Driving Along Australia’s Great Ocean Road
Having lunch at the Water Café at a car wash was not how I expected to begin our drive from Melbourne to Australia’s legendary Great Ocean Road. We were decidedly not starving, only surprised that this restaurant with its stale, white breakfast buns did not embrace the “Paddock to Plate” philosophy followed by so many local kitchens in Australia.
Conceived as a post-first World War work project, the Great Ocean Road (GOR) was a farsighted way to reintegrate veterans into the workforce, and to open up a remote area of the country. First envisioned in the 1880s was a permanent route allowing access to remote fishing communities. However, the southern coastal road only became a reality after survey work started in 1918. Some 3,000 war veterans worked with pickaxes, shovels and small machinery on the GOR’s construction. Completed in 1932, the GOR remains a striking memorial to the sacrifice of those who were involved in the war effort.
It’s an easy drive from Melbourne to the official start of the 243-km coastal road in Torquay, which also happens to be Australia’s surfing capital and hometown to famous retailers Rip Curl and Quicksilver. This town, with its multitude of surf shops, is a magnet for surfers hoping for a “wicked right-hander” on legendary Bells Beach. After our disappointing lunch, we needed a mid-afternoon perk-up and decided to give Surfcoast Wholefoods a try…our flat white coffees finally appeared on “surfer time.”
We covered the first section of the GOR in the fading autumn afternoon light, passing the Memorial Arch and Split Point Lighthouse, at Aireys Inlet. Our driving trip coincided with a long weekend and an Australian school break, which was unfortunate timing that severely limited our accommodation options. The Lorne Coachman Inn was our only choice for that evening, located on the edge of town and right next to a caravan park. Our first (and lasting) impressions of the motel were grim.
The damp evening restricted our desire for exploration to the closest restaurant, but the team at Saporitalia, an Italian restaurant, far exceeded our culinary expectations. We chose to share a warm tomato and goat cheese soup to start, followed by a spicy prawn pizza and Tasmanian salmon salad. The portions were generous, and we were happy that we had to walk home.
The next morning, we awoke to a noisy jumble of sounds. Closest to “home” there was a brood of white cockatoos in the stairwell fighting to open the motel’s garbage cans. Warning: these birds are a bit like raccoons it is best to give them plenty of room. Slightly further away, but just over the fence, the campervans next door breaking camp for the next sections of their road trips. Oh well, we need to get going the GOR awaited.
We headed to Lorne’s main street for a walk and bite to eat. The town is a popular family-friendly destination with a gently curved sandy beach and just enough white water to satisfy surfers of moderate ability. We ventured out for a pre-breakfast walk to Teddy’s Lookout, a hilltop vista point, where the sun sparkled on the water like silver treasure stretching towards Tasmania.
Australians have perfected the art of great coffee and healthy, satisfying breakfasts. It was hard to choose between the tempting coffee shops, bakeries and restaurants on Lorne’s energetic main street. We picked Moons Espresso Bar, based on its apparent popularity with the Saturday morning crowd, and shared a table with a lady psychologist from the Country Fire Authority. As we ate fried eggs on sourdough, sides of bacon and spinach, she explained that we would see kilometres of charred trees along the next section of the GOR, the results of a devastating Christmas Day (2015) bushfire that destroyed 116 Wye River homes, but blessedly took no lives.
As we drove, the thought crossed our minds that just maybe Saturday was not the best day to drive the GOR. At every stop, we jockeyed for parking and had to be conscious of photo-bombers. There are notable pit stops along the route, including at the Inukshuk-style rock piles at Carisbrook Creek, the farmers market (Saturday’s only) at Apollo Bay, and the viewpoint at Cape Patton. We descended to the beach level at the Gibson’s Steps to gawk at the first of the 12 Apostles, the towering, windswept limestone stacks in the shallows.
The 12 Apostles Visitors Centre serves a purpose in attempting to control and safely corral the crowds, prevent erosion and eliminate the possibility of someone falling off the cliffs. But, for me, arriving at what felt like a bus terminal diminished my interest in seeing the iconic rock formations. We toughed it out for a few photos.
Our next choice was the most challenging of the whole trip: Do we stick to the official GOR route to see the balance of the coastline, or drift off and explore a portion of the 12 Apostles Gourmet Trail?
We chose to leave the mobs behind on the coast and sample some of the wares from food artisans located along a 75-km route. Afternoon munchies enticed us to stop at the Timboon Cheesery, which carries products from the Schulz Organic Dairy. Re-fuelled after eating hot vegetable soup, toasted sandwiches and samples from the cheese selection, we headed to the Timboon Railway Shed Distillery. Local records confirm that whisky has been made in the village -- not always legally -- since the 1890s.
The owners of Timboon Fine Ice Cream opened an outlet in the town’s old railway shed, where you can buy products from several of the food producers found along the Gourmet Trail. Stop by this gathering place for a light lunch, stay for a pizza dinner and sample the single malt whisky or other spirits made in the 600-litre copper pot still.
The drive through the countryside from Timboon to Port Fairy reminded us of Ireland, with verdant rolling hills and grazing dairy cows and sheep. We rejoined the GOR at Port Campbell, knowing we’d missed some coastal sights, but happy we’d made the time for a food lover’s detour.
Warrnambool may be the official termination of the GOR, but it’s not the end of Victoria’s beautiful seascapes. We spent the night in Port Fairy, a fishing town with plenty of history and a beach that stretches to the horizon. Our charming hosts at Douglas Riverside Inn welcomed us with a glass of Yellow Tail’s pink bubbles. It was a perfect way to toast our journey along the Great Ocean Road.
A version of this article was previously published in City Palate Magazine – March/April 2017.