The Great Ocean Road: How to Plan the Perfect Drive
Embracing his lifelong connection to Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, Kendall Hill plots an immersive two-day itinerary along one of the world’s bucket-list coastal drives. This is the perfect drive along the Great Ocean Road.
As a child, the Great Ocean Road terrified me. Several times a year my father would insist on tackling this death-defying cliff drive instead of the much more sensible inland route between Melbourne and our home in Warrnambool.
Bundled into our Ford station wagon, aka The Red Flyer, we’d brave the road’s alarming hairpin bends and sketchy safety barriers but somehow always arrive unscathed.
Those childhood fears faded with age and safety upgrades. From my teens I remember golden summers beachcombing along Apollo Bay and sleeping at the police station. My uncle was the local sergeant; my cousin managed the foreshore trampolines. Halcyon days of somersaults and suntans.
And by university, semester breaks were spent at Lorne in the holiday homes of wealthy friends, coming of age beside the wild Southern Ocean.
The Great Ocean Road is so much more than a scenic drive. It’s a place where memories are made and cherished. At heart it’s a war memorial, the world’s longest, built by returned soldiers and dedicated to their comrades lost in World War I. (It was originally proposed to be called the Anzac Highway.)
It’s also a lifeline for the once-isolated fishing and farming communities of Victoria’s formidable south-west coast. And, more recently, this 243-kilometre trail between Torquay and Allansford (just shy of Warrnambool) has become a global icon of Australia’s natural beauty and freedom.
Almost three million people now making the pilgrimage annually, but I prefer to tour the road in reverse – taking the sensible inland route to historic Port Fairy, the prettiest town on Victoria’s coast, and then weaving my way back to Melbourne. Two days is too short but manageable, with enough time to explore the stunning scenery and indulge in the region’s fresh produce.
Port Fairy Princetown
Wake to a dawn chorus of corellas in the Norfolk Island pines outside Drift House, Port Fairy’s most stylish seaside retreat. The town’s best breakfasts are served right here, either as in-room hampers or in the Salon servery. Both options showcase regional producers, such as Irrewarra bread and coffee from Geelong’s Cartel Coffee Roasters. Owners John Watkinson and Colleen Guiney wave off guests with the excellent advice to stop by Childers Cove, literally the first (or last) beach on the Great Ocean Road. “It’s the regular place we go to and it’s really special,” Guiney tells me. “You’re not sharing the experience with anyone else.”
The road proper begins just east of Warrnambool at Allansford, home to the themed supermarket known as Cheese World. Continue less than 10 kilometres south via Childers Cove Road. Wooden stairs descend to the beach, a rugged, invigorating place of churning waters, crumbling cliffs and bracing lungfuls of salt air. A fitting first taste of the sweeping extravagance of this coastline.
The Bay of Islands Coastal Park, a short drive east, is to me even more mesmerising than the 12 Apostles. A clifftop track captures the scene: a crowd of limestone stacks in sundry shapes and sizes, anchored in a see-through sea. The silvery green heathlands offer a striking contrast to creamy-red limestone pillars and the spectrum of blues above and below.
The park continues to Peterborough, a fishing hamlet with a likeable beachshack vibe and spectacular seafront golf course. Grab a coffee from Peterborough Antiques and Art + Coffee (20 Macs Street; 0429 022 572 – you can’t miss it) and stroll to the beach of shapeshifting dunes bookended by jagged cliffs. It’s rarely busy outside high summer, when an annual sandcastle competition takes place every Australia Day weekend.
From here I always detour north to Timboon, a logging and dairy town turned gastronomic hotspot. Head to the Railway Shed Distillery for a tasting of Josh Walker’s single malts and other spirits. Have the bao for lunch, full of Walker’s grass-fed, Black Angus beef.
There are plans for a new footbridge to cross the creek and link the distillery and Timboon Fine Ice Cream, with its 24 flavours made from the rich local milk. Timboon is also home to Schulz Organic Dairy (pop by for farmgate produce), with fudge, chocolate and beer makers nearby.
When I ask Walker how Timboon became a gourmet hub, the answer’s easy. “Because we’re in a region with an abundance of fresh produce. It’s just a matter of turning it into fresh food for the tourists that come through,” he says. Before leaving, visit The Corner Store to stockpile dinner and breakfast supplies from its range of local meats, bakery treats and readymade meals, such as slow-cooked lamb pie.
