The Great Ocean Road is one of the most beautiful scenic drives that every road tripper should check-off his bucket list. 243 kilometers coastal road of stunning cliff lines, beautiful beaches, iconic surf spots and its magnificent rock formations – with the majestic 12 Apostles probably being the most impressive ones. Here is a small guide to make the most out of this incredible road trip along the Great Ocean Road.
First off all, there are two important, but simple hints I can give you:
#1 Take your time & go slow
The Great Ocean Road is actually shorter than I expected – this doesn’t make the road trip any less amazing, but you have to remind yourself to slow down. If you push it, the stretch is passed in about 3 hours and you missed the best part of it. Besides there is loads of natural beauty to see I feel there is also a lot to experience – the relaxed locals, the incomparable surfer vibe and some really nice dining spots.
#2 Do the big sights at the right time to avoid the crazy crowds
Before we got there we were told several times that the Great Ocean Road is overrun tourists – this is partly true. Yes, the Great Ocean Road is a big destination for travellers, but our experience was that the majority of them only day-active, their interest is strictly focused on the big, famous landmarks and they run after every viewing platform sign scattered along the way. So if you time your visits for the big marks like the 12 Apostles well – you will have a much better experience.
For those that are not yet familiar with the area – the Great Ocean Road is found in Australia’s South-East within the state of Victoria. The scenic drive winds along the coast between the cities Torquay and Allansford and is known as the most worthwhile panoramic route within Australia – this is quite an impressive title as Australia has a lot of coast. The Eastern starting point is only around 100 km away from Melbourne, so you easily can start you trip from there after spending some days exploring the metropolis.
Day 1: The start of an unforgettable road trip
We started our road trip in the late afternoon after we spend a night in the Yarra Valley – a wine region just outside of Melbourne. We wanted to get our first impression of the Great Ocean Road when the sun slowly starts to settle down and the light becomes beautifully orange. So, already our first kilometers of our road trip were quite spectacular. Our first stop for the night was planned in Aireys Inlet – so we only had a short stretch to drive. Driving the Great Ocean Road from East to West one of the first towns you will reach is Torquay, also known as the entrance gate to the Great Ocean Road. This little coastal town is all about surfing – not only are the headquarters of the two biggest surf companies, Quicksilver and Rip Curl, located in Torquay, but it is also famous for their huge waves and annual Rip Curl Pro surf competition taking place on Bells Beach usually around March and April. If you somehow can make it to catch this event I am sure it will be great experience. If not, don’t worry – it is definitely also worth it to have a stop for a coffee or wine in one of the several bars and restaurants along the beach and watch surfers catching their waves.
As we are overlanding through Australia we needed a place to park our vehicle and put up our rooftop tent. Compared to other regions in Australia, there are not too many camping spots along the Great Ocean Road and they are a bit pricier as well. We are using the app “WikiCamps” – in case you don’t know it you definitely should get it. The download costs a small amount of under 2 EUR, but you will have access to a map showing all camping spots around Australia – including rating and the option to filter for all kind of specifics (such as cost-free, showers available, swimming opportunity and many more). We were a bit disappointed that the first quarter of the Great Ocean Road didn’t offer lots of camping opportunities close to the coast – I mean, that’s why people go there. But via WikiCamps we found a nice place only a 3 minute walk from the coast line – tough, it sounded a bit strange at first as you had to call a number to obtain the address of the place. But the guy on the phone was super-nice and we booked the spot for the night – which turned out was a great decision. The campsite wasn’t quite what we expected but the same time one of the best and funniest stays during our trip. More about that in just a second – because we were starving to death. So we decided to go for dinner before we find our booked campsite in Aireys Inlet. The Lonely Planet as well as some travel blogs were all raving about this Greek place “A La Grecque” as a must-go-to dining place, so we went there to check it out. If you fancy some modern Greek with a healthy touch it’s definitely worth it – the food was fantastic! While the restaurant is quite nice but nothing special it is also missing a view. We for our part love to go to places with great views, especially when you in such a great area. Therefore it is not the best place but the food definitely kills it. But wait for our recommendation for the second day which has both – great food and a stunning view.
