From lush rainforests to amazing rock formations, Australia’s most dramatic coastal drive has plenty of highlights.
By Ute Junker
Less than a three-hour drive from Melbourne lies one of Australia's most famous sights: the 12 Apostles, a series of spectacular limestone spires rising out of the ocean. However, it's worth taking the time to explore the many other delights of the Great Ocean Road, from famous surf beaches to colonies of wild koalas.
It takes just 90 minutes from Melbourne to reach the town of Torquay, one of the surf capitals of the world. You can watch the action at Bells Beach, where the world’s best surfers compete in the Rip Curl Pro competition every Easter (March/April), or sign up for a surfing lesson. Torquay is also the home of not one but two famous surf brands, Rip Curl and Quiksilver; stop by their shops to pick up some colourful surfwear.
If you find that the crisp ocean air has put you in the mood for seafood, stop in at Airey's Inlet. About 25 minutes on from Torquay, this tiny township hides a big secret: the charming A La Grecque restaurant, which dishes up some of the best seafood on the coast. On a sunny day, a plate of their tender fried calamari or freshly grilled fish, eaten at an outside table, is heaven.
As you drive into the stylish town of Lorne, the old gum trees lining the streets and the water sparkling in the bay are the first signs that you have arrived somewhere special. This popular holiday destination is Melbourne's answer to Byron Bay; stop for a coffee at The Bottle of Milk café (their burgers are also terrific) before strolling along the one kilometre (0.6 mile) long beach. Lorne also has a thriving artistic community: drop in at the always-lively Qdos Arts, or plan your visit around the Sculpture Biennale, held every second March.
From Lorne, drive north-west for 30 minutes to reach one of Australia’s must-do dining destinations. Located near the inland town of Birregurra, Brae Restaurant has been named one of the World’s Best 100 Restaurants, which means booking ahead is essential. Chef Dan Hunter’s ever-changing menu showcases local ingredients, so expect to see anything from wallaby tartare to rock lobster on the menu. Another hidden jewel is the award-winning Forrest Brewing Company, based in the nearby hamlet of Forrest.
If seeing a koala in the wild is high on your wish list, you've come to the right place. From Lorne, keep following the Great Ocean Road southwest, and in around 30 minutes you will come to the township of Kennett River. This has become known as one of Australia’s koala-spotting capitals, thanks to the large numbers of these native animals that make their home in the blue gums that line the main road. Keep your eyes peeled and you may even see one crossing the road, or perhaps relaxing on the balcony of one of the local houses.
Just a short drive inland from Kennett River lies a very different world: the lush, mysterious rainforest of the Great Otway National Park. Follow one of the walking trails past moss-covered trees and fern-fringed pools, or take the 70-minute drive to the three-tiered cascades of the Triplet Falls. If you are overnighting in the area, don’t miss the chance to encounter glow worms on a night time walk in Melba Gully. Just remember to wear solid walking shoes and bring a torch.
Because the Great Ocean Road offers almost constant coastal views, pull over bays have been built to allow cars to safely stop and take in the scenery. One of the lesser-known bays is at Wongarra, a 15-minute drive from Apollo Bay. Gaze out from the bay at Wongarra to see crashing waves, jagged coastline and the rugged hills at your back.
A drive down the Great Ocean Road might be all about coasts and cliffs, but take a 40-minute detour inland from Skenes Creek - 15 minutes past Wongarra - and you'll find yourself within an enchanting forest of giant Californian Redwood trees. Stroll through the towering trees or simply sit for a picnic. Drive another 15 minutes south from Beech Forest to encounter Hopetoun Falls, one of the most photogenic waterfalls in the region. Don't forget to consider your car before embarking on this journey, as the drive from Skenes Creek contains a stretch of gravel road.
Few towns have a location as lovely as Apollo Bay, perched between the ocean and the hills, and the town’s best restaurants make the most of it. The lovely Chris’s Beacon Point Restaurant has a cosy treehouse feel, with interiors made of native timber and views through the trees to the ocean. If you are looking for something a little more casual, both the water views and the seafood paella at La Bimba are sensational.
At the Great Ocean Road's southernmost point stands mainland Australia's oldest surviving lighthouse. Built in 1848 to prevent the frequent shipwrecks of the time, the Cape Otway Lighthouse offers daily presentations about the region's history, Bush Tucker Talks that teach visitors about local Aboriginal culture and the opportunity to walk through the lighthouse and explore the lighthouse keeper's quarters. After you've discovered the lightstation's fascinating history, stop by the souvenir shop and Lightkeeper's Cafe for a bite before continuing your drive.
This is what everyone comes to see: the glorious limestone towers known as the 12 Apostles rising out of the ocean. Don’t let the name fool you: there are only seven of these spires, all of which were part of the mainland before wind and water eroded the surrounding rock. For the best views, sign up for a helicopter tour or scenic flight with a local operator. The experience of swooping around the rock formations, with miles of coastline unfurling in front of you, is simply unforgettable.
The 12 Apostles is one of the most iconic stops along the Great Ocean Road, but nearby you'll find a place with few visitors and plenty of beauty. The Gibson Steps are located just a two-minute drive south of the 12 Apostles car park and offers an often empty beach and unique views of the limestone structures. Head down the stairs to find a stretch of golden sand before taking in the stunning views of the ocean and its famous Apostles.
Just beyond the 12 Apostles is a lesser-known, but no less striking, sight: the eye-catching Loch Ard Gorge, named after a ship that was wrecked here. To get a very different perspective on this stretch of coast, take the long flight of stairs down to the beach to view the towering rock formations from another angle. Bird-lovers will want to come here at dusk, when vast flocks of short-tailed shearwaters fly overhead.
You don’t need a car to explore the Great Ocean Road; if you are feeling energetic, you can explore it on foot instead. The full 100-kilometre (60-mile) trail, from Apollo Bay to Gibson Steps, takes eight days to complete, but there's also a guided option, the exclusive Twelve Apostles Lodge Walk, which takes in the walk's highlights over four luxurious days. Accompanied by an experienced guide, you'll explore the last 55 kilometres (34 miles) of the trek, along towering cliff tops and past wave-washed beaches, with each night spent in premium, eco-luxury accommodation.