When visiting Australia it’s easy to approach it with a checklist. We have cities and big sights that we want to see – the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru, the Opera House, and the Great Ocean Road, in the state of Victoria.
Armed with this checklist we buzz about this great island continent – flying from one city to the next, taking a small slice of their experiences and snapping the views before “washing and repeating” on the next leg.
It’s all too tempting to rush around the country – to flit from place to place before returning home for a rest. But have we really seen the country? Have we gotten to know its curves and its contours, or just the inside of a plane? Have we learned enough about its people and their stories, or just tasted the wine and sat on the beach (not that I’m not a fan of wine and beaches!)?
Instead of the dip-the-toe experience of Australia, I’d encourage you to take things slower. Get to know one of its regions well and by virtue of that, its landscapes, people and culture.
And what better way to do so than with a road trip.
I’ve long wanted to see the Great Ocean Road, so when the opportunity arose to drive from Melbourne along this iconic route, I jumped at the chance.
Australia road trip itinerary: Melbourne to The Great Ocean Road
This road trip itinerary takes in Melbourne, the Great Ocean Road, and so much in between. It includes recommendations for adventurers, food lovers, culture fans, and for those who just like a beach and a good glass of wine!
Days 1-2: Melbourne
Melbourne may not be the first city you think of when you consider Australia, but it’s among the most visited in the country. And though it lacks the big sights, it’s the kind of city that wins people over because of its culture, vibrant neighbourhoods and cool arts scene. It also has the most diverse selection of restaurants in the country.
I started my time there from on high, and I’m not talking about my Qantas flight from London. Melbourne is one of the few cities in the world where you can take a hot air balloon right over it, so I got up at the scarily early hour of 4am to take a flight with Global Ballooning.
We set off from a suburban park as the sky turned from dusky blue to pink and then orange – the sun burning its way across the cityscape.
One of the first things you’ll notice about Melbourne is how green it is – it’s a city of parks, woods and bushland you’d not expect to in a city of its size. Sailing towards the CBD (Central Business District) the mirrored glass of its skyscrapers glistened in the early morning sunshine as we watched Melburnians make their way to work. Our commute to the city centre was much better of course – the peace only being broken by the occasional blare of the balloon’s burners – before we landed in Fawkner Park ready for my morning coffee.
Melbourne is characterised by great coffee – an eclectic selection of bars and restaurants and its art scene – much of which is secreted away in the city’s famous Laneways and elegant arcades. One of the best ways to discover them is on an insightful tour with Hidden Secrets. In a small group we learned the history of the Laneways from Melbourne local, Danae Flanagan. We were taken to its many secret corners and areas famed for their street art and laid-back lifestyle.
Great coffee – and I mean really, really great, can be found across the city, but in the CBD I’d recommend Padre in Royal Arcade, afternoon tea at Hopetoun Tea Rooms in beautiful Block Arcade, or turn coffee time into a chocolate break at Koko Black, also in Royal Arcade.
Brunch is the new lunch with Melburnians so join the trend and head to Cumulus Inc, Chuckle Park or The Stables Of Como in South Yarra, for a taste of the city’s best savoury options. For dinner embrace Melbourne’s multicultural melting pot with a creative selection of Polish perogi, vodka flights and cocktails at Borsch, Vodka and Tears, enjoy a taste of Spain at Ruby Rouge, or Asian fusion at Lucy Liu’s or Tonka. Alternatively head to Rockpool at Crown Melbourne, the city’s branch of the steakhouse chain created by famed chef Neil Perry.
Then there’s Melbourne’s rooftop bars – another of the city’s quirky highlights. Enjoy a pink-accented rooftop garden party at my favourite – saucy Madame Brussels, or head to Transit in Federation Square for great views across the CBD and the Yarra River.
Melburnians don’t just love their famed street art – they celebrate art in all forms, with standout international shows like my recent favourite, Andy Warhol-Ai Weiwei at the National Gallery Victoria, exhibits around the moving arts at Australian Centre for the Moving Image and indigenous art at the National Gallery Victoria Ian Potter Centre.
For a fantastically kitsch and fun morning, don’t miss the official Neighbours tour. When the soap opera started airing around the world more than 30 years ago, Neighbours taught the world about Australia, in part igniting a passion to visit the country in everyone who watched it. It may not be a true representation of Aussie life, but add the tour to your list to reminisce and have plenty of giggles along the way. You even get to visit the set and meet a cast member – we met Alan Fletcher, who plays Dr Karl Kennedy.
