When veterans of World War I returned to Australia, they were given pickaxes rather than pensions, and the Great Ocean Road was born. The 151-mile, two-lane highway was commissioned as part of a jobs creation project for returning soldiers and at the time, the southern coastline of Australia was only accessible by sea. It took 13 years to complete the whole thing and when it opened in 1932, the road was dedicated as a memorial to the soldiers who hadn’t returned to Australia after the war.
Not much was there when the construction started and there’s not a whole lot there today. But what is there is practically perfect. The small towns dotted along the Great Ocean Road (GOR from now on) have the rare distinction of being very small and remote, but not inhabited by backwater trolls. One of the things that left the strongest impression on me in Australia were these small towns. They’re full of people and actually good restaurants and there’s personality without being cutesy. It feels like the people who live here would rather be there than anywhere else in the world. You’ll never be the only tourist in town, but despite its popularity, the GOR hasn’t turned into one endless thoroughfare for tourists. The road goes nowhere, but there’s nowhere else it needs to go.
I drove well beyond the end of the GOR onto Adelaide and up into the Barossa Valley, but I’ve condensed it all here.
Melbourne to Apollo Bay
I flew back to Melbourne from Hobart and began the drive from the airport. As much as is possible, don’t look out the window until you get to Torquay, the official start of the Great Ocean Road. The M1 is a shockingly unattractive freeway, even in comparison to most interstates. When you get to Torquay, you’ll find that you’ve arrived in a strip mall in Laguna Beach.
In one stretch there are places with names like Bluntz Skateboarding and Soul Fuel Café. So you get the idea. This is one of the least interesting towns along the GOR, so keep going unless you need to replace your flip flops.
From Torquay, the road heads inland through scrubland before reemerging near Lorne. Lorne is everything a beach town should be. There’s not a white tablecloth in town, shoes are strictly optional, and every other storefront sells ice cream. Even on a relatively cool day, the beach was packed and people had carted obscenely large burritos and plastic baskets of chips and salsa from the boardwalk down to the beach.
On a hill above Lorne is one of the best lookouts along the entire road, where you can really see the coastline bobbing in and out as you look west. The drive from Lorne to Apollo Bay is one of the best stretches on the entire road if you’re the one driving because the best scenery is always right in front of you. The road follows the rippling coastline and makes for what I consider to be a perfect driving road: one where you don’t have to stop the car to see stuff.
At the end of this winding section on the mouth of an enormous crescent-shaped bay is Apollo Bay. Like every other town along the GOR, there’s really nothing to do but you won’t be in any hurry to leave.
Apollo Bay to Warrnambool
This is highlight reel of the Great Ocean Road and it’s worth taking the whole day to drive this relatively short section. About an hour outside of Apollo Bay you’ll come to the Twelve Apostles, a series of limestone towers along the coast. Despite the name, there were only ever nine of these stacks, though one has now collapsed. This is the most well known spot along the road and for good reason. I saw the Apostles twice, once on a cloudy day and then on a sunny day, and while there was something cool and brooding about them in bad weather, the view on a sunny day is utterly spectacular.
The phenomenon that creates the Apostles—saltwater erosion along the cliffs—shapes this stretch of coastline in incredibly beautiful ways, and there are several other points along the road worth seeing. Loch Ard Gorge, 5 minutes down the road from the Apostles, is a similar kind of thing, with dramatic colorful cliffs looming over the water. This area has been the site of many shipwrecks, mostly ships from England nearing the end of the long voyage to Australia, due to its unpredictable currents and ragged coastline. Continuing from Lord Ard Gorge, you’ll reach the Bay of Islands beach, another ridiculously photogenic beach with dusty yellow and fiery orange walls framing small bays and bright blue water.
It’s hard to overstate just how spectacular this coastline is on a sunny day. I found myself squinting even with a hat and sunglasses because the reflection off the water was so bright. The air has that kind of languid, saltwater smell that hits you the second you roll down the window. Obviously anything is better enjoyed in nice weather, but this stretch of highway would really lack something on an overcast day.
Though its tempting to put your foot down and just haul ass to the Twelve Apostles, it’s worth stopping in Otway National Park first on the way out of Apollo Bay to spot the koalas napping in the trees. I figured they would be nearly impossible to see but even if you’re the one driving, they are amazingly easy to spot. I also like to imagine what Australians must think when they see tourists freaking out about kangaroos on the side of the road or koalas in the trees. It’s the Down Under equivalent of taking pictures of pigeons in your local park.
