Wind your way beside the crashing Southern Ocean, twist around hairpin bends hugging limestone cliffs, take pit stops under koala-filled tree canopies, and bask in the sun on secluded beaches on one of Australia’s most spectacular drives: the Great Ocean Road.
While the drive is best known for the iconic Twelve Apostles and famous beaches at Anglesea, Aireys Inlet, Lorne and Apollo Bay, many of the region’s treasures are not on the Great Ocean Road itself. It might be hard to tear yourself away from that view, but we recommend you make a detour every now and then and stretch your legs to see historic country towns and lush rainforest where you’ll find native wildlife, Aboriginal cultural experiences and gastronomic delights.
Spot koalas along the Great Ocean Road and in the treetop canopies of Great Otway National Park © John Crux / Getty
This stunning coastal road (officially the B100) starts on the stretch between the surf town of Torquay and Anglesea, just over an hour from Melbourne, and ribbons its way along the ocean to finish up between Port Campbell and Warrnambool where it meets the Princess Highway (or the A1).
Surfs up on Bells Beach
Although you’ve only just started the road trip, you’ll want to veer off the Great Ocean Road early on to get a look at surfers riding the waves at Bells Beach between Torquay and Anglesea. It’s famous as the home of the annual Rip Curl Pro Surfing competition over Easter (as well as the setting for the beach wrestle between Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves in Point Break, although the scene wasn’t actually filmed on location here).
Note: you get the best views on the left passenger side heading down the Great Ocean Road © James O’Neil / Getty
Sacred knowledge of the Wathaurung people
Situated close to Bells Beach, Point Addis is a stunning 'clothing-optional' secluded stretch of beach backed by terracotta-coloured cliffs and part of the Point Addis Marine National Park. The excellent Koorie Cultural Walk here will teach you a little about the Wathaurung people, who lived in the region for millennia before Europeans arrived by ship to colonise this country.
The bushwalk takes you on a 2km trail with informative plaques along the route. Keep an eye out for spiky echidnas waddling through the brush and wallabies hopping by, as well as taking in dramatic coastal views from the lookout points.
Surprising golf buddies at Anglesea
The popular seaside town of Anglesea is a magnet for holidaymakers in the summer months for its family-friendly beach and pedal-boat rides on the Anglesea River. But we have a reason to head away from the water and into the residential backstreets: to glimpse the kangaroos who have made the Anglesea Golf Club their home.
Play a round of golf and share the course with the resident population of Eastern Grey kangaroos, or simply join a 30-minute 'roo tour run by the club.
A baby kangaroo just looking for the rest of its family on the Anglesea golf course © John W Banagan / Getty
Misty waters at Erskine Falls near Lorne
Next the road twists and turns to the hugely popular seaside town of Lorne, nestled between tall gum trees on one side and the Loutit Bay on the other. To escape the crowds, take a 9km detour to the lovely Erskine Falls, which tumbles into the Erskine River 30 metres below. There are a couple of lookout options: it’s an easy five-minute walk to the viewing platform from the carpark, otherwise tackle the slightly more precarious 250 steps to the base of the falls in a lush fern gully to feel the mist on your face.
Take a guided tour of the Split Point Lighthouse at Airey's Inlet © Kate Morgan / Lonely Planet
A 30-minute drive inland from Lorne will bring you to the historic town of Birregurra, well worth a detour to wander its charming 19th-century streetscape and to dine at the much-lauded Brae –consistently voted one of the best restaurants in Australia. The restaurant is located just outside the main town in a lovely cottage among 30 acres of gardens with onsite accommodation suites that come with their own cocktail bar, record player and bathtub with nature views. Chef Dan Hunter creates a degustation menu of creative genius using mostly what is grown onsite or sourced locally. Note: you’ll need to reserve a table well in advance.
Mountain biking and platypus spotting at Forrest
While the beachside town of Apollo Bay gets a lot of attention around this part of the Great Ocean Road, it’s definitely worth ducking into the Otways hinterland to the town of Forrest and nearby scenic Lake Elizabeth. Adventure lovers can hire a mountain bike and explore the excellent trails around Forrest, beer lovers can sample cold ales at the Forrest Brewing Company, and nature lovers should not miss out on a guided canoe trip on Lake Elizabeth to spot elusive platypuses in the wild.
Turn inland to see the lush temperate rainforests at Erskine Falls near Lorne © Aneurysm / Getty
Walk in the treetops at Otway National Park
Detour into the ferny gullies and wander among ancient plant life in the beautiful Otway Ranges. This lush national park is home to the popular tourist attraction, Otway Fly Treetop Adventures, where you can brave the heights among the treetops on an elevated walkway 50 metres above the rainforest floor. There is plenty here to keep kids entertained from the zipline tour to the prehistoric path dotted with dinosaurs.
Give your tastebuds a tour of Timboon
Port Campbell National Park on the Great Ocean Road is the gateway to the iconic Twelve Apostles, which should not be missed. After admiring these magnificent rock formations jutting skyward from the ocean, make the 15-minute drive inland from Port Campbell to the gourmet town of Timboon. Here you can indulge in everything from free cheese tastings at Timboon Cheesery, single-malt whisky at the Timboon Railway Shed Distillery and artisan ice-cream at Timboon Fine Ice Cream, to name a few.
The Twelve Apostles is a collection of limestone stacks off the shore of the Port Campbell National Park © Jordan Lye / Getty
Ancient volcanic caldera at Tower Hill
Though technically the Great Ocean Road becomes the Princes Hwy around here, you won’t want to miss out on a detour some 15km from the town of Warrnambool to the vast caldera of Tower Hill that was born in a volcanic eruption 30,000 years ago. It was declared Victoria’s first national park in 1892 and not only does it offer some incredible wildlife watching opportunities – emus, echidnas, koalas, kangaroos and unique Australian birdlife – but it's an essential stop for anyone with an interest in Australia’s Indigenous history. The Worn Gundidj Aboriginal Cooperative operate the Tower Hill Natural History Centre where you can check out rare Aboriginal artefacts (don’t miss the possum-skin cloak) and join bushwalks led by Indigenous guides.