Danielle Wright finds plenty on offer in Warrnambool, including the town's newest attraction, Maremma dogs.
Mention Warrnambool on Victoria's southwest coast and you'll no doubt be told tales about the shipwrecks (180 along Shipwreck Coast, including three buried beneath Shipwreck Bay Holiday Park) and Flagstaff Hill, an olde worlde 1870s maritime village.
Arriving towards nightfall, we head straight to the village to set the scene. We meet our guide Marie, looking like she means business in a hooded Driza-Bone riding coat and Sou'wester hat pulled on tight. She hands out boarding tickets outlining the 1878 journey of the Loch Ard, bound for Melbourne from Gravesend, England.
The ship had almost twice as many crew members as passengers and a cargo of luxury items including railway irons and perfumes, pianos and straw hats, as well as highly prized Milton ceramics - the most famous being a life-size porcelain peacock handmade by the Italian artisan Paul Comolera.
We each pick up a lantern and follow Marie as she guides our journey along cobblestones, and past quaint vintage shops staffed by volunteers, until we reach the docks. As part of a crowd carrying lanterns, we feel more like we're going on a witch hunt than on a ship.
In any case, the effect is spoiled by a mobile phone ringing and a hoon burning rubber in a nearby road.
Marie swiftly brings us back to the past by regaling us with tales about the 13-week journey we're about to embark on. It's easy to think of the past as a quiet, black and white world, but standing on the wharf it's clear it was a busy, noisy place with people hustling and laughing, hardly able to hear the creaking of the ship, an old man's snore, on the rickety wharf.
In the old hall, we're shown a film about the Loch Ard, whose journey ended in a watery grave for all but two people onboard.
The most exciting part is when the screen goes up to reveal a laser show on the lake. A giant ship looms in the lights, real water rains down, and claps of thunder and lightning punctuate the show.
It's a wintry night so we're all left wondering what's real and what's part of the show as the people at the front recoil from the rain.
As we're heading back through the village on the way out, Marie mentions Warrnambool's whales and the next morning we head off in search of them at Logans Beach, a nursery where southern right whales return between late May and early October to give birth and raise their calves.
Sure enough, bobbing behind of a line of surfers is a big black blob in the ocean, puffing out watery spurts. It doesn't do anything like the acrobatics the posters around the viewing platform show, but just knowing it's so near is exciting enough.
A new attraction to Warrnambool is gathering momentum thanks to the movie Oddball starring Shane Jacobson as a farmer (Alan "Swampy" Marsh) who thought his Maremma dogs might save nearby fairy penguins at Warrnambool's Middle Island.
The Maremmas at Flagstaff Hill (named Eudy and Tula) have body doubles in the film, but they are onsite for families to go on guided trips to the island - normally closed off to the public - to see them in action in the summer months.
Looking like a cross between a St Bernard and a golden retriever, the dogs are on high alert at all times in their role as guardians.
They've done an admirable job so far, helping a fairy penguin population of 10 become 200 in the past decade.
Their helper is Phil Root, who came to Flagstaff Hill 22 years ago as the village gardener and got roped into looking after the dogs on the side. It now takes up more time than anticipated, but his affection for the dogs shows he's happy to take charge.
Before the dogs, Middle Island had another guardian on its sandy shores - a cheerful-looking lighthouse resplendent in white with red trimmings. It was moved back to the mainland - stone by stone - and now visitors to Flagstaff Hill can climb its rickety stairs to become make-believe lighthouse keepers and take in the views. And so we tick lighthouses off our Warrnambool list too.
Over breakfast the next morning, we ask the waitress what else there is to do and she point us towards Marshmallow Town where "everyone gets to dress up as a marshmallow".
Our kids are keen as mustard. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a regular Inflatable World.
Marshmallow Town might not make its mark on Warrnambool, but after whales, lighthouses, Flagstaff Hill and Maremma dogs, it might have been overkill anyway. There's enough waiting at the end of the Great Ocean Rd already.
The drive: Melbourne to Adelaide. It's the Great Ocean Road, diggers! The most famous Australian roadtrip of them all, in 2011 this stretch of tarmac was included on the Australian National Heritage List.
Distance: The Great Ocean Road clocks in at 243km between the Victorian cities of Torquay and Allansford. It was built as a memorial to their fallen comrades by soldiers who had returned from the European killing fields of 1914-1918. The tarseal had just dried when their sons were shipped off for the 1939-1945 rematch.
Drive time: There's about four hours of driving to be had here, but break it into two or three nice days and explore the little surf towns and national parks along the way.
How grand is it? "Not all roads are created equal," declares the highway's website in typically modest Aussie tones. But, strewth, they might just be right.
Ideal soundtrack: As with all things relating to Australian culture, this is a fraught choice. Do we go bogan? Cheap wine and a Cold Chisel tune? Or do we go high end? Nick Cave? Or a young Melbourne-based hipster?
Topics of conversations to avoid with locals: "Hello, Anzac brethren. I represented my country with honour in Afghanistan where I protected the life of New Zealand's Prime Minister (and your very good friend) John Key. Please don't lock me in a cage."
Iconic car: Holdens, mate. They've quit production in Australia, but all Aussie-made Holdens were hatched in South Australia, a natural extension of this roadtrip.
Best photo: There's a very good reason that so many Tourism Australia campaign posters have featured the 12 Apostles. You can't actually see all of them from land, but there are many fantastic perches from which to get terrific photos of these towering limestone formations.
Fancy a bite? A la Grecque, the fabulous Greek restaurant at Airey's Inlet is worth the drive.
Cinematic? If ever a coastline cried out for a James Bond car chase, it was this one. They're making a movie, called Oddball, about the Maremma sheepdogs that protect the penguins at Warrnambool.
More information: Check out visitgreatoceanroad.org.au.
Safety warning: The speed limit chops and changes between 60kp/h and 100kp/h. Go easy on the vineyard tastings. There's a shortage of toilets along the route and locals get a bit touchy about tourists peeing in public.
Getting there: Warrnambool is at the western end of Victoria's Great Ocean Rd, or go via Princes Hwy/A1.
Where to stay: The Best Western Olde Maritime is across the road from Flagstaff Hill. Kids' breakfasts include the smiley face breakfast (eggs for eyes, a sausage nose, bacon mouth) or green eggs and ham.
Details: The dogs - Each tour takes 75 minutes walking through Stingray Bay to the island where you can see the Maremma guardians.