City, coast or countryside? A road trip from Melbourne will never make you choose

I like choice. But have to confess, sometimes I find choice overwhelming – my indecisive self wanting the best of all worlds.

As a city girl – born in London – who chose her university based on its distance from the coast, but for whom luxury travel has nurtured a love of high places including mountains, it can be tricky deciding where to travel to next.

Landing in Melbourne, such tough choices were not going to challenge my travel plans.

I was set for a road trip from the city along one of the world’s most iconic routes – the Great Ocean Road, witnessing the wonder and curve of Victoria’s coastline. I would then head inland – climbing high into The Grampians and down into foothills where once there was gold, before taking in the pastoral landscapes of Victoria’s spa country.

It’s a circular route from Melbourne, and though it covers more than 1,100 kilometres, I’d never be more than about three hours from the city.

Road Trip

Sarah Lee is an award-winning travel blogger and journalist. She is founder and editor of luxury travel blog LiveShareTravel, liberating luxury for the smart traveller, with inspiring tales, and tips on sourcing luxury for less.

Peak experience

I’m pleased to say that I was marginally better at my next indigenous art however. The next day after driving to Hall’s Gap, on the rugged peaks of the Grampians National Park, I learned to play the didgeridoo at Brambuk Cultural Centre. I also visited a sacred Aboriginal site nearby and heard Dreamtime stories featuring god Bunjil. There was something grounding about my indigenous experiences – immersing me in Australia’s past, and its present multiculturalism.

Paul at Tower Hill teaches me how to throw a boomerang

The Grampians themselves brought about another change in landscape. First with wide expanses of farmyard between Port Fairy and the town of Dunkeld, then as I made my way up to The Grampians’ lookout points twisting roads of bright green forests wound up with me.

The view from Boroka Lookout in The Grampians

The following day I worked my way through more countryside, stopping for cuddles with Australia’s amazing wildlife – kangaroos, koalas, dingoes, wombats and more – at Ballarat Wildlife Park, and I tried my hand at panning for gold at Sovereign Hill in Victoria’s Goldfields.

Koala at Ballarat Wildlife Park

Then it was on to delightful Daylesford, an area renowned for its bucolic countryside, arts scene – a high point of which is the Convent Gallery’s collection, and the nearby Hepburn Bathhouse.

Works by artist Barbara Hauser at the Convent Gallery, Daylesford

Soaking into a private bath bursting with rejuvenating minerals, I reflected on all I’d experienced.

It’s tempting to visit Australia and tick off the big-ticket sights, to rush from coast to coast, city to city. But can you really get to grips with a country of 7.692 million square kilometres and its people, in a few short weeks? Or come to understand a nation through cities, whose urban character begins to merge?

There seemed something so much more immersive in my road trip around Victoria – I visited the city, the coast and the countryside, and discovered many faces of Australia at the same time.

Icons of the road

The next day, full on city culture and armed with a spirit of adventure, I hit the road. But this wasn’t just any road – this was the Great Ocean Road.

I have long wanted to journey the Great Ocean Road – it’s like Route 66 or the Garden Route in its iconic stature.

Embarking on the Great Ocean Road

As Melbourne faded in the rear view mirror, sea air filled my lungs as I made my first stops, just half an hour outside the city, at Torquay and Bell’s Beach. A sunny Saturday, Torquay was full of families and surfboards. Bell’s Beach is the place for surfing in Australia – it’s home to the annual Rip Curl Pro Surfing Competition. But it is Torquay where surf dreams start – children and adults alike learning to ride the waves off its golden shoreline.

Further along the coast I came to Lorne, one of the most popular resorts in the region. Despite being lured to Lorne’s sands and warm waters, I had a date with one of the Great Ocean Road’s greatest characters. Aged 94, Doug Stirling is more than just a local historian; he offers one of the few first person accounts of the road’s history and culture. “People between Torquay and Warrnambool were pretty isolated before the road was built by demobbed men returning from the First World War,” he explained.

Hear more of Doug’s story of the Great Ocean Road…

Leaving Lorne the landscape changed – the first of many occasions on my journey. Golden sands and resorts gave way to a rocky coastline and sweeping cliff views as I rounded bends and switchbacks. I drove on for an hour and a half to Cape Otway past more beautiful beaches and bayside towns, pausing in Apollo Bay to take in its tiny harbour backed by green hillsides.

