Take a great adventure on the Great Ocean Road
IT'S chilly. Dark clouds shuffle across the sky, blotting out the last vestiges of sunset, then turn into a menacing shade of grey, and it's hard to make head or tail of the scant map given to us at Tullamarine Airport.
TomTom to the rescue.
The heritage-listed Great Ocean Road is one of the most loved scenic coastal drives in the world.
Stretching 243km of the south-eastern coastline from Torquay, it memorialises soldiers killed in the First World War, was built by returned servicemen in 1919, and winds along clifftops, up to breathtaking headlands, down on to the edge of beaches, across river estuaries and through lush rainforests.
After two hours and blinding rain, the welcome relief is an open fire, a piece of grass-fed beef and a glass of shiraz at Lorne's Grand Pacific Hotel.
Built in 1875 opposite the Lorne Pier, this is an ideal base.
Dose up on surf culture at Torquay, Victoria's surfing and beach worship capital, the home of world famous Bells Beach, birthplace of brands Rip Curl and Quiksilver.
The highway is carved into sheer cliffs that drop away into the ocean, offering commanding views of the waves of Bass Strait and the Southern Ocean swelling and crashing onto the rocks and beaches below.
There are numerous scenic lookouts and points of interest including the stretch between Lorne and Apollo Bay, considered by many to be the most picturesque section of the Great Ocean Road.
The Cape Otway lighthouse, which stands 91m above the ocean, offers spectacular views of the rugged Otway coast and has daily tours.
Onwards from Apollo Bay, the road winds through the centre of the Great Otway National Park with its beautiful untouched rainforests before returning to hug the coast for the entire length of the Port Campbell National Park.
This is the most famous section and features the breathtakingly dramatic 12 Apostles: rock stacks that rise from the Southern Ocean, having been carved from the headland by the fierce waves. It's nature's work in progress.
In between checking out the sights, how about surf lessons (wear a wetsuit), bushland hiking and biking trails, fishing from the pier, perusing art galleries and boutiques, or enjoying freshly caught fish or just a coffee, tea or wine.
What a difference a day makes as we head north in bright sunshine past blink-and-miss towns, hectares of bright green pastures and contented cattle. And what a surprise awaits in Ballarat.
It's brimming with unspoiled history of the Eureka Rebellion and the golden era of the 1800s, beautiful botanical gardens, a treasure trove of vibrant cafes, art and culture, and surrounding hills alive with outstanding food and places to stay.
Plus, Ballarat is thought to have one of the best preserved Victorian streetscapes outside Britain.
Buildings along Lydiard St have been locations for the ABC series The Doctor Blake Mysteries; Ballarat Railway station which opened in 1862 is one of Australia's most impressive heritage railway stations; the art gallery was established at the height of the gold rush in 1854; the grand Arch of Victory marks the start of the 22km Avenue of Honour and was completed in 1920 with 4000 trees commemorating the fallen; and the original hotel where Craig's Royal is today was built in 1853.
The hotel is of considerable architectural importance and since a fire in 1859, a rebuild in 1862, and additions in 1889, little has changed architecturally.
When Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria's second son visited in 1867, it was the first time a member of the British royal family had come to Australia.
With other guests such as Dame Nellie Melba and Mark Twain, Craig's Royal became known as Australia's first hotel to the stars.
Today, it has 41 rooms and theheritage high tea is served in the ornate banquet room on Sundays.
In the glass-roofed conservatory courtyard, the consultant chef working alongside head chef Shannon Easton is Melbourne culinary identity Ian Curley.
Expect dishes such as pork belly, scallop, kohlrabi remoulade, sea grape, radish, ginger and lime; and braised great ocean duck and shiitake pie with a fricassee of mushrooms and orange.
Don't forget to visit Australia's foremost outdoor museum at Sovereign Hill which recreates Ballarat's first 10 years.
Daylesford-Macedon - a region famed for its mineral springs and exquisite local produce - invites you to soak up the goodness and enjoy its day spas, restaurants, galleries, wineries, boutique shops and markets.
The piece de resistance is the Lake House owned by Alla Wolf-Tasker who has contributed significantly to the economic survival and prosperity of the region with her "people, produce, place" philosophy and is recognised for driving the growth of regional cuisine in Australia.
GOOD TO KNOW
Great Ocean Road: www.visitgreatoceanroad.org.au
Craig's Royal Hotel: www.craigsroyal.com.au
Lake House: www.lakehouse.com.au