The Great Ocean Road is one of the most iconic Australian landmarks.
Visitors from all around the world are familiar with the rugged and heavily eroded coastline which is battered constantly by the ferocious currents of the Southern Ocean.
But there is so much more to discover in this beautifully untamed part of Australia.
The historic former port city of Warrnambool is located right at the end of this famous drive and proves to be a great destination in its own right.
With many family-friendly sights and attractions, activities and delicious food options, why not plan a long weekend away in Warrnambool with a return trip via the famous Great Ocean Road?
This is what my family of three got up to in Warrnambool, mixing it up with wild nature encounters and exciting city lifestyle experiences.
We started our family trip to Warrnambool with a visit to Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village. This village is an open-air museum, a collection of historic buildings that together form a complete historic port town as you would have found all along the coast during the early days of the Australian colonies.
After a light lunch in the Tea Rooms we started exploring the village, the kids equipped with a treasure map that challenges them to explore even further. There is a bank and a church, a school, a sailmaker, and a doctor’s cottage, shops with authentic crafts of the period, a waterfront and many other areas to explore.
The learning happens along the way – each house is lovingly decorated to the very detail. Posters, signs, and labels as well as volunteers dressed in traditional clothes explain details of the everyday life in the first years in places like Warrnambool. Back then travel and the transport of goods were only possible onboard ships that carefully had to navigate the treacherous coastline.
Of course, there is also a lighthouse to explore and even battalion fortifications. We snacked on freshly baked scones in the Tea Rooms and continued our exploration into days gone by.
We stayed for dinner at Pippies by the Bay, which is on-site at Flagstaff Hill. They offer a delicious selection of seafood and steak as well as kid-friendly meals. We, like many other diners around us, booked our table at Pippies by the Bay so we could attend the exciting Shipwrecked! Sound and Laser Show at Flagstaff Hill. It was a wonderful after-dark experience that really made our visit to Flagstaff Maritime Village complete.
The show started with the option of a lantern walk; a guided tour around the village with lanterns in our hands. The children got a first taste of the story that was about to unfold in the theatre in front of our eyes: the tragic story of a shipwrecked clipper that came all the way from Britain but tragically never made it to Melbourne.
This light and laser show is also a bitter-sweet story of friendship and hope, as we witnessed how one of the crewmen managed to rescue a young Irish lady and bring her to safety. They were the only survivors in this fateful night. A true story, as we learn, with many artifacts and first-hand family accounts still present at Flagstaff Hill.
We stayed at Big 4 Hopkins River Holiday Park; a little bit outside of town. It’s the perfect choice for families with small children. Our two-bedroom cabin was meticulously clean and came with all the conveniences needed for our short stay.
The kids love our accommodation and lament that we don’t give them enough time to explore all the different facilities on offer: the playground with jumping pillow, the mini golf course, the indoor and outdoor pools, the go-karts and lots more.
The Holiday Park is located right next to the idyllic Hopkins River, which is perfect for anglers who love to fish in waters that offer both a mix of seawater and saltwater fish.
I just enjoyed a quiet early morning walk along the banks before breakfast. While I watched the sleepy birds start their day I could hear the wind rushing softly against the long tall grass; a pleasant change to my usual morning rush.
Too lazy to cook breakfast myself, we treated the family with a visit to Fishtales Cafe right in the centre of Warrnambool. It’s a short drive into town, no traffic to speak of and plenty of parking available. The cosy atmosphere, friendly service and the delicious food set us up perfectly for an energetic start to the day.
Soon after, we find ourselves on horseback, riding through salt marshes and up and down tall sandy dunes thanks to Rundell’s Mahogany Trail Rides. We soon realised there was no better way to experience this beautiful stretch of coastal land. As our horses labour up the dunes, the stomping of their hoofs muted by the soft sand, we found ourselves surrounded by pristine coastal bush vegetation, brimming with the humming of insects and the chirping of cheeky tiny birds.
It felt like we had become one with nature, and as we climbed the last crest, the world opened in front of us as if it had been hidden behind a stage curtain – revealing the foaming Southern Ocean that rolls onto a deserted beach of unimaginable beauty.
We went to Port Fairy for lunch. This is another historic port city just 20 minutes from Rundell’s Mahogany Trail Rides. A little bit outside of town we visit Meg Finnegan, sculpture artist and cafe owner, who treated us to a light lunch of gourmet sandwiches and kid-friendly meals.
Her Limestone Gallery and Café combines two things that I really love: good food and beautiful art. While waited for our lunches to arrive, I took a stroll around the lovingly maintained garden where many of Meg’s sculptures have found their final home. More fascinating artwork by local artists can be found in the cafe and the adjoining gallery.
After a short drive back to Port Fairy, I did the 30 minute return walk to the lighthouse on Griffiths Island, whilst the kids played at the nearby park.
The island, connected to the mainland via a pedestrianised causeway, is a breeding ground for a shearwater colony. While I don’t manage to spot any of these elusive birds on my walk, I can still appreciate the fresh air that washes over me from the sea and the warming rays of the midday sun.
My walk ends at the far end of the island, where I can inspect the historic Griffith Island Lighthouse. Families with kids love the walk too – I can see many children playing on the sheltered beach near the lighthouse, collecting sticks, shells and small fragments of driftwood.
