Stretching some 356km from Portland, near Victoria’s border with South Australia, all the way across to Torquay near the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia’s Great Ocean Road is considered by many to be one of the world’s great road-trips. The B100, to give it it’s less romantic name, was first constructed in 1919 by some 3,000 returned servicemen as a memorial to their comrades lost during WWI. Today, the twisting stretch of tarmac winds its way around jagged cliffs, past some of the area’s best surf beaches and through some phenomenal historical bushland. Whether you have two days or two weeks, this is a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage for those who love all things beach.
Most visitors to the Great Ocean Road area arrive and depart via Melbourne, by far the largest city and main transport hub for the region. Whilst it’s possible, and indeed there are many companies offering day trips to the Great Ocean Road, I would certainly not recommend joining one unless you’re critically short on time. If you have to do it this way, be prepared for a long drive in a crowded bus, and only whistle-stop visits to the major sights – not the real road-trip experience by any means! Much better would be to grab yourself a car and put aside a good 3-4 days to really get to grips with this glorious stretch of tarmac. With some great deals available on Car Hire, and excellent deals on accommodation on Booking.com, you can make this trip as luxurious or budget-friendly as you like.
Melbourne to Torquay
If like us, you start your trip in Melbourne, the first couple of hour’s drive out of town will be some fairly monotonous highway driving. Leave town on the M1 highway and enjoy a pleasant cruise through suburban Melbourne before leaving the city and crossing open farmland for the 75km ride to Geelong. Situated across Port Phillip Bay from Melbourne, this small waterside town has grown into a pleasant retreat for those looking to escape the city. Boutique coffee shops and some excellent seafood restaurants line the waterfront, along with some pleasant parkland and large marina. It’s advisable to leave Melbourne after 10 am to make sure you miss any rush-hour traffic, in which case Geelong makes an excellent lunch stop! The King George Fish & Grill, directly opposite the pier, is held in high regard for its expertly prepared seafood, and of course does an excellent Fish & Chips.
From Geelong, it’s just another 25km or so along to the official start of the Great Ocean Road at Torquay. This small seaside town is, in fact, the region’s surf capital, with the famous Bell Beach playing host to the annual Rip Curl Pro surf event. Experienced surfers will have no problems filling several days riding this area’s exceptional waves, whilst plenty of surf schools are on hand to guide beginners through the basics. Go Ride A Wave excellent value introductory surf lessons all over the area which is an excellent way for absolute beginners to get into the water in a safe and friendly environment. My partner was lucky enough to spend two hours with Lochland (aka Lochy/Lucky/Wobble!) and just 4 other students, by the end of which she was able to pop-up and ride some smaller waves into shore – not bad for an absolute noob! At $70 including wet-suit and board hire, this was incredible value and an all-round amazing experience.
A special shout-out also has to go to home-grown burger champions Bottle of Milk who have locations in Lorne and Torquay. I was lucky enough to live in Lorne when these guys were getting off the ground around 9 years ago and was thrilled to see that they’re still going strong and have opened a second branch in Torquay! Definitely worth a visit whilst in town, whether or not you decided to spend a night or two here. Which I’d highly recommend.
Torquay to Cape Otway
Having got the boring motorway-blast out of the way, this is where things get interesting. Twisting coastal roads, staggering cliff views, deserted and often hidden beaches galore mean that you cover ground a lot slower than you might expect! With literally dozens of lay-bys, viewpoints and rest areas, you really can spend as much or as little time as you like soaking up the awesome vibes. Along the way, you’ll pass through the quaint villages of Anglesea and Airey’s Inlet, before reaching another surf-paradise at Lorne. Split Point Lighthouse makes for a great stop off along the way, with a charming café serving warm, homemade scones and jam!
Arguably one of the area’s most expensive towns, trendy Lorne is ever-popular for good reason. A perfect crescent bay, flanked either side by dramatic forested hills plays host to a charming local community with great restaurants and plenty to keep you entertained. I may be biased, having spent several months living and working here as a backpacker many, many years ago – but if the budget can run to it, I’d definitely spend one or two nights in town!
If you’ve got a tent, there are some awesome beach-side campsites, although we opted to check into the Lorne Bay View motel. Just minutes from the beach, the rooms are superbly clean and most feature an awesome terrace, cooking equipment and hot-tubs. Brian & Susie run a tight ship, and at around $150 per night, you really can’t go far wrong! Apart from the obvious attraction of spending time on that stunning beach, you can take a hike (or drive) up to Teddy’s Lookout for some knock-out views of the bay, with the Great Ocean Road snaking its way around the cliff face. For a little inland-relief, a gentle hike down to the impressive Erskine Falls is a great option to get in touch with the region’s dense bushland. A dip in the waterfalls themselves is a great way to cool off, just keep an eye out for snakes on the final part of the trail!
From Lorne onwards, the road starts to get really dramatic. Often cut straight into the cliff-side, the twists and turns reveal a stunning new vista at every corner. Once again, ample pull-offs allow you to stop as often as you like to capture the view and take a dip in the sea. It’s around here that the Indian Ocean meets the Bass Straights which separate Tasmania from mainland Australia. The meeting of these two massive bodies of water throws up some incredible surf, although the rip-tides that can go along with this can cause big problems for swimmers. If in doubt, it’s best to swim on patrolled beached, between the red and yellow flags which indicate a lifeguard is present and the water is considered safe for swimming!
