Destination: Great Ocean Road

Mar 7th, 2013 Adventure Travel, Australia, Destinations, Natural Wonders

There’s more to the Great Ocean Road (GOR) than just the drive. Good onya (good for you) if you do some advance planning. Read these tips to find out when to go, what to pack and where to find koalas, gas and a good microbrew

Great Ocean Road – Paving the Way to an Engineering Marvel

Great Ocean RoadGreat Ocean Road, Victoria

Ideas for an ocean road along Australia’s rugged southwest Victorian coast emerged in the 1880s, but weren’t realized until 1918. Planners envisioned the tentatively titled South Coast Road as a grand tourist attraction that would eclipse both the French Riviera and San Francisco’s coastal road. Its construction would not only employ returning World War I soldiers, but serve as a memorial to honor their fallen comrades. Living in tent cities along the route, soldiers built the road using only picks, shovels and small machinery. Scrambling down ropes on steep inclines to find surveyor pegs, they built footholds that were extended to forge a narrow track. The road’s eastern section to Lorne was officially opened in 1922, while the remainder took until 1932 to complete. Road tolls to repay private financing remained in place until the debt was cleared in 1936. The former dirt road is now a two-lane paved highway (the westbound lane is closest to the coast) that winds along hairpin turns and sheer cliffs.

Geelong Region – Fine Ocean Wines

Geelong RegionGeelong Region
David Hannah, Tourism Victoria

Cool-climate grapes like Cabernet, Shiraz, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc flourish on Australia’s southern coast. Situated between Melbourne and the Great Ocean Road, Geelong serves as a gateway city to this area and makes a great starting point for coastal wine touring. Three distinct sub-regions—Moorabool Valley, The Bellarine and Surf Coast—offer plenty of tasting opportunities. Among the options on the Bellarine peninsula is Oakdene Vineyards, a beautifully restored 1920s homestead with a top-notch restaurant frequented by savvy Melbournites. In addition to offering overnight accommodations, Oakdene has a unique cellar door (wine tasting room) in an “upside-down” A-frame timber house, which adds to its appeal. Further down the highway toward Torquay, the Surf Coast reveals gems like the Victorian Bellbrae Estate with a tasting room and café, and the Minya Vineyard and Winery, which entices guests with summer evening concerts and two overnight cabins. From the Aboriginal name meaning “Place of Many Birds,” Minya has an abundance of winged creatures and is a nice place to call home for the night. For more options, drop in at the Geelong Visitor Information Centre to get a wine map (or download one from the website) and start exploring.

Torquay – Small Surfing Giant

Rose Street Artists' MarketTorquay
Andrew Paoli,
Tourism Victoria

The small town of Torquay marks the official eastern starting point of the Great Ocean Road. Australia’s surfing capital, Torquay brims with surfing history, lifestyle and lore. Known for its wild surf, sheer cliffs and 15-foot winter swells, Bells Beach hosts the longest-running surfing competition in the world. The annual Rip Curl Pro has taken place on Easter since 1961 and draws thousands of spectators, who line the cliffs to watch the world’s best compete for the vaunted bell trophy. Surfers meet monthly to keep Bells pristine and undeveloped, and have planted over 100,000 trees since 1988. As a surfing mecca, Torquay has also attracted upstarts like Alan Green, who began making wetsuits and clothing in an old bakery in 1969. His iconic Rip Curl and Quicksilver surf brands continue to thrive today, along with a host of others. You can shop at the Surf City Plaza and find the essence of the sport’s history and culture at the attached Surf World Museum. Walkers and bikers can explore the lovely Surf Coast Walk for outstanding views.

Anglesea – Golfing with the ’Roos

Rinnpon Lea house & GardensAngelsea

One of the larger communities along the Great Ocean Road, Anglesea boasts retail shops, a mountain bike park, canoeing on its namesake river and beaches like Point Roadknight, where novice surfers can find the best learning waves in the country. It’s also home to the Anglesea Golf Club, known for its resident Eastern Grey kangaroos. While quiet in Australia’s winter (June to August), the 350 to 400 kangaroos come out in force to hop about the greens during the summer months (December to February). Golfers regularly come in close range of a mob (kangaroo pack), but aside from sporadic droppings or a ball that may land in a doe’s (female’s) pouch, the ’roos make fine sporting companions. The hilly greens are best navigated by golf cart, and it’s always wise to give the bucks (males) their space. Even if you don’t golf, you can dine on pub fare at the clubhouse, which overlooks the 18th green. The kangaroos become most active toward dusk and make stellar dining entertainment.

