Venture just off the Great Ocean Road to discover the hidden gems of the hinterland.
Setting out on the Princes Hwy into the depths of the Great Ocean Road region gives a new perspective on the place that is known for its dramatic and spectacular coastline. Taking an alternative road through the rolling green pastures and quaint country towns shows such diversity in the Greatopian landscape.
At Winchlesea – take a very short detour off the Princes Hwy to Barwon Park Mansion – an historic estate, famous for being the home of the people who introduced rabbits to Australia! The National Trust operates the property and runs tours for the public on Sundays.
Skirting around the edge of the Otway Ranges, that you will see on the horizon, you can detour through towns like Deans Marsh, Birregurra and Forrest to find food producers, artisans, vineyards and breweries. Produce is available at farm gates and in shops and general stores in these small towns. The people are passionate here about their paddock to plate ethos and they deserve to be, as they are growing some of the best food in some of the richest soil in Australia – taste the spoils for yourself!
In Colac you’ll be surprised when you veer off the highway and discover the Botanic Gardens and Lake Colac – many drive through without even realising there is a pretty oasis here that is perfect for a pit stop to stretch your legs – if you have small people on board the playground in the Botanic Gardens is ideal to break your journey.
Past Colac, the Volcanic Lakes and Plains is an area distinguished by large crater lakes and long dormant volcanic peaks. The area, is the third largest volcanic plain in the world. Some of the volcanic peaks such Mount Noorat (near Terang) and Mount Elephant (near Derrinallum) and Mount Leura (near Camperdown) provide for aerobic rambles to their peaks where you’ll be rewarded with views across the landscape. If a casual ramble is more your thing, take a stroll through any of the towns on route to discover boutiques and bric-a-brac and maybe find a treasure of your own. An old fashioned country welcome is guaranteed at the pubs and bakeries where you can find a hearty home-cooked bar meal or vanilla slice to rival the best.
If you are a fisherman or a golfer you will want to return to this area – lakes such as Purrumbete, Bullen Merri and Elingamite are famous for prized fish such as Brown Trout and Chinook Salmon, while 18 hole golf courses in Camperdown and Terang sit within volcanic craters.
Your scenic country drive meanders north to Macarthur, the closest town to Budj Bim National Park. The visitor’s area provides interpretation telling some of the story of the first people and the ancient culture distinguishing this area. Budj Bim is a volcanic peak itself and it was its eruption that created lava canals that were adapted by Aboriginal people to create fish and eel traps. The area is now recognised by UNESCO and has a world heritage listing for evidence of the earliest know aquaculture in the world. The Lake Surprise loop walk follows lava canals and meanders through a natural bridge and past caves. This area has a very special significance for the Gunditjmara traditional owners and is a privilege to visit.
Head back toward the coast and to the town of Koroit to be transported to another world. Where the Guinness flows and potatoes are available at roadside stalls surrounded by rolling green pastures, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking you’re on the other side of the globe. Koroit was an Irish settlement and keeps many of those traditions – including the annual Koroit Irish Festival, which takes place each April and features music, traditional games and general frivolity. A special feature is the Danny Boy championship – where the song is belted out by contenders and the winner is judged by the loudest cheers from the crowd in the pub.
Nearby Tower Hill Nature & Wildlife Reserve can be visited by the public and features several walking trails that meander around the lake and the volcanic crater that it sits inside. Home to an array of native wildlife, you are likely to spot Emus, Kangaroos, Wallabies, Koalas and even Black Swans in the reserve. Worn Gunditj @ Tower Hill Bush Food and Wildlife tours operate form the Visitor Centre located here if you are looking for a more immersive cultural experience.
As your journey takes you further west, the scenery gets more spectacular, more diverse and arguably more rewarding and special – for those that are privy to the secrets. Port Fairy, is an historic fishing village full or character and charm – voted in 2021 as Victoria’s Top Small Tourist town – you will see why. Classy boutique shopping and art galleries, cafes and restaurants serving food you would expect in Melbourne’s best, plus stunning beaches and a lighthouse – it really has everything. Portland is distinguished by the large shipping port – which you can’t miss as you approach. Don’t be fooled by the industrial elements – there is a balance with nature here and a laid-back country welcome. Cape Bridgewater, home to a stunning white sandy bay and a seal colony is a must-visit. A short drive or long walk will take you to the otherworldly Petrified forest and the Blowhole (be patient for the most full spectacle). Cape Nelson and its lighthouse, the Point Danger Gannet Colony and the Portland Maritime Discovery Centre are also musts to visit. In winter you are likely to see Southern Right Whales on any given day along the coastline and sometimes in the Portland Bay itself.
On the topic of long walks, those who take on Camino trails will be aware there is one here and this area is the stomping ground of Australia’s very own Saint, Mary McKillop, who lived just across the border in Penola. The Great South West Walk is a 250km loop that traverses the sandy Discovery Bay Coastal Park (go to Swan Lake just to roll down the sand dunes!) and along the Glenelg river through Lower Glenelg National Park and the Cobboboonee National Park. The Glenelg River Canoe Trail offers another way to appreciate nature from a different angle – with campsites situated on the river bank along the route managed by Parks Victoria, the stunning course takes you through distinctive Red Gum forests, Limestone Gorges and a special final stop in Nelson – the smallest and most rewarding of destinations for those wanting to escape it all and just relax by the River – maybe throwing in a line.
