MANILA, JUNE 24, 2010 (STAR) By Doreen G. Yu  - My cousin moved out to Upper Ferntree Gully, at the foot of the Dandenong Ranges about 30 kilometers east of Melbourne, a few years ago. We kid her about living in the “boonies” – promdi in Pinoy speak; the town has a population of less than 5,000 people – and making her come down to Melbourne is always a big deal, a matter of scheduling visits and get-togethers so that coming in to town would be worth her while.

A recent visit to Melbourne as guest of Tourism Victoria via Philippine Airlines’ spanking new B-777-300R included a day trip to the Dan-denong Ranges, and that brief visit made me realize the wisdom of her moving out there.

Turns out the Dandenongs are not really that far away – the tourism bureau’s catch phrase is right: it is “right on Melbourne’s doorstep, but a lifetime away from the everyday.” Less than an hour’s drive from the city, it is a different world – lush, dense with wildlife, with tall for-ests and fern gullies, winding mountain roads and trekking paths (there are over 300 kilometers of walking tracks in the Dandenong Ranges National Park).

The National Rhododendron Gardens are located here, which feature 40 hectares of gardens that contain about 250,000 daffodils, 15,000 rhododendrons, 12,000 azaleas as well as camellias and other blooms that will take your breath away. The Tulip Festival from mid-September to mid-October is supposed to be quite a floral feast as well, a good reason to time another visit around spring.

For daytrippers like us, there was a lot to see and do; in fact, there is far more than a day’s worth to enjoy in the area. The little towns along the Mt. Dandenong Tourist Road – starting from Upper Ferntree Gully where my cousin lives, to Ferny Creek where the stream of the same name ambles through town, to Sassafras and Olinda, two of the most popular tourist stops, and then to Kalorama, perched very near the top of the Dandenong Ranges – are filled with restaurants, galleries and shops that invite exploration, enticing passersby to stay a while with rich aromas and quaint displays.

We started our visit to the Dandenongs at the Sky High lookout, 633 meters into the clouds. We caught but a hazy glimpse of the city center of Melbourne in the distance, the world below us shrouded in fog. It was windy and cold – and wet, with an icy drizzle that sent us scurry-ing back to the bus, the requisite photo-ops done in a rush because it was so foggy anyway.

When we got to Olinda, the rain had mercifully eased up, which allowed us to explore the little town. And what surprises and charms it had! A candy shop that was as colorful as it was diabetic. A shop that sold all things lace and white. A tea shop with shelves crammed full with teapots, teacups, and tins, boxes and bags of teas and infusions from all corners of the world. One shop had its own fireplace – a wood burn-ing stove that offered not only welcome warmth but a nice glow to the store that had an interesting selection of decor and art pieces.

The award-winning Pie in the Sky is in Olinda, which sells 15 varieties of the famed Aussie pie. Chef-owner Dennis Sideras boasts that his bestseller is still the traditional meat pie, with coarse ground – so you can’t cheat, he says – good quality beef served with tomato sauce.

The meat pie is a quintessential Aussie thing, our guide Geoff Rey-nolds told us, and is part of the ritual – and for Aussies it is a sacred rit-ual (oh that tragic, tragic 4-0 loss to Germany in the World Cup last Monday!) – of going to watch football, or so the lore goes. You go to a game with beer in one hand, a meat pie in the other and your arm around a girl; and what’s the girl for? “Someone’s got to go and get the beer!” he guffaws.

Meat pies are not the only gustatory delight in these parts. Visit Miss Marples Tea Room in nearby Sassafras, which specializes in the area’s famed Devonshire cream tea and homemade scones. It is inspired by the character in Agatha Christie’s mystery novels, and features quaint memorabilia aside from the extraordinarily large scones (they rise higher because they’re crowded together in the pan during baking) served with jams made from raspberries available in the area, and generous amounts of clotted cream.

But a must-not-miss in Olinda is the Cuckoo restaurant, a bit of Bavaria in the Dandenongs, complete with a lusty singing trio, accordion and all, and a floorshow that features cow bell ringing, yodeling (audience participation is sometimes required) and slap dancing. There is a gift shop with quaint little Bavarian souvenirs, and the world’s largest cuckoo clock, but the reason to go to Cuckoo is without question the food – “the ultimate Bavarian meal” it has been called, the original and longest running smorgasbord Down Under. Considering the buffets we have in Manila it may not be that overwhelming in terms of quantity and variety, but it is sumptuous. Of particularly delicious note are the piping hot mushroom soup (definitely NOT out of a can), the veal schnitzels (a house specialty and there’s no way you can just have one), the crackling from the roast (chicharon a la Bavaria!) and the pancakes (my cousin warned me to leave room for the dessert pancakes, and I’m so glad I did). There is another house specialty called the savory rollmop – a pickled herring wrapped around a pickle – but suffice to say there were enough other distractions that I did not bother looking for it.

The Cuckoo started in 1914 as the Quamby selling strawberries and cream. In 1958 Willi and Karin Koeppen bought it, and set up the first Swedish smorgasbord in Australia. Nosy journalists that we are, we picked up a story that the man of the restaurant had disappeared some years ago, his car found abandoned in the woods at the back of the restaurant. STAR columnist Jessica Zafra, twisted as she is, and I offered to solve the mysterious disappearance, and proffered several plausible theories, but well – let’s just say we were told to enjoy the food, which we did, very much.

Leaving Olinda and the Dandenongs, we headed for Phillip Island, and a nature trip of a different sort – koalas and penguins. And that is another story.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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