The Great Ocean Road is well known as one of the world’s best drives. It may be only one lane on each side and there are some narrow sections along the cliffs, but that adds to the thrill. Very helpful to those who normally drive on the right are the frequent reminder signs to Drive on the Left! The region has been strongly impacted by the reduction in tourism, principally international visitors. Local tourists have, however used the opportunity to visit the region when this is possible due to on-going domestic travel restrictions. This is a good time for a visit and parking at the many beauty spots is much easier to find. In busy times, the two lane road and shortage of parking can cause traffic bottlenecks during busy periods. There are only 16 parking spots, for example, at the Memorial Arch, on a road used by around six million visitors a year.
The Great Ocean Road
We’ve done this trip twice (still not enough!) and discovered a few things that will help you get maximum enjoyment out of your visit. Most importantly, one day is not enough, whether self-drive or on a tour bus. Both times we’ve travelled in a westerly direction, which is the better way to stop at most of the lookouts and also admire the sweeping vistas as you round corners to a new bay. If you have the time, plan for a minimum of two days and if you can stay longer, there’s plenty to keep you busy for at least a week. Both our trips were two days, the first self-drive, the second in a small group in a tour bus.
When planning your trip, allow as many days as you can, especially if you opt to self drive. A one-day trip out from Melbourne can only be a taste of what’s on offer because there’s so much to see. If you’re in a bus, you’ll get the best views if you are able to sit in the front seats, or at least on the left, i.e. the sea side.
For a two day trip, an overnight stay in or near Port Campbell positions you well for both sunset and sunrise views of the most dramatic section of the road. But don’t stop at The twelve Apostles/Port Campbell – there is more to see further west. For three days, spread out journey so you can have more stops on the way. Stop often and keep the driver alert. Take advantage of the many lookouts along the way, especially on the picturesque stretch between Lorne and Apollo Bay. The highway is carved into sheer cliffs that drop away into the ocean, and it’s easy to see why there were many shipwrecks along this coastline.
Plan a stop or two (or more) after you leave Apollo Bay. The road takes you through the beautiful rainforests of the Great Otway National Park, before you turn back towards the coast at Lavers Hill.
History: The Memorial Arch
The Great Ocean Road is the longest War Memorial in the world, built by returned 3,000 returned soldiers after WW1 to honour their fallen comrades. Work on the 243 kilometres stretch of road began in 1919 and was only completed in 1932. The arch is the gateway to the Great Ocean Road, was built in honour of the soldiers who worked on the road. The road is included National Heritage List, described with this citation dated 8th June 2011. While the road starts at Torquay, there’s not a lot to see before The Memorial Arch.
Teddy’s Lookout on the western side of Lorne is one of the best for its views of the Great Ocean Road, ranges and ocean. Turn inland at the Lorne Hotel, then left at the last cross road, George Street, the lookout is at the end of the road. Take a short walk through the bush, to the viewing platform which seems to hang in mid-air, high above the road for spectacular views of the St George river mouth, the hills and the ocean.
Unexpected: Californian Redwoods
Aire Valley Road
Beech Forest VIC 3237
Californian Redwoods. Located along the Aire Valley Road in the Aire Valley Reserve, this picnic area is a delightful place to stop and enjoy a picnic or just a short stroll into the forest. Turn right from the Great Eastern Road at the north end of the National Park and head towards the Beech Forest. The small grove of Coast Redwoods, (Sequoia sempervirens), was planted alongside the river in 1939. It’s not easy to find and the unsealed road is quite bumpy, but well worth the drive. This link shows the location and also shows Mait’s Rest, another rainforest walk that’s on the way back to the coast.
Highlights: The Twelve Apostles
Port Campbell National Park is the most famous section of the Great Ocean Road featuring an amazing collection of rock formations known as the 12 Apostles which have been carved out of the headland by the fierce waves of the southern ocean. On our first trip, we arrived just as the sun was setting, which is a great time anywhere along this section of the coast. If you’re at London Bridge, you may even be lucky to see the fairy penguins coming home from their day on the water.
On our second trip, we decided to enjoy the whole section in 15 minutes from above, with 12 Apostles Helicopters. You can find them at www.12apostleshelicopters.com.au
9400 Great Ocean Road (turn right to the parking opposite the 12 Apostles lookout)
Port Campbell VIC 3269
Tel: +61 3 5598 8283
12 Apostles Helicopters will take you on an awe-inspiring flight over the fantastic rock formations that make up the Twelve Apostles, Loch Ard Gorge, London Bridge, and as far as the Bay of Islands. Take this opportunity to see the Great Ocean Road from a spectacularly different perspective.
Tours are from 9am until an hour before sunset daily. You may take a camera, (video or stills) or a phone with you, but they must be hand held as you are not allowed to take any stabilisers or selfie sticks for safety reasons.
