Great Ocean Road, Australia

Rugged coastline, pristine beaches and lush, wild forest – it’s not just surfers that heed the call to discover Australia’s Great Ocean Road, which runs for 151 miles (243km) along the coast south of Melbourne. Anne-Marie Middlemast takes a family-friendly road trip through this stunning region.

Beach near Great Ocean Road, VIC, Australia
The Idea

As a teenager growing up in Melbourne, it was almost considered a rite of passage to get a few friends together, and take a drive down the iconic Great Ocean Road. I’ll confess, I spent more than a few weekends following various boyfriends down this coastal wonderland; panel van loaded up with surfboards, sleeping bags, the latest Top 40 cassettes and of course, beer.

This time round, I was returning to the Great Ocean Road with new husband, Ewin, and five-year-old son Louis in tow. Cleverly scheduling the week before Christmas as quality family time, we packed our trusty borrowed car (#benefitsofabigfamily) to the hilt with second hand wet-suits,  plastic-coated boogie boards and not quite so much beer, and, with no real destination in mind, and a 40-degree Melbourne’s summer day to spur us on,  hit the road.

The Route

The Great Ocean Road begins in Torquay, 95km from Melbourne and weaves through Lorne and Apollo Bay, past the iconic rock formations, the Twelve Apostles, and meanders on to Warrnambool. The winding, 243km coastal drive is stunning, dramatic and photogenic at every turn. The speed limit is a relaxed 80km per hour, and lookout spots are dotted along the drive so you can pause, breathe and capture your own Kodak moment.

1. First Stop: Surf’s Up in Anglesea

Our first pit-stop was the small seaside town of Anglesea, a place popular with less experienced surfers due to its small rolling waves, and, as such, the easiest place to test our own surf skills. After many years away from this spectacular coastline, I’d forgotten how majestic and awe-inspiring it is. Getting dunked by crisp Bass Strait waves is a feeling akin to no other: imagine Mother Nature hoovering out your headful of city clutter, leaving you breathless, beaten and shining, and you’re kind of close. With the onset of blue lips, bright eyes and hungry bellies, we hopped back into the car  and headed further up the road to Lorne,where the cafés, playground, boutique gift stores and restaurants were overflowing with travellers.

2. Next Up, Lunching in Lorne

Not far from the forest hinterland of the Otway Ranges, Lorne has a thriving arts scene, and is host to the annual Falls Music and Arts Festivalheld over New Year’s Eve (not quite as family friendly as its sister festival in Marion Bay, Tasmania). It also has fabulous food.  There’s wood-fired pizza at stalwart The Ovenhouse and truly good burgers at The Bottle of Milk, not to mention some great ice-cream bars. We opted for a sun-soaked lunch in the rooftop beer garden of The Lorne Hotel, which has panoramic views of the coast.

As we wiled away the afternoon watching the action on the street below and letting Louis meander about the joint (a family-friendly eatery indeed), Ewin and I threw around a few possible scenarios about sleeping arrangements for the evening to come. After thumbing through a tourist brochure for the Great Ocean Road region, we decided to try our luck at the Cumberland River Holiday Park, which, despite the high tourist season, had room for us to pitch a tent for a few nights.

3. Under Canvas: Colourful Characters in Cumberland River

A short 7km trip from Lorne, Cumberland River has everything a glamper or camper could want: bushwalks, trout fishing, stunning cliff face views ­- not to mention the practical, yet all-important, playground and laundry facilities – make this locale a hidden treasure. Our campsite, which was much prettier than I imagined, was nestled next to an enormous Cyprus pine and faced a picturesque rock escarpment.

Purchasing firewood from the park’s reception, which also doubles as a shop, we started our fire in one of the drums provided, whilst colourful characters and long-time Cumberland devotees came wandering our way. One, who we dubbed “Fisherman Sam,” was a seventy-year old angler who’d been visiting the area for the last thirty years. We spotted him trundling down to the bubbling creek beside our campsite, gumboots up to his knees, bucket in hand and wielding a mighty fishing rod. Waging a singlehanded war against trout, he told us he’d been catching fish down these here parts for as long as he cared to remember and never fished for more than he needed (which happened to be breakfast, lunch and dinner).

The next morning we awoke to a wet camp following overnight rain. While I embrace The Great Ocean Road in all her shades, a muddy campsite can suck the spirit of all but the most intrepid campers among us. Louis, however, lost none of his enthusiasm: pulling on his gumboots, he played happily in the drizzle at the playground, before kicking off his shoes and opting instead to feel the sodden grass underfoot.

koalas at cape otway

4. A Bit of Bushwalking

It wasn’t long before Ewin had convinced us all that we needed to grab our raincoats, shoes or not, and join him for a bushwalk up the rock escarpment we’d been marvelling at. The 7km return-trip to Castle Rock isn’t, however, for the faint hearted. Beginning at Sheoak Falls, the walk is a long, steep trek up and up, with ferns, scrub and gum trees lining the path. Spotting a lazy koala perched on the spindliest of saplings lifted our spirits, but not our weary legs.

As we marched onwards in intermittent drizzle, Louis started to run out of puff. Heaving one little leg in front of the other, I tried to reassure him as I explained, “What goes up must come down”. Whether it was logical reasoning or my promise of a treat, shortly thereafter Louis pulled himself out of his funk and an hour-or-so later we found ourselves, panting and exhilarated, standing atop a stunning lookout at Castle Rock.

