This is a road-trip to flush the cheeks and startle the eyes. Intoxicating scenery and a far-from-anywhere vibe is a constant on the coastal route from Melbourne to Adelaide. From the quivering, wave gouged coastline around the Twelve Apostles to the Limestone Coast wine region, this route offers exceptional diversity: vividly carved cliffs, temperate rainforests, bird –rich wetlands, rural vistas, evocative historic settlements; even outback-style vistas.
Day 1: Melbourne to Apollo Bay
Although the riverside town of Winchelsea is only 114 kilometres from Melbourne, this is a great place to stretch along the heritage trail and marvel at the grandeur of Barwon Park mansion.
Afterwards, a 46 km roll through forest reveals Lorne, a town abuzz with eateries, galleries and arts events and a great base for nearby rainforest walks. Be sure to imbibe at the iron-lace festooned Grand Pacific Hotel.
Forested headlands plunge straight into sea along the cliff – hugging 45 km stretch between Lorne and Apollo Bay. As you swoop into bays shrouded with salt –spray and strewn with bull-kelp, pause at tiny settlements such as Wye River and Separation Creek and picnic with wallabies.
Day 2: Apollo Bay to Cape Otway
It’s only 31 km from Apollo Bay to Cape Otway, but a rewarding diversion is Beech Forest, a central point for accessing nearby waterfall walks and majestic Californian Redwoods.
Cape Otway Light-station - oldest on mainland Australia- has an inviting cafe with a roaring fire. There’s plenty to explore around here and drives to nearby wilderness beaches such as Blanket Bay have the added bonus of koala spotting. Wave thrashed Wreck Bay and Moonlit Bay underscore the Shipwreck Coast label.
Day 3: Cape Otway to Port Fairy
There’s no need to rush to the Twelve Apostles. Close to Lavers Hill (38 km from Cape Otway) is Melba Gully, a rainforest embellished with waterfalls and towering fern-trees. For wild ocean scenes, take the Johanna Beach detour.
The splendour of the Twelve Apostles is best appreciated in solitude- just follow the tracks veering off the road after the main viewing area. A few kilometres further, the Bay of Islands features dramatic rock stacks and short walks boasting splendid, un-peopled views.
Drive through farmland for another 63 km to Port Fairy, a time frozen riverside village of bluestones galore, where more than 50 buildings are National Trust classified.
Day 4: Port Fairy to Mt Gambier
Start the day with a promenade along Port Fairy’s Moyne River and out to the shearwater hub of Griffiths Island. If you’re someone for whom too much heritage is never enough, detour to Irish-inspired Koroit.
Emerald dairy country lines the road along the 65km to Portland; oldest European settlement in Victoria and still oozing gothic edginess. Twelve kilometres from here is Cape Nelson, where uplifted ancient sea-beads offer moody walks through heath-land and an atmospheric cafe awaits in the former lighthouse stables.
Travel for 115 km to Mt Gambier, a low- slung regional city distinctive for its pink sandstone buildings and Riddoch Art Gallery. The surrounding Limestone Coast volcanic hinterland is pockmarked with caves such as World Heritage listed Naracoorte Caves and freshwater ponds that make for surreal diving and snorkelling.
Day 5: Mt Gambier to Penola
Slumbering coastal village appeal, the quirky Feasts Classic Car Museum and a selection of calm beaches await at Port MacDonnell, just 28kms from Mt Gambier.
From Port MacDonnell, you have your pick of empty beaches as you drive towards Carpenter Rocks, after which it’s fun to trace a rural back-roads route towards Penola, home to 1800’s street scapes and grand, uncannily preserved Yallum Park mansion.
Surrounding Penola are dozens of cellar doors brimming with the resonant red wines the Coonawarra region is famous for.
Day 6: Penola to Robe
Drive for 104 km past paddocks dotted with red-gums and photogenic ruins towards Robe, a chic seaside town resplendent with handsome limestone buildings and cottages edged with lavender.
On the way, a worthwhile detour is Beachwood, a historic village distinctive for its long jetty and nearby Bowman Scenic Drive.
Day 7: Robe to Adelaide
After a relaxing morning in Robe savouring atmospheric cafes, eateries and galleries, drive to Adelaide. For much of the 336 kilometres, the vast Coorong Wetlands form the meditative backdrop.