There's a lot more to The Otways than the Great Ocean Road
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Melbourne is a great city for running - no question. We have so many green spaces, paths, and parks. The weather never really gets bad enough that you can’t run outside, and our population is big enough that we have all the infrastructure, facilities, and races we could ever need.
Except of course if you’re a trail runner. Save for a couple of small trails around Melbourne, if you want to roll an ankle you really need to get in the car and head to the You Yangs, maybe Macedon, the Dandenongs, or if you’re really serious - the Alpine region.
So when we were presented with the opportunity to head south west of Melbourne to The Otways for a couple of days of running and relaxing, we couldn’t say no.
Any great weekend away starts with skipping out of work early - which we did, and rolled out of Melbourne mid-afternoon and took the fast roads to Apollo Bay. Sure, you can take the scenic route via Angelsea, Lorne, and the Great Ocean Road, but we knew we would be seeing plenty of the ocean throughout the next couple of days (you could also work a full day on the Friday and then fight through traffic, but c'mon - what sort of way is that to start a fun weekend?!).
Apollo Bay is around a two and a half hour drive from Melbourne if you stay inland after Geelong, and you really see the full variety of the Australian landscape. Lush, green paddocks and farmlands give way to thick bush and forest, before the ocean comes properly into view in the last 20 minutes of the drive as you descend from Skenes Creek into Apollo Bay.
For 8 months of the year Apollo Bay is a small, sleepy town on the coast. It’s a proud football town, and the sort of place where everyone knows each other. Local businesses do a roaring trade from the endless tourist buses that stop here on their way to the 12 Apostles - another 75-90 minutes down the road.
Over summer Apollo Bay is a different beast - the town swells to more than triple its size as beach loving holiday makers from all over Victoria and Australia come to soak up the sun and sand.
We arrive in town around 5:30pm - it’s the start of spring and the light is fading. Once we unpack it’s straight to the local pub - there are a few options in town but we go for the Great Ocean Road Brewhouse. It’s the sort of place you can take anyone - it’s very friendly and unpretentious with a huge beer list and a classic pub menu.
It’s quiet, so we grab a table near one of the fireplaces and hear all about James’ recent podium at a local trail race down here - a victory that came at a price, as he is limping noticeably. He cops a fair amount of ribbing and knows he’ll have to keep it together as we hit the trails tomorrow.
SATURDAY AM: PRINCETOWN TO THE 12 APOSTLES
The forecast for today looks magic, we couldn’t have asked for anything more than sunny blue skies and only light winds. The downside - our windscreen is covered in a thick layer of frost this morning.
We make the drive to Princetown to jump on the Great Ocean Walk - it’s a 100km stretch of trail that ends at the 12 Apostles. Our plan is to park at Princetown and run the final 8km to the 12 Apostles, and then run back to the car. Just like the drive into Apollo Bay, the trip to Princetown has everything. Rolling hills, thick forest, and some incredible views. If you go early while the sun is still rising you might get lucky and see the fog rising from the valleys; it’s a beautiful sight.
The section of the Great Ocean Walk that we’re on is 100% runnable. It’s mostly single track with some great undulations - nothing too testing but certainly enough to keep it interesting as the ocean dips and bobs out of view. It is mostly exposed to the elements; in winter you would cop some wild weather but equally in summer it would be a magical run.
"Running on milky single trail, snaking along the raw limestone coast was unreal - no crowds and no bitumen, what a perfect morning."
The best part about this trail? It would have to be the serenity. We didn’t encounter a single person on the whole trail. Obviously as you hit the 12 Apostles you encounter a lot of tourists, but some of the best views are from the trail - and you can enjoy those for as long as you want, without so much as a selfie wand or iPad getting in the way of your view.
There is a set of stairs that you can take all the way down to the beach, but it was closed when we were there. If you do some research you should be able to find out when it's usually open.
We turned around and went back to Princetown, where - heads up, there's no fuel (this nearly brought us unstuck, but it's a story for another time). From here, we decided to check out Port Campbell - a very small fishing village west of the 12 Apostles. For a two street town there is a surprising variety of dining options here, and we settled on Forage on the Foreshore.
You never know what you’re going to get in small town cafes, but this place felt like an inner Melbourne spot - high quality coffee and a great, modern menu. The front room feels a bit like an old tea-house, but if you make your way out the back you can sit in a beautiful light filled space. Recommend.
So with 16km of trails in our legs, plus full bellies, it was time to make the admittedly long drive back to Apollo Bay for a little rest and relaxation.
