Great Ocean Road - Victoria's best scenic coastal drive
The Great Ocean Road lines the southeastern Australian coast from the South Australia/Victoria border in the west to the coastal town of Torquay in the east.
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What's on your road tripping playlist?
“I’ve been driving all night my hands are wet at the wheel,” are the lines from that classic song Radar Love playing repetitiously through my head as I leave the congested roads of Melbourne behind. There’s something about a road trip that seems to incite classic cheesy driving music. Billie Oceans’ Get Outta My Dreams and Into My Car is another that makes it onto the playlist, so too The Eagles Take it Easy.
Perhaps this nostalgia is inspired by those now old-fashioned childhood holidays with the family wagon packed to the headlining with barely enough space for three kids and the dog on the back seat. Driving to a coastal campground, Dad would pop in a cassette (remember them?) and Johnny Cash’s rockabilly baritone would set the tone for a carefree holiday. Though I’ve been driving barely an hour, I’m well into holiday headspace as the asphalt stretches out before me along one of Australia’s most splendid coastal roads.
What's all the fuss about the Great Ocean Road?
The Great Ocean Road is 240 kilometres of ocean-hugging bitumen starting at the coastal hamlet of Torquay about an hour south of Melbourne, finishing before the South Australian border at Warrnambool. Jutting into Bass Strait, to the south the cobalt blue Southern Ocean, its beaches kissed by breaking surf and its’ seabed littered with shipwrecks, rolls in uninterrupted all the way from Tasmania. To the north, bottle green tree ferns and towering eucalypts of the Otway Ranges tumble down to the verge. Forest-clad ranges are interspersed by rolling farmlands bookended by coastal towns with quaint names like Johanna and Apollo Bay. For many though, the star attraction of the Great Ocean Road is found far along the western shore, the meandering drive to the Twelve Apostles merely an enticing entree to the main course.
The only road connecting the Victorian coastal communities of Torquay and Warrnambool, the Great Ocean Road was constructed by returned WW1 soldiers. Dedicated to servicemen and women who didn’t return from war zones, it’s the world’s largest war memorial and took over ten years to complete. A snaking, twisting coast-hugging road with enough zig and zag to keep most drivers on their toes, it’s speed-limited to 80km most of the way. However motorists are briefly shuffled down the pecking order behind athletes in May when the section between Lorne and Apollo Bay is used for the annual Great Ocean Road Marathon. Walkers too can park the car and stretch the legs on any of the trails that make up the 1,04km long Great Ocean Walk.
Highlights of the Great Ocean Road
Midway along the route, the town of Lorne exudes coastal charisma, overlooking a sweeping expanse of white sand beach. Though there’s only around 1000 residents, come summer holidays the town virtually bristles with activity when Melburnians flock to the south coast. Mostly taking up residence in apartments that clamour hillside for ocean views, street side cafes and restaurants swing into life creating an almost festive ambience. Apollo Bay at Cape Otway is somewhat more laid back, except when the annual Musical Festival cranks up the volume in April. The fishing boat harbour and jetty is popular with fishermen dangling a line. Pop into the Fishermen-s Co-op on the shore for trawler-fresh lobster and other seafood delights plucked from Bass Strait waters. The southern end of the beach is protected from ocean swells so don’t forget to pack your swimmers.
Travelling further westwards, the pace of life winds down a little more with each kilometre travelled. The teeny village of Wye River is just the sort of holiday spot to kick back, unwind and really inhale the salt-laden air lingering in the forest. In fact, this is just the sort of family-friendly parks alluded to earlier that we would have camped at on family road trips. Bypassed by many visitors who prefer the cafe society of Lorne, Wye River is home to a beachside caravan park with 25 acres of parkland. Beyond a handful of houses, there’s a pub on the hill and not much else. For nature lovers it makes a quiet base camp for exploring the natural beauty of nearby Great Otway National Park. The deck of the Wye Beach Hotel is worthy of a cold beer or two if you’re going to bed down for the night in the adjacent motel rooms.
