You’ll be surprised at what you find when you explore the hinterland of the Great Ocean Road.
You might drive the Great Ocean Road for the seascapes, but it’s the treasures you’ll unearth in the fern-filled forests and cloud-reflecting lakes and rivers beyond the famous coastal route that will really leave a lasting impression. On a Great Ocean Road trip, turning your back on the sea really does have its own rewards.
Birregurra: foodie haven
If you thought our cities have the country’s finest restaurants, think again, because three-hatted Brae in tiny Birregurra is one of the best – it’s been in the world’s top 100 since 2017. But the degustation-only set menu of 10 or more courses isn’t the only reason to come to this pretty little village of 1000 or so, although most of the reasons do involve food.
This place seriously punches about its weight when it comes to eating: try Yield for farm-to-table fine dining or stock up to take away or make at home from Yield Provisions next door. The main street is lined with cafes and bakeries, and the surrounding countryside is littered with farm gate stalls, part of the Otway Harvest Trail. If you’re still hungry when you leave here, you’re doing something wrong.
Forrest: wild at heart
Forrest is just as foodie as Birregurra (think craft beer brewed on site, chocolates and a general store that also sells artisan gin) but it’s also one of the best places to see platypus in the wild – they are regularly spotted in Lake Elizabeth, which surprised locals when it mysteriously appeared after a landslide in 1953.
Encircled by forest, this former timber-getting town (no prizes for guessing how it got its name) is now a magnet for mountain bikers, with 15 purpose-built trails – join them up and you’ve got a rather epic 6- kilometre track – that wind through the tall forest and mist-filled fern gullies. There’s a cycling trail for every type of rider, from hardcore to beginner.
The Otways: chasing waterfalls
A great swathe of the hinterland of the Great Ocean Road is protected by the Great Otway National Park, stretching from the sea right up towards Colac. While it includes some stunning sections of coastline, it’s the dense forests that cloak the Otway Ranges that are the real treasure. Ranging from tall eucalypt and towering mountain ash – the world’s tallest flowering plant – to giant ferns and lush rainforest glades and gullies full of 300-year-old beech trees, it’s a cool, green wonderland.
Follow the twisting mountain roads that traverse the ranges and you’ll discover magical camping spots, pretty picnic areas and ethereal waterfalls, such as Erskine Falls, Hopetoun Falls, Kalimna Falls, Sheoak Falls and Triplet Falls. Head into the forest after dark in places like Melba Gully and you’ll be treated to a light show staged by millions of glow worms.
Timboon: gourmet trail
Strawberries and ice cream, whiskey and cheese, yoghurt and honey, beer and chocolate… you’ll discover many matches made in heaven around Timboon. Spending a day in and around the town of Timboon – one of the biggest stops on both the Otway Harvest Trail and 12 Apostles Gourmet Trail – is like exploring the world’s largest food and wine store.
But it’s not just the range of gourmet goodies on offer, or even the pretty rural scenery you’ll see between stops that make this such a sweet way to explore the hinterland; it’s the makers you’ll meet and the conversations you’ll have with them as they tell you all about the passions that inspired them to become artisan producers. Some, like the cheesemakers at Schulz Organic Creamery and Café have been farming and producing in the region for generations, so they also know a few good local travel tips. Beats a trip to the supermarket any day.
Volcanic lakes and plains
This is where the real secrets of the Great Ocean Road hinterland hide. Hardly anyone knows that the region north-west of the 12 Apostles is the third largest volcanic plain on the planet. And it’s still technically active, because most of these volcanoes are dormant rather than extinct, although none of the experts expect them to erupt again anytime soon, so they are safe to visit. And hardly anyone (apart from the lucky locals that live there) has heard of the small towns that litter the landscape, but they offer a taste of authentic country life you just don’t find in the bustling holiday towns on the coast.
Lake Bolac has a 27-kilometre foreshore and is great for sailing, when it’s full. Koroit is the Irish capital of Australia, with the best tasting spuds in the country, and a classic craic-filled Irish Pub and Noodledoof brewery and distillery. Forage for antiques and pre-loved vintage finds just about everywhere, fossick for gemstones made from ‘volcanic bombs’ in Mortlake, marvel at the pioneering ingenuity behind the miles of drystone walls and bluestone bridges in and around Darlington, spot platypus in Skipton, stroll through botanic gardens in Camperdown, visit Australia’s newest World Heritage site at Budj Bim, discover lava blisters (tumili) in Macarthur and peer over the edge of craters in Noorat. You’ll never look at a round-shaped hill in quite the same way again.