Illustration by Emily Blevins, animation by Claudia Cardia
Courtesy of Visit Victoria
The Twelve Apostles is one of the many memorable sights you’ll see on Australia’s Great Ocean Road.
No trip Down Under is complete without cruising the Great Ocean Road, that long stretch of highway draped along Australia’s rugged southern coast. Though you could technically knock out the drive in a single day—and many travelers do—we wouldn’t recommend it. We’ve put together the perfect itinerary.
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With its epic surf beaches and endless ocean views, the Great Ocean Road on the southwest coast of Victoria, Australia, is one of the most stunning coastal drives in the world. Starting in the surf town of Torquay—a 90-minute drive southwest of Melbourne—the Australian National Heritage–listed road hugs Victoria’s dramatic southern coastline for 151 miles, winding past magnificent rock formations and rain forests, before ending in the historic fishing village of Port Fairy. To make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime road trip, dedicate at least three days to cruising leisurely down the coast, stopping off for swims, hikes, and unforgettable farm-to-table meals.
There are a million ways to do the Great Ocean Road, but this one hits all the main attractions and leaves enough time for exploring and relaxing.
From Melbourne, cut a southbound trail toward Torquay and then stop at Bells Beach. Home to the annual Rip Curl Pro surfing competition, Bells is famous for being one of the best surfing beaches on Earth. But even if you’re not a surfer, you’ll find yourself gawking at its swells, best enjoyed from the lookout at the eastern end of the beach. If you like lighthouses—or just epic views—you might also want to stop at nearby Aireys Inlet and climb to the top of the century-old Split Point Lighthouse. Otherwise, keep heading southeast toward Lorne, where you’ll break for lunch at The Bottle of Milk.
This breezy eatery, situated across from the beach in Lorne, serves up hearty but healthy farm-to-table fare with a side of low-key coastal vibes. Everything on the menu is terrific, from the vegetarian salad rolls to the banana-walnut bread, but what you’re really here for are the legendary burgers. There are 14 different kinds, but we like the Nelly, essentially a cheeseburger made with organic local beef and cheese, topped with crisp bacon, creamy avo, and a tangy homemade tomato relish. Get it with a side of thick-cut hot chips and add a vanilla-malt milk shake. Afterwards, continue south and end the day in Apollo Bay. Go for a dip if you feel like it—the beaches are pristine—then grab dinner at Chris’s and stay the night at Seafarers.
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With its cliff-top perch and sweeping ocean views, Chris’s is one of the most scenic restaurants on the Great Ocean Road. Thankfully, the food’s crazy good, too: inventive, flavor-packed Mediterranean dishes like dill-cured ocean trout with capers and dukkah-spiced egg, local mussels steamed in a rich tomato and fennel broth, and slow-cooked eggplant topped with sesame-crusted, pan-fried feta. (Note that the menu is seasonal and changes regularly.) Leave room for dessert, too: The baklava with mastic ice cream is out of this world.
Making the most of its idyllic beachfront location in Apollo Bay, each of the bright, airy studios at Seafarers features an ocean-facing wooden deck, perfect for winding down after a long day of driving, glass of juicy local shiraz in hand. The two-bedroom lodges, situated mere steps from the ocean, are similarly luxe but considerably more spacious and are ideal for families and groups.
Get up early and head straight to the Twelve Apostles, a 90-minute drive south. This collection of limestone stacks, which rise dramatically from the Southern Ocean directly off the shore, are the crown jewel of the Great Ocean Road. Initially formed by wind and wave erosion, the “apostles” have sadly been whittled down to seven, but they’re still an incredible sight, particularly during sunrise or sunset. Even if you don’t get there exactly at sunrise (around 6:30 in the late spring and summer), getting there before 8:00 means you still get that soft golden early-morning light and you’ll beat the tour buses coming in from Melbourne that start unloading about noon.
From there, drive or walk to the Gibson Steps—there’s a half-mile walkway that hugs the cliffs and takes you right to the steps. Or drive two minutes from the Twelve Apostles to find it: an 86-step staircase along the cliffs, leading down to a windswept stretch of beach. The view from below is gobsmacking: from this vantage point, you’ll feel positively dwarfed by the sheer 200-foot cliffs behind you and the two offshore rock formations—known as Gog and Magog—looming directly in front of you. Beware: Due to the rips, the beach isn’t ideal for swimming, although it’s a popular fishing spot for local anglers.
Afterwards, check out the nearby Loch Ard Gorge. Named after a clipper ship that ran aground on a nearby island in 1978, the Loch Ard Gorge is the most Instagrammed attraction on the Great Ocean Road after the Twelve Apostles, and no wonder. The ochre sands, crashing waves and the narrow glimpse of the horizon from between golden cliffs combine for a beautiful view.
Stop for lunch in Port Campbell—Frying Nemo does great fish-and-chips—and then continue east to Port Fairy, stopping to snap the London Arch on the way. Formerly known as the London Bridge, before one of its two arches collapsed in 1990, the now-solo offshore rock formation remains a popular attraction.
You’ll spend the night here, so reward yourself with dinner at Blake’s. Located in Port Fairy—the last official stop on the Great Ocean Road—Blake’s is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Think roaring fires, a cozy ambience, and a small menu highlighting local seafood (Port Fairy is a fishing village) and bright Australian flavors. The menu changes seasonally, but you can expect generous fresh-off-the-boat seafood platters, grilled local fish with fresh garden herbs, and Aussie lamb chops done to perfection.
Then get the fire going and the bath running in your gorgeous suite at the Drift House. This award-winning, six-suite sanctuary in Port Fairy is worth the long drive alone. The boutique hotel pairs 19th-century Victorian architecture with sleek modern interiors and flawless attention to detail: cloud-soft linens, working Victorian fireplaces, sumptuous deep-soak tubs, and homemade Anzac biscuits in every room.
Day three: Brunch and a top-notch national park
Ideally, you’d spend a couple more days exploring Port Fairy and the beaches and wildlife reserves of nearby Warnambool, but if you can’t, at least enjoy a sleep-in and a leisurely brunch at Bank St. + Co.—the Eggs Benny with local Otway bacon is especially good—before the four-hour drive back to Melbourne. If you’re a nature lover, stop at the Great Otway National Park for a short bush walk or a little zip-lining.
It’s worth dedicating an entire day to exploring the Great Otway National Park. You can zip-line through misty mountain ranges, hike through rain forests and marvel at towering waterfalls that gush year round. The most beautiful falls are Hopetoun and Beauchamp, which are located near the halfway point of the Great Ocean Road. If you’re a serious hiker, you won’t want to miss hiking a part of the 65-mile Great Ocean Walk, part of which passes through the park (find a useful guide to all the day hikes on the official Otways website). The park also boasts a cool 2,000-foot-long elevated walkway in the treetops that’s not to be missed. Spend the night in nearby Apollo Bay before cruising back down to Melbourne the next morning.
The Great Ocean Road is gorgeous any time of year, but the ideal time to do the drive is during late spring (November) and autumn (March through May). The winter is too chilly for swimming, while summer (December through February) can get very crowded, especially around Christmas. Also, unless you’re a surfing fanatic, avoid Bells Beach during Easter week, when the Rip Curl Pro draws huge crowds.
Take your time—seriously. Use our itinerary as a baseline, but you can easily spend a week moseying along the Great Ocean Road, exploring its many beach towns and diverse landscapes. Even if you do only have three days to spare, keep in mind that you don’t have to hit every attraction. There’s nothing wrong with skipping a few sights to hang out on the beach for half the day. That’s what this trip is all about.
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