Replace the crowds of summer and sticky afternoons for winter’s raging swells and toasty fires on the Great Ocean Road. Follow the cool breeze beyond the 12 Apostles and explore the hidden treasures and 248 kilometres of uninterrupted roads.
It’s cosy. It’s exciting. It’s fierce. And it’s just what the doctor ordered.
From Torquay, the gateway to the Great Ocean Road and Victoria’s surfing capital, head south-west along the winding highway toward Cape Otway. Pass through the quaint coastal towns of Anglesea, Lorne and Apollo Bay, mirroring the Southern Ocean and its attack against the cliffs. Follow the serpentine roads through the vibrant Otway National Park where winter showers bring the rainforests to life, before soaking in the rugged limestone overhangs of the Shipwreck Coast.
You might get lucky and spy an early breach so keep an eye out for our giant flippered friends navigating around the 638-plus stranded ships that now sit atop the ocean floor as you uncover the secrets of the coast. Pass the limestone structures of the 12 Apostles and London Bridge to some of the lesser selfie-ed spots, like the spectacular cliffs of Loch Ard Gorge and the shipwrecked tales of Wreck Beach.
Sure, it’s no summer holiday, but the grey skies of winter and the dramatic coastline uncovers a side to the Great Ocean Road that’ll blow your getaway right out of the blowhole. They don’t call it one of the world’s most scenic coastal drives for nothing.
Journey to the Great Ocean Road’s maritime capital of Warrnambool, where the Whale Trail begins.
Whale-come to Warrnambool — a small city with a huge attitude. Sweeping green pastures contrast the Southern Ocean’s deep blues and orange hues of rocky outcrops, history lives on in ancient lands and famous shipwrecks, culture abounds and wildlife add animation to the already energetic landscape.
There’s so much to do here, you’ll need more than two nights to explore. The first stop here is Allansford Cheese World. Learn about the dairy industry of 1888 to 1990s at the site’s heritage museum, before digging into a ploughman’s lunch from the cafe and topping up with some free cheese tastings, and the world’s best milkshakes (in our opinion). But the whales are the real stars of the show, so naturally finding the best vantage point is the first thing on the to-visit list and there’s no better destination to spot the giant mammals than Logan’s Beach Whale Nursery. Here, in this protected bay, endangered Southern Right Whales and their calves soak up some vitamin D while splashing about in the shallows, just 100 metres from the shore. It’s one of the only places in the world where you can witness whales this close, as mothers nurse their calves for weeks. Not a bad spot for a few weeks of whale maternity leave if you ask us.
We interrupt this itinerary to bring you a brief history lesson on the very special Southern Right Whales:
The Southern Right Whale, is a unique species of whale to the Winter Whale Trail, who can be picked by the white markings or ‘callosities’ on their head. Southern Rights were brought to the brink of extinction in the first half of the 19th Century due to commercial whaling. They were an easy target for whalers who coined the term ‘right whale’ as they were slow moving and dwelled close to shore — making them the ‘right’ whales to hunt. Their three-year gestational period, means repopulation is a slow process, so they remain an extremely endangered species to this day. The unique thing about Southern Rights, is that they always return to the same waters to nurse their young, the same waters their mothers nursed them, and their grandmothers before that. Logans Beach Warrnambool is one of those very special Nurseries. Even though they were all but wiped out, at least one fierce Southern Right female has kept this special tradition alive.
Whales might be the VIPs of a Warrnambool winter, but that doesn’t take away from the marine life found darting around the Breakwater. Seals and stingrays can be seen feeding on fish in the water, and if you look to Middle Island, a colony of Fairy Penguins waddle around their minders, the famed Maremma dogs, which live at Flagstaff Hill during winter.
Just five kilometres up the road from Logan’s Beach is the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum and Village, a state heritage listed site of cobblestoned streets and 19th century buildings where you can learn about life in the 1800s. Wander through the village and talk to the in-costume characters who will share the stories of shipwrecks, crewmen and artefacts. As night comes, the multi-million-dollar ‘Tales of the Shipwreck Coast’ show will shine a light on the shipwrecks, whaling and Indigenous stories. Visit the on-site Visitor Information Centre for more information.
