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 ocean on a breathtaking 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 – the eucalypt forests, the songs of the kookaburras and the frequent sightings of kangaroos, emus and tree-hugging koalas. Natural beauty and wild beaches have lured holidaymakers for more than a century to this region 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 the most beautiful, in any weather.
From central Melbourne it’s around two hours’ drive to the start of the Great Ocean Road in the breezy beach town of Torquay. Get into the barefoot 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, a ramshackle beach house reincarnated as a family-friendly café serving classic Aussie breakfasts. Nab one of the dozen outdoor tables with views across parklands to Bass Strait, head indoors to the laid-back dining rooms or take a seat in Moby’s big backyard with its children’s playground and sandpit. Feast on typical morning fare, from double-smoked leg ham and cheese toasted sandwiches (on bread from Torquay bakers Zeally Bay Sourdough) to avocado with Meredith Dairy goat’s fetta, Mount Zero olive oil and beetroot salt.
Torquay is the birthplace of Australian surf culture, home to the Bells Beach Pro – the world’s longest-standing professional surf competition – and to board-short empires Rip Curl and Quiksilver, still going strong almost 50 years on. Today, they’re the anchor tenants at Surf City Plaza, a shopping centre of beach fashions and all things wave-related. You’ll also find the Australian National Surfing Museum here, with its Hall of Fame honouring the country’s world-beating boardriders. Inspired to follow in their wake? Learn to surf with Go Ride a Wave, which offers lessons in Torquay or nearby Anglesea; wetsuits and boards provided. Or make the pilgrimage to Bells Beach and walk on the same hallowed ground as sporting heroes 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, where an old goods shed showcases local produce and ingenuity. The Timboon Railway Shed Distillery produces award-winning single malt whiskies but also does a nice 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 (and garlic) – 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 Gondwana rainforests at Otway Fly Treetop Adventures. Fully guided tours teach high-flyers the basics of zip-lining and then send them hurtling through the treetops between eight “cloud stations”. More sedentary types can admire this remnant prehistoric forest at a leisurely pace on the original Tree Top Walk, which meanders through tree ferns, myrtle beech, blackwood and mountain ash. Allow an hour for the two-kilometre round trip, including time to admire national park panoramas from the 47-metre lookout above Youngs Creek.
Pretty Apollo Bay is a fishing port and tourist town in the heart of the Great Ocean Road. It’s also home to one of Victoria’s standout restaurants with rooms, Chris’s Beacon Point. Chris Talihmanidis has been cooking locally for almost 40 years; both he and his Mediterranean-accented food are institutions of Victoria’s south-west. Prime the palate with some housemade dips and pita bread before dipping into Talihmanidis’s 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 interesting Greek vintages – try a Leura Park Estate chardonnay or By Farr pinot noir. Both 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, fruit bread, housemade toasted muesli, jams and juices to enjoy in bed at Chris’s while admiring Skenes Creek and the Southern Ocean laid out below. Keep eyes peeled at all times for koalas – either lounging in manna gums right outside your window or later on the drive to the 12 Apostles. There, from the visitor-centre car park, walk the 1.2-kilometre signed trail (part of the Great Ocean Walk) to Gibson Steps and descend 86 steep stairs to the untamed beach below. Prepare to feel very small flanked by 70-metre cliffs and endless sea
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. You’ll pass over all the major landmarks of the Shipwreck Coast, including Loch Ard Gorge, the savage surf of Johanna Beach, the fossil-rich cliffs of Castle Cove and Australia’s oldest working lighthouse at Cape Otway. Pilots provide convivial and informative commentary and the photographic opportunities are, as you can imagine, epic.
In the space of three short years, Brae restaurant has joined the Great Ocean Road and Bells Beach Pro on the honour roll of internationally renowned attractions in south-west Victoria. This farmhouse restaurant set on 12 hectares of hinterland is a chance to taste the terroir of the Great Ocean Road and the Otways. “Eating from the land” is how chef Dan Hunter, an alumnus of the famed Spanish restaurant Mugaritz, describes the experience that earned his rural restaurant 65th spot on the 2016 World’s Best Restaurants list. The farm comprises orchards, organic kitchen gardens, truffle oaks, laying hens, bees and sheep and a contemporary dining room behind the homestead’s original 1868 façade. 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 – or 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 Brae such a unique dining experience.
It’s about half an hour’s drive to Lorne, the Great Ocean Road’s favourite summer resort town. After a long lunch, a brisk walk is in order so park near the visitor centre and 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. Continue beachcombing until you start to feel hungry again.
There are two options for dinner. Depending on your mood, you could retire to your room at Brae (see Stay) and order an evening supper plate of farmhouse favourites, including housemade terrine and a little lobster salad. Choose a bottle from the in-room cellar to accompany. Or pop down the road for a meal at Birregurra’s Royal Mail Hotel. The main bar of this Art Deco charmer serves classic Aussie 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 Mail’s generous fisherman’s platter or the tasty scallop and lap cheong penne. Or hop into some chargrilled kangaroo with sautéed vegetables and potato rosti. Raise a toast to one of the world’s most spectacular road trips with a Torquay craft beer from Blackman’s Brewery.
There’s much to love about Brae’s six-room annexe, which opened last year. Designed by hip architecture studio Six Degrees, the red-brick and corrugated iron inn looks like a stylised shearing shed from the outside but indoors are the height of urban cool. The aesthetic is recycled and sustainable but there’s nothing rustic about these rooms. Furnishings and fittings are top of the range, from king beds draped in organic linen to Thorens turntables with cool vinyl collections. The many thoughtful design touches include skylights above the bed for stargazing snuggles and Cone 11 ceramic ware made with earth from Brae’s own dam. Every room has a DIY cocktail bar and personal wine fridge; some have baths set beside windows overlooking the neighbours’ paddocks. Bathing never felt more bucolic.
With all the good eating and drinking on offer along the Great Ocean Road, it’s smartest to get a designated driver. Birregurra local Stuart Wilkeson has built a chauffeur service off the back of Brae’s success and now offers private transport in a range of vehicles, from a seven-seater 1929 Dodge Victory to more standard limo models. He can arrange pick-ups from Melbourne and Avalon airports, from helipads or hotels, and take you wherever you want to go. If you decide to drive yourself, be aware the road is mostly single lane each way and gets crowded during summer. Always pull over for faster vehicles and don’t forget we drive on the left Down Under.