Experiencing Australia’s Great Ocean Road

Travel Features Australia
Experiencing Australia’s Great Ocean Road

As someone who grew up within the endless roads of the United States, I am somewhat of a connoisseur when it comes to road trips. I have always enjoyed the feeling of freedom that comes with setting tires down on an open highway with no real destination in mind and simply allowing my curiosity to get the better of me, guiding me down a blurry, unplanned path in the hopes of having a good story to tell by the time it’s all over.

It should go without saying then that when I had received an invitation to explore the Great Ocean Road in Australia, I was beside myself with excitement. I had read about this storied highway before, and I figured with a name like that, it had to have plenty to offer. With numerous limestone islands, cliff beaches, white sands, cute little beach towns, and the constant backdrop of the piercing blue Southern Ocean, it indeed lives up to its namesake and much more. The 243 kilometers comprising the route also doubles as the world’s largest war memorial—in 1919, soldiers returning from World War I began the arduous task of carving out this road by hand, using little more than pickaxes, dynamite, and ingenuity over the course of 13 years to create what would end up being one of the world’s most legendary and scenic drives.

Like any good road trip, a little pregaming and context were necessary to properly take in this journey fully. I couldn’t help but notice Port Phillip Bay, due south of Melbourne and slightly east of the Great Ocean Road, formed a “pincer claw” of two peninsulas joining at the ocean. Even though the Great Ocean Road officially starts just outside Torquay, I decided to bend the rules and instead commence my drive in the Mornington Peninsula, the eastern half of the “pincer,” and then head west.

I’m a sucker for romantic beach towns with smatterings of pleasant wooden homes painted in warm, inviting shades, and I noticed several in Sorrento as I traveled westward. The earth eventually narrowed around Route B110 until I found myself surrounded by water at land’s end at the entrance of Searoad Ferries, where I would find my ride granting me passage across Port Phillip Bay. I had a little time to kill beforehand, so I explored a charming assortment of thrift shops and cafes before getting the alert that my boat was ready. I then steered my car into a narrow space in the hull, and before long, I found the Mornington floating away as we drifted east to the Bellarine Peninsula.

I clamored up a set of metal stairs to the main deck outside to take in the salty air and liberating breeze on my face. Gazing off into the distance, I noticed the Melbourne skyline endearingly poking above the horizon due north. Indeed, the beach communities’ relative quiet and slower pace can almost make one forget they are within an easy day’s drive to one of Australia’s largest metropolitan areas.

Nightfall was imminent on the other side of the bay in Queenscliff, so I checked into my room at the Cerlewis Resort, whose sprawling grounds also double as a noteworthy local golf course. After dozing off in my accommodations, I awoke the following day to find a delicious breakfast of eggs benedict and hollandaise awaiting me at Claribeaux, the resort’s restaurant. The morning’s clouds began to burn off as I drove south, and a gorgeous, clear sky greeted me in the attractive beach community of Torquay, forming the first stop within the awesomely named Surf Coast Shire that would kick off my journey across the Great Ocean Road.

I was finally face-to-face with the Southern Ocean here, so I took a moment to park and get swept up in my senses, admiring the roaring sea’s sounds, gusts, and deep blues while grabbing a quick snack to fuel up before embarking down the Great Ocean Road proper. I enjoyed the sight of surfboards toted around Bells Beach, where surfers were no doubt hoping to catch a wave in one of Australia’s most renowned places for the sport. I rounded a curve and saw what appeared to be a structure of earthen planks forming the shape of an arch stretching over the road inscribed with the words “GREAT OCEAN ROAD” at the top. I had arrived.

I took a few paused breaths and pictures to commemorate the occasion and traveled onward. Through the emerald brush, orange sands, blue water, and clear sky occupying my sight in all directions, I noticed a tinge of regret begin to form. I had a loose itinerary of things to do and places to see, but the sheer impact of this palette on my senses and my desire to constantly pull over and take pictures was at direct odds with the hours of available daylight beyond my control. I occasionally yielded with some brief stops, but any and all resistance ceased the second I saw the tip of the Split Point Lighthouse poking above the trees in the town of Lorne. I decided that a vantage point of the surrounding scenery just had to be experienced, itineraries be damned.

I parked on an adjacent dirt road and walked to the entrance, finding a lovely little cafe on the way to check the map and refuel on caffeine. I paid the small entry fee to climb the stairs, finding a majestic, expansive view of the Australian coastline at the top that stunned me into silence so as to let my brain catch up and take it all in. I nearly exhausted my SD card snapping an irresponsible number of photos before the reasonable part of my mind reminded me to put the camera away and simply be present with the view. I took a few more moments to enjoy the tides crashing into the charred orange shores as the cool southerly wind direct-order from Antarctica grazed my face until, almost regretfully, I descended the stairs and left the view behind.

