There are plenty of picnic-perfect spots in and around Melbourne – find our guide to 12 of the best here. But if you want to leave the city in your rear-view mirror on a cruisy day trip, these are our top picks of Victoria’s lush gardens and bush retreats.

Geelong Botanic Gardens, Geelong
Drive an hour south-west of Melbourne and you’ll arrive at this 200-acre green expanse on the bay. Established in 1851, it’s among the oldest botanic gardens in Australia. Unfurl a picnic rug on one of the lawns, or in the adjoining Eastern Park arboretum. Expect to see eye-catching Queensland bottle trees as well as other native baobabs. There’s also a 1960s-built conservatory housing a weird and wonderful collection of tropical plants.

Seawinds Gardens, Arthurs Seat
A short saunter from the Arthurs Seat summit, Seawinds Gardens is an enormous 84 acres of picturesque picnic spots (plus plenty of kangaroos). William Ricketts sculptures punctuate the native and exotic gardens, while meandering paths lead you to views of Port Phillip Bay, and the Mornington and Bellarine peninsulas. Daffodils flower in late August.

Castlemaine Botanic Gardens, Castlemaine
From the beautiful wisteria in spring to the fiery oaks in autumn, this stunning assemblage of greenery invites admiration year-round. It’s also conveniently located opposite The Mill precinct, where you can gather coffee and decadent Austrian cakes from Das Kaffeehaus, wine from Boomtown Winery Co-Op, sourdough from Sprout Bakery and cured meats from Oakwood Smallgoods Co. Take a seat around the glistening Lake Johanna and tuck into your potluck of local fare.

George Tindale Memorial Gardens, Sherbrooke
An eight-acre love letter to ornamental horticulture, George Tindale Memorial Gardens is a little quieter than its neighbour, the Alfred Nicholas Memorial Garden, but just as splendid. Find striking sculptures by Margaret Ruth Adams, artist and wife to the garden’s eponymous green thumb, George Tindale. His diverse floral selections ensure an array of vibrant blooms throughout the entire year. Meander along pathways lined with azaleas, camellias, fuchsias, hellebores, hydrangeas and rhododendrons, before settling in on one of the lush lawns. The best part? It’s less than an hour from the CBD.

Pirianda Gardens, Olinda
For another uncrowded Dandenong Ranges experience, visit Pirianda Gardens and its 20-plus acres of glorious flora on a hillside. Formerly the private garden and home of Harvey and Gillian Ansell, the upper grounds are flat, with a rotunda for lunching and lots of sunlit lawn. Less accessible are the steep walking trails, which head towards a beautiful fern gully, dominated by blackwoods. The rare and unusual handkerchief tree, native to China, is a drawcard here, as are the snowball bushes – both flower in spring.

Mossvale Park, Berrys Creek
Surrounded by dairy farms, this picture-perfect park is a lesser-known oasis in South Gippsland. Treasured by the local community, it brims with ornamental trees and shrubs from every corner of the globe. It’s bursting with colour come autumn; see everything from Chinese maidenhairs and bronze Japanese cedars to Ussurian pears, Algerian oaks and Norway spruces. There’s a simple hut with a fireplace for the cooler months.

Malmsbury Botanic Gardens, Malmsbury
A 70-minute drive from Melbourne, you’ll likely find more geese than people at this 1850s botanic garden in sleepy Malmsbury. The geese are official residents – as are some ducks – and across the road at the Common nature reserve you may even spot a platypus. Californian redwoods, bunya pines, strawberry trees and sugar gums are among the flora planted here. Pick up a bottle at the nearby Zig Zag Road Winery to enjoy with a view of the 1862-built viaduct.

Maroondah Reservoir Park, Healesville
Arrive at this Yarra Valley park early to nab one of the highly sought-after rotundas. Otherwise, there’s acres upon acres of landscaped gardens and eucalyptus woodland to explore for a picnic spot. At the end of your feast, take a short hike to the top of the 41-metre-high dam; you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the mountains surrounding the reservoir. Also try to spy wallabies, echidnas and the odd crafty lyrebird here.