Casterton – the Birthplace of the Kelpie is a 45-minute drive north of Portland. Here you can visit the Australian National Kelpie Centre to find out the story behind the cutest but hardest working of our national icons. There are some other secrets to be found near here. Ask at the Kelpie Centre how to get to the impressive Bilstons tree – a surprisingly large Red Gum – the largest known of in fact – suspected to be a sapling sometime in the 1200s. Or take a trip up to Baileys Rocks – there’s no need to go to central Australia to see some very unusual gigantic round marbles. Make sure you visit the brand-new Tae Rak Aquaculture Centre & Café (opening July 2022), part of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape where you can learn about the lake and the eel fishing traditions of the Gunditjmarra first nations people.
One of the best local secrets is to travel against the traffic on the coast! Stop in Warrnambool, the largest of Greatopia’s towns to be treated to a variety of shops, cafes, restaurants, pubs and entertainment. A town made famous with punters for the May Racing Carnival, the waterfront is a treat for the senses. Get down to the breakwater early in the morning to see local trainers swimming with their horses. Visit the Deep Blue Hot Springs and spend a couple of hours relaxing in the outdoor geothermal spas – especially lovely in winter when the outside air is fresh!
The Great Ocean Road begins in Allansford, according to many Greatopians! Try approaching from this way and stop in to lesser known coastal sites such as Childers Cove, take the Bay of Martyrs Trail near the quaint coastal hamlet of Peterborough … or visit Greatopia’s very own London Bridge (if you didn’t already think we had it all!)
A stunning sunset at the 12 Apostles is a bucket list thing to do for most visitors here, and we absolutely recommend it… but if you really want to know a local secret, head to the Bay of Islands at sunset for an even more stunning experience.
Don’t miss the stunning Loch Ard Gorge precinct. Step onto the sand inside the gorge itself, but take a walk on the other nearby trails and discover Mutton Bird Island and Tom and Eva’s lookout (where you can learn the tale of Tom and Eva – the sole survivors of the Loch Ard shipwreck the precinct is named after).
Even without really diverting from the Great Ocean Road there are some very special spots that very few visitors discover on the way through.
Before Apollo Bay you will come across Maits Rest – a short loop walk that gives a beautiful taste of the ancient cool temperate rainforest flora of the Otways. Spectacular Mountain Ash and pre-historic Myrtle Beech Trees will take you back in time in a forest bathing immersion like you’ve not imagined.
Don’t go past Apollo Bay without stopping into the Harbour and grabbing the freshest fish and chips possible, or taking a walk up to Marriners Lookout. This is a place you can cast your gaze out to sea and your imagination back to appreciate it in the same way the Gadabanud people always have. This spot is magical and is not to be missed.
Now you embark on the journey that follows the route of the original Great Ocean Road and that returned-servicemen built when they were deployed to work on the project following world war one. The section from Cape Patton through to Lorne covers extremely challenging coastal terrain that when driving you can appreciate how difficult it must have been to work on – with pickaxes and sledgehammers. Arrive at Wye River, a town that was only accessible by boat until the road reached it almost 100 years ago. There are some beautiful holiday homes to stay here and take some time to walk the local trails – you can even find the original posts form the first jetty on the beach – used to transport timber harvested form the Otways to Melbourne helping construct some of the most distinctive heritage buildings in our capital city.
This section of the Great Ocean Road takes you through iconic seaside villages including Lorne, Aireys Inlet, Anglesea and Torquay. Along the way there are a few places people don’t often stop, but those that do are abundantly rewarded. Sheoak Falls around 8km west of Lorne is an access point to the waterfalls walks that surround Lorne (did you know there are 10 accessible waterfalls all within 10kms of Lorne?). An easy walk to impressive Sheoak Falls gives a taste of what you can find if you walk further – the Kalimna Falls are further on, and these trails link up to a network of spectacular rainforest walks and waterfalls that lead you back into the stunning coastal village of Lorne.
Don’t pass through Lorne without a snack at the very least – a range of great cafes and restaurants mean the dining experience here is top notch and you can expect a very, very good coffee. Take a walk to the end of the Lorne Pier for another perspective and to check out what’s biting. Aireys Inlet is a town that punches well above its weight in the foodie scene. With some of the region’s food artisans based right in the township you can sample artisan gin and craft beer made here and find restaurants and cafes dedicated to showcasing regional produce. Take a tour of Split Point Lighthouse if you’re a 90’s kid to re-live your after school ‘round the twist’ television ritual.
Anglesea, the river town is distinguished by the waterway that traverses it and the water sports on offer both in the estuary and in the sea, however most drive by without realising the unique and diverse flora that sits just inland of the Great Ocean Road route. The biodiversity of the Anglesea Heath boasts more than 100 species of native orchid – best experienced in springtime. The Anglesea perimeter walk will give flora enthusiasts a way to chance upon many of these. Head to the Bundjil lookout to cast your eyes over this unique landscape and literally see another side of the Great Ocean Road.
Head home with a full heart and inspiration for your next journey into Greatopia. This is just a taste of how much more there is to discover on your next trip to the region.
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Great Ocean Road Regional Tourism acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the Great Ocean Road region the Wadawurrung, Eastern Maar & Gunditjmara. We pay our respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging. We recognise and respect their unique cultural heritage and the connection to their traditional lands. We commit to building genuine and lasting partnerships that recognise, embrace and support the spirit of reconciliation, working towards self-determination, equity of outcomes and an equal voice for Australia’s first people.