.

Erika was sweary (“I fucking love my body”), she was witty (“we have to wear clothing, we can’t go naked unfortunately or we’d get arrested”), and she was honest.

This video set the tone of the day and Erika said she watches it every week and cries every time:

 

She is so passionate about making women feel and look good, that she does these events on the side.

She works full time at L’Oreal and is mum to 20-month-old son Raven.

“This is something I will do ’til I’m dead because I love doing this,” she told us.

And her mission is an important one.

She said 90 per cent of Australian women cancel plans or don’t show up in life at some point because they are unhappy with the way they look.

To me, that’s really sad. But I can totally relate, because that has been me at some point!

But Erika said women should take it easy on themselves, and that confidence is about the inner layer as well as the outer.

She encouraged women to keep an open mind and wanted to “mix mind with fashion because I think that’s how you feel fully beautiful and amazing”.

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The Queen of Confidence was born a decade ago after Erika was in a car accident that left her with a broken back.

As she learned to walk again, she knew that part of feeling better about herself was to go and get her hair done.

“Which sounds really shallow, but it’s not because if I feel physically better it might give me some life to be able to walk and not use a walker,” she said.

“It took a near-death experience for me to give a shit about me as a woman… don’t wait… to take control and hold your own life.”

Before going through different body shapes, she prefaced that it had “no meaning”.

“You’re not a piece of fruit… there is no right way to dress for your shape, dress to what makes you feel good. But I also know women want to know guidelines, so when you feel confident and comfortable, break them all,” she said.

There was ample time to go through racks of clothes, supplied mostly by independent designers, with no obligation to buy anything.

There were also other interactive activities (that I won’t give away!) but suffice to say, it was all about making women feel good!

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Also part of the event was bra fitter Regina Pascuzzi, who really deserves a story of her own because she was awesome.

She started her business Miss Scarlett Did It because she “couldn’t find a bra that wasn’t beige”, and because her first experience as a teen being fitted for a bra basically scarred her for life.

She was working in a law firm and while on a lunch break thought ” who would have a good bra?”.

She googled “where does the Queen buy her bras?” and ended up travelling to London to visit Rigby and Peller, and learned how to fit bras by eye.

Her advice for buying a good bra: get one that pulls you in, make sure the underwire is not sitting too far forward, and make sure the straps are not too loose or too tight.

When looking for a good sports bra, “do the bounce test” and she said women should also invest in a good strapless bra, everyday bra and “something for the bedroom”.

As for Erika’s tips for creating a fabulous wardrobe:

  • if you haven’t worn it in six months, take it to the op shop (that’s one I need to take on board!)
  • buy what fits you now, don’t say “I’ll wear this when…”
  • don’t attach meaning to clothes sizes

And as the event ended with a gratitude exercise, I definitely left feeling good!

Erika runs the Styling Confidently three-hour workshops regularly and also has plans to expand into a two-day event and an online program.

Details: thequeenofconfidence.com

Meet the animals at Healesville Sanctuary

Healesville Sanctuary is only an hour from Melbourne’s CBD, but it feels worlds away from urban life as you get up close and personal with Australian animals in their natural habitat.

And when I say you can get close to the animals, I mean you can have birds flying centimetres above your head, you can pat wallabies, and you can almost touch a platypus.

The park’s world-first, interactive show – Tales from Platypus Creek – gives an insight into the lives of the platypus and other waterway creatures.

Thanks to a clear tank, visitors can come face to face with Yami, who has been at the sanctuary since being washed out of her mother’s burrow in floods at just four months old.

From animals that swim to animals that soar – the most popular show at the park is Spirits of the Sky, a fun look at parrots and birds of prey.

The star is 46-year-old wedge-tailed eagle Jess, who is the oldest animal in the sanctuary, but Kevin the cheeky parrot gives him a run for his money, too.

Both shows are on twice daily and are included in the park entry ticket price, which is good value as children under 16 get free entry on weekends, school holidays and public holidays.

And what about the sanctuary’s other animals?

Easy-to-follow paths ensure a smooth walk around to see them all.

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You would be familiar with the favourites – kangaroos, koalas, emus, wombats, snakes.

But do you know what a land mullet is? You can find one in the reptile house!

If you want to know what it’s like to look after the animals and see them at their most active, there are keeper talks featuring wombats, Tasmanian devils, kangaroos, lyrebirds, koalas and dingoes.

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We met Florence, the park’s oldest wombat at 13.

While Florence had a feed, keeper Olivia gave us the lowdown on the marsupials.

Surprisingly, wombats can run really fast, despite their appearance!

And the sanctuary is more than just a place to see animals.

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It’s home to the Australian Wildlife Health Centre, where the vet team looks after more than 1500 sick, injured and orphaned animals a year.

People can bring injured animals in for free care, and some animals end up living at the sanctuary.

After the Black Saturday fires of 2009, about 150 animals were treated there, mostly for serious burns.

The centre is open to visitors who can see the vets at work, and there are also presentations and a “future vets” activity zone for kids.

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The sanctuary also plays a critical role in saving endangered animals, including the helmeted honeyeater and Leadbeater’s possum.

The theme of sustainability permeates all the shows and exhibits, ensuring people leave with more awareness about the environment and how to look after it.

If the kids need a break from the animals, there’s activities, playground equipment and water play fun, including in the Badger Creek that runs through the park.

And don’t forget the food – the options are plentiful.

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For budget-conscious families, there is lots of open space to bring a picnic, or have a barbecue.

If you want the food taken care of, you can pre-order gourmet picnic hampers.

And there are several dine-in options, too. The Harvest Café offers a great range, from sandwiches and snacks to main meals like a 200g beef burger, and a “Buddha bowl” filled with brown rice, crunchy chickpeas, sweet potato, spinach and a turmeric dressing.

With more than 200 species of Australian animals and plenty of things to do for adults and children, Healesville Sanctuary is a great way to spend a day.

This was originally published as a guest post at visityarravalley.com.au

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Garden glory in the Dandenong Ranges

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.

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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.

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Cloudehill Gardens owner Jeremy Francis.

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.

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Dwarf kalmia.

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.

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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