Paradise on Earth
In Greek mythology, the god Apollo represents the sun. While Apollo Bay is not always the sunniest place on the planet (average rainfall is 800-1000mm a year) the Greek god still makes his presence felt creating rainbows in surf mist and showers. While I like to pretend the town was named after him, it was actually named after a timber-carrying schooner which sheltered in the bay in 1845. Despite that, as Apollo the god is also the protector of seafarers, it’s fitting the town - and the boat it was named after - share the same name.
When the main road into the Bay known as the Great Ocean Road was completed in 1932 by returned soldiers as a WWI war memorial, a productive settlement of farmers, fisherman, and tourists boosted the once-remote area's economy and population.
In the mid-1950s, my grandfather’s first cousin bought the Apollo Bay bakery and my mother, as a teen (pictured), regularly holidayed with her cousins. Later, members of that same family bought the local supermarket which was housed in a slanted-window building similar to the one pictured below. A couple of generations on and many of that same local extended family still call the region home.
Depending on which way you go – hinterland through Forrest or along the Great Ocean Rd – Apollo Bay is approximately a two-hour drive from Geelong, give or take. The township is parked between the folds of the intensely lush skirt of the Otways – a hilly cool-climate region of rainforest, sclerophyll canopies and farmland – and the fingertips of the Southern Ocean. While commercial fishing and dairy farms have been the mainstay for the district’s economy, the locality is now known as a tourism hotspot and real estate is through the roof.
If you like to indulge in good food (particularly crays and fresh fish), sip on cruisy vibes, and breathe in incredible views, then this region is a must see. It’s a bit more chilled than Lorne, has a ton of good accommodation to choose from, loads of tracks to test your cycling and bushwalking skills, good surfing and fishing, quality live music (I was lucky enough to catch Australia's Got Talent's, Cam Henderson, playing), art galleries, and excellent coffee. Bring a jacket, beanie, and singing voice if you visit in winter. Bring your swimsuit, sunglasses, and fishing rod if you visit in summer.
About 17kms out of town on the Lorne side of Apollo Bay is the district known as Wongarra. The uninterrupted and endless views from the steep hills overlook Onion Bay and passing ships. The roar of wild waves crashing against the shoreline drifts high up into the trees above. The birdlife serenades the dawn. These are the noises of unabashed nature. It’s also where Rick took off on one of his gravel rides from Sunnyside Rd to Kennett River, winding back along the Great Ocean Rd. (See his review of that 45km ride in Rick's Rides.)
At the request of a friend to do a photography shoot of her holiday apartment there (Number 11, Whitecrest Great Ocean Rd Resort), we were delighted to stay two nights at the eleven-acre property. The fully self-contained, beach-themed studio apartment was warm and cosy with a spa, mezzanine floor, and a deck (where I watched countless rainbows). It restored mind, body, and soul. I can also highly recommend the locally grown wines of the Otways' hinterland (after I finished using them as photography props!) Dinny Goonan’s 2021 Pinot Noir and Heroes Anti-Hero Shiraz teamed perfectly with red grapes, walnuts, Manchego, and Zeally Bay crusty sourdough. Is your mouth watering yet? By the way, that's a painting by me on the wall (below), that the owner commissioned me to do, when she bought the apartment.
As you drive into the Bay, high on the right overlooking the town is Marriner’s Lookout. Weirdly, I can’t ever remember going up there as a kid, but I must have. The view at the top is brilliant. The hill is steep at 20% gradient (ask Rick – he rode it!) but you can drive almost all the way to the top (if small tourist buses can do it, you can!). From there it's only a short walk to the top. I recommend walking it in decent shoes as the greenery underneath can be a bit slippery at times.
Barham River Rd, & Paradise Scenic Reserve
If you do nothing else in Apollo Bay (but seriously, you should) take the 7km drive down the Barham River Rd. It’s relatively flat and mostly bitumen (except for the last few kilometres) as it winds along beside the small, tranquil, picturesque Barham River.
While the walking track to Barham River Falls is closed permanently, you can just as easily fill up your senses with lush green fernery and babbling brooks along the road. Take a picnic to the reserve there and snap hundreds of photos while you're at it. Just don’t paddle in the water as the leeches may take a liking to you (so I’ve heard on the grapevine). Check out Rick’s Rides below for more on the easy relaxed pedal along this beautiful road.
About 40 minutes inland from Skene's Creek, you come across the rural township of Forrest, in, well, a forest. For a tiny town it packs a punch with a rail trail to explore, the Run Forrest Trail Run annual event, a brewery with a big rep, a distillery, nearby wineries, a chocolaterie, a general store packed to the rafters with local produce, and a weimaraner who sits in the front seat of his owners’ jeep waiting patiently for them to finish work. (It’s ok; he gets plenty of walks, pats, water, food and attention from what I saw.)