Where to stay – we recommend
Crown Towers – Crown is practically a city in its own right. A three hotel, spa, casino and multiple restaurant venue in the Southbank, it’s a Melbourne icon. Despite the scale of the Crown Melbourne complex, five-star Crown Towers keeps service levels very high.
Art Series Hotels The Cullen and The Olsen – boutique hotels that surround you with art by Australian contemporary artists. The Cullen is in vintage-loving Prahran, while The Olsen is in one of Melbourne’s best neighbourhoods, South Yarra.
Grand Hyatt Melbourne – five-star indulgence on upmarket Collins Street – a large spa and great restaurants in the form of Collins St Kitchen and Ru-Co.
Day 3: Torquay to Lorne and Cape Otway
Driving in Victoria is pretty easy. Australians drive on the same side of the road as us in the UK, and the whole state is relatively compact – the Great Ocean Road is only an hour and a half from Melbourne’s CBD beyond West Gate Bridge and along the dueled Surf Coast Highway. But why rush it, when there’s so much to see along the way?
Within half an hour of us hitting the road out of Melbourne we were in Torquay stopping for ice-cream and coffee overlooking one of Victoria’s most popular surfing beaches. The pro-surfers are more often seen in the next bay along as Bells Beach is home to the annual Rip Curl Pro competition. But Torquay is where pro-surf dreams are born – this long stretch of golden sands is spotted by the usual sunbathers, but you can also join the throngs of people balancing on boards on the beach before their surf lessons take them onto the waves.
For total beach relaxation though head further along, beyond the official start of the Great Ocean Road, to the resort town of Lorne. But Lorne is more than just a beach resort, it is known as the place “where the bush meets the beach”. There are over 70 walks leading in land from the coast and taking in the region’s lush vegetation, and beautiful landscapes including ten waterfalls.
It is also the place where the history and heritage of the Great Ocean Road unravels its story, much of which you can discover at the Great Ocean Road Heritage Centre.
Local historian Doug Stirling gives the low-down here…
From Lorne the sea air tingles in your nose as the road twists around the coast and the Great Ocean Road unravels itself.
The next few miles are all about the views. Hilltops carpeted with forests giving way to cliffs, then wide expanses of the azure coast.
The drive is perhaps too short – I could’ve spent days driving this evocative stretch of coast, but before I knew it we were through Apollo Bay and heading into Great Otway National Park. But I was still in wonder – the blue of the sea giving way to oceans of green, with fern and gum tree forests engulfing my field of vision.
In truth the 103,000 hectare Great Otway National Park starts way back in Torquay, but entering it at Apollo Bay gives you chance to enjoy more of those seaviews.
Heading further into the park we stopped for a kangaroo and quoll encounter at Great Ocean Ecolodge, before heading to the end of the world, or so it seemed. The second most southerly point in Australia, Cape Otway is flanked by a lighthouse, and has the most spectacular sunset skies. The lighthouse isn’t just pretty of course, since 1848 it has warned boats of the giant cliffs edging the hostile seas where the Southern Ocean marries Bass Strait.
There’s also a lot of history to the lighthouse, which is the oldest surviving one in mainland Australia. For thousands of 19th century migrants, who spent months travelling to Australia by ship, Cape Otway was their first sight of land after leaving Europe.
But long before it was the traditional and spiritual home of the Gadubanud indigenous people and there are artefacts and guides to immerse you in its history. It also has a secret World War Two history. After 41 Allied ships struck mines in Australian waters – many within a few miles of Cape Otway – the Royal Australian Air Force built a secret radar station at Cape Otway Lightstation in 1942 to keep watch for the enemy.
Where to stay – we recommend
Great Ocean Ecolodge – when kangaroos come up to the deck of your accommodation, you know you’re in an interesting place. Rooms are comfortable and not at all “eco” in feel, even though it’s home to a number of important environmental projects.
Day 4: The Twelve Apostles, the end of the Great Ocean Road and Port Fairy
Back to those hostile seas – a day in and around the Twelve Apostles reveals the magic and mayhem the sea can create.
Just over an hour’s drive from Cape Otway brings you to what is considered the jewel of the Great Ocean Road. The Twelve Apostles is a bit of a misnomer as there’s actually only eight limestone stacks making up this natural wonder.