Cape Otway Light Station & the Twelve Apostles
Taking a short detour off the main road onto Lighthouse Road to Cape Otway Lighthouse, signs adorned with Australia’s national symbols alert drivers to beware of wildlife. If you’ve still got the music cranked up I recommend you turn it down a notch in order to hear the cacophony of sounds erupting from the forest before reaching the lighthouse. Keep an eye out overhead in the eucalypt branches that arch over the road for slumbering koalas. Bashful solitary creatures that are endangered in parts of Australia, it’s a rare treat to view them in the wild. Camera-toting tourists, their vehicles stopped mid road at odd angles, are a sure sign that a koala has been spotted.
The Cape Otway Lighthouse has been in continuous operation since 1848, providing a shining light for mariners ever since. Bass Strait is a treacherous stretch of water, particularly so for sailing ships before the advent of steam engines. Known as the shipwreck coast, over 80 ships were lost between Cape Otway and Port Fairy prior to the lights construction. Standing 90 metres above the cliff, visitors can climb the steps to the viewing platform just below the light which seems to hover above the crashing surf below.
The shining star of the Great Ocean Road is undoubtedly the Twelve Apostles near Port Campbell. Don’t be fooled by the name though. While once there were twelve impressive limestone stacks rising from the Southern Ocean, these days you’re more likely to see nine of them. You’ll know you are close once you spot the swarm of helicopters hovering overhead taking visitors on 15 minute joyrides from the roadside visitor centre. Sculptured by erosion from wind and waves, they started out as caves in the cliff face, eroding over time to become arches, then eventually stand alone pillars as the limestone collapsed. An ever evolving feature at the mercy of nature, presumably the current monoliths will eventually disappear beneath the waves while new ones form cliff side. The best time to view The Twelve Apostles is late in the afternoon when the earthy limestone seems to radiate warmth in the soft afternoon light.
Though if you’re there first thing in the morning, not only will you beat the crowds, you’ll also have the rest of the day and 240kms of gloriously winding bitumen stretching out before you to enjoy. Shania Twain’s ‘Let’s go girls… is not a bad opening line from the song Man! I Feel Like a Woman! to get the days’ drive underway.
Where to Eat, Stay & Play on the Great Ocean Road
Grand Pacific Hotel, Lorne – Constructed in 1875 at the head of the Lorne Pier long before the Great Ocean Road existed, well heeled guests arrived by steamer for summer holidays at this grand waterfront hotel, now fully restored to her original splendour.
Cape Otway Lighthouse Cottages, Apollo Bay – Perched high atop the cliffs that prompted explorer Matthew Flinders to observe ‘I have not seen a more fearful section of coastline’ the lighthouse cottages are adjacent to Australia’s oldest surviving lighthouse.
Maits Rest Rainforest Walk – In the Otway National Park, this is an easy 800m loop walk through towering tree ferns and 300-year-old-plus rainforest giants.
Otway Fly Treetop Walk – Lofty in the lush canopy of the Otway Ranges, the treetop walk features a canopy-level walkway suspended loftily above the ground.
Lorne Country Club – Nine holes of splendid fairways between the eucalypts with inspiring views for golfers and tennis players, the club is a few minutes’ drive from the Great Ocean Road at Lorne.
Wye Beach Hotel, Wye River – From the sun-drenched deck that overlooks Bass Strait uninterrupted all the way to the horizon, sit back with a seafood lunch accompanied by wine from nearby Bellarine Peninsula and soak in the vista.
Great Ocean Road Brewhouse, Apollo Bay – With its own brewery and gin distillery out the back what’s not to love? Call in for a drink but stay for the bistro-style meals in a dining room which comes with a fireplace and panoramic coastal views.
Growlers, Torquay – An uber cool restaurant morphed from this beachfront bungalow eons ago, sating appetites of trendsetters and beachgoers alike for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Inviting celebrity model Lara Bingle to join the business, along with recent renovations hasn’t hurt either.
Beware of kangaroos at dawn and dusk: they’ll hop out onto the road without warning.
Mobile phone use while driving is illegal: heavy penalties apply.
Driver Reviver stops provide free and coffee for drivers: look for roadside signs Australia-wide.