Torquay to Princetown – Rainforest Jewels

Otway National ParkGreat Otway National Park

Great Otway National Park hopscotches over 250,000 acres of hills and mountains along the Great Ocean Road. Featuring beaches and windswept heathland (uncultivated land dominated by sandy soil and shrubs) along the coast, Great Otway also includes a magnificent rainforest filled with emerald fern gullies, giant mossy trees, ancient flora and serene waterfalls that spread north to the hinterlands (back country). Walking trails are the best way to see Otway’s riches. Take the short Maits Rest Rainforest walk to plunge into an Eden of giant ferns and towering trees in shimmering glens. To catch a glimpse of the elusive platypus, paddle a canoe on the hidden Lake Elizabeth at dawn or dusk with Otway Eco Tours, or simply take the three-mile walk around the lake. For an enchanted night adventure, grab a flashlight and walk into Melba Gully where glowworms illuminate the walking trail with pinpoint lights. The superb Southern Heights B&B only two minutes away gives you easy access to the glowing walking trails and superb ocean views.

Lorne, Wye River & Timboon – Watering Holes en Route

The Great Ocean Road offers a host of options for refreshment, and even the small towns offer great reasons to stop. One example is Lorne, noted for its excellent eateries and café culture. For casual beach fare and coffee, try The Bottle of Milk, which serves delicious 7 Seeds coffee (gourmet brew from Melbourne) and high-quality beach burgers. Tea lovers can get a cuppa (cup of tea) and choose from a huge range of fine flavors at the cozy River Tea House, along with scrumptious gluten-free and homemade desserts, plus souvenirs at the adjoining furniture and gift shop. A bit further down the road, the Wye General Store gives road trippers a chance to load up on gourmet snacks and freshly baked bread for picnics. If you’d rather just eat in, settle into the casual café and wine bar that comes with sea views on deck and a wine list featuring Victoria’s local bounty. A bit further off the trail (about 10 miles north of Port Campbell), the standout Timboon Railway Shed Distillery makes a worthy detour for whiskey, coffee and fresh local products. Enjoy a stellar meal and a single-malt whiskey in the renovated railway-goods shed.

Apollo Bay & Westward – Walking the Ocean Wilds

Great Ocean WalkGreat Ocean Walk
Mark Watson, Tourism Victoria

Driving isn’t the only way to see the Great Ocean Road. A fantastic 65-mile walking trail stretches west from Apollo Bay to Gibsons Steps, just shy of the famous 12 Apostles’ rock formation. Designed for walkers to get on and off the trail at a number of points, the Great Ocean Walk is a wonderful way to experience the Australian bush and its birds, wildlife and fauna. The trail hits all the marks for outstanding panoramas as it passes through remote terrain, coastal scenery, forests, beaches, heathland, Great Otway National Park, and the Marine National Park and sanctuary. Accommodations along the trail include campsites, B&Bs and cottages with kitchens. Make Apollo Bay your base and take self-guided day walks to well-marked sites along clifftops and beaches, or book a multi-day journey with any number of tour operators. Auswalk offers guided or self-guided 5-day and 8-day itineraries, while RAW Travel’s 3-day, 4-day and 7-day adventures feature local and indigenous guides, plus locally sourced food.

Cape Otway & Aireys Inlet – Spotlights at Sea

Tramcar RestaurantCape Otway Lighthouse
Cape Otway Lightstation

Over 600 ships met a disastrous fate against the sheer limestone cliffs and rocks of Victoria’s rugged coastline. Many of these wrecks occurred during Australia’s 19th-century gold rush, when sea traffic increased along the southern coast between Melbourne and towns like Port Fairy. In 1848, the first of 23 Victorian lighthouses was erected at Cape Otway, where hundreds of lives had been lost. Until its decommissioning in 1994, the Cape Otway Lightstation was the oldest continuously operating Australian lighthouse on the mainland. Today, it offers overnight accommodations in the lighthouse keeper’s quarters. Guests can enjoy ocean views, sunsets and the koalas that live in the gum trees along the road. Day visitors can take self-guided or guided tours that include the telegraph station and World War II bunker. Aficionados can also visit the Split Point Lighthouse in Aireys Inlet, a quiet destination between Anglesea and Lorne. Built in 1891, the White Queen (as the lighthouse was affectionately called) became automated in 1919. A number of other lighthouses can be found in Queenscliff, Point Lonsdale, Port Fairy and Warrnambool.