Here we took a helicopter flight over these rocky outcrops to witness nature’s wild beauty. The stacks were created by 10-20 million years of wind and Southern Ocean erosion. Cliffs turned into caves, which became arches, and when they collapsed, stacks up to 45 metres high were left standing sentry in the sea.
It’s a place of vivid beauty – the sea spray mingling with puffs of cloud to create a certain mysticism. Sunlight lifting the shade to turn them golden, and there’s no better way to see them than in a helicopter. We took a 15 minute trip with 12 Apostles Helicopters – a fantastic way to view them up close.
Later, heading along the coast a little way, we arrived at Loch Ard Gorge – another striking limestone cliff view but this time revealing the mayhem nature can cause. It is named after a ship that sunk off its coast in 1878. Fifty two people died in the shipwreck, the only survivors being Eva Carmichael and Tom Pearce, whose families still live in the region today.
Leaving the coast behind, we continued our journey west, stopping for lunch in the small town of Port Campbell before going on to Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve near Warrnambool. This is the end of the road for coastal drive fans as the Great Ocean Road officially ends just outside Warrnambool at Allansford. But our adventure didn’t stop there.
Set in a volcanic crater Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve taught us about indigenous culture. Paul our guide even gave lessons in boomerang throwing. Let’s just say I’ll leave that to the pros!
A bush walk revealed much of the magic of Aborigines’ skills. Those that have been handed down from generation to generation. Paul showed us how to live off the bush – he has done so himself for months at a time – as well as how to respect Australia’s wildlife. It was a fascinating afternoon, including animal encounters – a rather large black or brown snake which we left well alone – koalas, and emus. I’ve found little more culturally immersive than spending time with Australia’s indigenous people and thoroughly recommend it as a way to connect with the country’s story and its countryside.
Almost as soon as I saw the name of my final stop of the day I was enamoured with it. Port Fairy lived up to its name in its absolute charm. It’s just nine miles from the wilds of Tower Hill to this tiny coastal town – 180 miles west of Melbourne on the Princes Highway.
Behind the lavender-scented garden of my hotel, Oscars Waterfront, I sat and looked out onto the Moyne River as it opened out into the Southern Ocean, a seal splashing and frolicking in the water with local fisherman he’d obviously befriended over some years.
That evening I enjoyed a dinner of delightfully garden-fresh ingredients and Victorian wines at the Merrijig Inn, beaming with the thrill of the many experiences I’d had and a sense of accomplishment – I’d finally done the Great Ocean Road.
Where to stay – we recommend
Oscars Waterfront Boutique Hotel – a great location on the Moyne River, excellent service, hearty breakfasts and comfortable rooms – you will feel very welcome here.
Time on your hands? Where and how to extend your stay
I enjoyed city explorations in Melbourne and a 259-mile road trip along the Great Ocean Road to Port Fairy in four days. But you don’t have to – take time to enjoy the experience.
- Spend more time in Lorne for beach relaxation.
- If the beach isn’t your scene take in the Great Ocean Walk – with over 100 kilometres of walking paths. Castle Cove was one of my favourite stops.
- Spend time in beautiful Apollo Bay. Chris’s Beacon Point Restaurant comes highly recommended for food with fabulous views. Sadly I didn’t have time to visit.
- Be made to feel small by taking the 86 steps to the beach at Gibson’s Bay. On the beach you’ll be dwarfed by 70-metre vertical cliffs.
If you’ve yet more time to get to know Victoria, head back towards Melbourne, then south-west to take in the delicious Yarra Valley and don’t miss the gardens, vineyards and more of Mornington Peninsula.
Don’t miss part 2 of the Australia road trip itinerary taking in the wonder of The Grampians National Park, panning for gold and wildlife spotting in Victoria’s Goldfields, and spa-filled relaxation in Daylesford.
I travelled to Melbourne with Qantas from London Heathrow via Dubai. The journey to Melbourne is long. Do not underestimate this!
Qantas offers one of the most direct services which takes approximately seven hours to Dubai and then anything from 12-14 hours to Melbourne from Dubai, depending on trade winds.
For this reason and the all-round quality of service, I’d opt to upgrade cabin class. I flew premium economy one-way and business class on the return leg. Both were excellent – naturally business class is always a cut (or even two) above premium economy for space, comfort and service. But if your budget doesn’t stretch that far, premium is a good alternative.