Escaping from the hustle and bustle of Melbourne, we ventured an hour outside the city, into the vast scenic landscapes of the Dandenong Ranges, a set of low mount ranges just east of Melbourne. Prior to European settlement, the indigenous Australian nation of the Wurundjeri people, whose language the name Dandenong has originated from, used this area for hunting and gathering food. Today, the Dandenong Ranges are a popular visiting site for locals and tourists alike with a vast array of events and attractions for nature enthusiasts.
One of the most notable attractions in the Dandenongs is the Puffing Billy Railway, a well-preserved century-old steam train, which runs along its original mountain track from Belgrave to Gembrook. Initially, the Puffing Billy Railway was opened to allow access to more remote areas of Victoria. Due to the sheer beauty of the area, people of Melbourne began taking the train for weekend holidays in the hills in the early 1900s. However, in the 1950s, due to a landslide blocking the track – the track was closed. Because of the hard work of the Puffing Billy Preservation Society, the track was reopened for present-day use.
Puffing Billy offers passengers a few different experiences, with rides starting at Belgrave or at Lakeside. The train includes a number of open-sided carriages which allow for stunning views of mountains and valleys. As such, riders can choose to experience the train only as a passenger, or opt for an upgraded, first-class experience that includes an intimate lunch or dinner in the enclosed carriages with sections large enough to accommodate a group. This option takes the train ride to the next level, with a drink and food service during the beautiful 3-hour journey.
Upon arriving at Puffing Billy, travelers are able to stock up on refreshments and souvenirs before boarding the train, seeing as food and drink service is offered only in first class. Everyone is met by a very welcoming and friendly staff who guide guests to the passenger cars or to their assigned tables in the enclosed carriage.
Leaving Belgrave, luncheon service begins along with a selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic menu items. Within minutes of leaving the station, passengers are immersed in the rainforest. Tall Mountain Ash trees grow on either side of the track, with a dense array of ferns growing along the ground. As the train travels over the first trestle bridge, starters are served, which includes a warm Vegetable Soup and Eastern Spiced Lamb Skewers. Both were flavorful, and given that it was a cold rainy day in Victoria, the soup was welcomed. Promptly after the starters, carriage car passengers received their main dishes of Tasmanian Salmon on a bed of rice with a side salad as well as a Braised Beef Shin.
Of the two main entrees, the Tasmanian Salmon was a favorite – the lemon-saffron risotto was an excellent side dish for the salmon, which was cooked to perfection. The braised beef was tender and superbly cooked, though a little shy on flavor. In addition to the main courses mentioned here, a chicken dish and a vegetarian dish are also made available.
As lunch wraps up, the train makes a stop at Lakeside where passengers are able to disembark the train to use the washroom, gather refreshments, and have a bit of a stretch for approximately half an hour. In the warmer months, visitors are able to rent paddleboats and explore the neighboring Emerald Lake.
After some time spent in the area and watching the staff prepare the locomotive for the return trip, everyone hops back into their seats where dessert gets underway, along with tea and coffee.
During the return journey, passengers are treated to a picturesque landscape while passing through charming, historical train stations and old wooden bridges.
Since this is a single-track railway service, once the train meets the end of the line it travels back to Belgrave in the same orientation, meaning that passengers with assigned seats get the same view throughout the journey. Unfortunately, our side of the train did experience much in the way of rolling hills and valleys. However, passengers are allowed to leave their seats and stand in the outdoor section connecting the two trains so this allowed us to experience the view. Clearly, the best, unobstructed views of the landscapes can be had from the open carriages as opposed to the first class dining carriages. That being said, the enclosed carriages offer a more comfortable ride and are undoubtedly warmer during cool or inclement weather.
We found all staff to be very welcoming and eager to answer questions, of which there were many. With this mind, perhaps the Puffing Billy experience would do well to offer more information about the history of the area, the railway, and the train, perhaps with some narration. Although there are informational posters in the open carriages, sadly there aren’t anything in the dining carriages, possibly to preserve their historical nature. However, given that these carriages are serviced by an attendant, it would be nice to have some narration and explanation of the train and surrounding area during the course of the ride.
There’s a reason why Puffing Billy is one of the most popular tourists’ attractions in the Dandenongs – quite simply, it’s a breathtaking experience on a beautifully maintained train. It’s not hard to see why a group of 900 volunteers work tirelessly to keep this piece of Victorian heritage running year after year.
All in all, the journey on the Puffing Billy Railway is fantastic. Rain or shine, there’s a good time to be had by all. This experience is great for young and old alike, for a family trip or one with friends. Tickets are reasonably priced with single and family rates available, ranging from $35 – $50 AU for a one-way trip and from $57 – $75 AU for a return trip. Dining is extra but well worth it.
Puffing Billy is a people pleaser.
Lead Photo by Puffing Billy Railway/Dean Gifford