Keeping your strength up: Food
On our second trip we enjoyed a beautiful seafood lunch at La Bimba in Apollo Bay. Sadly they closed early in 2021), but their food was representative of the fresh produce from both land and sea, available in the area. Restaurants in the area feature an array of meat, seafood, dairy products, organic vegetables and summer berries from the fertile hills of the Otway Ranges.
Apollo Bay tucks into the picturesque green foothills of the Otway Ranges. The section between Lorne and Apollo Bay hugs the coastline offering some of the Great Ocean Road’s best scenery. On the way you’ll pass the smaller holiday hamlets of Cumberland River, Wye River, Kennett River and Skenes Creek.
Join the Koalas at Grey River Road for lunch
If you’re hungry long before you reach Apollo Bay and you have brought a picnic lunch with you, here’s a perfect spot. Just after you cross the Kennett River, take a right turn just before the Caravan Park. This is Grey River Road. There is a 24 hour picnic area along the road, but it’s quite a distance in, over an unsealed (dirt) road. So if you’re happy to eat by the roadside with the main attraction, the koalas, stop when you see some high above in the trees. Don’t expect them to come down to say hello, they’re probably having a rest, but sometimes they have a bit of a stretch and move to another branch. Make sure you pull right off the road, the passing cars will kick up some dust and be especially careful if you have children. With children, it may be better to drive to the picnic area.
Sleep: Overnight in Port Campbell
Port Campbell is a small fishing port and township with cray fishing being one of the town’s main industries. Boating, bush walks, fishing, scenic drives, surfing, swimming, bird watching and diving make it an ideal place to stay and relax.
We stayed overnight at Southern Ocean Villas
2 McCue St
Port Campbell VIC 3269
Tel: +61 3 5598 4200
It was a pity we only had one night, with an early start the next morning, because the villas, which can accommodate between 2 and 6 people, were well equipped. They have a small kitchen equipped with microwave, dishwasher, and full sized refrigerator, so you can comfortably stay for a few days as you explore the area. And do the washing, they have a washer and dryer in a small separate laundry.
Take a stroll out on to the pier at Port Campbell at sunset. Again, especially if there’s a little bit of cloud, you’ll be rewarded with a great sunset.
Dinner in Port Campbell at Forage on the Foreshore
32 Cairns St
Port Campbell VIC 3269
Tel: +61 3 5598 6202
Contact: Nina, Sam and Laura
This beach front café serves local fresh produce, some of which is really foraged, as well as speciality coffee. The menu features authentic locally cooked, grown and produced food. Fresh local fruit and vegetables, meat, cheese and dairy products and seafood including crayfish and abalone are available for dining in and local produce items are also available to purchase. Open for breakfast and lunch 9am until 3pm. Our dinner was by special arrangement. They’re closed on Wednesday and Thursday.
After dinner, why not return to the 12 Apostles to the various viewing platforms to try and spot little penguins coming in from their day of fishing. It’s important to note that this is tide and weather dependent. Safety is important as there are no lights, so bring torches for walking. No flash photography or lights are allowed while watching for penguins. Road safety is important and you’ll need to watch for native animals at dusk as they cross the road.
Visit the Grotto and Bay of Martyrs
Heading west, 9 km from Port Campbell, you’ll pass The Grotto, which features still clear water in an open cave. The still water casts reflections contrasting to the dynamic moving water of the ocean directly behind it. If you have the time, it’s worth the drive and walk in to this special place.
Further along, just off the Great Ocean Road on the outskirts of Peterborough, is the ideal place to see the stunning Bay of Martyrs. Or so we’re told, we were nearly at the end of our journey and had one more stop before returning to Melbourne. This is another reason to visit again, we’re told they are particularly beautiful at sunset when the islands and Massacre Point are backlit by the sun.
End of the road: Tower Hill
The Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve sits snugly inside an extinct volcano and is a safe haven for all types of local wildlife. They roam freely, so you need to be careful driving in and walk quietly when moving around the reserve pathways. The reserve is a beautiful haven for wildlife with koalas, emus, kangaroos and many species of waterbirds all moving about. Entry to the Reserve is free.105 Lake View Road
Tower Hill VIC 3283
Tel: +61 3 13 19 63
Explore this massive volcanic feature by taking one of the five self-guided walks. You can also spot some local wildlife and learn about the Aboriginal heritage of the area at the Worn Gundidj Visitor Centre. Check out the snake skin hanging in the rafters while you’re there – it’s long!
There are many more things to do along this journey, so a leisurely trip is recommended. Or if you live close enough, make multiple trips. The Great Otway National Park offers many great places to stop or stay, with the Lighthouse at Cape Otway and the Otway Fly treetop walk a couple of the highlights.
This useful overview from Heritage places adds extra information and some more ideas of places to visit. For lots more things to do along the Great Ocean Road and nearby, the website for the Great Ocean Road region is also very helpful.