What to Do Along the Great Ocean Road: beaches, forests, coastal towns

Victoria's Great Ocean Road is one of the world's great drives

Photo by Robert Blackburn

Not the ok ocean road or the good ocean road, Victoria is home to the GREAT Ocean Road, one of the world’s most scenic coastal drives that spans 243 km of Victoria’s stunning coastline southwest of Melbourne.

All too often visitors zip past The Great Ocean Road’s spectacular beaches, zigzag around its jagged cliffs, plough through its soaring rainforests, and scarcely make a pit-stop in its pretty beach towns in their rush to get to the 12 Apostles.

If the truth be known, there were really only ever 9 Apostles, and in 2005 one of them collapsed, leaving just 8 Apostles (somehow the 8 Apostles doesn’t have quite the same ring). However many there are, the 12 Apostles are just one of many remarkable attractions along the Great Ocean Road. Take your time, don’t rush, relax at the beach, maybe try a surfing lesson, meander into the hinterland to commune with the big trees, look for koalas and platypus, and discover some tasty gourmet treats.

 

History of the Great Ocean Road

The Great Ocean Road memorial arch commemorates the world's largest war memorialThe Great Ocean Road is part of Australia’s National Heritage list in recognition both of its iconic coastal scenery and its status as the world’s largest war memorial, dedicated to those who lost their lives in the Great War. Built between 1919 and 1932 by 3,000 returned World War I soldiers, the construction of the road was done by hand, using explosives, picks and shovels, and horse-drawn carts. Before it was completed, Victoria’s rugged southwest coast was accessible only by sea or rough bush traThe Great Ocean Road Memorial is dedicated to the returned World War I soldiers who built the roadck.

In its original state, the road was considered a formidable drive; fitting only a single vehicle comfortably at a time. Today it is still just one lane in each direction with an 80 kph speed limit. There is some confusion about where it starts and ends, but these days most people consider the Surf Coast town of Torquay and Port Campbell, the closest town to the 12 Apostles to be The Great Ocean Road’s bookends.

 

What to do along the Great Ocean Road:

You’ll be amazed by the many and varied offerings along this way-better-than-ok road.

Torquay

Torquay is Victoria’s surfing capital and the birthplace of iconic brands Rip Curl and Quiksilver. Their founders, Doug Warbrick and Brian Singer, creators of Rip Curl’s famous wetsuits, and Alan Green and John Law, who fashioned Quiksilver’s first board shorts, spent their youth surfing at nearby Bells Beach. You can get a sense of the local surf culture at the Surf World Surfing Museum or stock up on surfing gear at Surf City Plaza.

Bells Beach

To fully appreciate the power of the Southern Ocean, head down to Bells Beach, which is widely considered the spiritual home of surfing in Australia. Bells Beach is classified by the National Trust as an International Icon of Australian Surfing Culture. There is a fine lookout to view the experienced surfers in action, but remember this is no place for beginners.

Bells Beach is the location of the longest running surfing competition in the world.  Its world-famous breaks of Bells Beach and Winki Pop are the venue for the Rip Curl Pro, one of the most sought after titles on the World Championship Tour, held every Easter. It has always been a meeting of the tribe for surfers from all over Australia and the world. Offering a casual festival atmosphere, there’s lots of music and art as well as great surfing.Bells Beach is home to the Rip Curl Pro surfing competion

Just around the corner from Bells Beach is Point Addis, a pretty east-facing scalloped beach backed by rugged sandstone cliffs that are part of the Great Otway National Park. The Point Addis Marine National Park is offshore. Its Ingoldsby Reef is a popular diving destination but there are no lifeguards on duty here.

Anglesea

Next up is Anglesea, a pretty seaside town with a sheltered river estuary where you can hire canoes and paddle boats. You might like to drop by the Anglesea Golf Club to check out its resident population of 400 kangaroos that appear oblivious to the movement of little white balls.

The drive between Anglesea and Aireys Inlet follows the dramatic coastline of Urquhart Bluff offering stunning views of the ocean.  This is a great walking beach but is dangerous for swimming with no lifeguard services.

Fairhaven Beach is the longest beach along the Great Ocean Road

Aireys Inlet

Aireys Inlet has an understated beach town charm with its iconic Split Point lighthouse, thriving local artist community and secluded pocket beaches backed by limestone cliffs. It is the start of the longest beach on the Great Ocean Road: the spectacular 6-km stretch of Fairhaven Beach, which rolls all the way to Eastern View, where you can check out The Great Ocean Road Memorial Arch and Sculpture.

