Australia is not exactly lacking in tourist attractions. There is the Sydney Opera House in the east, the Great Barrier Reef in the north, Uluru in the Red Centre, and countless other landmarks that make this Great Southern Land of ours pretty appealing to international travellers as well. However, perhaps one of the most exciting attractions we have for those who don’t just want to visit a stunning beach or immerse themselves in the unique Australian landscape or explore a gallery or eat some local cuisine — but instead, want to do it all — is Victoria’s Great Ocean Road.
Stretching from the coastal town of Torquay (an hour and a half from Melbourne) to Allansford (just outside of Warrnambool), this world-famous route covers some 243km in the process. Along the way, you’ll experience clifftop views, surf beaches, lush rainforest, native wildlife and a bounty of quaint coastal towns. For some, it can be tempting to just jump in the car and cruise the entire route in a day, gazing out the window at the endless blue of the Southern Ocean. However, if you want to really enjoy the majesty of this region (and give the driver a chance to soak in some of the views), it pays to slow down, stop regularly and spend a few days really appreciating how special this pocket of Victoria is. So, if you have the time and the curiosity, here are 9 picks for what to see on the Great Ocean Road.
Starting in Torquay (though, of course, the route can be driven in either direction), it’s practically mandatory that you first visit Bells Beach. While it may not be one of the best swimming beaches on the Great Ocean Road, Bells Beach is world-famous for its impressive swell. Each year, the beach hosts the Rip Curl Pro, a world tour surfing competition, where people from all over come to capitalise on the beach’s incredible waves. It can get a bit hectic on competition weekends, but outside of that period, it’s the perfect place for a surf lesson, a bit of body boarding, or to just lie in sand and listen to the roar of the ocean.
Chris’s Beacon Point for Fish and Chips
Look, in all honesty, you’d be hard pressed to find a place serving bad fish and chips along this coastal route. Every single town you pass through will have signs up saying they serve the best fish and chips on the Great Ocean Road, and they may well be right, but a trip to Chris’s Beacon Point in Apollo Bay is a must for those seeking something special. Perched high on a clifftop overlooking the white surf, this restaurant pairs spectacular views with seriously stellar seafood. Yes, the fish and chips here are excellent, but the calamari is also famous in these parts, and the lobsters are excellent too. If you’ve just left Bells Beach though and can’t wait until Apollo Bay to tuck in to some fish and chips, Aireys Inlet Fish & Chips does this classic dish the classic way, while Captain Moonlite in Anglesea and Maple Tree in Lorne will also more than adequately hit the spot.
Forrest Brewing Company
Still not sure where to eat on the Great Ocean Road? Take a minor detour from the official route when you hit Apollo Bay and make your way to the charmingly old-school Forrest Brewing Company. This family-owned and -run microbrewery is housed in a delightfully restored general store, and serves up not only fresh and delicious beer, but a smorgasbord of locally-sourced food prepared in the tastiest of ways for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Think a chorizo hash with purple potatoes and green chilli, mushroom bruschetta with housemade vegan cheese, boa buns, and smoked pork ribs with a malt- and hop-infused glaze.
Cape Otway Lighthouse
After getting back on track, it’s time to take another detour. Situated 50 minutes’ drive from the main road, the Cape Otway Lightstation is the oldest surviving lighthouse on mainland Australia. Climb to the top to look out over the water and see where the Bass Strait meets the Southern Ocean, and wander around the clifftop to look for migrating whales along the coastline.
Great Otway National Park
Next stop: Great Otway National Park. You’ve already dipped your toes in the park with your trip to the lighthouse, and skirted the edges along your drive so far. The park is, after all, huge, covering some 103,000 hectares of ancient rainforests, rugged coastlines and windswept heathland. Now is your chance to truly immerse yourself in the beauty of this lush region. Did you know that the Great Otway National Park is home to numerous waterfalls? You may have already visited a couple when passing through Lorne, such as Erskine Falls, Sheoak Falls and Lower Kalimna Falls, but right in the heart of the park, you’ll find some of the most dramatic. Hopetoun Falls is one of the most popular, but Beauchamp Falls and Triplet Falls are also well worth the relatively short strolls from their respective parking lots.
Otway Fly Treetop Walk
While you’re in the area (and particularly if you have kids in tow), a trip to the Otway Fly Treetop Walk at Otway Fly Treetop Adventures is well worth your time. This treetop canopy walkway is the longest and tallest of its kind in the world, and allows you a bird ‘s-eye view of the park. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, be sure to join a zip-line tour for a completely unique perspective.
The Twelve Apostles
When talking about the best places to stop along the Great Ocean Road, it’s impossible not to include the Twelve Apostles. These icons of Australia jut out of the Southern Ocean, with the clifftop car park acting as one of the finest Great Ocean Road lookouts. However, if you want to get a little closer, descend all 86 of the Gibson Steps to the wild beach below, and wander along one of the most famous stretches of sand in the world.
The Shipwreck Coast
For the next part of the drive, the coastline (which is known as the Shipwreck Coast) is truly dramatic. First off, you’ll reach Port Campbell National Park, which is home to the spectacular Loch Ard Gorge and the Tom and Eva Lookout, which is without a doubt one of the best lookouts on the Great Ocean Road. A little further along, past the town of Port Campbell, you’ll find the London Arch, a gorgeous stone arch that once connected to land. Next to that, the Grotto. This one will require a little bit of leg work as you descend some steep stairs into a hollowed out cave, but your efforts are well rewarded by access to this striking rock formation. Finally, just a little further down the road, you’ll find the Bay of Islands, which offers hauntingly beautiful views back along the Shipwreck Coast, capturing many of the rocky protrusions that make the Great Ocean Road so very special.
Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve
By this point, you’re on the final leg of the Great Ocean Road, and the route finally turns inland as you make your way to Allansford. While this is a fine enough place to finish (Cheese World is equal parts terrific and kitschy and a fun little bookend for your journey), we recommend heading a little further before closing the book on your Great Ocean Road adventure. Passing through Warrnambool (where you can stop to visit the quaint Warrnambool Art Gallery and the important Ngatanwarr mural), make your way to Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve. Declared Victoria’s first National Park in 1892, Tower Hill provides tours with Aboriginal guides, whereby visitors can not only get up close to such native animals as emus, kangaroos, koalas and echidnas, but can learn about the indigenous history and culture as well. This place is definitely worth the extra mileage.
Eager to explore this world-famous stretch of road? Book flights to Melbourne to land in the Victorian capital, or get yourself closer to the Great Ocean Road by booking your airfare to Avalon. Not matter where you fly into, make sure to book your car hire at the same time as you flights – so you waste no time in hitting the road!
Hero image: The Great Ocean Road, near Cumberland River. Credit: Robert Blackburn | Visit Victoria