By the Sea: a Melbourne to Port Fairy Driving Holiday

A man walks along a beach at the 12 Apostles, Great Ocean Road

It’s Australia’s best-known drive, but so far they’ve never got there. Chris and Sarah, who love sun, sea and sand adventures, have decided they can’t wait any longer to explore Victoria’s Great Ocean Road.

It’s almost embarrassing to admit, especially for a couple of veteran road trippers like ourselves, but Chris and I have never driven along the Great Ocean Road. It’s universally considered to be one of the best coastal routes in the world, but we’ve never managed to get the timing right. All that’s about to change. We’ve picked up a car from Apex Car Rentals at Melbourne Airport and are on our way.

Beach Bound: Melbourne to Apollo Bay

A surfer walks along the sand of Bells Beach towards the headland, Torquay, Victoria

There’s never any argument about where the first stop will be. Being an avid surf fan, Chris immediately points the car in the direction of Bells Beach. It’s surrounded by steep dunes and huge cliffs that create an amphitheatre formation. It’s not the most welcoming beach I’ve seen, but visiting is more about acknowledging its place in surfing history. We sit up high and watch the break. It’s big – “too big for me,” Chris tells me – but, hopefully, the wild waves and fun times are a good indication of what’s to come.

At Lorne, we stop to stretch our legs and walk along the pier, and the place is buzzing. By the time we reach Apollo Bay, we’ve realised no two beaches along here are the same. This one, in fact, is a huge crescent of sand that seems to go on forever. After a splash in the shallows, we make our way to the Apollo Bay Fishermen’s Co-op. The catch comes in direct from the ocean – it’s famous for its rock lobster – and we feast on paper-wrapped fish and chips, fresh prawns and a grilled half lobster while sitting on the grass overlooking the beach. When we’re done, we’re tempted by a spot in the sunny beer garden at Great Ocean Road Brewhouse, where there are 18 independent Aussie beers and ciders on tap.

Rock Steady: Apollo Bay to Port Campbell

The sand dunes and deserted stretch of sand at Johanna Beach, Great Ocean Road, Victoria

In the morning, we meet a guide from Apollo Bay Surf and Kayak for an adventure at Marengo Marine Sanctuary. The weather is good, the water is flat and we’re paddling out to the seal colony. At the ocean-bound rock, we can hear them barking. Some are sunning themselves, but the smaller ones dive in and head towards us. They play around the kayaks, diving beneath them and popping up somewhere else. It’s so much fun, and the perfect start to a day of exploring.

Just past Apollo Bay, the road leaves the coast and runs through the Great Otway National Park, but I’ve also heard there are some epic beaches around here. Anyone who does the hundred-kilometre Great Ocean Walk gets to see them, but many people have no idea and just drive past. So, we’re getting out and walking. When we hit Johanna Beach, I know it was worth it. There’s a couple miles up the beach, but otherwise it’s just us, the wind and waves on this wild beach surrounded by dunes.

We get to the 12 Apostles seemingly at the same time as everyone else driving along the Great Ocean Road. The scenery is magnificent, but we should have tried to arrive at sunrise or sunset. Instead, we head off again, this time to Loch Ard Gorge. We observe this huge formation from the lookout then follow the trails to get closer. You know how someone once (maybe) said, “Nature is wild”? I know what they mean.

Land’s End: Port Campbell to Port Fairy

An Indigenous guide shows guests the volcanic rock formations at Tower Hill, near Warrnambool, Victoria

Port Campbell is a cute town sitting on a bay surrounded by huge cliffs. We follow the waterfront and watch game-fishing charter guests having their photos taken with a big tuna and kingfish they’ve pulled in. They must have got up very early.

Today, we’re making a detour to Timboon, where this old timber town has had a foodie makeover. First stop: Schulz Organic Creamery and Cafe. We dig into a cheese plate and toasties served up with rhubarb relish from a local producer. Then we hit Timboon Railway Shed Distillery, where a whisky tasting is on offer. Well, I taste and driver Chris has a soda water. We do, however, buy a bottle of sherry cask-aged Tom’s Surrender single malt for later.

We get to the end of the official Great Ocean Road at Allansford, just before Warrnambool, but we’re going a bit further to Worn Gundidj at Tower Hill. This dormant volcano is an important site for the Gunditjmara people, who’ve lived here for so long, they’re thought to have witnessed the last time the volcano erupted 32,000 years ago. We join one of the Indigenous guides, who tells us about their culture, shows us plants they use as food and medicine and generally explains more about the landscape.

From here, it’s an easy roll into Port Fairy, and a day or two in this historical fishing village will serve us perfectly before we head back to Melbourne.