Australia, the land down under, a melting pot of cultures; a fusion of food, folklore, flora and fauna. The land that put the thong back in the groove, the groove back in the summer, where beach and bush converge along the open road; surfers and koalas high on eucalyptus leaves and balmy lukewarm waves.
One of my favourite shirts in a wardrobe quiver of holiday attire I bought some years ago in Laguna Beach on a road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway from LA to San Diego. ‘TheEndless Summer’ it has emblazoned in brazen red embroidery across the back. More a forlorn sentiment than any real statement of intent, claiming the spirit of the iconic 1966 surf film of the same name.
Endless summer. Dream on.
But when a generous invitation came to visit family in Melbourne after Christmas, it was too good an opportunity to be spurned. The height of the summer Down Under summoned. Soaring temperatures, rays on your face, the sun on your back in the middle of January, what’s there to think about?
Turns out that this chance-in-a-lifetime was to throw up so many unexpected delights and delicacies that it would shoot straight to the top of the charts as the trip of a lifetime. One of the unexpected and unforeseen bonuses was a short but sweet excursion along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria.
What a treat and a never-to-be-forgotten adventure which has merely whetted the appetite and is insisting on a return visit. Oz relatives be warned!
I’m raving so much about this road trip that I’m beginning to sicken myself and not just my hapless friends who are having to cope with the dour January blues as I bask in the warm afterglow of memories written on golden sand and fluorescent skies. The only blue in January along the Great Ocean Road is the sky, rivaled in its vividness only by the turquoise waters as they make a sandwich of the red earth.
Gorgeous scenery around every bend on the Great Ocean Road.
Australia, the land down under, a melting pot of cultures; a fusion of food, folklore, flora and fauna. The land that put the thong back in the groove, the groove back in the summer, where beach and bush converge along the open road; surfers and koalas high on eucalyptus leaves and balmy lukewarm waves. The land that kept the Kombi cool; where outback beckons as a bare skinned temptress, where the tan and van go hand-in-hand; this is the great outdoors, this is the Great Ocean Road. This is just great. Juiced on a seemingly endless supply of sunshine, putting the January blues back in their box.
This is some sun stroke folks. Endless summer and endless possibilities and the chance to steal a second summer.
The Great Ocean Roadis an aptly named route that runs along the Southern Ocean in Victoria State for about 300km from Warrnambool to Torquay. The former was a thriving whaling station in a previous life which has now fully converted to tourism and a whale watching centre in season (May to October). Torquay on the other tip of the route is the hometown to the legendary Bells Beach surf break and the spiritual home of Ripcurl and much of modern professional surfing dating back to 1969.
The distinctive and legendary Bells Beach just outside Torquay along the Great Ocean Road.
In between is road trip heaven. The route is also well provided with designated walking circuits, amply serviced by excellent public transport and therefore popular with backpackers too.
The Great Ocean Road in January in many ways is not unlike the Ring of Kerry or the Wild Atlantic Way, except the stunning scenery is in glorious technicolour instead of grey. You wake up to resplendent parrots and pure white cockatoos, instead of crows and jackdaws. It’s a metaphor for your day. In fairness, it’s their summer Down Under, and ours is yet some months away, fingers crossed.
Walking routes are well serviced and signed.
En route from Warnambool to Torquay are among the most breath-taking sights, coastal walks, cultural attractions, pristine beaches, well-endowed forest tracks, buzzing seaside resorts and friendliest service from bus drivers to tourist office and cafes I have ever encountered. The Great Ocean Road would give our famed Irish hospitality a run for its money any day.
The mouth of the Hopkins River in Warnambool is part of an excellent coastal walk. The former seal and whaling station is now a staging point for those driving or trekking the Great Ocean Road.
From Warrnamboolthere are the must-see-sights of the Bay of Islands, London Bridge, Loch-Ard Gorge and the famed Twelve Apostles. It doesn’t matter that London Bridge has already fallen down, a casualty of coastal erosion and that there never really was Twelve Apostles here, the views are world class.
