You’ve probably heard a lot about it, but will the reality of the Great Ocean Road live up to your expectations?
Absolutely! This spectacular stretch of coastline at the bottom of the Australian mainland — within easy reach of Melbourne — encompasses one of the most majestic drives in the world. With an awe-inspiring smorgasbord of views around every hairpin bend, this is one place you don’t want to get stuck with the role of designated driver.
Officially, the Great Ocean Road covers 243 kilometres of the Surfcoast Highway from Torquay to Allansford in regional Victoria. The most popular attractions along the route are the limestone sea stacks known as the 12 Apostles, and their counterparts Loch Ard Gorge and London Bridge. While one certainly can’t deny the sheer gob-smacking beauty of these natural phenomena, there’s a lot more to experience in the region.
Enjoy this Great Ocean Road travel guide.
Need to know
Base yourself: Apollo Bay, Lorne
Average hotel price per room/per night: AUD $180
Best breakfasts: Apollo Bay, Lorne, Torquay, Aireys Inlet
Great coffee: Moons Espresso Bar, The Bottle of Milk, Cafe Moby, Apollo Bay Bakery, Swing Bridge Cafe and Boathouse
Top spots for a beverage: Aireys Pub, Great Ocean Road Brewhouse
Must-dos: 12 Apostles, Bells Beach, Maits Rest Rainforest Trail
Watch our video of this experience:
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Best times to visit the Great Ocean Road
To say the Great Ocean Road is popular is an understatement; insanely popular would be a more accurate description. Hence it can get very crowded, especially from late morning through to mid afternoon when the seemingly endless stream of tour buses from Melbourne reach the must-see 12 Apostles. The region is a year-round destination, but always make your move on the Apostles in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the day tripping masses.
School holidays and long weekends see an even greater spike in visitor numbers, and accommodation at those times is always at a premium. Winter is your best bet for getting a good deal on a hotel. While you’ll find the weather ‘bracing’, the sunsets are incredible — and you may be lucky enough to spot whales.
Top cultural experiences on the Great Ocean Road
The Great Ocean Road is its own cultural phenomenon, but let’s just get the elephant in the room out of the way first.
Yes, the iconic 12 Apostles are a little short on numbers these days. But you know what? Nothing, absolutely nothing, can take away from (or, indeed, prepare you for) the sight, sounds and salty splendour of the monumental limestone landmarks that define this region.
Millions of years of time, pounding tides and corrosive winds have carved the coastline into a series of hive-like cliff caves, and the majestic columns of rock that have separated from the mainland have become one of the country’s most visited tourist attractions.
The 12 Apostles Visitor Facility near Port Campbell is the start point for the short walk that takes you under the highway and out to the viewing platforms that overlook the Apostles. From there you can descend down the Gibson Steps (highly recommended to get a different vantage) to the windswept beach at the bottom of the 70-metre cliffs. Heading in the other direction (up!), a helicopter flight over the top of the monoliths is also an option.
As you continue the drive along the Great Ocean Road, there are various other well-facilitated viewing sites, purpose-built to make the most of the astonishing grandeur of the limestone stacks known as Loch Ard, London Bridge and the Bay of Islands.
It will come as no surprise to hear that surfing culture is alive and well in this part of the world. Based on the number of surfwear outlets and the presence of the Australian National Surfing Museum it’s fair to say Torquay is the Great Ocean Coast’s surfing capital and a visit to nearby Bells Beach, the site of the annual Rip Curl Pro (the third event on the World Surf League World Tour), is a must for many.
The Great Ocean Road for history lovers
The important history of the region is embedded within each and every curve of the dramatic Great Ocean Road.
Built entirely on the sweat and spirit of Australia’s WWI returned soldiers, the concept of linking together the isolated and hard to reach towns along the wild lower reaches of the country was born from a desire not just to transform an arduous journey, but to create employment for the ex-servicemen and a permanent memorial to those who lost their lives in the conflict.
What a memorial it is! Work began in 1918 and, hewn out of the solid rock by hand, countless man hours were expended over the next decade and a half until, finally, in 1932, the full length of the iconic road was declared open.
Tip: To get an overview of the region’s history, follow the well-marked Apollo Bay History Trail. The gentle signposted walk takes in ten historical points of interest.
