Some of Victoria's finest gardens dot the hills and valleys of the Macedon Ranges, just an hour from Melbourne. In bygone times, the wealthy swapped the city's summer heat for the cooler climes of Macedon. Their legacy of "hill station" private gardens and impressive mansions, along with the region's 40 cool-climate wineries and gourmet foods, are enough reason to visit. The best times to visit the Macedon Ranges for the gardens are April (autumn) and November (spring). These are Open Garden months (www.opengarden.org.au), when private gardens can be viewed by the public. Some homestead gardens are open year-round, including Duneira (tel. 03/5426 1490; www.duneira.com.au) and Tieve Tara (tel. 0418/337 813 mobile phone; www.gardensoftievetara.com) at Mount Macedon; Bringalbit, near Kyneton (tel. 03/5423 7223; www.bringalbit.com.au); and the Edna Walling garden at Campaspe Country House, Woodend (tel. 03/5427 2273; www.campaspehouse.com.au). It pays to call ahead to check times and access. Entry fees apply.
At Hanging Rock Reserve, South Rock Road, Woodend (tel. 1800/244 711; www.hangingrock.info), the ghost of Miranda, the fictional schoolgirl who vanished at Hanging Rock in author Joan Lindsay's 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock, is never far away. Peter Weir's 1975 film of the novel cemented its fame, but the natural beauty of the area overshadows its slightly spooky reputation. You can climb the rock, walk the tracks, and explore caves like the Black Hole of Calcutta and the Cathedral. The Hanging Rock Discovery Centre explains the geology and history of the area, and revisits the book and movie. There are guided tours, including night tours during summer, and lots of wildlife including koalas, kangaroos, sugar gliders, echidnas, and wallabies. Picnic races have been run every Australia Day (Jan 26), New Year's Day, and Labour Day for the past 80-plus years and are hugely popular. The reserve is open daily 8am to 6pm. Admission is A$10 per car or A$4 per pedestrian.
After the gold rush of the 1850s, Woodend became a resort town with guesthouses, private gardens, a racecourse, a golf club, and hotels. Reminders of those days can be found in the historical buildings and clock tower on High Street. Cafes, provedores, boutiques, and galleries abound. For example, stop in for a beer at the family-run Holgate Brewhouse, in the historic Keatings Hotel on High Street (tel. 03/5427 2510; www.holgatebrewhouse.com). The brewery produces a range of draught beers and you can buy "tastings" until you decide on your favorite. The beer is brewed using just four ingredients -- malt, hops, yeast, and pure Macedon Ranges water. It's open daily noon till late (from 2pm on Mon).
The hamlet of Malmsbury has two main things worth stopping for on the Calder Highway. First, the Malmsbury Botanic Gardens, next to the Town Hall, were designed to take advantage of the Coliban River valley and a billabong that was transformed into a group of ornamental lakes. The 5-hectare (12-acre) gardens have a superb collection of mature trees; it's also a popular spot for barbecues, and at Apple Hole you'll find kids leaping into the river from a rope swing. At quiet times, you may even spot a platypus. But Malmsbury's most famous landmark may be the bluestone railway viaduct built by 4,000 men in 1859. At 25m (82 ft.) high, with five 18m (59-ft.) spans, it is one of Australia's longest stone bridges and is best viewed from the gardens. I also like to pop in to Tin Shed Arts (tel. 03/5423 2144), a spacious gallery on the highway that always has something interesting and unexpected. It hangs contemporary and traditional art from both local artists and well-known names from around Australia. You'll find paintings, mixed media, sculpture, and craftwork. Open Thursday to Monday 10am to 5pm.
In Kyneton, turn down Piper Street for antiques, homewares, cafes, a heritage pub, and much more. The Kyneton Farmers' Market is held at Saint Paul's Park in Piper Street on the second Saturday of the month from 8am to 1pm.
With more than 40 vineyards and 20 cellar doors in the region, wine buffs who want to sample the product should consider a tour. Victoria Winery Tours (tel. 1300/946 386; www.winetours.com.au) runs small-group (minimum of two people) day tours from Melbourne, visiting four or five wineries. Pick up in Melbourne is at 9am, returning by about 5:30pm. The cost is A$150 per person, including morning tea and lunch.