The beginning of southwest Victoria's Great Ocean Rd is marked by a timber memorial sign, 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 off 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 Cres. It has 60 per cent off last-season's childrenswear on the day we visit. Local clothing company Ghanda is also a hit with the kids. The Australian National Surf Museum, tucked behind the shops, is worth a look to put the famous surf region into perspective before a slight 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. Its organic food from the conservatory-feel cafe is garnished with edible flowers and herbs from the lush nursery gardens. They sell organic wine, including Spring Seed Wine Company's aptly-named Four O'clock Chardonnay, as well as the freshest fruit and veges. You can also get 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 is a boat-hire business that rents 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 60s 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 bushfires when trading 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 in rustic surrounds or throw a frisbee around on the long lawn, complete with a rowboat for the kids to play on.
If Great Gatsby were to travel along the Great Ocean Rd, his favourite coastal town by far would be Lorne. It's filled to the brim with wealthy Melburnians and has the beautiful Lorne Beach Pavilion restaurant along the beachfront, perfect 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 at the visitor centre on the way into town to see the history of the Great Ocean Rd on display. We are pointed towards the awe-inspiring Erskine Falls and a tucked-away viewing platform for a bird's-eye view of the road.
Cape Otway Lightstation
My kids roll their eyes when I tell them we'll be going to a lighthouse, because they're often at the end of a long drive and only viewed from the outside. But I renew their passion for them 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 Rd Wildlife Park
The animals at the Great Ocean Rd 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's pitter-patter on the pond and the wind whistling softly. It reminds us not to rush our holiday, so we stop awhile in the cafe and talk to owner Josef Lasarow about his ideas on sustainability as we devour delicious, hearty vegetable and barley soup with homemade stonebaked pizza in front of an open fire. We leave feeling nourished.
Otway fly treetops adventures
For a burst of adrenaline we try the Otway Fly zipline. At first it's a little scary pushing the kids off tall platforms, but they love it and are buzzing from the confidence it gives 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 have to force myself into it, but it is 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 better. You'll see swells crashing against biscuit-crumb brown sand and treacherous cliff faces, as well as spectacular limestone formations, such as London Bridge,
the Twelve Apostles and the Bay of Islands. There's also the eery calm of Loch Ard Gorge, where the two suvivors of the Loch Ard shipwreck 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 the 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 - at the end of the Great Ocean Rd - to see another lighthouse at Griffiths Island, the perfect island loop track, and stroller-friendly for even the littlest in the family.
The Great Ocean Rd is 243km long, taking about 9½ hours from Melbourne to Port Fairy. However, the inland route from Port Fairy to Melbourne only takes 3½ hours so the trip back will be quicker. Visit www.visitgreatoceanroad.org.au.
Where to stay:
Bimbi Park in the Cape Otway bush is a family-run campground, bimbipark.com.au. Also try the award-winning Great Ocean Rd Tourist Park in Peterborough, greatoceanroadtouristpark.com.au.
• The writer travelled with the assistance of Tourism Great Ocean Road Tourism.