Cape Otway Lightstation is mainland Australia’s oldest lighthouse, dating back to 1848. While its impressive proportions are dwarfed by the sheer majesty of the coastline over which it presides, its immaculately preserved heritage goes beyond the jaw-dropping views. Built as a beacon to seafarers after a series of tragic shipwrecks, the lighthouse rises out of the forests of the Otway Ranges to stand as an enduring symbol of history and hope.
If you venture up the spiral stairway and step out onto the perimeter of the observation tower you’ll be able to soak up some truly fabulous views, but that’s not the only thing that will take your breath away — hold on tight because the wind up there is crazy! There are several other points of interest in the lighthouse precinct, including the Telegraph Station, the WWII Bunker, the Indigenous Cultural Centre and the Whale Interpretive Site.
Great places to eat on the Great Ocean Road
The Great Ocean Coast is renowned for its culinary scene and there’s no shortage of innovative experiences to keep foodies well and truly satiated.
Top picks include A La Grecque with its modern Greek flavours at Aireys Inlet, the sustainable paddock to plate ethos of Brae in Birregurra, and Chris’s Beacon Point Restaurant in Apollo Bay for southern Mediterranean-inspired fare.
For those basing themselves in Apollo Bay, here are a few recommendations to suit all points on the culinary spectrum. The Great Ocean Road Brewhouse, in the main street, serves up not just a selection of fantastic craft beers, but also some of the best food on the coast. The bistro specialises in the freshest of fresh local produce from the Otway region, sending out generous, mouth-watering lunches and dinners in a truly warm and welcoming setting. If salmon & King Island scallop penne with chorizo sounds good, you get the picture.
Behind the Brewhouse, their Tastes of the Region experience is an absolute must-do, even if you’re just passing through. Settle down to a delicious regional produce platter accompanied by a selection paddle of beers and wines. The outstanding range of Prickly Moses handcrafted beers has something to tempt every palate. It turns out I do like beer after all…
A pie is just a pie until you drop into the Apollo Bay Bakery. Their legendary Scallop Pie goes beyond the hype, and when you’re chowing down on a flaky, buttery parcel of creamy scallops (try the curried leek version), it’s easy to think this may be why you came to the Great Ocean Road in the first place.
Watch our guide for Sky News Business Class to top places to eat and stay on the Great Ocean Road:
Adam Ford, editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and host of Tour the World, regularly joins the team at Sky News Business Class to discuss top travel destinations around the world. In this interview Adam provides tips on visiting the Great Ocean Road in regional Victoria, and suggestions for places to stay, eat and play.
In Lorne, you can’t go past a little venue that packs a big punch and possibly the best coffee on the GOR. Moons Espresso Bar offers big brekkies, hearty lunches and a great range of juices and smoothies served up by the cheerful, funky staff. Why wouldn’t they be happy, though, with such a view? Double up on the coffee and order their biggest breakfast — you can always walk it off across the road on the beach.
Where to shop on the Great Ocean Road
Unless you’re a surfer you probably won’t be coming to the Great Ocean Road on a shopping expedition, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of opportunities to part with your cash for retail rewards.
If you are a surfer though, when you hit Torquay you’ll no doubt want to do more than window shop at the Bells Beach Surf Shop, which has all the latest gear and the best selection of boards on the coast.
The stylish Melbourne set like to check out the ‘casual chic’ and resort wear shops along Mountjoy Parade in Lorne, but the town’s most unexpected little gem is Lorne Beach Books. It’s packed to the brim with, well, books, and has very knowledgeable staff.
Along the Great Ocean Road you’ll find a number of excellent farmers’ markets full of local vendors plying their delicious trade. Time your visit with the Aireys Inlet Markets (second Sunday of the month), the Apollo Bay Farmer’s Market (third Sunday of the month) and the fabulous Torquay Farmers Market (every Saturday), which is absolutely heaving with artisanal products and seasonal produce.
Ways to relax on the Great Ocean Road
Exploring this sublime piece of Victoria’s coastline is inherently relaxing.
For the ultimate bliss out, head off the beaten track to visit Australia’s number one ranked spa and wellness centre on Tripadvisor — Saltair Spa in Torquay. It’s tucked away in a rolling rural setting with a blue ribbon of ocean visible in the distance. Despite being just a few minutes’ drive from town, you’ll feel like you’ve gone right off the grid.