Much of the Great Ocean Road hugs the dramatic coastline along the Southern Ocean

Lorne

The road now starts its signature weaving in and out around cliffs as it makes its way towards Lorne, the road’s biggest seaside resort with apartments, hotels, restaurants, cafes and boutiques along Mountjoy Parade plus a large grassy area behind the beach for picnicking. There is also a trampoline concession here, popular with kids. Lorne’s horseshoe-shaped Louttit Bay has a wide beach patrolled by lifesavers during the summer months. At one end of town is the long pier, a popular fishing spot for whiting, trevally, and barracuda. If you don’t catch anything, fresh local seafood can also be purchased from the fisherman’s co-op here.

Lorne is located on Louttit Bay

Photo by Andrew Paoli

The stretch of cliff-hugging road interspersed with pocket beaches between Lorne and Apollo Bay is probably the prettiest of the drive. Stop at the groovy Wye River General Store for delectable all-day fare and check out the koala walk at Kennett River.

Inland

There are  several scenic detours into the hinterland to places like the  30-metre-high Erskine Falls that cascade into a beautiful fern gully. A little further afield, the undulating farmland yields gourmet discoveries, such as Gentle Annie’s Berry Farm. Check out the Otway Harvest Trail to find out about other foodie delights.

The Great Ocean Road takes you through temperate rainforest

At Skenes Creek, head up over the green dairy-cow-dotted hills with their magnificent views to plunge into the Great Otway Forest again where you can get up close and personal with myrtle beech, blackwood and mountain ash trees at the Otway Fly Tree Top Adventures, sample mighty fine craft brews at the Forrest Brewing Company, and even go platypus spotting at dawn or dusk on serene Lake Elisabeth. And if you are into mountain biking, Forrest is one of Australia’s best mountain biking destinations with 60k of sign-posted, single-track trails.

Apollo Bay

Apollo Bay is a relaxed fishing port and holiday spot along the Great Ocean Road

Photo by Robert Blackburn

Back at sea level, Apollo Bay is a pretty seaside village and fishing port on a wide arc of family-friendly beach surrounded by rolling green hills on the eastern flank of Cape Otway. Behind the beach is a grassy foreshore park with shady picnic tables and a playground whilst a row of cafes and boutiques face the beachfront.  A fabulous tourist information bureau has the lowdown on the Great Otway National Park.

Apollo Bay is also the start (or end) of the fabulous 104-km Great Ocean Walk, which traverses the tallest cliffs in mainland Australia, hidden fern forests, waterfalls shimmering down limestone walls, wide windswept beaches, ancient shipwrecks, Aboriginal middens and manna gums with resident koalas. The walk has been cleverly designed with lots of access points so that you can sample sections or do the complete trip in about eight days. You can bring your own camping gear, local operators can provide tents and provisions, you can arrange a drop-off and pick-up service with bed and breakfast providers or you can join a guided walk.

Overlooking the limestone stacks at the end of the Great Ocean Walk

 

Great Otway National Park

Heading west from Apollo Bay, the road winds inland through the great rainforests of the Great Otway National Park. The Otways were heavily logged since the earliest European settlement and have been the site of serious confrontations between loggers and environmentalists. Thankfully, today they are the only high rainfall tall forest region in Australia where an existing and well-established native forest wood-chip industry has been totally removed.

Now the Great Otway National Park which is fringed by a spectacularly rugged coastline, incorporates a landscape of ancient temperate rainforests studded with some of Victoria’s most striking waterfalls. There are lots of walking trails. The Great Ocean Road weaves through the Great Otway National Park

 

Make a detour to visit the Cape Otway Lightstation, the oldest surviving light-station on mainland Australia, where you can enjoy light lunches and a lighthouse tour. Nearby, Shayne Neal and Lizzie Corke, husband and wife scientists operate the Cape Otway Conservation Ecology Centre, a 24-hour wildlife rescue program of injured and orphaned Australian wildlife, which are rehabilitated on their property. You’ll often see koalas in gum trees lining the road.

The Cape Otway Centre for Conservation Ecology, a 24-hour wildlife rescue program of injured and orphaned Australian wildlife

Continuing your westward journey, The Great Ocean Road now meanders through rolling green farmland dotted with sheep and dairy cows.

And finally you will arrive at the 12 Apostles, those iconic limestone stacks with the inaccurate name, which have been eroded over the centuries first into caves, then arches, which in turn collapsed leaving rock stacks up to 50 meters high. Just don’t skip all the other treasures along the way.

Point Addis and Bells Beach from the air

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Great Ocean Road

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Sue Gough Henly

Sue Gough Henly is award-winning travel writer and photographer whose bi-line has appeared in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, The Guardian, The Toronto Star and all the major Australian publications. Her travel blog, Genuine Journeys, is full of insider tips on the best places for authentic experiences and luxury splurges. She is also the author of Australia’s Best Places travel app. When she doesn’t have sand between her toes or a pack on her back, she writes about food, wine and culture.

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