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.
For our adventure on Puffing Billy, we were delighted to ride first class and enjoy a 3-course meal. 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. We were met by a very welcoming and friendly staff who showed us to our assigned table in the enclosed carriage.
As we left the station in Belgrave, luncheon service began and we were offered drinks from a selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic menu items. Within minutes of leaving the station, we found ourselves 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 we traveled over the first trestle bridge, we were served our starters, which included 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, we received our 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 our 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 we finished our lunch the train made 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, we hopped back into our seats where we were served dessert as well as tea and coffee.
Along the journey back we were 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 we met the end of the line, the train traveled 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 inclement weather, such as we incurred.
We found all staff working in the carriages and at the train station stops to be very welcoming and eager to answer questions, of which there were many. It led us to believe that adding positively to the Puffing Billy experience would be to offer more information about the history of the area, the railway, and the train, perhaps with some narration. Although there were informational posters in the open carriages, sadly there wasn’t anything in the dining carriages. We suspect this is 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 our journey on the Puffing Billy Railway out of Belgrave was fantastic. And though the weather was less than ideal, the fog and mist falling on the valley only added to the beauty of the scenery. Rain or shine, there’s a good time to be had by all on Puffing Billy. 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, we highly recommend it!
Review, Photos, and Video by Daniela Tantalo
Lead Photo Courtesy of Puffing Billy Railway/Dean Gifford