The outlook offered a vast view of the ancient misty gullies and forested peaks of the Otway Ranges, our campsite, and further out, the Southern Ocean. Inspired by our efforts, the following morning we headed off on another daywalk, this time taking an easy stroll to Jebbs Pool; a stunning waterhole with a natural waterslide made from clustered rocks.  The Great Ocean Road region is loaded with a range of such treks for day-trippers, and the Visit Victoria site has a a comprehensive overview of what’s available.

5. Onward to Apollo Bay

After three nights and four days exploring most of the Cumberland River area, we packed up the tent in favour of a little luxury, and drove toward Apollo Bay. Arrivingat the Big4 Wye River Caravan Park, and eager to get out of the rain for a night, we rented a small, but cosy, cabin.

Much-loved by families, the Caravan Park offers beach frontage to Bass Strait, and sits beside Wye River, making activities like canoeing, fishing, and swimming in either fresh or salt-water appealing. Here, kids trundleabout on bikes, beach-goers cross the Surf Coast Highway to get stuck into waves, and latte sippers get their hit at the uber-cool Wye General Store and Café (adjacent to the Park).

From our cabin, we could see the Park’s large onsite playground and the giant, inflatable in-ground trampoline or jumping pillow. At all hours of the day, and in all types of weather, we watched kids (and parents!) merrily bouncing, sliding and skidding about on the balloon. Louis’s eyes also bulged as he took stock of the games room, complete with nostalgic pinball machines, Daytona racing cars, air hockey, table tennis and more.

Later, we headed into Apollo Bay for dinner with friends. While tempted by the tapas and sangria at the wildly popular Chill @ the Bay, we decided to get some tucker at the Apollo Bay Hotel. Located in the heart of town, the hotel – in operation for over a hundred years –  is a real mix of old and new, with a large indoor bistro setting, al fresco dining area, charming public bar, a quaint beer garden overlooking the bay and foreshore, and a menu offering a modern take on Australian cuisine (think delicious locally caught fish and chips, a pretty snazzy dessert menu, and handcrafted ales from the nearby Forrest Brewing Company). Kids aren’t forgotten, either, with a cosy corner set up in the bistro, where little hands can pull out all sorts of weird and wonderful and pre-loved toys, or opt to watch a range of age appropriate films.

6. Homeward to Melbourne

The following morning, we made the trip back to Melbourne but, not ones to let go of a good holiday, opted for an alternative inland route that winds through the tiny town of Deans Marsh, about 20 minutes from Lorne. Known primarily for its eccentric, curious restaurant-cum-live music venue, Martians Café, you don’t have to step inside Martian’s to know you’ve landed in a kind of alternate reality, planted somewhat abstractly in a rolling scrubby Victorian hinterland. With décor that’s a combination of pre-loved toys, music posters and other oddities, it’s a pit-stop like no other. The menu features a wide range of home-made meat and veggie pies, with lots of gluten-free options. After a refuel and a quick climb on the playground, we begrudgingly hopped back in the car, headed for the bright lights and the big city.

Driving back,  my hair knotty and my sun-kissed skin still tingling from the mighty ocean, I mused on how all good things must come to an end. It had been seven years since I’d been down the Great Ocean Road and while I’d changed, the Great Ocean Road hadn’t. As Melbourne’s city lights came into view, that longing to be back tumbling and diving in the sea called to me in the breeze. If only the drive away from the coast could feel as sweet as driving to it.

The Great Ocean Road

More family favourites along the Great Ocean Road

Gentle Annie Berry Gardens

Pick your own raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and strawberries at this organic farm a 20 minute drive from Lorne. If the kids haven’t eaten most of their haul by the time you get back to the farmhouse, there is also a café which sells berry-influenced dishes.

Allenvale

Pick your own heirloom apple varieties and Nashi pears from February to May at this century old organic apple orchard. Allenvale is also home to a series of enchanting cottages set in a beautiful forest, 2km out of Lorne. It’s a perfect base for all your Great Ocean Road and Otway Hinterland explorations.

Cape Otway Lightstation

Climb to the top of mainland Australia’s oldest lighthouse at Cape Otway Lightstation, perched on the rugged cliffs  at the southernmost point of the Great Ocean Road. Located 12km from the Road (and an hour from Apollo Bay), watch out for koalas sleeping in the trees as you drive in. If the idea of a night on the shipwreck coast appeals, you can even rent the lighthouse keeper’s cottage.

Otway Fly Treetop Adventures

For some big thrills, check out the world’s longest and tallest steel-framed treetop walk,  a 1.9km journey through the Otway’s beautiful cool temperate rainforest.  At 25m above the forest floor, there’s plenty of  birdlife to spot. For something even more heart-racing, there’s a 2.5 hour, fully guided Zip Line experience, during which you can fly across the treetops. The Otway Fly is an hour north-west from Apollo Bay.

Lake Pertobe Adventure Playground

When you finally make it to Warrnambool (the southernmost point of the Great Ocean Road), the kids will be keen to stretch their legs at this 20-hectare adventure playground with its giant slides, flying foxes, maze, and boat rides.

family shot

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