Don’t stop when you get to the 12 Apostles, because the Great Ocean Road’s most underrated bits are hiding further west, in Warrnambool, Port Fairy and beyond.
There’s no arguing that the Great Ocean Road is one of our most well-known and much-loved road trips – everyone knows about the famous 12 Apostles – but what many people don’t know is the scenery gets even more dramatic the further west you go.
The wonders stretch all the way to the South Australian border.
Warrnambool and Port Campbell: Whales, volcanoes and potatoes
The 12 Apostles are just a few minutes’ drive on the Melbourne side of Port Campbell, but if you ask a local they’ll probably tell you that their favourite section of the Great Ocean Road is in the opposite direction, just a few minutes’ drive on the Adelaide side of Port Campbell.
London Bridge, which famously made headlines when it lost one of its arches in 1990 leaving two startled sightseers stranded on the newly formed tower – they were rescued by helicopter – is not really a secret, but most of the aptly-named Bay of Islands is.
Stretching more than 32 kilometres along the coast, there are many more than 12 apostle-like sea stacks here, and plenty of places where you can walk along the clifftops and down onto wave-wracked beaches and rarely see another soul.
The one-hour clifftop walking trail from Peterborough Golf Course to the Bay of Martyrs is a corker, as is the Bay of Islands Beach – a top spot to launch a kayak – and dog-friendly Sandy Cove.
If you’re on the Great Ocean Road between June and September, head for Logans Beach at Warrnambool, where you might be lucky enough to see one of the many female southern right whales that come here each year to give birth – this is one of the best shore-based places to see these whales and their calves.
Warm up afterwards with a session at the Deep Blue Hot Springs Sanctuary, where you can slip in and out of 15 different geo-thermally heated mineral pools.
Middle Island, just a few hundred metres from Warrnambool foreshore, is home to a colony of Little Penguins, guarded by Maremma sheepdogs: you can meet the four-legged guards and stars of the Aussie cult movie Oddball at Flagstaff Hill.
Tower Hill is hardly a secret either – the slumbering volcano is one of Victoria’s oldest national parks and it towers over the surrounding landscape – but the Indigenous tours are a real eye-opener and there aren’t that many places in Australia where you can drive into the crater of a dormant, rather extinct, volcano.
On the northern edge of Tower Hill, the sleepy town of Koroit looks like it hasn’t changed in years – lovers of mid-century vintage will be in heaven here, and it’s all shabbily authentic.
Settled by Irish immigrants in the 1840s, it’s kept its Irish flavour – potatoes are big business around here, and if you pass a farm gate stall selling a bag of spuds grab some to take home.
If you miss the annual Koroit Irish Festival in April – headline events include the op shop procession, spud picking and peeling competitions, the Australian Danny Boy Championship and plenty of singing and dancing – pop into Mickey Bourke’s Koroit Pub for some fair dinkum craic.
Port Fairy: Muttonbirds and Neolithic villages
It used to be called Belfast, but Port Fairy also has a fair bit of Celtic charm as well. Home to both the oldest pub in Victoria (the Caledonian, aka The Stump) and the oldest inn (The Merrijig) there are more than 50 buildings in the village that are classified by the National Trust, the streetscape hasn’t changed much in 100 years.
One thing that has changed is the shopping and eateries. Standout cafe’s and restaurants include The Oak and Anchor for a relaxing wine and nibble at the end of the day (and fantastic boutique accommodation), Merrijig Inn who’s beer garden is a local favourite or Bank St & Co for coffee and casual breakfast and lunch.
In between feasts a mosey among Port Fairy’s homewares and collectible’s boutiques on Bank and Sackville Sts is well worth it. For something bespoke, wonder into the Stitched Textile Studio.
Every year, around September 22, 40,000 muttonbirds – short-tailed shearwaters – fill the sky above Port Fairy.
These very punctual birds fly more than 16,000 kilometres from Alaska to breed on Griffith Island in the mouth of the Moyne River, and stay until mid-April. Stroll out to the island via the causeway around sunset, when they return to their nests, for a truly spectacular show.
Budj Bim, a short drive inland, is Australia’s newest World Heritage Site. Inscribed on the UNESCO list in 2019, it’s the world’s most extensive and oldest aquaculture systems and human settlement sites.
The Gunditjmara farmed eels and built a village of stone houses here, long before the pyramids of Egypt were built or the rock slabs of Stonehenge were even quarried.
If you’d always thought Australia’s Indigenous people were nomadic hunter gatherers, this place will give you a whole new perspective.
Portland: Shipwrecks, seals and petrified forests
Victoria’s oldest European town is Portland, settled in 1834. Many of the grand historic buildings in town – mostly built with distinctive bluestone – date back to those early days. It was – and still is – the only deep-water sea port between Melbourne and Adelaide.
Head up to the old lighthouse at Whalers Bluff and you can indulge your inner ship spotter watching the huge ships come and go.
With a lovely sheltered beach and expansive grassy foreshore, more than 200 historic buildings in town, lots of family-friendly attractions like the Cable Tram and Maritime Discovery Centre (where you can sit inside the belly of a sperm whale), beautiful botanic gardens and truly sensational seafood, you’d expect Portland to be humming with tourists. But, so far, it’s still under the radar.
One of the coast’s weirder natural phenomena are just a five-minute walk away.
Despite their misleading name, the solidified columns and tubes of the Petrified Forest are not fossilised tree trunks but the dissolved rocks that have formed a forest of hollow tubes, some more than 20 metres high.
If you thought you’d already seen some pretty impressive cliffs along the Great Ocean Road, wait until you see those at Cape Bridgewater.
At more than 130 metres high, these are the tallest sea cliffs in Victoria, which were once the western rim of a volcanic island that has become joined to the mainland by calcified sand dunes.
From the top you can peer down to a large colony of fur seals, and it’s a great spot to see whales in winter.
If you don’t fancy the two-hour walk to get there – it’s a bit of an uphill slog – grab a table on the edge of the sand at the Bridgewater Bay Café, where you’ve got a good chance of seeing whales while you enjoy coffee and cake, or a glass of wine and some fresh fish, in the sun.
It’s got one of the best lunchtime views on the Great Ocean Road, and you don’t even have to wear shoes.
Take a drive out to the lagoons of Bridgewater Lakes, explore caves in the hillsides, follow tracks to the deserted beaches of Discovery Bay.
The huge rolling dune system stretches all the way to the Nelson at the mouth of the Glenelg River on the South Australian Border, and is home to the Princess Margaret Rose Cave (currently closed due to Covid), one of the most richly decorated caves in the country.
If you really want to experience the best of the Great Ocean Road without crowds, this is the place to do it. Go now so you can brag to your friends that you went there before it became popular, because somewhere this special won’t stay a secret for long.