It’s not just for the tourists. This Australian must-do experience is one that many of us don’t quite get around to doing. Quentin Long discovers the error of his ways
It’s a dangerous game being a tourism icon. On the plus side is big visitor numbers, from which sprout small businesses, whose employment grows towns and gives the next generation of locals work in their home sticks.
On the downside, there are people like me. Due, perhaps, to snobbishness and a misguided travelling elitism, I tend to think that if it is an “icon”, it is already ruined and therefore needs no consideration. I am a traveller after all. I’ll leave the icons to the less sophisticated tourists.
This silly snobbishness may just explain why, in our eight-and-a-half years of publishing Australian Traveller, we have never actually dedicated an entire feature to the Great Ocean Road. We have covered it as part of longer features, and best-ofs, but the GOR itself – well, that’s just for the international bus tourists and the Melbourne ad execs who have a McMansion weekender in Lorne.
WHY IT IS THE GREATEST
And that’s what makes the GOR great. It is a deserved icon and stands up to the examination of such snobby “travellers”. I was expecting to be a little dismayed by a ho-hum experience; looking down upon the silly hordes of bus tourists. They are there, admittedly, but we are all in it together.
But if the 12 Apostles are majestic in their losing battle against the sea, Loch Ard Gorge is a beguiling jewel. A sometime oasis of calm and meditation, the gorge can become a dangerous, thundering beast – lovely to watch from a safe distance when the seas are up. The sheltered cove is stunningly picturesque, the opposing cliff faces nearly meeting at the mouth of the gorge, protecting the pretty little beach. If it were in the Bahamas it would be the most famous beach in the world.
If summer had a home in Australia, it would be Lorne. It’s one of those gorgeous, “appropriately developed” seaside towns where wearing shoes is overdressing, the cafés sit comfortably next to upmarket restaurants and the local milk bar is still slinging milkshakes and greasy potato scallops to golden kids.
Lorne is set against the beach with just the Great Ocean Road separating the perfect right break from the cafés and shops. Even in the height of winter, the dedicated surfers make the most of the freezing water because the waves are at their best and least crowded.
The high temple for many surfies is back up the road towards Geelong, just outside Torquay at Bells Beach, home of the Bells Beach Classic and the birthplace of professional surfing. This is the Surf Coast after all.
The actual beach at Torquay is pretty, but not necessarily that amazing. Further down the road at Bells Beach itself, I park next to a stereotype: a combi van with a surf motif on the back. Two middle-aged guys look at the beach with wonder – and a little disappointment, as the waves are not up.
proprietors, the General Store and Café is so good that stopping off is absolutely mandatory, no matter how little time you have.
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED
But when you have finished with the spectacular part of the road and wound past Apollo Bay, the lesser-known and perhaps more appealing (to my inner travel snob) Great Ocean Road reveals itself.
Cape Otway National Park nurtures a lot of the best of the Great Ocean Road region. The national park is so full of koalas they cause hazards, as cars pull over willy-nilly to take photos and generally admire their round behinds wedged in trees.
At Cape Otway Lighthouse, I meet my first ever ex-lighthouse keeper. Pat Howell still looks the part – with a wild beard, gnarled arthritic hands and slightly wild stare. He is a very funny man but turns a little melancholy about the demise of his profession.
JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT IT COULDN’T GET PRETTIER
Leaving Cape Otway, I pass through the epitome of green, rolling, bucolic valleys at Ayr, then on to Johanna Beach via the weirdly named Red Johanna Road. (There is also a Blue Johanna Road, which leads to the same place – although Blue is windy and longer.)
Johanna is another beautiful beach, and probably the best campground on the whole of the Great Ocean Road. It’s right next to the beach and well serviced. I’m staying at one of the beautiful little Johanna Seaside Cottages: simple and comfortable accommodation with gorgeous views – but if I were camping, that’d be the spot.
Port Campbell is a couple of sleepy streets, a Best Western, a bakery, a pub and a Greek restaurant that serves authentic taramasalata, a Greek-style chicken parmi and the best whitebait I have ever eaten. The entire town is orientated towards the long finger of water that curls around the headland and laps at the beach in the middle of town. It is so unbelievably cute and quaint it seems to be almost fantastical. And it will remain so for a long time. The 2004 Great Ocean Road strategy has deemed it not appropriate for development, driving developers back to larger centres like Apollo Bay and Warrnambool.
All in all, the Great Ocean Road is the rarest of beasts. It’s a stunning attraction that is always enthralling no matter what season, weather or time. You won’t catch me saying this often, but the longer the journey on this road, the better.
Where to stay //
Most accommodation is B&B and holiday rentals.
Comfortable and modern self-contained units right opposite the beach in Port Campbell. From 14 Lord Street, Port Campbell, (03) 5598 6413; seafoamvillas.com.au
JOHANNA SEASIDE COTTAGES
Cute, unpretentious, self-contained cottages, 10 minutes from Johanna Beach. From about $220 a night, two night min.
395 Red Johanna Road, Johanna, (03) 5237 4242; johannaseaside.com.au
GREAT OCEAN ECO LODGE
Fantastic hosted stay in a conservation centre on the road to the Cape Otway Lighthouse. Accommodation includes the dusk walking tour of the property and feeding the tiger quolls. From $350 a night incl. continental breakfast.
635 Otway Lighthouse Road, Cape Otway, (03) 5237 9297; www.greatoceanecolodge.com
ROTTEN POINT HOUSE
A beautiful luxury four bedroom, two bathroom home overlooking but without access to Johanna beach, but it has a private road entrance off Evans Track. From $670 a night, two night min.
Evans Track, Johanna Beach, (03) 5237 4201; www.rottenpointhouse.comEating //
Most of the places in Lorne and Apollo Bay are ok. Here are some picks.
Known as the best restaurant in the region – but annoyingly, closed May to August
24 Mt Joy Parade Lorne 3232, (03) 5289 2787; www.marksrestaurant.com.au
Simple food, decent wine list, pizza is quite good.
46a Mountjoy Parade, Lorne, (03) 5289 2544; ovenhouse.com.au
Best whitebait I have had and quirky fusion like a Greek Style Chicken Parmie.
28 Lord St, Port Campbell, (03) 5598 6242
THE RIDGE ORGANIC FOOD AND CAFE
Not strictly on the GOR bur make the detour for the best food in the region handled with love and care by Sue Ladewig and Ray Cooper.
20 Gardner St, Beech Forest, (03) 5235 9273
Bothfeet offers the most sophisticated guided experience on the Great Ocean Walk. Stay at a gorgeous Japanese-inspired lodge, eat beautiful food provided by the in-house chef, have a foot soak at the end of each day… The lodge is open from September to May. bothfeet.com.au