5 Tricks for a Memorable Great Ocean Road Experience
The Great Ocean Road is amazing, but your experience can be even better by employing a few tricks.
Hot take: No visit to Melbourne is complete without a trip down the Great Ocean Road; while it is a long day, you will have memories of it forever. (4.5 stars)
Pro tip: pack your patience and a water bottle, the distances are great but worth it.
Originally constructed between 1919 and 1932 as a make-work project for soldiers returning from World War I, the Great Ocean Road is widely considered Australia’s best drive and ranks up there with the Pacific Coast Highway in California as one of the most scenic coastal roads in the world. While the drive along the coast is spectacular in its own right, the highlights of the trip are the series of limestone stacks that sit moored like harbor vessels in the bays cut out of the Australian mainland.
Hundreds of thousands of international visitors make the trip down the Great Ocean Road each year, but the majority do it stuffed into tour buses and mobbing overcrowded boardwalks craning to glimpse a peak at the natural wonders. The spend hundreds of dollars each and mostly just see the inside of a tour coach. But there is a way to do better and much cheaper way if you’ve got a decent sense of adventure and a smartphone.
Trick 1: Rent a Car and Self-Drive
Not booked until the day before, I was able to find a small rental car in downtown Melbourne with a manual transmission for just $24.67 for the day. I showed up right after the office opened at 8a (tip: you want to get there are early as possible to beat the tour buses to the 12 Apostles) and we were on the road by 7:30a. We took a toll road to get out of the city (since the surface streets make for very slow going at rush hour) which added ~$5 to the total (and was totally worth it). Petrol added another $30 as fuel is expensive in Australia. So the grand total was ~$60 for up to 5 people (4 comfortably) or $30 each for the two of us. The cheapest bus tour we could find was ~$100 each (so we were $140 ahead already). We were able to turn our rental in at 9p when we got back to save ourselves from having to pay to park in the city. One important note: Melbourne and path down the Great Ocean Road is littered with speed cameras. Your cheap rental may not be able to go fast, but there is a zero-tolerance policy on speeding by even a little bit (so California drivers, consider yourself warned); however, we went with the flow and didn’t suffer anything catastrophic.
Trick 2: Visit When the Tour Buses Don’t
While it is impossible to miss all the tour buses, you can dramatically improve your experience at the best sites (especially the 12 Apostles) by timing your arrival to be before 1p or after 4p. For us, this meant driving straight through to the 12 Apostles, then a late lunch and saving the other sites for the drive back so we were counter-flow to most of the tour buses. Also, while the 12 Apostles are a highlight to be sure, some of the lessor visited sites are maybe even better because you will have them almost to yourself (as opposed to the sharp elbows and selfie sticks at the 12 Apostles). Our favorites were actually on the Western side of Port Campbell and included the London Arch (where a natural bridge collapsed in 1990 and left two tourists stranded and needed to be rescued by helicopter) and The Arch (another eroded site featuring a dramatic pathway out to the cliffs). Note: if you do need to take a tour bus, look for one of the buses that runs counter-flow to have a much better experience.
Trick 3: Pack a Lunch
One tip we wished we had heard was to pack a lunch and picnic on the shore. With literally dozens of amazing picnic spots, bringing a sack lunch would have saved us the drudgery of enduring a bland $50 sandwich lunch in Port Douglas. Remember that for all their amazing qualities, Australians (especially the rural ones) are not known as being foodies. We stoped on the way back and sat out to watch a memorable sunset where the moon started to glow in the pink light. Pictures just never do it justice.
Trick 5: Make Photo Requests
Put down your selfie sticks (the photos are going to look blown out anyways) and ask a fellow visitor to take your picture (we recommend the person with the most expensive looking camera). Not only will you get much better pictures, but the laidback Aussie hospitality seems to run locals (and be contagious to visitors) and you can have a smile and a quick chat with fellow sightseers (we learned about the collapse of the London Bridge this way from someone who had crawled over it herself which made the story so much more vivid and real).