Kristin Lee packs a picnic rug and follows a trail leading to some of the state's finest gardens.
Victoria has an array of gardens that are suitable to sip and sup at. Some offer simple fare or welcome a BYO picnic; others are an epicurean joy with produce picked straight from a kitchen garden.
With a backdrop of sparkling bay waters, there's a wonderful sense of mediaeval at this lush organic-certified cottage garden on a hillside on the Mornington Peninsula.
The place to dine is next to the raised garden beds on the terrace outside the thatched-roof Fork to Fork restaurant (bookings essential), which sits above the Digger's Club's quaint shop and plant nursery.
Determined by what is seasonally available in their production garden, as well as locally, dishes incorporate a selection of fresh-plucked heirloom vegetables, such as zestful white and purple carrots, herbs such as parsley, sorrel and hanging rosemary that, literally, grow around you.
The mix-and-match Heronswood plate is available weekdays, and at weekends the set menu offers two ($49) or three ($59) courses. The restaurant also has a good selection of peninsula-grown wines.
105 Latrobe Parade, Dromana. Garden opens daily 9am to 5pm, Fork to Fork from 10am. Garden entry $10 for adults, Digger's Club members and children under 16 free; see diggers.com.au.
Cloudehill Nursery and Gardens
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this Easter is the seasonally captivating and constantly evolving garden. Owned and created by Jeremy Francis, this former flower farm now consists of thousands of plant species. On the upper slopes are the more formal garden compartments, while on the lower are woodland, meadow, plus entry - by gold coin donation - to the adjoining Rangeview Gardens.
Bordering the nursery, and sitting above the garden, is Seasons Restaurant. Run by Rhonda Gasson, alfresco dining is possible on the pleasantly shaded deck of the converted 1930s weatherboard house.
With all of the herbs and some vegetables grown in Cloudehill's display kitchen garden, the set menu also uses local growers' seasonal produce, such as figs, hazelnuts and heirloom berries, which enhance the delectable in-house baked desserts.
89 Olinda Monbulk Road, Olinda. Cloudehill opens 10am to 5pm daily, Seasons Restaurant from 9.30am. Garden entry $7.50 adult, child $4; see cloudehill.com.au.
Warran Glen Garden Centre & Cafe
Somewhat of a green-thumb icon for the past 40 years, many still come for the plants but nowadays they also tend to leave with a pair of shoes and a latte.
Sitting on the banks of Jumping Creek, beyond the mind-blowing gift shop and outdoor garden centre, is the indoor/outdoor cafe with a small feature kitchen garden.
Overlooking a charming botanic setting, you can listen to birdlife. On especially hot days, a refreshing hydration system keeps the plants and diners on the balcony from wilting.
For breakfast, the cafe is renowned for its home-made fruit toast, while the lunch menu ranges from light to substantial, including blackboard specials, tapas, plus a good selection of in-house baked cakes.
373 Ringwood-Warrandyte Road, Warrandyte. Garden centre opens Monday to Friday 8.30am to 5pm; 9am to 5pm weekends, cafe from 9am to 5pm daily. Dinner Friday and Saturday during daylight saving; see warranglen.com.au.
Blue Lotus Water Garden
An unexpected find in the upper Yarra Valley is this rather exotic, landscaped display garden of perennial lotus flowers and water lilies, plus various aquatic plants.
Blooming four months of the year, the relatively flat, colourful expanse of more than 40 lotus and 100 water lily varieties is a touch of Asia, with its small thatched-roof rotundas, long wooden footbridges, plus shallow lakes, dams and ponds.
There's plenty of room to find a quiet spot for a picnic here, especially alongside the tranquil, tree-lined Little Yarra River.
Alternatively, next to the retail nursery and women's clothing boutique, and sitting above a water lily and lotus flower-filled dam, is the open-air cafe, which serves light lunches, ice-cream, cold drinks and coffee. Adjoining this is a covered picnic area with tables and chairs, plus a coin-operated barbecue.
2628 Warburton Highway, Yarra Junction. Open 10.30am to 5.30pm until March 31. Garden entry $10 for adults, $4 for children under 16. Dogs permitted on leash; see bluelotusfarm.com.au.
Just more than a decade ago this former horse stud was virtually bare. But owners John and Prue van de Linde have created a refreshing sense of whimsy at this distinct organic solar-powered garden.
Bordered by Yarra Valley wineries, the first things to notice are the rustic entry gates, which John van de Linde, a collector, recycler and landscape contractor, created from various old farming and gardening paraphernalia.
Bucolic buildings surround the Maple Courtyard, including the former stallion's box, and it's under the maple trees that the casual cafe serves good coffee and cake, and sells seasonal heirloom-grown produce. In the corner is a giant chessboard; opposite is a small plant nursery.
Leading off the courtyard is the impressive octagonal-shaped display garden, which will grow as the large parterre garden takes root. There's plenty of secluded nooks for a picnic here, plus attention-grabbing features, such as the ornate fountain, the 100-metre-long wisteria and rose-covered arbour, a gourd maze, dazzling amaranth field and a forest garden.
1210 Melba Highway, Yarra Glen. Entry $9 for adults. Open 10am to 5pm Saturday, Sunday and public holidays. Closed June to August; see alowyngardens.com.au.
Ghin Ghin Olive Grove: Farmstore and Cafe
An olive grove with an intimate farmstore and cafe, the outdoor dining and rural ambience is the drawcard just outside Yea.
Run by Scott Lawrance and his partner, Frank Schoenemann, a handful of tables and chairs with market umbrellas sits outside the New England-style barn cafe that was once the stables of Lawrance's family.
Surrounded by rambling cottage gardens, the pretty wisteria-covered pergola is popular to sit in, as is the porch swathed in climbing rose at the end of their blue-painted cottage (a former dairy).
From the alfresco spaces there are long-ranging aspects of the 750 olive trees on the gently sloping paddock.
The cafe's blackboard menu has some well-priced home-style food, with an emphasis on their farm-grown and hand-cured olives plus olive oil that's good enough to drink. Using local produce, Schoenemann concocts a hearty German potato salad as well as a baked cheesecake made to his family's recipe.
211 Ghin Ghin Road, Yea. Open 10am to 4pm Saturday and Sunday from October to the end of May; see ghinghin.com.au.
Lavandula Swiss Italian Farm
Lying in the middle of a low plain 10 minutes from Daylesford, this sophisticated Provencal-inspired vista garden sprawls across an authentic working farm of lavender, olives, grapes and chestnut trees, along with some fetching old stone Swiss-Italian buildings.
Owner, creator and self-confessed Europhile Carol White says "food needs theatre". And the best place to provide that is among the surrounds of its La Trattoria cafe, now run by Jarratt Volke and Karina Forsyth.
The atmospheric outdoor dining encompasses its stone loggia, the grapevine-wrapped front verandah, or amid the stand of ash trees from where the views take in the lavender, pistes and olive grove.
The cafe offers a small, select and seasonally changing menu. The lavender scone with cream and home-made berry jam is a signature, as are the refreshing lavender lemonade and lavender champagne.
A selection of local wines and beer is featured on the menu along with farm-grown olives and herbs, free-range eggs and regionally grown produce when possible.
The garden is also a great spot to bring a rug and a well-mannered pooch on a leash.
350 Hepburn-Newstead Road, Shepherds Flat. Entry $3.50 for adults, $1 school-age child. Open 10.30am to 5.30pm Friday to Tuesday from September to the end of May, weekends during winter; see lavandula.com.au.
Kristin Lee visited courtesy of Tourism Victoria and the operators.