Saltair’s range of pampering and wellness treatments utilise the finest aromatherapy oils, mineral polishes and all manner of luxurious elixirs, all designed for the total relaxation and rejuvenation of your body and soul. And relax you will, whatever indulgence you choose — from their Babor spa facials, anti-aging treatments and Deep Ocean Renewal, to the relaxing, deep tissue and therapeutic massages.
My top recommendation is their out-of-this-world Signature Massage. This 75-minute sensory experience had me floating on a cloud of exotic oils.
For deep relaxation of a very different kind and one of the most nurturing experiences you can gift to your mind, body and spirit, take a ride through the magnificent scenery of the Old Beechy Rail Trail on an e-bike tour with Otway e bikes. The tour is conducted on electric power-assisted bikes, which is a fancy way of saying it’ll be the best bike ride you’ve ever had — because if the going gets tough, the ‘e’ gets going! You’ll get training on the bike’s features in your pre-ride briefing. All you need is a moderate level of fitness, the ability to ride a regular bike and the desire to get up close and personal with the glorious Otway Ranges.
Nathan Swain, Otway e bikes’ owner and guide, is a font of local ecological knowledge, and the immersive experience he has created embraces the principles of ‘slow travel’ in the most inspirational way. It’s seriously uplifting stuff.
Around Apollo Bay there are myriad drives, hikes and walks that take you through the forests of the Otways and to scenic lookouts that lay the staggering beauty of the coastline out before you. Follow the Apollo Bay Coastal Trail to Marriners Lookout Road, which winds you up a dirt track past grazing sheep in bucolic bliss, culminating in breathtaking views over the township, hinterland and coast. In the other direction, the coastal trail takes you on a picturesque amble to Wild Dog Creek.
For keen walkers, Apollo Bay is also the starting point of the Great Ocean Walk, which takes in 100kms of trails of varying difficulty through the Otway National Park, Port Campbell National Park and along the wild, rugged coastline. Three, four and seven-day accommodated walks are offered.
Tip: For contemporary art lovers, the Sculpture Walk in Apollo Bay takes in a permanent exhibition of local artists’ work set in various sites along the foreshore.
Despite the name, you don’t have to fly through the air with the greatest of ease (although you can if you like!) to enjoy the magical and slightly surreal experience of the Otway Fly Treetop Adventures in the Beech Forest. Offering a unique vantage over the lush rainforest, the Treetop Walk truly is sightseeing with a difference. You’ll meander 600 metres through the forest on the towering 25-metre high steel walkway, above the canopy of tree ferns and side-by-side with the soaring trunks of Mountain Ash. Set aside your fear of heights for the rewards of scaling the Spiral Tower and stepping out onto the cantilever — and yes, it sways, but you’re completely safe.
For those who dare to fly, Otway Fly’s Zipline Tour takes the experience to a whole new level — but it’s not for the faint-hearted. Suspended 30 metres above the ground, you’ll zip through the treetops from station to station, accompanied by a guide to narrate the points of interest along the way. The 2.5-hour experience is exhilarating, educational and a whole lot of fun!
Where to stay on the Great Ocean Road
Comfort Inn The International
Apollo Bay makes the perfect central base from which to explore the beauty of the Great Ocean Coast and the surrounding Otway Ranges. While there’s no dearth of accommodation options in this laid-back town, the Comfort Inn The International is an excellent choice.
With a truly central location right opposite the gorgeous beach, the hotel is a short walk from all the town’s restaurants and bars and right next door to the renowned Great Ocean Road Brewhouse. The extremely well facilitated rooms are much more spacious than you would expect. Even the standard options offer a separate lounge area and very large bathroom. Features include a fridge, microwave, toaster and tea and coffee facilities. The free Wi-Fi is a nice bonus.
Do you have any tips to add to our Great Ocean Road travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Julietta Henderson is a Melbourne-based travel writer and author. Originally planning to visit London for six months, she ended up staying for ten years and now divides her time between her home in Australia and several months of the year in the UK, Italy and France. Julietta has travelled extensively through Europe, North America, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia and Russia, and believes the keys to a great travel experience are an open heart, an open mind and an open-ended ticket. Her first novel — The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman — is now available in bookstores.