Highway 101 in California, the Garden Route in South Africa, the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland. These are among the most famous coastal driving routes in the world.
But none are more spectacular or inspiring than our own Great Ocean Road.
Measuring up at 243km long, it was built between 1919 and 1932 along Victoria’s south-west coast by returned solders and dedicated to casualties of World War 1. Drive along parts of this route where the road clings to the side of sheer cliffs and you’ll appreciate those workers earned their money.
But there’s much more to the Great Ocean Road than the thin strip of bitumen that wends sometimes tortuously along the rugged coastline.
There are great beaches, cute coastal villages, terrific restaurants and places to stay that vary from economical to extravagant. The latter’s particularly important to remember because there’s so much to see and do and so much ground to cover you could be here for days.
Officially, the Great Ocean Road runs between Torquay in the east and Allansford in the west, traversing the Surf Coast and the ominously named Shipwreck Coast where Bass Straight and Southern Ocean intersect.
From the CBD of Victoria’s capital Melbourne, Torquay is about a 90-minute drive, predominantly along freeways and well-maintained sealed roads.
From there the route wends through Anglesea, Aireys Inlet, Lorne, Apollo Bay and Port Campbell. It’s finishing point is just shy of Warrnambool, the historic seaside capital of Victoria’s western districts.
From a driver’s perspective the GOR really starts to become engrossing once past Airey’s Inlet. It’s single lane each-way bitumen that climbs and falls like a rollercoaster, with corners of all shapes and sizes thrown into the mix to test the handling of your car.
Be aware though, traffic can be heavy and there are lots of caravans, buses and other slow-moving tourist traffic. There are turn-outs for them to move to the left so you can overtake, but they are sporadic.
The road opens up from Apollo Bay onwards and past Cape Otway rejoins the coast and the grandeur of the 12 Apostles, a collection of Limestone stacks that rear from the water’s edge. Despite the name there are only eight stacks left because through the years several have collapsed into the water because of erosion.
SOMEWHERE TO EAT
There’s one obvious thing to say about eating on the Great Ocean Road; there’s no shortage of seafood.
Whether it’s sitting on a beach chomping on takeaway fish and chips, or settling in for a fine dining experience, there’s no shortage of marine choice.
But having said that, some of Australia’s best grazing land is just over the Otway Ranges, so red meat lovers won’t be disappointed either.
It’s impossible to mention every and all eating options along the GOR, but there are some staple favourites that people love.
A La Grecque is literally roadside in Airey’s Inlet and has a great reputation for its modern and simple interpretation of Greek food. It’s popular and packed over summer, so book ahead.
In Lorne there’s a strong coffee culture. Any Sunday morning you’ll find lines of motorbikes and sports cars lined up along the main street, their passengers enjoying a late breakfast and a latte. Moons Espresso Bar and Pare are both highly rated.
If you want to spoil yourself (and someone you love) then Chris’s Beacon Point Restaurant & Villas has got to be the go. Not only is the food superb, but the view down the mountainside to Apollo Bay is spectacular. And as its name suggests, Chris’s is happy to welcome you for an overnight stay as well as a feed.
But let’s finish a little more bohemian. Almost every town has its own micro-brewery where you can try a craft beer, or you can head to the Wye River pub and sit overlooking the surf beach for a Parmy and a pot. Perfect.
THINGS TO DO
The obvious top of the list here is driving. But as we’ve already explained, the GOR is busy and perhaps the best thing to do is cruise and enjoy that view.
In fact, a far quieter driving option that’s just as enjoyable is the curving, climbing Skenes Creek Road that departs the coast just east of Apollo Bay and climbs into the Otway Ranges. Some days you won’t spot another vehicle for ages.
Out of the car, the first obvious option is the beach. Each of the towns along the coast have patrolled swimming areas that are family friendly and safe. Sure, the water never gets Queensland warm, but it is clean and exhilarating.
If you’re donning the wet suit and heading out on the board looking for waves there are numerous breaks to check out.
The most famous of them is Bells Beach, which is just west of Torquay. It is world famous for its Easter tournament that attracts the best surfers from around the globe.
There’s a water feature of a different kind on offer as well – waterfalls. Beautiful Erskine Falls are on the edge of Lorne and Hopetoun Falls are near Apollo Bay.
The Port Campbell National Park and the aforementioned 12 apostles is a great option for those who want to stay dry. But its distance from Melbourne and the visual treat on offer really means you should budget an overnight stay.
For something completely different take the 30 minute drive from Apollo Bay through the Great Otway National Park to the Cape Otway lighthouse, the oldest surviving lighthouse on the Australian mainland. Locals guarantee you’re sure to see a Koala.
If you want to park the car altogether then there are a variety of coastal walks to experience. The flagship is the Great ocean walk from Apollo Bay to the 12 Apostles that is 100km and takes eight days to complete!
WAIT, THERE’S MORE
While we’ve focussed on the coastal area immediately connected to the Great Ocean Road, there is a world of adventure back up in the hills of the Otway Ranges.
One place that has really got its skates on as the local area has transitioned from forestry to tourism is the hamlet of Forrest. It’s a hospitable town with a brewery, a distillery, a pub and a wide choice of accommodation including a caravan and camping park.
Two key activities have driven this growth; mountain biking and four-wheel driving.
There are mountain bike trails for riders of all ages and skill levels. You can go out for a 10-minute pedal or ride all day without ever doubling up. It also hosts the annual Otway Odyssey marathon race that attracts over 1000 competitors.
The 4x4ers have the choice of some great tracks that are challenging in the warmer, drier months and become a slippery bog when the weather is inclement. Great fun!
If that all sounds too hectic then maybe one of the world’s finest restaurants appeals more. It’s called Brae and it’s near the tiny village of Birregurra.
Ranked 57 in the list of the world’s best 100 restaurants, the good news is you can also stay on-site overnight to absorb one of the great culinary experiences.
Sounds like the appropriate way to cap off a visit to the Great Ocean Road.