White eucalyptus trees in Cape Otway National Park

Entering Cape Otway National Park I made for its evocative lighthouse through ever-changing forests – vibrant green pines and ferns giving way to evocative woodlands of leaf-less, gnarly, white eucalyptus.

Kangaroos at Cape Otway National Park

Dusk and dawn are peak times for ‘roos to bounce across the countryside and I spotted them as well as a wallaby, and soft round bundles of koalas in trees. As the last light of the day burned the sky orange behind Cape Otway lighthouse I rested for the evening to avoid any clashes with nature.

Cape Otway lighthouse is the oldest in Australia

Leaving the national park the next morning, I paused at Castle Cove, part of the Great Ocean Walk – yes, you can also walk the coastline taking in every beach and bay. Then it was on to the most legendary of locations on the coast.

Castle Cove, part of the Great Ocean Walk

I arrived at the 12 Apostles before the crowds of Melbourne day-trippers. It’s less than three hours from the city, but why rush down and back in a day when there’s so much to see on the Great Ocean Road?

There are many ways to see the 12 Apostles – from the visitor centre’s cliff-side paths, or from the beaches, staring up at the giants, but there’s surely little more impressive than from the air, so I took a tour with 12 Apostles Helicopters. My eyes ate up the views as we hovered over the eight sand-coloured limestone stacks (yes, there’s only eight, despite the name), jutting out from the blue of the ocean.

The 12 Apostles

One of the things that struck me about Victoria is its diversity – there’s staggering natural views, an abundance of wildlife, quaint towns with excellent accommodation, and indigenous experiences. And that afternoon, before spending the night at Oscar’s Waterfront Hotel in Port Fairy just beyond the Great Ocean Road, I had the first of two Aboriginal encounters.

Aboriginal art, crafts and culture are celebrated at Tower Hill near Warrnambool. In a two-hour bush walk I learned about the countless benefits of Australia’s flora, and how to throw a boomerang. I have to confess though – I was no expert at the latter.

City life

First, I made for the city. Melbourne isn’t like a lot of cities, which come with a ready checklist of places you have to see. It lets you discover its character in your own way, taking you on a cultural trail from museums and galleries to the street art of its Laneways.

Street art in Melbourne’s Laneways

Yes there are touristy must-dos – a tiny corner of Melbourne is known to the world’s TV soap fans as Erinsborough, so the giggle-filled tour of the Neighbours set made my itinerary.

But following this foray into popular culture I took time to discover high art. First was the National Gallery Victoria, whose current exhibition – Andy Warhol & Ai Wei Wei is proving not just the biggest show in town but perhaps in the whole country. Then there was Manifesto at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, which features actress Cate Blanchett in Julian Rosefeldt’s challenging work.

Andy Warhol-Ai Weiwei at Melbourne’s NGV

Add to that the indigenous and modern Australian art at the NGV’s Ian Potter Centre, and Melbourne’s artsy Federation Square had my thirst for culture sated.

Melbourne is also about people watching and relaxing with friends in any number of hip hangouts. From the bars and restaurants of Richmond and Fitzroy, to the markets of Prahran and the beach life of St Kilda, there’s plenty to lure you to the city’s neighbourhoods.

I enjoyed Melbourne’s restaurants – from upmarket, like Neil Perry’s Rockpool, to ethnic eats at the likes of Polish vodka bar Borsch, Vodka & Tears, Spanish restaurant Boozy Rouge, and Asian mecca Lucy Liu’s. But I also enjoyed its rooftop bars and cafés in ornate settings such as Block and Royal arcades.

Coffee time in Royal Arcade, Melbourne

Like any city, Melbourne can be a whirlwind, but it has many relaxing places and unique attractions. It is one of the only cities in the world where you can harness the wind and sail over it in a hot-air balloon.

Early one morning as the rising sun tinged the sky pinky-orange we took off with Global Ballooning. The flight taking us over swathes of bulbous trees, defining the lungs of Melbourne – a city far greener than you’d imagine. With only the occasional roar of the burners breaking the silence we drifted to the CBD enjoying our early morning commute far more than the motorists below.

After a very soft landing at Fawkner Park we hit the Laneways for breakfast at Cummulus Inc, and a Hidden Secrets tour of tiny streets full of boutiques, brew houses for coffee lovers, and plenty of character.