During a five-day trip to Melbourne, my fiancé and I decided to spontaneously rent a car and drive the Great Ocean Road.

There are endless road trip possibilities in every direction from Melbourne, Australia. One of the most highly populated routes and sought after tourist destinations in Australia is the Great Ocean Road.

Heading south west from Melbourne through the smaller city of Geelong, you’ll reach the 151 mile stretch of tree top walks, gorgeous ocean vistas, lighthouses, and rock formations that are famously named after the 12 apostles even though there are only eight.

With minimal planning, it’s easy for even the most unspontaneous tourists to go to a car rental, tell them that you want to go to the Great Ocean Road and leave with a simple but detailed map of the route and a few “must-see” highlighted stops.

With our map in hand, a GPS and a few photos from an overpriced guidebook that I had taken on my phone, we set off early one morning. Even though we had no idea what we were in store for, we were giddy as we packed the car. Having only stuck to organized tours before, this was our first big adventure and we were doing it all by ourselves.

Out of all the photos I saw online, I knew I wanted to see the 12 Apostles at sunset. They were the furthest sight away from Melbourne and we would need to be conservative with our time if we were going to see them that night.

With two coffees and a breakfast croissant, we said goodbye to Melbourne.

Our first stop was just a short detour for a few photos and see if any surfers were in the water at Bells Beach. Known for a famous surfing competition each year and bringing pro and amateur surfers year around to try their skills at the waves, Bells Beach was just for spectacle for us. After a few sets, we jumped back in the car.

The next coastal town of Lorne was only added to our itinerary for a quick bathroom break, however we ended up spending about an hour there.

We stopped by A Bottle of Milk, a popular burger joint that specializes in serving local Australian beef burgers, and ordered a couple to go. While we waited for them to cook, we ordered a few pastries from a small shop nearby and sat outside overlooking the surfers on the beach. Lorne is a relatively small town that gets crowded when the weather is right. Since it was a weekday and a little overcast, the town seemed a little sleepy to me- all the better for us to quietly enjoy the view and our burgers.

The owner of A Bottle of Milk told us to add a quick detour to the Otway Tree Top, a walk through a rainforest. Since we had never been to a rainforest before, we thought this sounded like a great idea. It was only an hour out of our way for a totally one of a kind experience.

Arriving at Otway Tree Top Adventures you feel as if you’re walking into a scene from Jurassic Park. The one hour self-guided tour allows you to explore the rainforest from a unique perspective, you’re 100 feet off the ground, near the tops of the trees, a place most people don’t get to experience that often. Being a little afraid of heights, I found myself holding onto the guardrails more than I really needed to. After our walk and a filled camera memory card, we headed back to the car to continue the road trip.

While I uploaded the pictures to our laptop, thanks to modern conveniences, my fiancé continued the drive until we hit Port Campbell National Park. It was around 2pm and we had three hours to see the 12 Apostles, London Bridge, The Arch, The Grotto and Gibson’s Steps, all natural rock formations or cliffs near the coast.

You think you might get tired of seeing rocks in the ocean, but you’d be wrong. The rocks aren’t your typical rock; they are massive, sharp, and pierce into the ocean. They create incredible shadows against the water and the sound of the waves crashing against them could be music. Each lookout is only a mile or so from each other, so we jump in and out of the car, running to each spot and admiring the new scenery for ourselves.

As it gets later in the day, I realize that we need to find somewhere to spend the night closer to this area of the drive. It’s been a long day and allowing ourselves a little more time to explore the hikes with waterfalls and a winery or two, doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Luckily, we were able to book a one bedroom cabin at Clifton Lodge, a fairly rustic cabin secluded in the countryside and not too far from Port Campbell.

Finally, we arrived at the 12 Apostles for sunset. The sunlight twisted and turned around each rock, casting a beautiful soft yellow glow. This was the ultimate finale to our daylong road trip. We picked a small bench to sit down and finally relax into the setting. Other people were running to the lookout point, excited to take those last few photos of the rocks before the sun slid down around the horizon. Even after it was gone, the sky was still a pale blue as the stars began to shine from the east.

For what started as a spontaneous one-day road trip turned out to be one of the best trips of our lives. It was simple and relaxing. For the first time, we weren’t on a tour guides schedule, we were on our own. We could veer off course, see sights we didn’t know existed and decide, again at the last moment, that we wanted to spend the night. To me, these are the best kinds of trips and one I’ll never forget. 

If you want to plan your own Great Ocean Road trip, here are a few places to stay and eat that would make your trip even more memorable:

Stay: Instead of booking a hotel or cabin, consider staying with a family on a family farm. You’ll get to meet the locals and really immerse yourself in South Australian culture.

Eat: The land around the Great Ocean Road is very fertile and excellent conditions for farming and wineries. Consider adding in a wine tour and breaking the drive up with different stops at bakeries and farm to table restaurants.

Do: There are many waterfalls in the Otway area and some are very easily accessible for families. Plan your drive with stops at one or two mild hikes.