After we filled our bellies we left to find our camp spot following the address that was given to us and were a bit surprised that we were led to a residential area. We were told to find a green big gate which we did, but behind was just a small garden and a house – plus a surfer-style dude waving from the porch. So we figured that THIS was the place, the owner named Buzz just rented out his backyard for travelers to camp for the night. What felt strange at the beginning turned out to be a fun experience. Buzz is a great host that has a lot of stories to tell and travel tips for the area you won’t get from a guide book. He also leaves the balcony door open so you just can come in to use the bathroom. We chilled with him for a while sharing some insights about our lives – so Buzz had two kids that were already asleep, used to work in the music festival business and surfed since he was little which made the area just perfect for him. The next morning we were offered coffee, he remembered our music taste and gave us some great CDs from undercover Australian musicians – oh, and we met his kids. A boy and a girl, both super-polite but curious. The boy was totally in love with our rooftop tent asking how many people fit in there – I told him “either 2 adults or 4 kids if you squeeze”. He calculated for at least 2 minutes until he reveals “7 people in total!”. Well, maths wasn’t his strength after all, but who cares. So, definitely a recommended place to stay. If you stay with Buzz don’t miss to do a walk along the cliffs right behind his house towards the lighthouse. The view is just stunning!
Bush n Beach Private House Camping
Call Buzz: 0417 589 541 – he will give you the address. He charges 40 AUD for two people – not particularly cheap, but as said the Great Ocean Road is more pricey anyways and it’s worth the great location and fun stay.
Day 2: breath the sea breeze, feel the surfer vibe & enjoy the view
We started our morning enjoying a beautiful walk along the cliff line right behind Buzz’s house in Aireys Inlet. So you’re not down at the beach but up on the cliffs which offers great views, especially when the waves are high and whipping against the rocks. There is a lighthouse which looks very dreamy on pictures. We took our coffees and chose one of the benches to chill for a whole until we returned to pack up and continue our road trip.
Our next destination was Lorne – on the way there you will drive through the official entrance gate of the Great Ocean Road. It is touristy but there is no way you can pass without taking one of the iconic pictures under the gate or a video driving though. Lorne is a beautiful little town offering some waterfall walks and a great beach for sunbathing, wave jumping or surfing. Check with the locals or information center if the waterfalls are worth a visit – during summertime when they get little rain they might be dry. This was the case when we got there, so we skipped the waterfall and went straight to the beach. We are bloody beginners when it comes to surfing – we did a 3-day surf camp along the East coast and this is pretty much all we can claim as our surf experience. But Lorne Beach is perfect for surf-newbies as the waves break on several spots – further outside for the experienced surfers but also closer to the shallow beach for beginners.
For lunch or late breakfast we recommend going to HAH Lorne Beach, it is located right on the beach and offers tasty and healthy snacks and freshly squeezed smoothies. As well, the HAH rents out surf or SUP boards including wet suits and bikes. So this was our way to go – we had a nice lunch and smoothie in the sun, got ourselves two surfboards for 3 hours and hit the waves for a while.
So again, we continued our road trip in the late afternoon sun when everything starts to get slightly orange and the Great Ocean Road looks even more amazing. There are nice spots along the road where you just can pull your car over, take some pictures and enjoy the view and ocean breeze. The Great Ocean Road is well-known for its high koala population, so always keep you eyes open for the lazy cuties. By the way, when you drive from Lorne along the Great Ocean Road you will pass through Kennett River – a tiny village famous as being the best place to spot koalas. So if you’re interested have a stop at the Koala Cove Café, have a drink with some other koala-lovers and wait for them to come. I was told that they are usually more active in the late afternoon so it might be a great chillax-activity after a surfing day.