I trekked back to my car, uprooting from one beautiful place to yet again stumble upon another almost immediately with the inviting pier in Lorne. I couldn’t get over the Southern Ocean’s seemingly impossible shades of blue, a deep hue I had never seen in ocean water before, and decided this needed further investigation. I sat down momentarily to admire the saturation and movement of these clear waves with the sun on my face, and then I hit the road towards my next stop, Apollo Bay.

The encroaching sun as I headed westward was beginning to take a toll on my eyes, so I found a roadside store to purchase a quick pair of sunglasses (or “sunnies” as the cashier adorably called them) and grabbed a quick bite before disappearing into a grove of alien-looking trees as I headed into Great Otway National Park. This was roughly the halfway point of the Great Ocean Road, and as I vanished into the forest, I noticed my music stumbling as my cell service flickered. I decided this was a sign to turn my music off and let myself be immersed in the silent ambiance of the greenery as I snaked around the roads. 

I took a moment to admire gravity’s work in the hypnotic, misty cascades of Sheoak Falls, and then I popped out of the woods back on the coast at the beginning of Port Campbell National Park. The scenery ramped up a considerable degree here, as the onslaught of limestone cliffs and islands and their ochre hues formed a perfect segue into the image painted in the sky by the soon-to-be-setting sun.

I saw signs for the Gibson Steps and the Loch and Gorge and decided that places with fun names like these demanded a stop. The Gibson Steps were a surprisingly high and imposing set of cliffs whose scale I couldn’t accurately comprehend until I gawked at them from the bottom after descending a lengthy staircase etched into the precipice. The Loch and Gorge was a quaint patch of beach flanked by tall cliff facades, giving the place a secluded, cozy feel. The setting sun was now giving the ocean a greenish appearance, and I basked in the ambiance of The Grotto, a small sea cave filled with crashing emerald swells whose purple spring flowers surrounding the entrance greeted me on the way down.

Next up were the Twelve Apostles, a series of rock spires with peculiar shapes jutting out of the ocean that make up arguably the most famous landmark in the park. A short trail walk leads down to some stunning vistas perfect for photos, or you could do as I did and see the apostles using a considerably more badass approach—via helicopter.

Despite constantly stopping on the drive over, I barely made my reservation at Twelve Apostles Helicopters. After a brief safety demo, I suddenly found myself whisked above as the ground disappeared underneath. Hurling through the air, I learned that the Twelve Apostles were a misnomer—while there were 12 once upon a time, erosion and time had taken its toll, whittling down or collapsing a few of them altogether. I allowed myself to be weightless, floating and letting my memories absorb the sight of all of the burnt stone towers visible from my bird’s eye view juxtaposed with cliffs and the swelling surf from the endless expanse of the Southern Ocean. 

We could see London Bridge from the helicopter, which actually was a bridge until the central piece collapsed in 1990, leaving behind a beautiful rocky arch domineering over the waves that was a standout on the tour. I drove over after touching down for a closer look and, mindful of the minimal daylight left, took a few pictures before continuing on.

By this time, the sunset was in the full throes of its daily spectacle. The other cars on the road started becoming less frequent, and by the time I made it to the Bay of Martyrs and the Bay of Islands, I found myself alone on the cape, watching the sun approach the now-grayish water as the warm colors emanating from the sky and idyllic limestone islands immersed my vision. It was surprisingly chilly for late spring, and I struggled in my minimal layers against the strong winds, but the sight demanded a sense of completion. I let the day go as the sun vanished into the ocean, the warm tones converged into darkness, and the shapes around me faded out of visibility.

Night had fully arrived as I passed Allansford, the official end of the Great Ocean Road. However, given the beauty of what I had just experienced, I decided that an encore was necessary in the enchanting beach town of Port Fairy. I checked into the Ashmont Motor Inn, whose dual-level rooms and ‘90s aesthetics on the inside I found endlessly pleasing as I crashed on the comfy bed to mark the end of a satisfying, full day. I grabbed a coffee from the cozy corner cafe Bank Street & Co the next morning and followed the signs to nearby Griffiths Island. I was quite charmed by the park here, which offered a collection of trails lining the perimeter revealing wildlife, sun-tinted rocks buffering the ocean, and the captivating sight of the Port Fairy Lighthouse.

Before leaving Port Fairy, I stopped by the superbly awesome Coffin Sally. One of the coolest surprises in town and speaking to a horror buff like yours truly, Coffin Sally is a former coffin maker-turned-pizzeria whose interior was filled with skulls, candles, and other bits of macabre flair on top of serving up some of the most delicious pizza to be found in this stretch of Victoria. I wolfed down a delectable prosciutto pie before heading west into the sun to tackle my next adventure in the Limestone Coast—another incredible region of Australia.

John Sizemore is a travel writer, photographer, yoga teacher, and visual entertainment developer based out of Austin, Texas. Follow him on Instagram at @sizemoves. In his downtime, John likes to learn foreign languages and get immersed in other worlds, particularly those of music, film, games, and books in addition to exploring the world.

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