But the scenery in all its glory still plays second fiddle to friendly people and bustling seaside towns, all heaving in the height of the summer season which rather bizarrely for us runs right across from Christmas into January and on in to March, incorporating the main school holidays of the southern hemisphere, so accommodation, rentals and space at campsites and barbecue spots are at a premium. (Still can’t get the Christmas decorations and 40 plus degree temperatures together, straight in my head).
A typical layover along the Great Ocean Road.
There are lots of campervan hire options.
There is Torquay, Jan Juc, Bellrae, Anglesea, Lorne, Aireys Inlet, Wye River, Kennett River, Skenes Creek and Apollo Bay just some of the summer favourites for Melbourne locals and worldwide travellers. On first impressions Apollo Bay and Torquay were my favourites, but a far more thorough investigation is required to give a definitive view.
Gentle rolling waves on the beach at Apollo Bay.
Apollo Bay seems especially delightful, not least for the 4 foot high clean beach break I spotted as we descended by bus into town for our lunch stop. Blue Grenadier, Butterfish, Barramundi, King George Whiting, Scallops, Prawn, Oysters and Calamari were all great value and in generous portions in the fully licenced Seafood Café, just one of the dozens of options along the water front esplanade. I’m reliably informed by local knowledge that I missed out on an ice-cream parlour to die for in Apollo Bay. Next time.
Torquay was a torment with its Ripcurl, Billabong, Oakley, and Quicksilver surf shop outlets and the cleverly named PholkloreVietnamese restaurant was a great Oceanside lunch option, its spring rolls alone, served with some chilled out vibes, worth a return visit.
The chilled out vibe of Pholklore is typical of the many beachfront restaurant and cafe options in the towns along the Great Ocean Road.
We merely tipped our toes in the Great Ocean Road using public transport over two days with integrated V/Line (Public Transport Victoria) trains and buses tickets costing $85 AUD each. (The exchange rate for the Australian Dollar is about 65 cent to the Euro). There are plenty of campervan hire and campsite options, but do remember they are busy and often booked out in the high season from January through to April.
A typical surfside campsite at Warrnambool. Campsites are especially busy in January during the peak of the school summer holidays.
Sports mad Melbourneand Geelong, with their own long list of attractions are excellent staging posts for a foray along the Great Ocean Road, less than an hour away.
A Monday morning at St Kilda beachfront.
Always lots to do in Melbourne.
The Melbourne city beach at St Kilda is easily accessible by the 96 tram and convenient with the city’s integrated ticketing public transport system through the Myki card.
If you are in Melbourne do check out the beach in the historic and bohemian St Kilda quarter and the city’s bustling graffiti adorned laneways, while out the road in Geelong (the home base of Irish Aussie Rules star Zach Tuohy) is the Narana Aboriginal Cultural Centre and the brewery HQ of Little Creatures and White Rabbitcraft beers, based in an old woollen mill and fully kitted out with even their own in-house hipster barbers.
Little Creatures craft beer brewery is ideally located in a renovated woolen mill in Geelong.
As for the Great Ocean Road, well, you could write a book about it, maybe some other summer, whenever that is…but one thing is for sure, January will never be the same again thanks to that one special trip.
P.S. If you do get an opportunity do take time to take in the Healesville Sanctuary about one hour out of Melbourne in the Yarra Valley. This is one of the best zoo experiences I have ever encountered featuring koalas and platypus. A centre piece is the Spirits of the Sky which features birds of prey in an open amphitheater twice daily at 12 noon and 2.30pm. It was simply amazing @ZoosVictoria.
John Whelan is a vastly experienced midlands based journalist and editor who has contributed extensively to the country's leading national and regional titles, as well as broadcast outlets. He runs the media services company, Communicate Ireland www.communicateireland.ie.
John is a keen camping and campervan enthusiast with an interest in music, culture, heritage and outdoor pursuits. He has written for the Sunday Times, Sunday Independent and the Woman's Way on these topics.
He is also an author, and his latest book, The Last Beekeeper, reflects his love of nature, the landscape and our shared responsibility to protect the environment. The Last Beekeeper is available to preview and purchase at www.thelastbeekeeper.ie.