Our next stop was planned in Apollo Bay where we planned dinner at Chris’s Beacon Point Restaurant, which also was our favorite dinner spot during the trip. It is on top of a hill with amazing views over the coast and Great Ocean Road – the restaurant has floor to sealing windows so you can take in the spectacular scenery while having a wine and dinner.
The food was fantastic but reminded us strongly on what we had the day before at A La Grecque – so we talked to one of the servers who told us that owners are brothers. So if you don’t want to have similar food on both days we’d rather go for Chris’s Beacon Point due to the amazing view. As well, if you look around attentively you might spot the owner Chris who still scoots around serving some plates and asking if you enjoy your stay. We strongly recommend to reserve a table beforehand. As we’re really bad planners we didn’t and were lucky to still get a table – but the nicer ones were already reserved so better call ahead.
Chris’s Beacon Point Restaurant: chriss.com.au, 280 Skenes Creek Road, Apollo Bay, 3233, Phone: 03 5237 6411
For the night we were targeting the camping spot Aire River Camping West in Cape Otway – a campground within the Great Otway national park. There is also an East campground but most reviews recommended the West one. You’re supposed to reserve a spot online here . If you fancy some physical activity, there are great walks and hikes within the national park and you can spot all kind of animals. The area is also known for its high koala population – so keep your eyes open when walking the national park.
Buzz, our host from the night before, told us about a secret, cost- free spot which is way nicer than the actual campground down at the Aire River Beach. So instead of staying with everyone else he recommended to pass trough the Aire River West Campground, go over the little bridge, take a sharp right after and drive towards the beach along the sandy street. Keep in mind though that therefore you will need a 4WD that is capable of driving on the sand. Our Landcruiser alias “The Beast” is used to that so we followed his advice. It must have been a while that he went there because the way on the actual beach was blocked – but there is awesome camping behind the dunes and you will have the sunset all to yourself as everyone else sticks to the official campground. The spot is quite hidden so we were pretty sure no one will come here to check, as well we planned to wake up early before the crowds come to the beach. We took two glasses of wine and enjoyed a beautiful sunset right on top of the dunes watching the waves come in before setting up or rooftop tent on the secret spot.
Day 3: Visit the famous landmarks and enjoy a spectacular sunset at the majestic 12 apostles
Well, I might have to add that we love to sleep in. So, although we set our alarm on 7am we completely overslept and were waken up at 9.30am by some official on a quad. I was sure he will give us a fine but he was in a really good mood and seemed to be amused about our dune adventure. He just told us to not get caught by the ranger and took off with his squad. Lucky us – so we carried on with his good mood, made ourselves a coffee and climbed over the dune to watch the ocean and do a little beach workout. The ocean is very rough, so be aware of that – I wouldn’t recommend to take a swim.
Today was the big day where the famous sights were on the plan: 12 Apostles, Gibson Steps, The Arch & London Bridge and Loch Ard Gorge. There are millions of rock formations you can look at, in our opinion those are must-sees. I find it a bit unfortunate that all the renowned must-dos are in very close proximity, so you actually have to do all of them in one day.
As said before, the big sights are overrun by tourists. So our plan was to do the The Arch & London Bridge and Loch Ard Gorge during the day and aim for the 12 Apostles and Gibson Steps for the sunset away from the crowds. We did a lot of research if there is a hidden spot to watch the sunset at the 12 Apostles apart from the official viewing platform, but there really seems to be none.
Continuing from Cape Otway along the Great Ocean Road the first sight that will come up is the Gibson Steps and 12 Apostles and you will see loads of cars and tourist buses. Although we planned to go there for the evening we were just curious so we parked and hopped out the car to get a glimpse of the most famous landmark of the Great Ocean Road – the 12 Apostles.