The stretch after the Twelve Apostles to Warrnambool is where you can consume all the calories you didn’t work off sitting in the car all morning. The highway cuts inland here and weaves past purveyors of every kind of delicious food and libation. I stopped at a cheese shop and was pleased to see these people meant business when my sampler platter was the size of the cheese plate you’d bring to a large dinner party. Pick up some homemade ice cream down the road and you’ve pretty much filled your fat intake quota until at least dinner.
Warrnambool feels like an actual city in that there are big box stores and car dealerships and other unsightly necessities on the road into town, but they’ve conveniently stowed all this out of sight of the main downtown area. Warrnambool has beautiful waterfront property, some decent restaurants, and most importantly, an Irish pub, so you’re in good hands.
Warrnambool to Adelaide
After Warrnambool, you get one last shot at civilization before Adelaide, nearly 400 miles away. Port Fairy has, in my opinion, an overblown reputation. I met a lot of Aussies who raved about Port Fairy, but I wasn’t not particularly blown away by it, though I didn’t encounter a single town along the GOR that wasn’t charming in some way so you really can’t go wrong.
Here ends the Great Ocean Road and almost immediately, the road takes a sharp turn inland. Most of this section of highway passes through pleasant farmland and generally attractive rolling hills until you get to Coorong National Park. This stretch gives you a real appreciation for what driving in the Outback must be like because the road here is so flat and it’s so hot, even on a mild summer day, that the road disappears in front of you, swimming in the heat waves between the black tarmac and the unobstructed blue sky. And this is nothing compared to many of the roads in the central part of the country that travel in a completely straight line for literally hundreds of miles.
Eventually you’ll work your way down into the valley where Adelaide sits. Adelaide is essentially just Melbourne lite, so if you read that post, you know what’s coming next. The Victorian architecture from the 19th century has been taken care of and the central business area feels very British. The city center is laid out in a perfect grid, hemmed in on its sides by parks and the River Torrens.
Adelaide, like Melbourne, is a city where you wish you had several other lives so that you could live in Adelaide for one of them. There really are no sights here and whatever museums there are it would be a crime to visit because it would mean going inside. I found myself eating probably more meals than is generally recommended and spending a lot of time sitting on benches in parks, but it’s refreshing to be in a place where you never feel like you have a checklist of things to see. You can do basically nothing in Adelaide and still walk away feeling like you’ve seen the city.
Adelaide to Barossa
In the hillsides surrounding Adelaide is one of Australia’s best wine regions. If you know nothing abut wine, the range of options is very overwhelming and if you know a lot about wine, it’s probably even more overwhelming.
This area is exactly what you expect from wine country anywhere in the world. There are tons of great restaurants, fantastic hotels, and, wait for it, a lot of wine. Barossa is perhaps known most for its Shiraz and that is the extent of my knowledge about wine.
I don’t plug hotels I stay in on this trip, mainly because I rarely stay in them, but the place I stayed in Barossa was really incredible and deserves a mention, as if they somehow need my endorsement. Apparently the property was on a very popular show in Australia, McLeod’s Daughters, for several years, kind of a Downton Abbey type thing where the house was almost a character on the show, so I gather hardcore fans of the show come to stay and geek out, in addition to the wine aficionados and clueless people like me. I was literally the only person staying in the house the two days I was there and they treated me like a visiting dignitary, not like the person who was keeping them from having two days off. So, thank you to them for that and top to bottom, Kinsgford Homestead is exquisite.
There is SO much to see in Australia that two weeks only barely scratches the surface. You could say that about a lot of the places I’ve visited, but this felt particularly overwhelming. When I first started planning Australia, I had an almost completely different itinerary and I probably could have come up with several more totally distinct ways to spend my time in here.
I love Australia. A lot. It’s kind of a hard place to hate. The fact that it’s in the middle of nowhere actually plays to its strengths. I think Australia works as a country because it’s such a bitch to get there and once you’re there, you never want to leave and it’s just easier to stick around. It’s not a perfect country by any means. Australian politics are totally whacked out and there’s definitely strong xenophobia among certain sects of the population. Not that I know of any other country with those characteristics.
My post about New Zealand will follow and then I’m over to Africa.