The next major town that you’ll hit will be Apollo Bay, a formerly sleepy little surf town which has undergone a recent explosion in tourism. Whilst the beach is perfectly pleasant and accommodation options are plentiful, the regular influx of tour groups and busses can take the edge off the otherwise chilled-out vibe. Instead, push on another half an hour or so, until you reach the beautiful Cape Otway National Park. Whilst the GOR turns inland at this point, smaller roads lead you into the dense, almost jungle-like bushland that plays host to a number of awesome walking trails and waterfalls including the Hopetoun Falls, Triplet Falls and Beauchamp Falls. Climb to the top of the historic Cape Otway Lighthouse for some pretty incredible views of the area and out to sea. For a fun place to sleep, check into Bimbi Park’s Camping Under Koalas, deep in the national park. Great value cabins and caravans cater to a range of budgets, and as the name suggests there’s a great chance you’ll meet some furry friends during your stay!
Cape Otway to Warrnambool
Leaving Cape Otway, the road heads inland for quite a way, before re-joining the coast at Princetown. The inland stretch of road weaves through some pretty impressive forests and farmland, with a number of small Chocolate, Cheese and Wine producers to break up the journey. As soon as you get back onto the coast, you enter the Twelve Apostles Marine Park, which soon becomes the Port Campbell Marine Park which together make up perhaps the most iconic stretch of this great drive. The sights come thick and fast, so be prepared for plenty of stop-offs! The advantage of staying at Cape Otway is that you will reach this part of the road long before the day-trippers from Melbourne, meaning far fewer crowds! All of the sights are well signposted and have ample parking, with the bigger stops offering toilets and even a small shop.
Frist up are the famous Gibson Steps, an incredible viewpoint looking out over the dramatic cliffs to an idyllic beach far below. As the name suggests, there are indeed steps clinging on to the edge of the cliff-face, providing access to fine sands far below. Just out to see are two giant limestone stacks, affectionately known as Gog and Magog, which are a dream for budding photographers looking to hone their skills behind the lens.
Pushing on around one kilometre, you’ll hit arguably the most famous landmark in the area: The Twelve Apostles. Formed over around 20 million years, these giant limestone pillars are the result of endless erosion of the mainland by the wind and seas, which formed natural caves in the cliffs. The caves were gradually worn out to become arches, which in turn were further eroded to the point that the arches collapsed, leaving the free-standing pillars that we see today. As the name suggests, once upon a time there were 12 such stacks in the bay, but thanks to ongoing erosion there are now only 8 left standing. The most recent collapse was in 2005 when the 9th Apostle took a dramatic plunge into the sea! There’s a great walking path around the clifftop offering excellent views out across the bay, which are even more dramatic at sunrise or sunset – Well worth the effort as visitor numbers are generally low which adds to the magic.
The carpark area for the Twelve Apostles doubles as the base for 12 Apostles Helicopters who offer a number of options for flights in and around the area. If the weather is fine, the $145 for a 15-minute tour is well worth the cash, as you get an unforgettable up-close and personal view of the coast, far above the tourist masses.
Back on the road, another 4km drive delivers you deep into the heart of Port Campbell National Park. Follow signs for Loch Ard Gorge, as this exit delivers you to a host of viewpoints and attractions. The gorge itself is an absolute gem, and the short hike down the steps to the beach below is well worth the effort. If you get there early enough, it’s possible to get this fine sandy beach all to yourself. The gorge opening itself not only makes for an incredible view, but it also shelters the bay from the wind and high seas, creating a wonderfully calm spot for a quick dip! Before climbing back up to the clifftop, be sure to check out the amazing caves and grottos at the back of the gorge behind the steps. Many visitors don’t even realise they’re there! Within a short walk of the carpark area, you’ll also find The Razorback, Mutton Bird Lookout and The Blowhole – all well worth a look in for their incredible views.
Continuing through the small tourist town of Port Campbell, next on the hit-list is the double feature of London Bridge and The Grotto. Another example of the natural caves and arches that form along this stretch of coastline, London Bridge was formerly a double arch before, rather fittingly, falling down in 1990! The outlying arch is now free-standing and, although no longer accessible to visitors, is an awesome sight to behold. If you haven’t by now seen enough arches and caves, you can head just a little further along the road to The Grotto where once again you can descend to beach level and explore an amazing network of natural rock formations. Often overlooked by the mass tour groups, this may be a good place to get away from the crowds!
The last stop for most visitors before the road turns inland is the vast 32km wide Bay of Islands which lies between Peterborough and Warrnambool. Rather having one specific sight, the bay has a number of viewpoints and trailheads, many of which are often practically deserted. Cruise this final stretch of coast road at your leisure, stopping off as and when the mood takes you. From here onwards, it’s inland all the way to Warrnambool…
Onwards from Warrnambool
For many, the regional centre of Warrnambool marks the end of their Great Ocean Road adventure. Whilst not exactly being a destination in its own right, the town is a perfectly pleasant place to spend a night after a long day’s driving and sightseeing. There’s an awesome range of hotels, motels and backpacker accommodation, although we found that the Best Western Colonial Village Motel offered nice rooms and great value for money. In town, the Warrnambool Hotel is the go-to place for a well-earned beer and bite to eat, serving a good selection of pub fayre as well as some interesting (and delicious) wood-fired pizzas. If you hadn’t yet experienced a proper Australian tavern, this could be an excellent and gentle introduction!
So – Where’s next? If time and kilometres allow, there’s nothing stopping you from pressing on along the coast. The Grampians national park is just a few hour’s drive away and is a great spot to get back to nature with dramatic hills and rolling forests. If you keep going long enough, you’ll cross over into South Australia, home of the Barossa Valley and some of the nation’s best vineyards, before hitting the state capital of Adelaide. Failing that, a 3-hour blast on the Princes Highway will have you back in Melbourne in time for tea!