Reading the leaves

In a village ringed by walking trails, Tim Richards samples the fine teas and scones served in the main street's stores.

I get the feeling long-term Sassafras resident Brian Storrie is in two minds about the transformation of his Dandenong Ranges town into a full-blown tourist destination.

''Up here at weekends it's a rat race, so I just hide,'' he says, before adding that the place is much quieter during the week. ''It's got a village atmosphere and you get to know the people. It's not like living in the suburbs, where you don't seem to know anybody.''

Storrie has lived in the town all his life.

''Dad came here in 1894. His father was a blacksmith and then dad started running buses up here. He built this house in 1920,'' he says, pointing to the residence tucked back from the Sassafras Cafe, previously a store and a garage.

And where does a holiday-town resident such as Storrie go for a break? ''I don't,'' he responds. ''I haven't had a holiday in years.''

History

Sassafras is named after the sassafras tree, which is native to the area.

''In the early days, they practically cleared the gully out of sassafras trees because they used it to make yokes for oxen,'' Storrie says. ''Mr McGrath, one of the early settlers, was a harness maker and he got his wood from Sassafras Creek.''

Though the village first functioned as a farming town, in the early 20th century it became a focus for tourism.

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Dandenong Ranges Tourist Track

In the Edwardian era of corsets and broad velvet hats, anyone who was anyone made the trek out of noisome Melbourne to promenade along this walking trail, past tree ferns and towering mountain ash trees. The track starts behind the Sassafras Hall and runs 15 kilometres to Emerald. A shorter option is the 20-minute loop.

Park and gardens

Sassafras is surrounded by the native bushland of the Dandenong Ranges National Park; an easy way to explore it is to follow the attractive O'Donohue Track (off Sherbrooke Road) to the Sherbrooke Falls. The town is also adjacent to impressive gardens open to the public.

The George Tindale Memorial Gardens (33 Sherbrooke Road) is an oasis of flowers and statuary, while the sloping Alfred Nicholas Gardens (Sherbrooke Road) has ornamental lakes and some European vegetation.

Shopping

If you fancy buying homewares or antiques, or eating tea and scones, any number of shop owners will be happy to help. Among the more interesting are:

Tea Leaves. Packed from floor to ceiling with tea and smells of fruit cake as the diverse aromas collide. There are teapots shaped like animals or decorated with British themes (380 Mt Dandenong Tourist Road, 9755 2222).

Wise Possum Nature Shop and Gallery. Sells knick-knacks with a natural theme and paintings from artists including the acclaimed Lyn Ellison (389 Mt Dandenong Tourist Road, 9755 2256).

Smits & Bits. Rambling emporium set in a courtyard back from the street, selling repro homewares, old books and antiques. Dame Zara Bates's dollhouse is on display and, on Sundays, you can toast a marshmallow over the brazier (381 Mt Dandenong Tourist Road, 9755 2200).

Bluestone Candles. The place to pick up eco-friendly soy wax candles, glassware or a vast, black wrought-iron candelabra (381 Mt Dandenong Tourist Road, 9755 2281).

Geppetto's Workshop. If you're running short of marionettes from the Czech Republic, this is the place. It also stocks German hand puppets and animal finger puppets from Peru (371 Mt Dandenong Tourist Road, 9755 3300).

Sassy Plants. In the middle of Sassafras Village, this nursery sells plants ranging from camellias to fruit trees, with a popular range of succulents for our drought-aware times (361 Mt Dandenong Tourist Road, 9755 1263).

Where to eat

Ripe. Cosy eatery that stretches back from a shady forecourt, through timber-lined rooms, to a deck overlooking the greenery. Serves cafe food with a flourish (376 Mount Dandenong Tourist Road, 9755 2100).

Miss Marple's Tea Room. The atmosphere transcends the notion of re-creating a traditional English tearoom. With its waitresses wearing neat black dresses and crisp white aprons, moving between the snugly placed tables and delivering freshly baked scones and steaming teapots, Miss Marple's is a lot of fun. See if you can solve the Mystery of the Vanishing Scones (382 Mt Dandenong Tourist Road, 9755 1610).

Fortnums. Up the hill, rival scone trader Fortnums is housed in a more modern building, a space that lets in plenty of sunlight and with views of the forest across the road. In addition to teas, it serves light lunches (395 Mt Dandenong Tourist Road, 9755 1200).

Flippin' Pancakes. Sassafras's only dinner venue, in one of those pseudo-English buildings you find scattered through the Ranges. Despite the crepe-focused name, it has a broad menu, ranging from goulash to kangaroo (327 Mt Dandenong Tourist Road, 9755 1466).

Where to stay

Moulton Park. A gardener's cottage and an old garage have been converted to attractive bed-and-breakfast accommodation on the grounds of this former tulip farm. Each has a wood fire, a kitchen and access to extensive gardens (2 Cooloongatta Road, 0411 247 557, see moultonpark.com.au).

Monreale Estate. Impressive luxury accommodation within the forest. Each cottage is neatly secluded from its neighbours with its own balcony and garden and has a spa bath, wood fire and kitchen (81 The Crescent, 1800 681 773, see monreale-estate.com.au).

Earlwood Manor. In the centre of Sassafras Village, this high-end accommodation includes spa baths, open fires and breakfast served to the suites. Light meals and the inevitable scones are available at its attached cafe, Brother Jon's (349 Mount Dandenong Tourist Road, 9755 2321, earlwoodmanor.com).

Clarendon Cottages. Set well back from the main road in a peaceful garden setting, with the Village a 15-minute walk away (11 Clarkmont Road, 9755 3288, clarendoncottages.com).

Getting there

They're not particularly frequent but buses on routes 688 and 694 wend their way to Sassafras from the Upper Ferntree Gully and Belgrave stations on the Belgrave line. From the north, bus 688 departs from Croydon station on the Lilydale line. See metlinkmelbourne.com.au.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria.

FAST FACTS

Sassafras is an hour's drive from Melbourne along Burwood Highway and Mount Dandenong Tourist Road.

More information

Talk to the Dandenong Ranges and Knox Visitor Information Centre (1211 Burwood Highway, Upper Ferntree Gully, phone 1800 645 505), see dandenongrangestourism.com.au and visitvictoria.com.

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