The town's people also run SoupFest once a year in conjunction with the June long weekend – though this year it was swapped out for a “Local and Lovely” market, which friends of mine, the Lounge Lizards, just happened to be gigging at. Forrest is situated high up in the Otways and boasts some of the most incredible views across wooded hilltops and misty mountains.
Cape Otway Lighthouse
Listed as "significant" and "important", after wandering around the Cape Otway Lighthouse precinct for two hours, I totally understand why – a true highlight of the coast, pardon the pun. Around 28kms drive from Apollo Bay towards the Twelve Apostles, the lighthouse was built in 1848 on 90 metre-high clifftops and dubbed the “Beacon of Hope”. In 1859, a Telegraph Station was established on the grounds, sending information to Melbourne about passing ships. A secret bunker housing “No. 13 Radar Station” was built in 1942 to detect enemies during WWII and houses a few secrets of its own. These buildings have all been turned into fascinating museums and memories.
I’m a bit of a sook with heights so I didn’t climb the lighthouse, but Rick braved the winds and said he was “blown away” in both a figurative and literal sense, and could really sense the history of the keepers who’d walked the steps before him. The whole precinct actually had this strong sense of place. I sat in the café and even though they’d run out of scones and the coffee machine had broken down from exhaustion, the staff were kind enough to make me a cuppa and add an apple slice for sustenance. I watched even more rainbows form and disappear through quaint rain-stained windows. For more on the lighthouse, accommodation possibilities, entry costs, and the reopening of the precinct after a change in management, check their website for details.
Apollo's Own Garden of Eden
I've heard some of the locals in Apollo Bay refer to their hometown as "God's own country". After spending a few days lapping up the bounty of the region, I'm not surprised. It is a true paradise on earth, especially if you don't mind it a touch woolly in winter. Just go.
Wongarra – Kennett River – Wongarra (Otways, Vic)
Time: 120 mins give or take
All-Weather Terrain: Yes
Ability Level: Confident bike-handling skills for inclines and descents
Fitness Levels: Strong
Scenery: Views of ocean, hinterland rainforest, large tree ferns, overhead canopy in parts
Gradients: Long inclines between 8 and 15%, steep similar descents
Surface: Paved for 3km along Sunnyside then compact gravel to Kennett River, bitumen back along the Ocean Rd
Obstacles: Roads have lots of twists and turns, precipitous region, depending on time of day traffic on the Great Ocean Rd can be busy and there’s no shoulders on the road, tourists stopping to admire views or wildlife, international drivers who (occasionally) accidentally drive on the wrong side of the road. Wildlife may be an issue at certain times.
Services: Kennett River is a small town on the Great Ocean Rd which is equipped with all pitstop amenities
Equipment: Gravel and cyclo-cross, mountain, wider tyres preferable
Comments: A good dawn hit out with amazing scenery. Solid workout for the legs. Koalas spotted at the back of Kennett River, quiet compact-gravel roads, signposted, and the Ocean Rd’s relatively quiet in the early morning also.
(Below: Rick's phone photos from his ride)
Wongarra – Marriner’s Lookout – Paradise – Wongarra
Time: 120 mins
All-Weather Terrain: Yes
Ability Level: If you leave out Marriner’s Lookout, the road out to Paradise and back (Barham River Rd) is relatively flat and an easy quiet ride – low to moderate bike-handling skills required for the flats. Marriner’s Lookout, on the other hand, with a gradient of 20% straight up and back down, is for the serious rider only. Road sensibility required.
Fitness Levels: Easy, mostly flat land or gradual descent to ride, so lower fitness levels ok for all roads except for Marriner’s which requires a high level of fitness.
Scenery: Views of ocean, township, rural farmland, amazing ferns and rainforest along Barham River
Gradients: Marriner’s is 20% gradient up and down (216m up from sea level). The rest is relatively flat or undulating with a max of 5% gradients
Surface: Mostly paved except for the last few kilometres of Barham River Rd
Obstacles: Road crossings, wildlife, other riders, tourists, local traffic, the occasional dog walkers and joggers (see above re issues for riding the GO Rd)
Services: Well signposted, all amenities at Apollo Bay township
Equipment: Any type of good bike should be fine
Comments: The Barham River Rd is in good nick, all the rest are paved. The scenery changes from ocean to rainforest and is beautiful. Lots of photo ops. The main street of Apollo Bay is a great place to call in for a beer, wine, food, coffee and a pitstop. Marriner’s Lookout has an incredible view from the top of the whole area, but definitely good legs and handling skills to get up and back. Take out Marriner’s and you’ve got yourself a leisurely ride around the outskirts of Apollo Bay. If you don’t start from Wongarra, there’s lots of easy peddling around the Bay.
(Below: My images of where Rick rode on the Barham River Rd)
Footnote: I am not paid to add links. I merely put them into my blogs in case you are interested in exploring further what we've experienced during our travels. It saves me from adding details which are readily available on other sites.