In the afternoon we went to Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve, one of the highlights of our Warrnambool trip. Tower Hill is a massive dormant volcano that rises high above the coastal flats between Warrnambool and Port Fairy.
Right at the entrance we spotted an echidna, much to the excitement of the children.
Even without a tour of the reserve we could see iconic Australian animals right at the car park and picnic grounds…emus and koalas, and later also a kangaroo are just a couple of metres away.
Our guide showed the children how to throw a boomerang, and treated them also to his famous homemade wattleseed ice-cream to demonstrate the different uses of native plants for cooking. While taking us on a short guided walk, he pointed out the different native plant species and discusses their different uses.
Our day concludes at Warrnambool’s famous Lake Pertobe Adventure Playground, where the kids feel like they’ve arrived in paradise. On a massive 20 hectare area they explored the maze, the different adventure playgrounds, the flying fox and the sandpits. With the kids busy and happy at play I ventured further to explore the walking tracks around the pretty lake.
Lake Pertobe playground is perfect for young and old: the many different areas are set apart from each other, so while it’s fairly busy you don’t have the feeling that it is getting too full. The motorised boats on the lake are fun for all ages, even for the bigger kids!
Before we said goodbye to Warrnambool, we enjoyed breakfast at the Pavilion Café and Bar. Located right by the water, just steps away from Merri Marine Sanctuary, it’s the perfect place to start the day with a warming cup of coffee and a cooked breakfast.
We jump on the ‘official’ Great Ocean Road at Allansford (home of the Great Ocean Road Cheese World) on our way back to Melbourne. Our first stop was at the Bay of Islands Coastal Park that makes the wonders of the Great Ocean Road easily accessible.
We hopped out of the car and followed the short walking track to the viewing platform. The scenery is just amazing. A panorama of limestone stacks and islands are lined up in front of us, clinging to their dear life in the untamed waters of the Southern Ocean. The raw nature of this scene brings back the stories of the shipwrecked clipper that we learned about on our first day of our trip. It is just one of many ships that never reached their destination as they tried to navigate through the narrow and hazardous Bass Strait.
Yet, you have to remember that this stretch of coast is in constant change, as the soft limestone has no means of defence against the nibbling powers of the strong ocean currents.
As we continued along the coast made spontaneous stops to check out other viewpoints along the Great Ocean Road, usually named after a striking rock formation that can be seen from the viewing platform. There is the Arch, for example, or the stunningly beautiful Grotto, and of course the famous London Bridge, which is one of the most prominent examples of recent coastal erosion.
Our last taste of the natural wonders of the Great Ocean Road is at the famous 12 Apostles, a collection of limestone stacks off the shore of the Port Campbell National Park. It is busy here; lots of visitors make the trip to the 12 Apostles to see the beauty of the place for themselves. The loop walk to the lookout takes us around 30 minutes, with many amazing photo opportunities along the way.
It is immediately clear to us why the 12 Apostles is such a popular tourist attraction – when the clouds move away from the sun, a palette of blues and greens lights up under the foaming crest of waves that hug the limestone pillars. A play of colours that continues in the sheer cliffs of the coastline and the smooth sandy beaches, yet here it is the warm glow of earthy ochre and golden brown that makes your heart melt with a soft sigh.
For a second, I felt very humbled by the sight of these enormous stone structures which have fought hard for millennia against the violent ocean currents. We all know that they are doomed despite their size and their mighty appearance.
Our last stop before we head home is at Great Ocean Road Wildlife Park. It is a treat for the kids. Not a zoo, but a place where you can experience Australian wildlife in a safe and friendly environment. We armed ourselves with bags of animal feed and borrowed gumboots from the park to help us conquer the muddy patches that can be found here and there on the property after some days of heavy rainfall.
Great Ocean Road Wildlife Park is a family-owned business that prides itself in becoming a fully self-sustaining farm. At the same time, visitors can experience close animal encounters in the petting zoo. While not strictly Australian, the kids immediately took to the alpacas. They are funny little fellas that are patient enough to be petted by the kids. To the kids’ excitement they carefully took the feed with their soft lips from the kids’ little outstretched hands.
Emus and wallabies were also keen to inspect the children further, and we are even offered a petting experience with one of Australia’s most misunderstood animals, the dingo.
Our visit was made complete with a walk along the herd animal enclosures, where we spotted deer, donkeys, kangaroos, sheep and lots more.
There was no better way to end our long weekend away than with an invigorating walk in nature, with views that stretch almost all the way to the Southern Ocean.
We couldn’t have asked for a better mix of experiences that worked so well for both, adults and children.
From Warrnambool with its rich history and great family-friendly attractions to Port Fairy with its relaxing outdoor experiences and local artwork, to the famous Great Ocean Road (which even the kids found awe-inspiring), this weekend itinerary is the perfect choice for families who want to go out and explore this gorgeous part of Victoria.
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Great Ocean Road Regional Tourism acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the Great Ocean Road region the Wadawuurung, Eastern Maar & Gunditjmara. We pay our respects to their Ancestors, past present and emerging. We recognise and respect their unique cultural heritage and the connection to their traditional lands. We commit to building genuine and lasting partnerships that recognise, embrace and support the spirit of reconciliation, working towards self-determination, equity of outcomes and an equal voice for Australia’s first people.