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A self drive tour of the Great Ocean Road is a must do on any Australian itinerary.
The Great Ocean Road in Australia’s south is one of the most scenic drives in the world. Winding through lush rainforest and along spectacular coastline, the road runs over 240 kilometres from Torquay to Allansford on the southern coast of Victoria.
I am very fortunate to have spent a lot of time in this region of Victoria. We spent childhood family holidays at Anglesea where my parents now live and a dear friend from school is raising her beautiful family in Apollo Bay.
With their help I have compiled some of our favourite places along the Great Ocean Road for a memorable self drive tour or walking holiday full of unique local experiences.
This guide is for those who like a self drive holiday and spending a few days to discover this remarkable destination.
Great Ocean Road self drive tour overview
Your Great Ocean Road adventure will likely start in Melbourne from where it is an easy hour drive past Geelong to Torquay and the start of this great coastal drive.
Driving this way along the coastline means you will be hugging the shoreline for the best views. Make sure you drive on the left hand side of the road. There are many signs to remind you along the way.
Take the drive slowly as it is a winding road prone to rock falls and slippery conditions but most of all enjoy the unique landscapes.
Great Ocean Road map
This map of the Great Ocean Road shows the highlights of the area as well as some of the lesser known local secrets that a bus tour may not cover.
On your journey you will pass through small hamlets and larger towns each with their own unique character and local experiences.
I have always wondered what this landscape looks like from above.
Great Ocean Road natural wonders
Of course you should not miss the limestone formations the Twelve Apostles and London Bridge the very natural wonders that this coastline is famous for.
The best vantage points to view them are the viewing platforms a short walk from their car parks. They are both very popular attractions however so be ready to share your moments gazing out to see with many other people.
The Grotto close to London Bridge is a naturally formed cave set among a series of beautiful rockpools.
Explore a little further west from the 12 Apostles and you will find lesser known Bay of Martyrs and Bay of Islands both boasting scenic views of the rugged coastline and rock formations without the crowds.
Tip – peak time for visits to this area is between 2 – 3 pm when the tourist buses arrive so if you value a more peaceful experience these are the times to avoid. Regardless, sunsets and sunrises are always spectacular in this part of the world.
Favourite Great Ocean Road beaches
Visiting our spectacular beaches is one of the best things to do on the Great Ocean Road
Home to World Surf League events, Bells is a pilgrimage for surf fans. Watch the swell and admire the local surfers ride the waves at this iconic beach.
This sheltered beach is a favourite with families with small children. The small bay is protected from the surf conditions and has shallow waters and a wide sandy beach for little ones to play on.
During the summer months a kiosk near the beach keeps visitors happy with coffee, snacks and ice cream.
We love walking along this windswept beach with our dogs. Walking west you can catch a glimpse of the Split Point Lighthouse at Airey’s Inlet in the distance.
Urquhart’s Bluff is home of the famous ‘mermaid’ deep pool for relaxed swimming. You will also find a grassy picnic area and public toilets.
Beaches close to Apollo Bay
Favourite walks in the Great Otway National Park include a walk down to the beach at Parker River inlet at low tide or taking the cliff walk to Crayfish Bay, a gorgeous sheltered lagoon. Drive further to Blanket Bay on the Cape for a lovely walk along the beach.
All along the coastline keep your eyes open for Aboriginal middens eroding from the dunes.
A ‘midden’ is an occupation site where Aboriginal people left the remains of their meals (source).
These sites are often comprised of mounds of shells and are an important for archaeological resource. Lastly, walk to the mouth of the Aire River – it’s a wild and uncompromising piece of coastline.
A note on swimming at the Great Ocean Road beaches
It would not be a trip to the Great Ocean Road without visiting its beaches. A couple of tips though.
The water can be very cold. These are the waters of Bass Strait and the Southern Ocean with currents that come from Antarctica.
The ocean can also be very rough and subject to strong rip tides that challenge even the most able swimmers.
If you want to swim, make sure you are in an area patrolled by the local surf lifesaving clubs and swim between the flags as directed.
Rainforests and waterfalls on the Great Ocean Road
Cape Otway National Park is a pristine natural wilderness where you can discover the diverse ecology of the region. Follow the Turtons Track Tourist Drive as it winds through incredible mountain ash forests and cool temperate rainforest.
It finishes up at Beech Forest where you should avoid the crowds at the Otway Fly tourist walk and head instead further down the road to Triplet Falls. For a beautiful boardwalk into rainforest gullies with ancient Myrtle Beech trees take the Maits Rest Rainforest Walk.
If you love waterfalls then I also recommend a trip to Hopetoun Falls that cascade 30 metres into the Aire River below.
Where to see Australian wildlife on the Great Ocean Road
Many bus tours will stop at the Anglesea Golf Club to watch kangaroos graze on the greens but you can see native Australian wildlife at many places along the coastal drive and in their natural habitat.
Join the Anglesea heathland cliff walk to the north of the Anglesea River at the Anglesea Bowling Club. This coastal trail passes through eucalypt forests and winds along the cliffs.
You can expect to see koalas, echidnas and wallabies. There is a map available at the Tourist Information Office and the walk takes between 45 minutes and an hour.
Stop at Kennett River just past Lorne and take a walk up Grey River road for one of your best chances to spot koalas in the wild.
Several species of whale visit the coastline and can be seen during the winter months of June, July and August, the time of their annual migration. Keep an eye on local whale sightings via this link.
You can also see a seal colony at Marengo Bay and little fairy penguins near the base of the Twelve Apostles.