Colac Botanic Gardens, Colac
Aside from the vast lawns, barbeques and lakeside frontage, a highlight of this historic 16-acre garden is a towering, more than 100-year-old bunya pine. The garden was established in 1865 at the southern banks of Lake Colac, and the architect of the Royal Botanic Gardens, William Guilfoyle, had a hand in its 1910 redesign. Mature oak trees provide shade on hot days, and koala sightings are not an uncommon occurrence here. For a no-prep eating affair, pause at Birregurra en route to collect takeaway paninis and treats from gluten-free bakehouse Otway Artisan, and a bottle of local wine from Yield Restaurant and Providore.

Hanging Rock Reserve, Woodend
This distinctive geological formation has been luring picnickers since 1967, care of its literary and filmic associations. While some visitors feel the presence of the fictional characters who went missing in Joan Lindsay’s book, Picnic at Hanging Rock, others insist it’s the cultural and spiritual connections of the land’s traditional custodians – the tribes of the Djadjawurung, Woiwurong and Taungurong peoples – that give this volcanic creation such meaning. Wind your way up to the pinnacle where spectacular views await.

RJ Hamer Arboretum, Olinda
At this peaceful 101-hectare “place of trees”, find sweeping views across the Yarra Valley. Savour the serenity from wide passages of sun-drenched lawn while you graze, or take one of the many walking trails to zigzag through more than 150 species of native and exotic trees. Tread quietly and you may be rewarded with sightings of crimson rosellas, kookaburras, lyrebirds, lorikeets, yellow-tailed black cockatoos – and hopefully a wombat or two. There are barbeques and picnic shelters near the Chalet Road car park.

Mount Worth State Park, Allambee
Wildlife abounds at this verdant state park just south of Warragul in Gippsland, and Moonlight Creek Picnic Area is the place to set up. It’s a grassy clearing amid old-growth forest, equipped with sheltered and sunny tables and fireplaces. A number of walks commence here, ranging from 30 minutes to three hours. The serene area is home to the common wombat, swamp wallaby, feather-tail glider, platypus and rare sooty owl.

Pound Bend Reserve, Warrandyte
Setting off from the CBD, you’ll only need to navigate 40 minutes of bitumen to get to this patch of dense bushland along the Yarra. Recline at the water’s edge (you can also swim here) or unpack your knapsack in the surrounding open parklands. There are plenty of walks to enjoy throughout Warrandyte State Park, including the Wurundjeri Stories Trail that explores the traditional custodians’ connection to the site.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Cranbourne
Nine hundred acres of preserved woodland and curated plant collections await just 45 minutes south-east of Melbourne’s city centre. And if you’ve never visited the “other” Royal Botanic Gardens before, make sure to take a stroll through the striking Australian Garden. If eating is your top priority, bee-line for one of two official picnic areas: the Woodlands Picnic Area is a spacious, open grassland fringed by eucalyptus, with a handful of sheltered barbeque facilities and seating. The Stringybark Picnic Area too has barbeques and rustic picnic tables. Also find a lookout tower and more than 10 kilometres of walking tracks.

The Garden at Broughton Hall, Jindivick
While only open to the public at certain times of the year, with a $20 entry fee (follow the Facebook page for updates), The Garden at Broughton Hall is well worth a visit. Set among the undulating hills of West Gippsland – around 90 minutes from Melbourne – it’s been described as Versailles-like, though on a much smaller scale. On this stunning property, find peacocks on the Upper Terrace and rare blooms in the rose garden, or go inside a small, cosy Georgian-style cottage for tea by the fire in the cooler months.

Melbourne is reopening – and travel from the metro area to regional Victoria is permitted from 6pm on Friday October 29 – but the pandemic isn’t over. We’re entering a new phase of living with Covid-19: some of us will be going out like crazy, while others might prefer to stay at home for now. If you want to support your favourite venues and businesses, ensure you’re adhering to current health advice. The Covid-19 situation is evolving and public health requirements are still subject to change. If you have concerns about visiting businesses or public spaces, or questions about self-isolation or coronavirus testing, see the latest updates from the Victorian government.