Saturday PM: Beech Forest and Forrest Brewing Co.
After a morning spent tracking along the ocean, we wanted to head inland for the afternoon. A short and winding drive up Skenes Creek Road took us into some spectacular tall forests on the way to the town of Beech Forest - not so much a town as it is an area on the map. The narrow, single lane roads are perfect for an afternoon drive when you have no place to be and just want to get lost in the wilderness.
After meandering through the forests for a while we developed a thirst. A must visit on any trip to this part of the world is the Forrest Brewing Company. Almost right across the road from Forrest MTB Park, this place is super welcoming, and is dog friendly (an added bonus). They brew beer on site, and have great indoor and outdoor seating areas. During summer this place pumps, but it is quite big so space is never an issue.
After a couple of relaxing mid-afternoon drinks and some hot chips, we made our way back to Apollo Bay to get groceries for dinner. Pro tip: the supermarkets close early here (there are two) so give yourself plenty of time to get what you need.
A big bowl of risotto and a glass of wine is the perfect way to end the day. We stay up later than we need to, fighting to keep our eyes open as the Blues Brothers plays on the TV.
Don’t get us wrong - there are plenty of good dining options in and around Apollo Bay. In the warmer months you can’t lose with fish and chips on the beach. It actually might be compulsory.
Day 2: Wye General Store and Hopetoun Falls
We start Day 2 with a drive along the deserted Great Ocean Road at sunrise. It’s about a 30 minute drive to Wye River, which is all but a speck on the map - that is of course, except for the Wye General Store - a modern cafe that has become a beacon for holidaymakers in the last 5 years. Like all the good spots down this way, the Wye General Store is packed over summer - it’s also a popular mid-ride coffee stop for cyclists.
We’re here right on opening (sorry) because we have things to do today, and we get a large table with plenty of sunlight beaming in through the window. We order coffees on coffees like we’re trying to delay this run - or maybe we’re just happy soaking up the warmth after another frosty start to the day.
We drive back the way we came, and as we do so conversation turns to the Great Ocean Road Marathon - a race that takes place here each May - it has to be one of the most stunning marathons in the world, doesn’t it?
We’re headed back to near where we drove yesterday - we spent the evening scouring some maps and looking for some new forest-y trails and we think we found some near Hopetoun Falls.
There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to park the car and start running. We’re near Beach Forest again, and unfortunately it seems large parts of this area are being logged. We find a quiet place to park and bomb down a couple of kilometres of dirt road on the way to Hopetoun Falls.
Just as this run is starting to look a little average (these are just gravel roads, not trails) we get to the staircase leading to the Falls and everything is alright again. Now, it’s only about 700m down to the Falls from here but the combination of sunlight peeking through the tree tops and the muddy trail, with the odd fallen tree, make this section magical.
Just like yesterday on the Great Ocean Walk, we have the place to ourselves. To think that yesterday we were running along the edge of the coastline, looking down on untouched beaches and the 12 Apostles, and today we’re here at a private waterfall, makes you realise how special this part of the world really is. If you’re prepared to go on a short drive you can experience so much variety.
It’s getting cold down here, so we leg it back up the hundred or so stairs to the dirt road, and create a loop that winds its way back to the car. We’ve still got some breakfast to burn off so we turn it into around 11 kilometers before hopping back in the car and heading back to the house.
Sunday PM - The Bottle of Milk
Everyone moves at their own pace on Sunday - for Sasha that means getting out for a jog around Apollo Bay, while James opts to relax in the sunshine and rest his sore ankle. The one thing that can’t be avoided is packing, and as we pack debate rages over where to stop for one last meal before the long drive back to Melbourne. Finally, inevitably, we settle on a Lorne institution - The Bottle of Milk. This place brought cool food to Lorne years ago - before Bottle of Milk it feels like Lorne just had pub food or bad takeaway, but Bottle of Milk offers Melbourne level burgers and shakes opposite the beach. You can sit inside, out the front, or out the back, and they also serve beers and breakfast (not together, but maybe?).
The other good spot to hit in Lorne in Pizza Pizza. They sell exactly what you think they sell, and they do it damn well. Check them out if burgers aren’t your thing or if The Bottle of Milk is slammed.
James’ ankle is cooked, and before we jump back in the car we decide to break all the rules of food and water by going for a dip immediately after lunch. No one throws up, but it’s unlikely James stayed in anywhere near long enough to provide any benefits to his sore ankle.
We’re on the road back to Melbourne with full stomachs, sand everywhere, and mud flecks all up the side of the car. What more could you want from a weekend away?