Take two days on the famous coastal drive for natural wonders and supernaturally good food. Photography by Lauren Bamford.
Australians are known for their straight talking so if we call something the Great Ocean Road, you can be sure it’s special. This 243-kilometre ribbon of asphalt hugs cliffs and kisses the ocean on a beautiful trail along Victoria’s south-west coast.
The scenery shifts from grand sweeps of golden sand to ancient rainforest and rolling emerald pastures veiled in mist, like some faraway outpost of Ireland. It’s a chameleon coastline that’s always Australian at heart: eucalypt forests, the songs of kookaburras and frequent sightings of kangaroos, emus and tree-hugging koalas. Natural beauty and wild beaches have lured holiday-makers for more than a century to this area best known today for surf, abundant seafood and, when the weather gods are smiling, sunshine. Of Australia’s 36,000 kilometres of shoreline, this blessed stretch is among the most beautiful, in any weather.
Start in the breezy beach town of Torquay. Get into the vibe by tackling a leg of the Surf Coast Walk – in particular, the 1.6-kilometre section from Yellow Bluff past wind-lashed dunes to Point Danger. Continue along the seafront Esplanade to Cafe Moby (03 5261 2339), a ramshackle beach house reincarnated as a family-friendly café serving classic Aussie breakfasts. Feast on typical morning fare, from double-smoked leg ham and toasted cheese sandwiches (on bread from La Madre Bakery in Geelong) to avocado with Meredith Dairy goat’s fetta, Mount Zero olive oil and beetroot salt.
Torquay is the birthplace of Australian surf culture and home to the Bells Beach Pro and board-shorts empires Rip Curl and Quiksilver, which are still going strong almost 50 years on. Today, they’re the anchor tenants at Surf City Plaza, a shopping centre for beach fashion and all things wave-related. There’s also the Australian National Surfing Museum, with its Hall of Fame honouring our best boardriders. Inspired to follow in their wake? Learn to surf with Go Ride a Wave, which offers lessons in Torquay or nearby Anglesea. Or make the pilgrimage to Bells Beach and walk on the same hallowed ground as Kelly Slater and Layne Beachley.
Head inland, through the lush greenery of Great Otway National Park and the rich pasture beyond, to the quaint dairy town of Timboon. The Timboon Railway Shed Distillery produces award-winning single-malt whiskies but also does a fine line in lunch, thanks to chef Simon Yarham’s skill with premium ingredients such as Timboon beef, Mac’s Creek veal and Gippsland rabbit. His stunning bouillabaisse is packed with Southern Ocean seafood – grab it if it’s on the menu. Afterwards, choose from a nip of Timboon Distillery’s single malt, regularly ranked among Australia’s top whiskies, or a scoop or two of Timboon Fine Ice Cream, proudly made from local milk.
Get among the Gondwanan rainforests at Otway Fly Treetop Adventures. Fully guided tours teach high-flyers the basics of zip-lining then send them hurtling through the treetops between eight “cloud stations”. Less active types can admire this remnant prehistoric forest at a leisurely pace on the Treetop Walk that meanders through tree ferns, blackwood and mountain ash. Allow an hour for the two-kilometre round trip.
Pretty Apollo Bay is a fishing port in the heart of the Great Ocean Road. It’s also home to one of Victoria’s standout restaurants with accommodation, Chris’s Beacon Point, where Chris Talihmanidis has been cooking for almost 40 years. Prime the palate with some housemade dips and pita bread before dipping into steamed mussels infused with tomato, fennel, olive and ouzo or king prawn saganaki with spiced fetta. The wine list is worth mining for rare regional labels and good Greek vintages. Both the restaurant and rooms are perched on a bluff above Bass Strait to take full advantage of sightlines from Cape Patton to Apollo Bay and beyond.
Order a breakfast basket of croissants, housemade toasted muesli and juices to enjoy in bed at Chris’s Beacon Point while admiring Skenes Creek and the Southern Ocean laid out below. Keep your eyes peeled for koalas lounging in manna gums outside your window and, later, on the drive to the 12 Apostles. There, from the visitor-centre car park, walk the 1.2-kilometre marked trail (part of the Great Ocean Walk) to Gibson Steps and descend to the untamed beach. Prepare to feel very small, flanked by 70-metre cliffs and endless sea, as you gaze at the limestone pillars rising from the surf.
For an elevated view of this phenomenal coastline, take to the air with 12 Apostles Helicopters. The veteran joy-flight operator offers zippy 15-minute flyovers but if time and money allow, do the deluxe one-hour jaunt to the Bay of Islands Coastal Park, where the natural beauty of the Bay of Martyrs rivals that of the 12 Apostles.
In the space of three short years, Brae has joined the Great Ocean Road and Bells Beach Pro on the honour roll of internationally renowned attractions in Victoria’s South West. This farmhouse restaurant set on 12 hectares of Otway hinterland is a chance to taste the terroir of the region. “Eating from the land” is how chef Dan Hunter describes the experience that earned his dining room the 44th spot on the 2017 World’s Best Restaurants list. Lunch is a lavish affair of world wines and edible marvels such as Hunter’s deceptive “iced oyster” (oyster-flavoured ice-cream with hints of sea lettuce and sherry vinegar) and his famous parsnip and apple dessert. Natural sourdough bread is baked on site daily and served with butter made in-house from Otways Jersey cream. The attention to detail in every facet of the food is what makes dining at Brae unique.
It’s about half an hour’s drive to Lorne, the Great Ocean Road’s favourite summer resort town. A brisk walk is in order after a long lunch so park near the Lorne Visitor Information Centre (15 Mountjoy Parade) then stroll across the swing bridge over the mouth of the Erskine River and along the beach, combing the shallows and rock pools for starfish and octopus.
At the Art Deco charmer that is Birregurra’s Royal Mail Hotel, the main bar serves classic pub fare such as chicken parmigiana and fish and chips, while the bistro is more upmarket. The seafood, all caught in Apollo Bay, shines in the Royal Mail’s generous fisherman’s platter and the tasty scallop and lap cheong penne. Tuck into the chargrilled kangaroo with sautéed vegetables and potato rösti and raise a toast to one of the world’s most spectacular road trips with a Torquay craft beer from Blackman’s Brewery. ￼