Some people do it at speed, leaving Melbourne at the crack of dawn and arriving back in the evening. But that doesn’t do this magnificent drive justice. To really take in all of the Great Ocean Road’s heady pleasures – from jaw-dropping scenery to nature-filled adventure activities – you need to take your time.
Along the way, you’ll want to pull into villages for a coffee or homemade ice-cream, plunge into the ocean for a very refreshing dip (the next stop is Antarctica so the water temperature never rises above seriously chilly) or enjoy miles of deserted sand on a romantic walk where there’s just you, gliding seabirds and the sound of waves crashing into the shore.
Plan to spend three or four days doing the drive – this will cut out a lot of extended time behind the wheel and give you the hours to linger wherever you feel the urge. Make your first planned stop Lorne, a bustling beach town – and the hippest one along this coastal trail – favoured by Melburnians for summer holidays and weekends away. When it’s time to get back on the tarmac point the nose of the car towards Apollo Bay, a quintessential beach town with its main street running parallel to its lengthy strip of white sand and a handy overnight pit stop. Here, there’s the opportunity to kayak to a nearby seal colony for a close encounter of the splashing kind.
If you’re a fan of early rising, the best tip you can get is to return to the driver’s seat before the dawn and drive straight to the Twelve Apostles before the sun comes up. (you could also stay in Johanna overnight, which is a little closer.) Sure, it’s an hour away, but seeing the first golden rays appear in the sky with such a dramatic backdrop is a sight you’ll take with you forever. Plus, if you stare down to the beach from the viewing platform, you’ll see tiny shadows moving from the cliffs across the sand and into the ocean. These are members of the colony of little (fairy) penguins heading out for their day’s fishing. Of course, at other times of the day the Twelve Apostles are equally as awe inspiring, but you won’t have them to yourself.
If you’ve done the early-morning shift, you might want to plan to double back and take in some of the other sights. Many people touring the Great Ocean Road miss is the opportunity to park up and enjoy a good stretch of the legs. The Great Ocean Walk covers about 100 kilometres from Apollo Bay to Glenample Homestead near the Twelve Apostles, but there are plenty of sections hidden from the road that are easily accessed and much shorter. Turn off the main drag at Red Johanna Road, leave your vehicle in the car park and walk down to the beach. You can stroll for about an hour in a south-easterly direction along the beach and, if you’re feeling energetic, then cross the Johanna River and head up the trail on the hill, where you can walk through the forest above the cliffs. To get to Castle Cove takes another two hours, so you’ll either need a full day (and a packed lunch) or you can simply turn around when you’ve had enough. Especially during winter, you can cover the length of Johanna Beach and barely see another soul. It feels as though you’re the first person to find this beautiful spot.
There are a couple of shorter but equally rewarding walks: the Shelley Beach Circuit takes you through fern gullies and scrub, along the beach and to the rocky platforms of Elliot River in just 45 minutes, while the Gables Lookout Walk (20 minutes) takes you to the edge of one of the highest sea cliffs in the country. From June to September peer out to sea and try to spot migrating whales.
Port Campbell is a lovely spot for lunch. The bay here is protected by high cliffs that make a short and easy walk, or you can head to the pier and perhaps catch some of the fishermen bringing in the day’s catch of tuna. Seeing them pull their boats in using the hoist is an experience in itself.
Once you’ve reached the end of the road and stayed overnight in historic Port Fairy, take the return journey inland, where you’ll pass through the temperate rainforest and lush farming land of the Otway Ranges. Stop to visit waterfalls in the forest, walk through the canopy at the Otway Fly or sample some of the region’s gourmet produce. The village of Birregurra isn’t far from Melbourne, but you should plan to arrive at lunchtime and stay overnight to give your tastebuds the thrill of their lives at chef Dan Hunter’s destination restaurant Brae. Like everything on the Great Ocean Road, it’s best enjoyed at a leisurely pace.