Afterwards rejoin the Great Ocean Road and cherrypick your way along its remarkable rock formations, including the Grotto and London Bridge, which is more of a marooned arch since its main span collapsed in 1990. Then there’s the drama of Loch Ard Gorge, named for the Loch Ard, a ship that ran aground in 1878, one of more than 600 wrecks along this fatal shore.
The 12 Apostles lie dead ahead but instead of plunging into the turnstyle frenzy of the road’s star attraction, take a joy flight with 12 Apostles Helicopters for an aerial view of this dazzling coastline.
About 10 minutes east lies Princetown, a sleepy village above the Gellibrand River. Check in to Pebble Point, put dinner in the fridge and take a hike.
If you’re feeling energetic, it’s a seven kilometre beach walk to the 12 Apostles (about three to four hours return), tracing the final leg of the 110-kilometre Great Ocean Walk. It’s a brilliant way to avoid the crowds and gain a different perspective on Victoria’s most familiar landmark as the late sun tints the limestone stacks gold.
East of Princetown the road climbs into the cloud forests of the Great Otway National Park, zigzagging towards Moonlight Head and higher to the peak at Lavers Hill before cruising past the emerald pastures of the Aire River Valley and slipping back to sea level at Apollo Bay. The popular Maits Rest stop en route offers a boardwalk through myrtle beech woodlands.
At the southern end of Apollo Bay’s three-kilometre crescent beach, the Fishermen’s Co-op is the last of its kind on the Great Ocean Road. It would be un-Australian not to order takeaway fish (or grilled lobster) and chips for a picnic on the sand.
From Apollo Bay the road hugs the rocky coast like a limpet. Distracting ocean panoramas unfurl around every turn. There are few safe places to stop and admire them but Teddy’s Lookout, just before Lorne, offers a sensational recap of the route south. And when passing through the former logging town of Kennett River, look up to see koalas lounging in the crooks of roadside manna gums.
With its grand sweep of sandy bay backed by the lush Otway Ranges, Lorne has been a holiday magnet since the 19th century – its population of just over 1000 swells to around 20,000 in midsummer.
This part of the coast has long had a Mediterranean soul thanks to the Talimanidis brothers, Chris and Kosta, Greek migrants who settled here in the 1970s. Kosta and his wife, Pam, a talented chef, ran the old Kosta’s restaurant on Mountjoy Parade, scene of many youthful evenings when the food, setting and Kosta’s irrepressible presence conjured the carefree feel of a Greek island party. (Kosta once told me, “I have been all over the world and this is the most beautiful land I have ever seen.”)
The tradition continues today. Their son, Dominic, recaptures the Kosta magic at Ipsos, a smart bar and restaurant where Pam designs the seasonal, local menus (try the mushroom and feta pie or saganaki cheese). Further along the parade his brother, Alex, runs Salonika, a buzzing Greek-influenced breakfast and lunch spot (122 Mountjoy Parade). And at Aireys Inlet, about half an hour north, Stratos and Hannah Talimanidis offer laid-back Hellenic hospitality at A La Grecque, set among the melaleucas with views north to the Split Point Lighthouse and to the southern cliffs.
On a short visit it’s tough to choose between the three, though Stratos makes a strong pitch for A La Grecque, promising chargrilled rack of lamb with “the bones all lemony, the way they would be if you ate them in Greece straight off a barbecue”.
Not to mention the phenomenal beaches at this end of the road. “From Eastern View all the way through to Urquhart Bluff at Anglesea, you’ve got more than a dozen of Australia’s best beaches,” says Stratos, “and there’s barely any people on them.”
Just before the end of the road lies the most famous beach of all. Bells Beach is internationally renowned as the home of the Rip Curl Pro surfing contest, which has tested the mettle of the world’s top riders since 1962.
It’s a place that embodies the spirit of the entire coast, captured on three engraved stone tablets beside the stairs leading down to the beach: Respect the Ocean; Respect the Land; Respect Each Other.
Drift House in Port Fairy is an impeccably styled boutique hotel of six suites set across a double-storey Victorian bluestone house and an Edwardian villa. The pick of the accommodation is the just renovated suite two with its wide balcony over Gipps Street. Gourmet highlights include dinners by the two-hatted local chef Ryan Sessions, on selected weekends, and bountiful breakfasts.
Pebble Point in Princetown is a smart bush camp of six platform tents with viewing decks out front, private expansive windows looking out over the wetlands from the adjoining bathrooms and a well equipped communal guest kitchen.
Bookend the drive by staying overnight in Torquay at one of the many holiday rentals there, such as The Summer House, a four-bedroom home in beachside Jan Juc, with cool white interiors, a solar-heated pool and views of the sea.