Of course, Warrnambool isn’t all fin flapping and steps back in time. Turn left at the roundabout when leaving Flagstaff Hill and head toward Lake Pertobe Adventure Playground. Channel your inner child on the 20-hectares and its many activities for kids and adults alike, including playground, boat rides and scenic walks around the lake.
Warrnambool is also home to many race horses, who like to dip their hoofs in the cool ocean waters of Lady Bay from 8am. Watch the equines and their trainers gait through the sand and take a dip, while you sit in the protected shelter of Pavilion Cafe or Simon’s Waterfront, cradling a hot coffee and hearty breakfast.
When you’ve finished watching their workout, it’s time to get your camera ready, pull on the walking shoes to get your heart rate up (slightly) and suck in some of that fresh ocean air on the on any one of Warrnambool’s walking trails which travel between natural landscapes, lookouts, heritage sites and, secret beaches.
Now that you’re fully aware that winter is coming (or it’s already here), a plunge into Deep Blue Hotel and Hot Springs’ geothermal pools will sort out those frosty limbs. Soak up minerals and salts, and indulge in a number of treatments including open-air bathing, sensory therapy, salt therapy, and cave, reflexology, hydrotherapy, and star gazing pools.
From here, it’s just a 10-minute drive to Hopkins Falls. If we haven’t convinced you travelling in winter sidelines summer, then these 90-metre wide curtain waterfalls in Wangoom will do the trick. The rains of winter make this one impressive cascade. After visiting the falls, you’ve earned a stop at the Wangoom General Store, enjoy a warm drink and old-fashioned service.
From pub grub to providores, international flavours and cellar-doors, Warrnambool puts the progressive in progressive dinners. Recently undergoing a renewal project, the village-feel city boasts as many entrepreneurial restaurants, cafes and bistros as an inner Melbourne suburb. Chow down on burgers, dine on local produce, and sip on fancy cocktails, while a blooming arts and music community goes about business around you and street art colours the town waiting to be explored on a self-guided Street Art Tour. We’d call it hipster, but we’ve jumped beyond that and entered ‘yuccie’ (young urban creative) territory. It’s the next big thing.
We did warn you that there was a lot to do in this coastal-vibe city. So be sure to also stop by the Warrnambool Art Gallery and view its collection of more than 2000 artworks of Colonial, Indigenous and contemporary works, watch a show at the Lighthouse Theatre, visit local farmers markets, join a guided tour and check out the gig guide to soak up some of the live music culture.
There’s no time for cliches here because it’s time to ride straight into the inevitable sunset and driving twenty-five minutes west of Warrnambool to the dreamy seaside village of Port Fairy.
Look, we’re not really ones to boast, but Port Fairy was once dubbed the most liveable coastal community in the world. And while we’d happily give ourselves that award every year, it’s a pretty big deal when a bunch of tourists agree. We’d love to tell you we’re letting you in on a big secret by sharing the bluestone town, it’s compelling history and dazzling natural beauty, but the truth is, for those in the know, the proverbial cat (or maybe we should say whale) was let out of the bag quite some time ago.
The drive from Warrnambool may only be 28 kilometres along the Great Ocean Road, but don’t let that short distance fool you. This is the wild south-west, and the road here will wind you alongside the unspoilt and untamed shoreline of the Belfast Coast, past the dazzling greens of the rolling hills and nature reserves and in view of the shadowy basaltic rocky outcrops and cliffs.
It’s so beautiful here that we’re not at all surprised the whales picked it for their babymoon. If we could spend three months a year here, creating water works and flapping our fins about, we probably would, too.
But as they say, travel is not the destination, and if you can’t take the time to stop during the crowd-less winter months, then when the heck can you?
14 kilometres west of Warrnambool, along the Princes Highway (A1) are the volcanic grounds of Tower Hill. This ancient, inactive volcano’s eruptive past has left behind a spectacular landscape of tapered hills, glistening lakes and endemic bushland. Here, it’s all about ecology, geology and culture. The reserve is brimming with Indigenous storylines, bush walks, picnic areas and more wildlife than photo space left on your hard drive. Emus, koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, black swans, wedge-tail eagles, magpie geese and reptiles loiter between the gumtrees and sheoak, ready to bomb your next snap. Worn Gundidj Visitor Centre is the heart of Tower Hill, offering interactive walks, Aboriginal guided tours, arts and crafts.
For those who love a photo opp, take a drive around the crater’s rim. There are plenty of lookout spots from where you can set your shutterbug free.
Then it’s time for a pint.
And if you don’t like Guinness, then opt for a visit to Basalt Wines. The recently refurbished cellar door and restaurant sits with the animated sea and rolling paddocks your backdrop. Organic wines, crafted cocktails, and delicious dishes featuring local produce.
If we share a secret, do you promise not to tell? Killarney Beach sits just a couple of minutes off the Princes Highway (A1) and is one hidden gem that serves up so much more than salty ocean and sandy shores. Fish for whiting, paddle into the surf or bush camp in this natural lagoon, that has water so calm, even on the coldest of days you’ll want to dive in to check out its premier snorkelling. Spend the night here to watch the sunset colour this magical gem, or drive for ten minutes into Port Fairy.
The city lights and the bulk of the driving are behind you as we go in search of more Whale sightings. But before we swim, we walk.
Port Fairy has a fascinating history, a thriving art scene and charming landscape, and the streets of town offer some of the best views. The self-guided Historic Town Walk and Shipwreck and Maritime Heritage Walk are two options for exploring the surrounds and its 70-odd buildings that hold significant memories of the town. While the Art Trail will uncover artisans and galleries, adding a colourful dimension to the already vibrant village.
Channel your inner uplifter and artiste at the Winter Weekends Festival. Running every second weekend during June and July, it’s brings together art, food, wine, performance, music, history, environment and all the other elements that make this part of the Great Ocean Road so bloody special.
Battery Hill sits just across from the bridge in the harbour, and meshes history with pretty speccy views. It makes sense given this spot was picked in 1887 to protect the town from foreign warships, and cannons and fortifications are still on display. Even the resident black wallabies think it’s a pretty great place to chill. To keep the history alive, book an appointment (via the Port Fairy Visitor Information Centre) to check out the Historic Life Boat, which was built in 1857 is the oldest surviving self-righting, self-draining lifeboat in the world. It still heads onto the water a few times a year.
If we’re taking clues from the black tail wallabies, then they’re leading us straight to the iconic Griffiths Island. Reach the island via a causeway, and explore the red-doored Port Fairy Lighthouse, which is a photoshoot waiting to happen. The island is also home to black tail wallabies and, a large colony of mutton birds but they do a local-swapsies with our whale friends and fly to the Aleutian Islands near Alaska in the winter months. Given a whaling station was established on the island in 1835, don’t be surprised if you hear a ‘pfuussshhhhhh’, the untechnical word for the sound of a whale blowing water through its blowhole.
They breed ‘em tough Down Under, and the crisp waters of the ocean are appealing any time of the year. Well, we like to think so, at least until our toes get a little bit wet. Still, whether we’re dripping in sweat from the sweltering summers, or chattering out teeth and tickled blue from winter’s wrath, we can’t resist a visit to the beach. In Port Fairy, East Beach’s 5.8km shoreline, which runs from Reef Point to the harbour entrance wall, is the place to be. The fine white sands and glistening blue waters may be a hoot in the heat, but that shouldn’t stop you from suiting up and grabbing your boogie board or surfboard this time of the year to hit Oigles, a shallow surf zone that breaks over an old shipwreck, while also keeping an eye out for cetacean friends. Alternatively, take the lazy option and play I-spy from the comfort of your car or use the binoculars available at East Beach. If they don’t pop up for air here, then go a little further to the Passage, where they seem to love to swim as much as surfers love to surf.
And when you’re ready to rest your eyes from strain and have watched out for whales for so long you start thinking rocks are moving, then head to the town’s historic port precinct at The Wharf at Port Fairy Restaurant and Fish and Chips. Sip on cocktails, or a winter red, and enjoy some delicious food from the menu that features local, fresh and seasonal produce with a contemporary Australian twist.
It’s time to continue west along the Princes Highway (A1) toward Portland and the end of the Great Ocean Road. Again, we’re not tooting our own horns here, but there really is so much to love about Portland. Insane natural beauty, walking trails that reveal its treasures, a rich and fascinating cultural heritage that dates back to Victoria’s beginnings, and of course, whales. Plus, there’s a pretty cute colony of fur seals, which keep things interesting.
Get your bearings and take the turnoff for the Crags lookout, 10 minutes west of Port Fairy. From this viewpoint, you’ll look out to the calcarenite cliffs that scatter to the eastern entrance to Portland Bay, and the volcanic island of Lady Julia Percy Island (Deen Maar), which sits 19 kilometres offshore and is home to a colony of playful fur seals.
Head north-west along the Princes Highway, and keep your eyes peeled for the Yambuk Giant Slide, a fun pitstop for the whole family, and enjoy the sight of towering turbines as your pass by the Codrington Windfarm.
Just north of Portland Bay, you’ll find the pretty coastal village of Narrawong. Framed by Mount Clay State Forest and the Surry River Mouth, it’s a prime spot for swimming in the summer and fishing all-year round. But most importantly, Narrawong is where you can watch Southern Right Whales make a splash into town. Don’t throw yourself into a tailspin, stop for a coffee and a slice of native realism at the Bay of Whales Gallery before taking a drive to the top of Mount Clay, past Sawpit picnic area on Boyers Road, and then walk five to 10 minutes from the carpark to Whalers Lookout. This spot was used by the local Indigenous people as a vantage point to signal early European whalers on the arrival of whales.
From Narrawong, it’s a 30-minute drive to Portland, pass the Portland Whale Viewing Platform (on Wade Street). Take a pit stop and look out to sea for any of our playful whale friends. Nearby, you’ll also find the World War II Museum and a pair of binoculars for those who find looking for giant mammals of the ocean a little hard to see.
Speaking of whaling, the Maritime Discovery and Information Centre on the Portland foreshore is a good spot to brush up on your history knowledge and learn about region’s whaling, sealing and shipwrecked past. You’re also guaranteed to spot a whale here, albeit a skeletal one. Among whaling artefacts, there’s a Sperm Whale skeleton, so you’ll get an up-close-and-personal understanding of the magnitude of the whales’ size. It’s also where you’ll find reports of recent whale sightings, and maps directing you the best viewing spots.
Cape Nelson is one of the coast’s premier whale spotting locations, and the home of the Cape Nelson Lighthouse. We know what you’re thinking… not another lighthouse! But the view of the wild Southern Ocean from the top of the 1800s-built 32-metre high lighthouse is spectacular. It’ll blow you away, both metaphorically and literally.
The Enchanted Forest Walk starts about three kilometres from the lighthouse along Scenic Road. Haunting Moonah Trees and winding vines create the canopy of the 45-minute return walk. Limestone boulders are blanketed in overgrowth, cliff faces turn a moss green and a squabble of birds add to the soundtrack. It’s a world away from the otherwise rocky landscape of the region, but stop at any of the lookouts, with views of the Southern Ocean, and your whale visit wish may just come true.
The coastline here isn’t like the other towns we’ve stopped. It stands alone. Dark, rough, wild. At times, it’s almost apocalyptic, but in a good, beautiful, brooding way. The once-volcanic-island of Cape Bridgewater is a 20-minute drive north-west of Portland. Limestone caves, blowholes, rocky cliffs, freshwater lakes, untamed surf beaches and a petrified forest add character to the surreal landscape. Swap the leathery skin of the whales for furry coats of seals, here, as Cape Bridgewater is home to the largest fur seal breeding colony on mainland Australia. Leaving from the Cape Bridgewater Cafe carpark, stamp your mark on the Cape Bridgewater Seal Walk. It’s a 2.5 kilometre walk up the edge of the volcanic crater and is the most direct path to the colony, and takes about two hours round-trip. There’s a longer, easier six kilometre walk to a viewing platform that will take you past the blowholes and limestone petrified forests. Alternatively, don’t flap about and take a Seals by Sea boat trip to get closer.
With still plenty more to see and do, check out any number of Portland’s other museums, art galleries and sculpture parks, the Botanic Gardens, or spend the last few hours of your getaway sipping on some local wines by a steaming fire as you debrief over the last few days. We told you winter on the Great Ocean Road doesn’t blow after all.
Remember to share your Winter Whale Trail journey by tagging #winterwhaletrail #IAMWARRNAMBOOL #IAMPORTFAIRY #IAMPORTLAND
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Great Ocean Road Regional Tourism acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the Great Ocean Road region the Wadawurrung, Eastern Maar & Gunditjmara. We pay our respects to their Elders, 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.