An Insider’s Guide to Australia’s Great Ocean Road
Victoria’s best known highway, the Great Ocean Road, runs 150 miles from Torquay to near Warrnambool, but the scenic drive continues along the Victoria coast to the South Australia state line. Drive it the other way, from west to east, to parallel the route of 19th-century shipborne immigrants.
> How to Explore:
Guides are worth it. Mark Brack, a lighthouse keeper’s son who sports a tattoo of the Otway Lighthouse on his right leg, runs Cape Otway Shipwreck Tours in varying flavors. The eco-friendly Twelve Apostles Lodge Walk offers multiday programs on the Great Ocean Walk.
> What to Do:
Aboriginal connections deepen the Great Ocean Road experience. Narana Creations, outside Geelong, is among the best heritage sites, enlivened by art shows, hands-on programs, and emus in the garden. West of Warrnambool you can often find a guide at the Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve, a lake-filled volcanic crater prominent in Aboriginal lore. Farther west, near Lake Condah, guides give tours of what remains of permanent Aboriginal stone houses at Budj Bim.
Outdoor opportunities for hiking, surfing, wildlife watching, kayaking, and fishing abound. Surf World Museum at Torquay will fill you in on local wave-riding history. If you want to join the resident kangaroos on the course at the Anglesea Golf Club, you’ll have to play a round. You’ll be dodging a fair number of parrots, cockatoos, and herons there, too.
For a flight over the Twelve Apostles, Loch Ard Gorge, and cliffs of golden limestone, book with 12 Apostles Helicopters. It’s hyped and touristy, but still worth it. Also vertiginous but free to explore, the 86 “Gibson Steps” zigzag more than 200 feet down to a fishing beach. On the Great Ocean Walk, don’t pass up the shallow basins provided for rinsing your footgear. That way you won’t spread the exotic Phytophthora fungus, deadly to native plants.
> Where to Stay:
Consider self-catering, Aussie style. Rental villas, apartments, and houses are abundant along the coast. Book early.
If you’d rather be catered to, book a night in Lorne’s gingerbread Grand Pacific Hotel for a taste of Victorian Victoria. At Cape Otway, the Great Ocean Ecolodge immerses guests in nature with a touch of luxury.
> Where to Eat:
You can find excellent seafood all along the Great Ocean Road, served with a wide variety of Australian wines. In Apollo Bay, try La Bimba, whose menu also lists local meats and organic vegetables.
The Waves restaurant in Port Campbell augments its seafood with local dishes such as wallaby, when available.
In Warrnambool, Pippies by the Bay at the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum overlooks the historic village, but locals come just for the food. Tip: Order the fresh squid.
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> How to Prepare:
- A Traveller’s History of Australia, by John H. Chambers, escorts readers from Aboriginal times to the modern age.
- Download the Great Ocean Road app for a geolocated directory of services.
> Fun Facts:
- Held at Bells Beach, the world’s oldest pro surfing competition, Rip Curl Pro, dates to 1961.
- Growing in the heathlands around Anglesea are 110 orchid species, among the most of any region in the world.
- Once the stomping grounds of dinosaurs, the Great Otway National Park now crawls with carnivorous snails.
This piece first appeared National Geographic Traveler magazine’s August/September 2015 issue, to accompany a feature article by Jonathan B. Tourtellot entitled Boomerang Road.