Time poor visitors to Melbourne often tick off the Great Ocean Road as a day trip, but this stunning region demands a closer look if you have two of three days to tarry. Here's a checklist of top experiences, thanks to Choice Hotels.
You’ve probably heard a lot about it, but will the reality of the Great Ocean Road live up to your expectations?
Absolutely! This stretch of coastline at the bottom of the Australian mainland in Victoria offers 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 at the eastern end, to Allansford in the west. Torquay is a 1.5-hour drive from Melbourne. 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 gob-smacking beauty of these natural phenomena, there’s a lot more to experience in the region.
Here are ten of the best things to do on the Great Ocean Road.
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1. See the 12 Apostles
Let’s just get the elephant in the room out of the way first. Yes, the 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 to the windswept beach at the bottom of the 70-metre-high cliffs. Heading in the other direction (up!), a helicopter flight over the top of the monoliths is also an option.
Watch our Great Ocean Road travel guide for Sky News Business Class:
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.
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.
2. Pay your respects to the past
The history of Australia’s involvement in World War I is embedded in each and every curve of the Great Ocean Road. The idea of linking 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 gainful employment for servicemen returning from the Great War — and to build a permanent memorial to those who lost their lives in the devastating conflict.
And what a memorial it is! Work by the returned soldiers began in 1919 and, hewn out of the solid rock by hand, countless man hours were expended on the road’s construction over the next decade and a half. Finally, in 1932, the full length of the cliff-hugging route was declared open. Visit the Memorial Arch at Eastern View to learn more.
3. Get a taste of surf culture
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. Schedule a visit to nearby iconic Bells Beach — the site of the annual Rip Curl Pro (the third event on the World Surf League World Tour) — and take the opportunity to learn to hang ten yourself.
4. Step back in time at Cape Otway Lightstation
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.
5. Dive into the region’s fabulous food scene
The region is renowned for its culinary culture and there’s no shortage of innovative experiences to keep foodies well and truly satiated. Top eateries 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 a more casual affair, try the Great Ocean Road Brewhouse in the main street of Apollo Bay. The bistro serves generously sized meals in a warm and welcoming setting. Think salmon and King Island scallop penne with chorizo. You get the picture.
The Brewhouse also offers a Tastes of the Region experience, which is perfect for a relaxed lunch. Enjoy a regional produce platter accompanied by a tasting paddle of craft beers or wines. The outstanding range of locally brewed Prickly Moses beers has something to tempt every palate. It turns out I do like beer after all…
6. Hit the markets
You’ll find a number of excellent farmers’ markets along the Great Ocean Road, packed with local vendors plying their delicious trade. Time your visit to coincide with the charming once-a-month Aireys Inlet Markets, the Apollo Bay Farmer’s Market (third Sunday of the month), or the fabulous Torquay Farmers Market (every Saturday). The latter heaves with artisanal products and seasonal produce.
7. Tuck into a flaky legend
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 that this is why you came to the Great Ocean Road in the first place.
Tip: Walk off your indulgence by following the well-marked Apollo Bay History Trail. The gentle signposted walk takes in ten historical points of interest.
8. Be pampered at Saltair Spa
For the ultimate bliss out on the Great Ocean Road, set your GPS for one of Australia’s top ranked spa and wellness centres on TripAdvisor — Saltair Spa. It’s tucked away in a rolling rural setting behind Torquay, 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.
Tip: 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.
9. Explore the Otway Ranges on a e-bike
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.
10. Take to the treetops at Otway Fly Treetop Adventures
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.
The writer travelled as a guest of Choice Hotels.
Browse our range of Great Ocean Road tours and experiences here.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do on the Great Ocean Road? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
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 two novels — The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman and Sincerely, Me — are now available in bookstores.