The little city of Colac has a first-class location, beyond the northern foothills of the Otway Ranges and right on the edge of the Western Victoria Volcanic Plains.
This puts a real variety of scenery close by, from huge saline and freshwater lakes to volcanic craters, biodiverse rainforest, lush fern-bedded gullies, picture perfect farmland and windy heathland.
Colac’s exquisite heritage-listed Botanic Gardens were first planted 150 years ago and rest on the foreshore of Lake Colac, the largest body of freshwater in Victoria.
The city has more than its fair share of historic architecture, both on the main drag of Murray Street and out in the countryside at homesteads established as long ago as the 1840s.
1. Colac Botanic Gardens
One of the largest Botanic Gardens in the state curls around the foreshore of Lake Colac.
This has been here since the 1860s, and a couple of renowned botanists/landscape architects, Daniel Bunce (1813-1872) and William Guilfoyle (1840-1912), contributed to the gardens that greet you today.
There’s are numerous species here that can only be found in older botanic gardens, like a spectacular Huntingdon elm, a giant pagoda tree and four Tecate cypresses.
Running around the perimeter is a 1.1-kilometre carriageway in the shade of mature oaks, and there’s a lookout on the north side where you can take in the lake and the Warrion Hills in the background.
Serpentine trails take you past massive specimens like a marvellous Bunya pine, and you can take a break at the former curator’s cottage (1924), now the Botanic Cafe.
2. Red Rock
The natural history of the water-rich scenery north-west of Colac is nothing short of compelling.
This is in fact a Quaternary complex volcano, with a system of craters and maars, pocking the landscape like a historic battlefield on a immense scale.
What you see at Red Rock goes back only 8,000 years, with the most recent eruption pinpointed at no earlier than 5850 BCE.
This is also one of the largest volcanic fields in the world, and among the larger crater lakes, all filled with brackish water, are Lake Coragulac and Lake Purdiguluc.
You can survey this remarkable topography and find out more about the forces that caused it at the Red Rock Lookout, also granting views across the colossal sweep of the saline Lake Corangamite.
3. Great Otway National Park
Colac is just a few kilometres shy of the northern boundary of a national park occupying Cape Otway and much of its hinterland.
This makes for an incredible diversity of scenery, from the lush ferny gullies, rainforest-covered hillsides and waterfalls closer to Colac, to rugged promontories, windswept heathland and cinematic beaches on the coast.
We’ll describe a couple of things you can do in the park later in this list, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg in a land of cute coastal hamlets, a large koala population, myriad walking and biking tracks and the magnificent Cape Otway lightstation.
Those raw seascapes await you on the 104-kilometre Great Ocean Walk, passing through the park and giving you lots of opportunities to observe dolphins, seals and migrating whales, between May and October.
4. Memorial Square
After World War I a block along Murray Street was set aside as a remembrance space, commanded by a stately memorial that was unveiled in 1924. This temple-like structure with a pediment and a pair of Corinthian columns, is built from sandstone and has been updated with plaques for subsequent conflicts.
On the Murray Street side is a more recent memorial for those who served in World War II and the Korean War, made up of a low wall, two slender columns and a pool of remembrance.
Close by, look for the Lone Pine, growing from the seed of an Aleppo pine at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, itself planted with a seed from a cone brought back from Gallipoli.
Memorial Square is also a welcome patch of greenery within moments of Colac’s shops, cafes and restaurants, with a rotunda and a children’s playground on the west side.
5. Walking Heritage Tour
A handy thing about Colac is that a lot of the ample historical heritage is confined to both sides of Murray Street (Princes Highway). Nearly all of these fine old buildings date from a period of prosperity between the end of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th century, when the city and its prominent families grew rich from an agricultural boom.
The architecture along Murray Street spans a variety of styles, with palatial Victorian Italianate civic and government buildings, as well as Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau and Art Deco.
Sometimes obscured by modern facades and signage are some real wonders.
One is the Parkers’ car dealership (No. 215), in a Spanish Mission style with the names and logos of pre-Holden GM brands moulded on its frontage.
Another find is the Art Deco McMahons, at the corner of Murray and Hart Streets, with a tower over its entrance.
A map of Colac’s heritage is available from the visitor information centre.
6. Lake Colac
The largest freshwater lake in Victoria opens out in front of the Botanic Gardens.
Now, having said that, you could come to the shore of Lake Colac and see almost no water as the level depends on weather conditions across several years.
Prolonged droughts led to the lake drying up in 2009 and again in 2016, causing the strange sight of the Colac Yacht Club Jetty leading to nowhere.