Towns on the Great Ocean Road
I would love it if all visitors to the region made a special effort to stop at Wye River to support the community rebuilding their town after the devastating bushfires of Christmas 2015.
Other must see spots along the scenic drive:
- Airey’s Inlet – home to iconic Split Point Lighthouse and Airey’s Inlet Pub with in house brewery
- Lorne – known for its famous pub and long wide sandy beach
- Apollo Bay – pretty community by the sea surrounded by the lush green hills of the Otway Ranges
- Port Fairy – beautiful historic port town with bluestone houses and whitewashed cottages
Eating and drinking on the Great Ocean Road
There are some fabulous eating out options at towns along the Great Ocean Road but if you are self catering you can take full advantage of the fresh local produce available from southern Victoria.
The Airey’s Inlet Pub has a huge beer garden with an inhouse brewery and wonderful views over the coastline. Children can run around on the grass outside while you enjoy the view. There is a roaring fire in the bar in winter if it is cold outside.
One of our favourite local restaurants is just across the road from the pub. Melburnians love Greek food and the menu at á la grecque is delicious. We usually have lamb but there are always several varieties of fish available too.
A favourite place to eat in Lorne is the old school seafood restaurant near the pier. It’s not the place for cutting edge cuisine but it is a great spot for lunch if you are craving a seafood feast with a view and sea breezes.
Stop at Wye River General Store for freshly baked bread, pastries and provisions and delicious lunches and dinners.
Experience outstanding fine dining at Brae Restaurant. I have not yet visited but reports from friends and chef Dan Hunter’s CV, including a stint at Mugaritz in Spain, are testimony enough.
Collect eggs and seasonal produce just before reaching Torquay at The Farmer’s Place at Freshwater Creek. This tiny hamlet is also famous for the high rise passionfruit sponge cakes from Freshwater Creek Cakes.
Wine lovers should visit the cellar door at Bellbrae Estate for tastings and purchases of their locally grown and produced pinot gris and pinot noir ranges.
My favourite place for fresh fish is the Lorne Fisheries Co-op at Lorne pier. Here the daily catch is presented with a side of haiku by fishmonger poet Christos Raskatos.
You can see his latest creations posted on the black board outside the shop. There are usually several varieties of oysters on offer as well as squid, crayfish and many varieties of fish.
Don’t miss the weekly Apollo Bay market on Saturdays where you must stop by Otway Coast Regenerative Farmers for locally reared grass-fed beef and seasonal vegetables. You can even buy truffles by Wongarra Farm when in season.
Get your caffeine fix at Hello Coffee, a boutique roaster from Apollo Bay. They have a stall at the market and a cafe where apart from a great pour you will also find treats such as orange and cardamom buns and smoked pork rolls.
Great Ocean Road history and culture
Learn about the indigenous history of this part of Victoria on the Koori cultural walk at Point Addis. The 1.6 km loop-track takes around an hour and you can connect to other walks from here including a short cliff top track that takes in stunning sea views.
Most visitors to the Great Ocean Road stop for a photo opportunity at the famous sign over the road at Fairhaven. The road was a post WWI project to provide work for ex-servicemen and serves as a memorial to Australians that lost their lives in that conflict.
The Great Ocean Road looks over a treacherous seascape and was the scene of many maritime disasters. Over 630 ships are known to have been wrecked on this coastline.
Light stations such as Split Point Lighthouse at Airey’s Inlet and the Cape Otway lightstation were critical in improving the safety of ships passing through Bass Strait and the Southern Ocean to and from Melbourne. Learn more about the lighthouses and their history with on site guided tours.
Loch Ard Gorge between Princetown and Port Campbell is the site of one of the more famous shipwrecks. The ship ran aground in 1878 in misty conditions with the loss of all but two of the 56 passengers onboard.
At Moonlight Head you can walk 309 steps down to Wreck Beach. Massive cliffs preside over an eerie beach where you can find evidence of shipwrecks. Learn more about the shipwreck coastline here.
Accommodation on the Great Ocean Road
Here are my best Great Ocean Road accommodation picks
Aireys Inlet – Airey’s Inlet Lighthouse Retreat – luxury B&B near the iconic Split Point Lighthouse
Apollo Bay – Dolphin Apartments – 4.5* self catering apartments with sea views
Hiring a car or campervan
If you are visiting Australia you probably don’t have a car, so you need to rent one of course! Or if you are feeling really adventurous and want this drive to be the start of your great Australian road trip you could rent a camper van!
All the major international brands are represented both at Tullamarine airport and in key locations throughout Melbourne. I recommend picking up your car from the airport or Southern Cross station. This way you avoid most of the traffic.
Rules of the road
Make sure you drive on the left! It’s easy to forget that when you are surrounded by so much natural beauty.
Also, take your time, stay on the speed limit and avoid driving at night. The roads are winding and along cliff faces at times and test the most seasoned drivers. Sadly several tourists lose their lives on this road every year.
Remember to ask your rental company about using an eTag. This allows you to use the toll roads in and out of the city and can save you lots of time.
Great Ocean Road resources
Visit Victoria provides accommodation suggestions, itineraries and highlights for planning your trip to this region and beyond.
For more information on walking trails and routes check the Great Ocean Walk website.
Many visitors to Melbourne take a one or two day bus day tour or helicopter ride along the Great Ocean Road but I encourage you to go slowly and enjoy this most beautiful ancient landscape, its people and history.
Have you visited the Great Ocean Road near Melbourne, Australia? What were the highlights?
Big thanks to my parents and friend Libby for assisting with the content of this post. Libby is a wonderful writer, archaeologist and expert on Australian indigenous history as well as an amazing cook. Do check out her blog – here.
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