It WAS crazy crowded, but it is actually well-planned as it is not a simple viewing platform but a long boardwalk and the tourists spread out. The rock stacks of the 12 Apostles are simply fascinating as they rise majestically from the ocean. No matter the crowds, it is worth it to jump out the car and enjoy them lit by the day sun and surrounded by clear blue sky. But wait for the sunset view…
We saw crowds of people taking the Gibson Steps down, they were even lining up – so we stuck to our plan doing the steps before sunset and wondered why other people didn’t think so far.
We continued to do The Arch & London Bridge which is nice but not spectacular. The good thing is that there are not many tourists, probably not listed big enough in the tourist books. Then we turned around and had a lunch stop in Port Campbell at the 12 Rocks Beach Bar Cafe. It is a nice place with view on the beach and the food was good – especially the brownies.
After lunch we ran quickly into the supermarket to get some wine, cheese, crackers and chutneys which we wanted to take for our sunset viewing of the 12 Apostles. We made our way back stopping at Loch Ard Gorge – you first can walk over to the razorback rock that looks a little bit like the Flatiron Building in New York City and then head for the Loch Ard Gorge lookout. It’s quite spectacular to look at the rock formations from the platforms but the actual highlight of this sight is to take the little steps down to the beach hidden in the bay of the Gorge. As the entrance to the bay is so small like the eye of a needle the water is smashing with a huge force into the beach and it looks amazing. Take a swim and enjoy the cool down during a hot summer day.
After we enjoyed the fresh water we continued to our highlight of our day – doing the Gibson Steps and 12 Apostles during sunset. Important is that you check before at what time sunset will take place as there are strong variations between winter and summer time. For us it was pretty late at 8:53 pm. We parked our car and first aimed for the 86 Gibson Steps down the beach – and, surprise-surprise, there were almost no tourists. Actually, if you have seen the place during the day you almost cannot recognize it anymore as it conveys so much more calmness and beauty. To have enough time you should get to the steps around 2 hours ahead sunset – so the sun is already low and orange-ish but you don’t have to hurry.
You need to know that you won’t be able to walk to the 12 Apostles from there as the way is blocked by a huge cliff line – but that doesn’t matter as it is still impressive. When you reach the beach and stand in front of the vertically sloping cliffs you realize this enormousness and how small you are in comparison. Walking along the beach you will also pass some rock stacks and you can hop into the water if you feel like.
After that we passed by our car, got our sunset snacks of cheese, crackers and chutney and poured our bottle of wine in our undercover coffee-to-go cup, as Australian law prohibits to drink alcohol in public. We didn’t see any officials so you might just take the bottle if you want. Getting to the boardwalk its the same picture than before – it is extremely less crowded and it is such a different experience seeing the majestic 12 Apostles without the masses. There are some benches you can sit on and most of them were still free when we got there. Now the nice part begins – lean back, have some snacks and wine and enjoy the show. It is a magic experience as the sun slowly goes down lighting the 12 Apostles with orange sun rays – for us it was the highlight of this 3-day road trip along the Great Ocean Road. Right before the actual sunset the place got slightly more busy but still not even be closely compared to the masses during the day. So if you want to make the best of this beautiful landmark – don’t miss this sunset experience!
We didn’t book yet a camp spot for the night – but we checked before on WikiCamps and there were actually just two options for us that allowed campers or cars with rooftop tents (there are some more options if you have a tent only) – Princetown Recreation Reserve or Port Campbell Recreation Reserve. We passed the Princetown campsite on the way to the 12 Apostles but didn’t like it very much so we aimed for the one in Port Campbell. Turns out it was a good decision – the campsite is quite nice and as it was already evening you just can walk-in, choose your spot and pay the next morning. A nice add-on of the Port Campbell site is that you are in walking distance to the town center with some nice bars to have a drink or two.
This was the end of our road trip along the Great Ocean Road – for us an unforgettable part of our world trip that must not be missed if you happen to be in Australia. Definitely an experience we would recommend to everyone!