Located in the foothills of the Dandenong Ranges, around 1 hour's drive from the Melbourne CBD, lies Puffing Billy, one of Australia's best preserved and most loved steam railways. Featuring a range of locomotives, including the rare wood fuelled Climax steam engine, this scenic railway meanders its way from Belgrave to Gembrook, with a multitude of stops in between.
With soaring trestle bridges and open carts (yes you can hang your legs out!), Puffing Billy has long been a favourite day trip for Melbourne families and tourists alike. It's leisurely pace allows you to fully experience the beautiful sub tropical rainforest that this area is known for and if you are lucky you may even spot a kookaburra or a wombat on the way.
When stepping aboard the platform at Belgrave station, it's like you've been transported back to a time gone by. With over 900 volunteers, as well as paid staff (many who began as volunteers) the mood is well and truly set. The passion for the railway is clearly displayed by all and small details such as uniforms, whistles and styling of the station have you transported back to a time when a train ride was as much about the journey as it was getting the to destination.
Once your tickets have been checked by the conductor, the whistle will blow, signalling the start of your journey. Depending on which experience you've selected (oh, there is a range) this is where your journey really becomes unique.
The daily excursion train
It's not often you are encouraged to hang out the side of a train, but it's a right of passage when riding Puffing Billy. With its open barred windows you can safely 'ride on the edge' and feel the wind against your legs and face as the train chugs along on its journey.
The line is well preserved and maintained, so there's no risk of getting to close to the greenery as you ride, but I guarantee you that your heart will be beating a little faster than usual if you've got the courage to keep your legs out whilst going over the soaring trestle bridges. Make sure to keep one hand holding on tight, as you'll need the other to wave to the cars and people below. It's all part of the journey.
Dine and ride
Now you could be mistaken for thinking that Puffing Billy is just for families, and well...the kids. This is where you are wrong. With a large range of special event trains and services running, there really is something for everyone.
We joined on a midday service and enjoyed the hospitality of the steam and cuisine luncheon. A fully enclosed, heated and deluxe first class carriage that is attached once daily to the regular excursion train.
This carriage is set out dining style, with table configurations for parties of 2 and 4. Fully refurbished, in keeping with the era, you can comfortable sit back and enjoy the ride as the staff serve you three delicious courses, accompanied by drinks, chocolates and tea or coffee to finish.
The menu contains favourites such as hearty soup, baked chicken in a creamy mushroom sauce and who can say no to dessert when it looks this good. Feeling full and merry, we were ready for a wander by the time we pulled into Lakeside Station in Emerald.
Steam and cuisine also runs after dark on selected dates adding a new dimension to the experience.
Special event trains - for the kids
When asked to name a famous train, Thomas the Tank Engine will come to mind for many and if you've got a Thomas fan (or two) at home, then vitising Puffing Billy when they run their Thomas train is a must. A fully themed event, the day includes meeting the Fat Controller as well as a host of other 'Thomas' related activities.
Special event trains - for the adults
If you're looking for a unique experience, then why not hop aboard one of Puffing Billy's special event trains. There are a range of experiences including murder mystery trains, dine and dance trains and rhythm and blues trains.
Together, we've ridden many steam train journeys around the world, but never with a locomotive that is wood rather than coal fired. Requiring two firemen (aka stokers of the fire), the Climax engine is one of only 3 left in the world, and requires a great deal of skill to run. Initially designed to haul heavy loads of timber up steep inclines in rural Victoria, this special engine runs a little slower than her speedier counterparts, giving you more time to enjoy the ride.
Being such a unique train, a ride on the Climax features extra time at each stop for photo opportunities, as well as a chance to hear the geared engine running. Depending on the event, a hearty meal is usually also served to warm the bones, as these events are run using the fully open carriages (and you thought being able to hang your legs out was cool!)
We were lucky enough to enjoy a ride on the Climax during a special day event and it was certainly a unique experience that we feel lucky to have been able to enjoy. The open carriages (which also run during the warmer months on the regular service) are a photographer's delight, and the potential for the odd stop as the engineer and firemen maintain that tricky balance of having the right pressure required to power the engine on are all a part of this unique experience.
Enjoying the area
Whilst Puffing Billy makes for the perfect day trip from Melbourne, why not stay a little longer and enjoy the amazing hospitality and sights that the Dandenong Ranges have to offer.
Full of luxe B&Bs, great dining, bush walks and attractions, the Dandenongs make for a great weekend getaway, We can highly recommend both Fernglade on Menzies and The Heart of Emerald B&Bs for incredible stays for both couples and families. For families in particular, Fernglade on Menzies with their resident friendly sheep and opportunities to organise star gazing should you be so inclined.
With an open fire and wide range of choice on their menu, we highly recommend dining at Elevation in Emerald. We've eaten here several times and can't fault the food or the service.
The round up
I'll admit that I'm a little bit of a local when it comes to the Dandenongs. I grew up at the base of the mountain. I gazed at it through the back windows of our house every day, and made my parents drive me up and down the hills countless times to visit friends whilst I was at school. Like a lost old friend, I'd somewhat forgotten how lovely the Dandenongs are and what great adventures there are to be had.
Whilst I'd ridden Puffing Billy as a child and a teenager, I'd not been back to revisit as an adult, and after a weekend of reacquainting myself with this beloved area and railway I'm not sure why it took me so long! Yes, Puffing Billy is great for families and children, but it is also fantastic for couples, singles and groups.
With the railway running every day of the year, except Christmas, there really is no better time to make plans to head up the hills and enjoy the ride.
For current information on events and to book your Puffing Billy experience, make sure to visit their website.
Whilst we were guests of the Puffing Billy Railway, all opinions are our own.