I must admit to being initially surprised when I read that Melbourne is the number one domestic tourist destination that Australian families want to visit over the next two years.
As a born and bred Melbournian, I can get a bit blasé about my hometown. But then there are those times when you get out and re-discover what is so great about this city.
So, here are three of my latest ‘wow – this place is gorgeous’ family friendly discoveries in Melbourne, from east to west. And the best thing is they are all cheap and cheerful.
Emerald Lake Park
If you have travelled on the iconic tourist train, Puffing Billy, you will know of Emerald Lake Park. But my family only discovered it earlier this year. I was looking for somewhere new to go, where we could take our puppy.
The park is located in the beautiful Dandenong Ranges, about an hour’s drive from Melbourne. What makes this place so beautiful is the mix of remnant native bushland and European trees. The scenery was stunning during our early autumn visit.
Here, there are a number of short walks suitable for short legs and there were many squeals of delight as children everywhere saw Puffing Billy pull into the station.
But the highlight of Emerald Lake Park is Lake Treganowan. And this lake is not just there for scenery. Fancy a swim in the lakeside pool – for free?
The lakeside wading pool is open over summer, providing a perfect opportunity for children to cool off. It is fenced off and framed by the lake on one side and majestic trees on the other.
Older children probably won’t let you leave until they’ve had a go on the lake’s paddle boats. There is a small fee, but you will probably find even 15 minutes enough for small legs.
Children can also try their hand at fishing, with the lake stocked twice a year (Victorian recreational fishing licences apply)
TIP: If you can’t catch your own fish, just 10 minutes away from Emerald you will find the Australian Rainbow Trout Farm.
Warrandyte is a natural treasure. Just minutes from suburbia, it is more country town than Melbourne suburb. And what makes this place so special is the Yarra River that winds through it.
Scenes of the Yarra are immortalised in paint thanks to the Heidelberg School of the late 19th century – an art movement that featured some of Australia’s most prominent names, including Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts.
Warrandyte’s popular river walk is part of the Heidelberg Artists Trail, this section recognising the work of Clara Southern, who settled and painted in the area in the early 1900s.
Here the river is flat, making it a perfect option for families with children of all ages, including babies in strollers. And on a warm day, there are sections of the river here where children can safely dip their toes.
Although some areas of the Warrandyte State Park are off-limits to dogs, not so the river walk. And capitalising on this is the pet-friendly Warrandyte Cafe where there are plenty of outside tables (and doggy water bowls) for you to stop for a coffee or time it for lunch.
Manningham City Council has maps covering a number of walks in the area, including the river walk (click on Relaxing Riverside Trails and Built on Gold)
I think what is so special about this place is although close to Melbourne, it is a lifetime away. You truly feel like you have escaped to the country for a few hours.
Tip: If you need to resort to bribery for your children to walk just that little bit further, check out the Warrandyte Lollies and Treats shop.
Williamstown to Altona Bike Path
I lived in Altona for years and had driven the back road between Kororoit Creek Road and Altona’s Esplanade on many occasions. But it was not until this year on a bike ride with my family that I discovered a fascinating history I never knew existed.
Even children of today have heard of Phar Lap, so when we stopped at the sign at the start of Altona Coastal Park, I could not hide my excitement (actually, maybe my kids thought I was a bit mad).
See, the old lump of concrete and palm tree in the distance are the only remains of the Williamstown Racecourse, which had a grandstand that rivalled those that survive in Melbourne today.
Phar Lap raced and won there in August 1931. The grandstand burned down while being restored after WW II, during which time it had been used by the army. How could I have lived in this area and never have known this before?
It was the highlight (for me anyway – for the kids, I think it was their gelato reward at the end of the ride) on a relatively easy ride between Williamstown and Altona, in Melbourne’s west. More competent riders could try the whole 23km Hobson Bay Coastal Trail.
The ride is an interesting one to say the least. You can’t say it is beautiful, as it skirts behind the oil refineries, although this in itself does interest the children, because it does look a bit ‘other-worldly’.
But there are scenes of beauty along the way. There is coastal vegetation, quirky boat sheds, and of course, the beach (including a dog friendly option at the eastern end of Altona).
You could end the ride at the Altona boat ramp, where you might be able to see recreational fishermen bring in their catch, or continue into Altona, with its scenic esplanade, lined with Norfolk Island Pines.
We did this, buying some take-away and parking ourselves and our bikes in Logan Reserve, on the corner of the Esplanade and Pier Street. It has a playground, but if your kids are anything like mine, they will be attracted to spectacular Moreton Bay Fig Trees.
TIP: If the ride is too much for your children (it is about 8km one way from the western end of Williamstown), you can catch the train back from Altona station (change at Newport).
These destinations highlight what makes Melbourne such an intriguing place to visit. It is not always warm or pretty, but it is like a patchwork quilt, a city of contrasts that offers so many different experiences.
It is what makes Melbourne so family friendly – and understandably, a growing destination of choice for Australian families. If you are planning a stay, check out some of this great family friendly holiday accommodation in Melbourne.
Why not make yourself a goal of getting out and discovering at least one new destination in your home town or region over the next few months. And let us know any hidden gems you have discovered and recommend.
Other things to do in Victoria with your kids: