The beginning of southwest Victoria's Great Ocean Road is marked by a timber memorial sign over the road, the kind you might see in a Yogi Bear film. It's a tribute to the returned World War I servicemen who built the meandering, hill-hugging coastal road as the world's largest war memorial. Here's where to stop along the way:
STOCK UP ON THE SURF COAST
On the way to the Great Ocean Rd from Melbourne, stop in at the surfing mecca of Torquay, the official starting point. Window shop in Surf City Plaza (the home of Rip Curl, among others), then head around the corner for the outlet stores. The best is the Quicksilver/Roxy outlet store on Baines Crescent with 60 per cent off last-season's childrenswear on the day we visit. The Australian National Surf Museum tucked away behind the shops is worth a visit to put the famous surf region into perspective before a detour to Bell's Beach surfing reserve to see world-class surfing on every wave.
AMBLE AROUND ANGLESEA
Just before you get to the small seaside town of Anglesea, take a turning to McGain's Nursery and stock up on road trip treats. Their organic food from the conservatory-feel cafe is garnished with edible flowers and herbs from the lush nursery gardens. Stock up on organic wine, such as Spring Seed Wine Company's aptly-named Four o'clock Chardonnay, as well as the freshest fruit and veges. You can get the cafe meals to take away for picnics at one of the many creative children's playgrounds dotted along the coast. On the other side of the bridge out of Anglesea there's a boat hire business renting out brightly coloured miniature retro speedboats and paddle boats, an iconic sight in the town since the late 70s.
ARTSY AIREYS INLET
The quaint township of Aireys Inlet has an art gallery, a retro sixties diner with the best $4 hotdogs you'll ever taste, a sandy stroll uphill to the Split Point lighthouse, a children's playground and skate park, as well as a strong southern ocean swell. It also has the family-friendly Aireys Pub. It's been in the town since 1904, but was wiped out by the Ash Wednesday bush fires after which trading re-started out of a makeshift tin shed. It closed in 2011 and the locals rallied to buy it, saving the land from developers and stopping their town from being without a pub. Sit inside by the cosy fire or throw a frisbee around on the long lawn complete with a rowboat for the kids to play upon.
If Great Gatsby were to travel along the Great Ocean Road, his favourite coastal town by far would be Lorne. It's always filled to the brim with wealthy Melburnians and has a beautiful restaurant along the beachfront for cocktails as the sun sets. It also has outdoor trampolines for the kids, a nautical-themed playground and skate park, mini golf, an art deco cinema and the Gatsby-esque Lorne Sea Baths. Stop in at the local visitor centre on the way into town to see the history of the Great Ocean Road on display and to find out where the best spots are that day. We were pointed towards the awe-inspiring Erskine Falls and a viewing platform for a birds-eye-view over the Great Ocean Road.
CAPE OTWAY LIGHTSTATION
My kids rolled their eyes when I told them we'd be going to a lighthouse, because they're often at the end of a long drive and only viewed from the outside. But, I've renewed their passion for lighthouses with a stop at the Cape Otway Lightstation. It has plenty to do, including a dinosaur dig sandpit, an Aboriginal hut where didgeridoos made naturally by termites are played, a steep scramble up a skinny staircase to the top of the impressive lightstation, a cafe, gun emplacements and sculptures of whales to sit on. There's plenty of intriguing history, maritime oil paintings, a telegraph station house and, importantly for the kids, an exit through the gift shop.
GREAT OCEAN ROAD WILDLIFE PARK
The animals at the Great Ocean Road Wildlife Park are so relaxed you can get up close to dingoes, llamas, deer, wallabies and kangaroos, among others. At one point around the self-sustaining animal sanctuary, there's a sign asking people to stop and listen to nature. We hear the rain pitter patter on the pond and the wind whistling softly. It reminds us not to rush our holiday, so we stopped in at the cafe and talked to owner Josef Lasarow about his ideas on sustainability over hearty vegetable and barley soup with homemade stonebaked pizza in front of an open fire. We left feeling nourished.
OTWAY FLY TREETOPS ADVENTURES
For a burst of adrenaline, try the Otway Fly zipline. At first it wasn't a nice feeling pushing the kids off tall platforms, but they loved it and were buzzing from the confidence it gave them. Our guides Chris and Jade couldn't have been better and the safety aspects are evident at every turn - you just clip yourself on once at the start and stay hooked on until the end. As a non-adrenaline-seeking mum, I had to force myself into it, but it was well worth the effort.
Ask at the local visitor's centre for the kids packs of binoculars and handheld wind meters, then head out into the weather along Shipwreck Coast - the wilder and windier the day, the better! You'll see swells crashing against biscuit crumb brown sand and treacherous cliff faces, as well as the spectacular limestone formations such as London Bridge, the Twelve Apostles and the Bay of Islands. There's also the eerie calm of Loch Ard Gorge, where the two survivors of the Loch Ard shipwreck - Tom Pearce, and Eva Carmichael, the woman he returned into the surf to rescue after getting himself ashore - were washed up.
WARRNAMBOOL AND PORT FAIRY
Head to Warrnambool between late May and early October to see southern right whales returning to their nursery at Logan's Beach. The town also has Flagstaff Hill maritime village with a special nightly light show bringing the story of the Loch Ard shipwreck to life - stay away from the front row, though, if you want to stay dry.
There's also the maremma penguin-guarding dogs made famous by the film Oddball. We took a day-trip to Port Fairy to see another lighthouse at Griffiths Island, the perfect loop track, stroller-friendly for even the littlest in the family.
The Great Ocean Road is 243km long, taking around 9.5 hours from Melbourne to Port Fairy. However, the inland route from Port Fairy to Melbourne only takes 3.5 hours, so the trip back will be quicker. For more information visit visitgreatoceanroad.org.au.
Where to stay
Bimbi Park in the Cape Otway bush is a family-run campground where you can sleep close to koalas.
For a modern retro holiday park try Great Ocean Road Tourist Par, Peterborough.