Moonlight Head to Port Fairy – Shipwreck Coast

Hundreds of 19th-century vessels laden with cargo, gold prospectors and immigrants sailed to their doom on the treacherous Victorian coastline. To date, less than 250 of these wrecks have been found. Following road signs along the Great Ocean Road, you can explore the Historic Shipwreck Trail to sites where information plaques recount Victoria’s maritime history. The trail traces the coastline from the cliffs of Moonlight Head all the way to the Victoria state border. Stop in at the intriguing Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village in Warrnambool. This re-created 1870s maritime village/museum houses the country’s richest shipwreck collection and recounts dramatic stories like that of the doomed Loch Ard—only two of its 54 passengers and crew survived. Flagstaff Hill also keeps one piece of the Loch Ard cargo on view. The Minton porcelain peacock, one of only nine in the world, is Australia’s most valuable shipwreck artifact—valued at $4 million.

Port Campbell – Taking Flight to the Rock Stars

Port Campbell12 Apostles –
Port Campbell National Park

Those who venture along the Great Ocean Road to Port Campbell National Park will be rewarded with a look at its most famous residents—the 12 Apostles. Although only eight remain due to the constant onslaught of wind and sea, these magnificent rocks continue to inspire awe as they rise like sentinels from the sea. Fashioned from the pounding Southern Ocean and gusting winds that eroded the limestone cliffs into caves, the rocks eventually morphed into arches that then collapsed into the stacks that are visible today. To see them up close, book a flight with 12 Apostles Helicopters. Flying low for outstanding views of the spectacular coastline, pilots provide running commentary as they guide you on a 10-minute journey over these amazing formations. Try to book a morning flight to avoid wait times and gain access to the full range of flights, including those with the option to record your journey.

Princetown – Comfort Camping in a Hidden Bush Retreat

Pebble PointPebble Point

At the end of the Great Ocean Walk (see above), past the well-visited Port Campbell National Park, lies the secluded retreat of Pebble Point. Built into the wooded hills near the tiny village of Princetown, this small, eco-friendly property features five safari tents with king-size beds, cozy bedding, en-suite showers, chocolates and wine. Awake from sound slumber to the sunrise and the rolling Southern Ocean waves. Emerge from your tent to enjoy views of the surrounding land and sea. Then set out on foot for a hearty breakfast at the 90-year-old Lazy Bones Jones Café & General Store. The proprietors can advise you of the best local gems and bush trails to secluded beaches, dunes and clifftops where you’ll meet nary a soul. Return to Lazy Bones for an afternoon pick-me-up or pick up Kangaroobie Farm steak or sausage at the attached General Store. Drive the gourmet food loop to procure local produce, berries and cheese in Timboon. For dinner, you can use the communal camp barbie (barbecue) to cook your fresh finds, or drive to nearby Port Campbell and let yourself be served.

Warrnambool – The Whale Nursery

Most of the spectacular Great Ocean Road is visible year-round, but some of its biggest gems are a bit more elusive. The quiet giants of the Great Southern Ocean make appearances only in the Australian winter (June to August). Following the faster humpbacks that migrate north to Queensland in late April to early May, pods (groups) of Southern Right Whales frequent Australia’s southern coast between late May and early October. Often coming within 100 meters of shore, the birthing females seek isolated places away from the pod at favored locations like Logan’s Beach, where they take up residence around mid-June. Considered a key “whale nursery,” this beach has a newly constructed viewing platform that provides onlookers premium views of the baby whales and their mothers, who roll, lobtail and fin slap as they prepare the calves for the journey back to the Antarctic. If you miss the migration season, don’t despair. Between December and May, you may be lucky enough to see the giant blue whales from vantage points at Cape Nelson and the Cape Bridgewater Blowholes near Portland as they feed on surface krill.

Port Fairy – Seafaring Heritage with a Spot of Tea

Port FairyRob Blackburn, Tourism Victoria

Although the Great Ocean Road officially comes to its western end at Warrnambool, the charming fishing village of Port Fairy beckons just 30 minutes away. Great Norfolk pines, old stone churches, 19th-century cottages and charming inns are sprinkled along wide streets. Named in the early 1800s after Captain James Wishart’s vessel the Fairy, the settlement became a successful whaling station and the busiest port in the colony (after Melbourne). Freshly caught crayfish, abalone and fish still make this port a great place to sample seafood. Once you’ve eaten, discover the town’s seafaring history on the Maritime & Shipwreck Heritage Walk. Port Fairy also boasts a thriving artist colony. Boutiques, art galleries, antique shops and craft shops, along with the Port Fairy Folk Festival (one of Australia’s largest music festivals), make this town an end-of-the-road bonanza. After wandering the sights, refuel at the Clonmara Tea Room. The proprietors of this 1850 stone cottage offer fantastic homemade Devonshire scones and a great plowman’s lunch.

Ready to Go?

Don’t forget to consult our free packing guides and destination guides before you pack your bags.