It is one of the most famous drives in the world, with its views of Australia's south-east coast, crashing ocean and the Twelve Apostles. Add a luxury cottage and fine food, and great is the word
When a friend moved to Melbourne for work, it provided the perfect excuse for my girlfriend and I to plan the holiday of a lifetime – including a three-day trip along the Great Ocean Road, which stretches 243km along the south-eastern coast of Australia between the Victorian cities of Torquay and Warrnambool.
We did our research before leaving the UK and booked ourselves two nights at Points South by the Sea, an impossibly picturesque and luxurious cottage set on the ridge that borders the Great Ocean Road. The pictures on the website promised to fulfil our criteria of uninterrupted peace and quiet, with the added bonus of waking up each morning and finding nothing but ocean staring back through the windows. Equally as exciting was the prospect of travelling there.
On the road
I'd read plenty about driving one of the most famous roads in the world, but nowhere in my research had anyone mentioned that car choice is an essential part of the experience. Our hire car was of the economy variety and, while what I was seeing out of the car windows more than compensated, its lack of power, responsiveness and cornering ability proved a burden. My advice to anyone doing this journey is to get a car that can handle the road. Far from being a flat meander along the coast, it has hairpin bends, steep climbs and areas where both combine to test driver and car alike.
Despite these problems, we set off from Melbourne towards the stereotypically Australian-sounding Geelong, before turning towards the coast and aiming ourselves at the less exotically named Torquay. Finding ourselves clear of the busy roads of the city and heading for the coast was an incredibly exciting feeling, and our first glimpse of the ocean is a moment I will never forget.
It was winter in Australia, so it literally felt like we were the only people on the road. Miles and miles of stunning scenery was virtually all that we passed en route. When we came across the occasional camper van trundling along the road, it duly pulled over at the next convenient place and allowed us to pass. Anyone who drives on the M25 regularly will share my joy at this occurrence. Even if we had got stuck behind a vehicle travelling at 5mph, it wouldn't have mattered; as we passed through places such as Lorne, Separation Creek and Kennett River, the only thing that mattered was being together, being on that road and being on the trip of a lifetime.
As we rounded a headland, we caught sight of the cottage – set back from the road and up a steep track to the hillside. The only neighbouring property is well screened-off by the bush and, as we stepped into the timber-framed building, we were greeted by the most fantastic view out over the ocean, as the reddening sun began its slow descent.
The glass-fronted cottage offers a perfect 180-degree vista of the ocean, coastline and road. Our welcome hamper was far more than your typical hotel-room hospitality tray in Britain: there was fresh orange juice, locally reared bacon, eggs, bread, pastries, fruit and plenty to drink.
The accommodation was an architect's dream complete with wood-burning stove and feature chimney, window seats, a stainless-steel open-plan kitchen and thick rugs that made it feel homely, even though home was 10,000 miles away. The bedroom was set down a few stairs with dual-aspect glass walls. The bathroom lived up to the website description – large, modern and with a spa bath, more like an indoor hot tub.
The cottages are located a few miles outside Apollo Bay, a pretty and idyllic little town. We stopped off at a supermarket for a few supplies and had a great conversation with the cashier, who recommended a restaurant to us.
Chris's Restaurant (03 5237 6411, www.chriss.com.au) at 280 Skenes Road, Apollo Bay, is located high up on Beacon Point, from where the massive glass windows allow diners to eat while watching out for koalas a few feet away in the surrounding trees while the lights of Apollo Bay twinkle on the ocean far below. The food was out-of-this-world, and I have never eaten in a more magical setting.
Further down the Great Ocean Road, you pass through a fairly lengthy inland section which is more American mid-West in its appearance than Australian. This terrain rapidly gives way to rainforest – which was exactly where we were headed. The Otway Fly (03 5235 9200, www.otwayfly.com) at 360 Phillips Track, Weeaproniah, is a treetop walk that takes you 25m up into the canopy. There is also a 45m-high tower taking you above the trees. It was fantastic to see some of the less famous wildlife of Australia, and also just to marvel at the sheer size of the trees. As with everything we saw in Oz, the place was immaculate and incredibly well looked-after.
When the road eventually rejoined the ocean, we were heading for The Twelve Apostles and the Port Campbell National Park (03 5598 6089, www.parkweb.vic.gov.au – then click "Parks and Reserves" and select from the drop-down menu). The Visitor Centre is at 26 Morris Street, Port Campbell. The famous rock formations have been formed by coastal erosion and, although there aren't 12 anymore, they are still as majestic and breathtaking as ever. The paths to the viewing platforms offered amazing views down to the ocean far below, where the big breakers were rolling into the base of the cliffs.
Every camera angle produced a postcard picture, and the rock formations don't end with the Twelve Apostles. Further down the road are the Thunder Cave, Loch Ard Gorge, London Bridge and The Grotto. I'm no geologist, but it was impossible not to be overwhelmed by the thought that these were the result not of explosives or heavy machinery, but water and wind. Access down to the beach is good, and an ocean-level view of the incoming waves really does make you feel very small.
The Great Ocean Road website has the tagline "Leave You Cares Behind" – and as we made the reverse journey along that road, I certainly felt like I'd left the whole world behind. The tranquility, beauty and sheer scale of the road and the sights along it put everything into perspective. I knew I would never forget our time exploring this very famous, yet totally unspoilt length of coastline.
Do you know what? Maybe the hire car wasn't so bad after all...