When there is water, the lake is a summertime honeypot for picnics, walks, barbecues, countless water activities as well as birdspotting thanks to the many thousands of waterbirds drawn to these shore.
Lake Colac was created by volcanic activity going back well before the time of Red Rock to the Pleistocene and Tertiary Periods, when the outflows of Barongarook and Deans Creeks were blocked.
7. Old Beechy Rail Trail
For sixty years from 1902 to 1962 there was a narrow-gauge railway line running into the Otway Ranges from Colac to the little town of Beech Forest.
The route has been converted into a rail trail, opening in stages between 2005 and 2015. More than two thirds of the Old Beechy Rail Trail’s 45 kilometres are on the peaceful, traffic-free trackbed of the former railway, while some 15 kilometres are on quiet local roads.
On your walk you’ll cross undulating hills with farmland and pockets of rainforest.
In the first half of the 20th century a host of sawmills built their own tramways in the forest, and the remnants of their sidings can still be seen on the trail.
8. Coragulac House
There are beautiful old estates and homesteads dotted in the idyllic countryside around Colac.
One in easy reach is Coragulac House just below the Red Rock Scenic Lookout.
This was established in 1873 by the Pastoralist Robertson family, and is going through a long-term restoration.
You’ll see some splendid original details, like a cavernous Entrance Hall complete with a vaulted, cedar-panelled ceiling, wallpapers embossed with the Robertson crest, an Art Nouveau chandelier and a huge oak mantelpiece with duelling dragons in beaten copper.
You can go on a guided tour of the property, with the freedom to break away from the group at the end and take a look around on your own.
Morning and afternoon tea, or a light lunch can be arranged.
A short drive east on the Princes Highway and you’ll be at one of the oldest surviving homesteads in the state.
Short for Tarndwoorncoort, Tarndie has been owned and run by the Dennis family since as far back as 1840, and its heritage buildings are imbued with the family’s Cornish heritage.
Tarndie is the origin of the Polwarth sheep, a dual-purpose meat and wool breed, first bred on the property by Richard Dennis in 1880. The estate’s present day flock is descended from the first Polwarth sheep more than 140 years ago, producing high-quality wool.
There’s accommodation on the farm for an overnight stay, or you can stop by for a little while to walk the 400m Farm Trail, to find out about the flock and the finer points of wool production.
The Farm Shop demands a visit, selling a wide range of wool products and bespoke yarns.
10. Beeac Windmill Park
Windmills are one of the great identifiers of the rural Australian landscape, up there with kangaroos, dirt roads and the reddish earth itself.
Iconic as they are, these machines, long used to mill grain and pump groundwater, have slowly become obsolete and may disappear from the landscape altogether.
On the shore of the lake of the same name is the Beeac Windmill Park, conserving a small forest of windmills produced by six different local manufacturers between the 1890s and the 1940s.
Several of these structures have been pieced back together with the help of archive photographs.
There’s a kiosk and information plaque with background on the windmills, their manufacturers and uses.
11. Sunday Markets
Organised by the Rotary Club of Colac, there’s a well-attended market at the Showgrounds on the third Sunday of the month.
The market trades from 10:00 to 15:00 (10:00 to 14:00 May to September) and is a real community affair, presenting the best of Colac and Otway’s food and arts and crafts.
The selection varies, but normally there will be handmade chocolate, all kinds of preserves, fresh produce, jewellery, plants, fashion as well as a line-up of food vendors.
Every month there’s a rotary barbecue at the market, and you can count on lots of activities and entertainment for kids.
12. Otway Estate
Embedded in lush Otway Rainforest just south of Colac is a combined winery, brewery and cidery.
The vineyard came first and planted its first vines in 1983. The climate in this part of Victoria is perfect for reds like Shiraz (with plum and berry notes) and Cabernet Sauvignon (full-bodied and fruit-forward). Prickly Moses is the estate’s craft beer label, using pure Otway rainwater for a big range of brews, from pilsner to stout, to pale ale, brown ale, hefeweizen and saison.
All of this great wine and beer, as well as the acclaimed Forbidden Fruit cider, is on the menu at the estate’s cafe and bar, baking woodfire pizzas to boot.
13. Otway Fly Treetop Adventures
The 40-minute journey into the Otway Ranges is worth every second for this astounding treetop walk.
The elevated walkway is hoisted 25 metres above the rainforest floor and extends among the canopy for 600 metres.
As well as giving you an unrivalled perspective of the rainforest’s vegetation and animal life, you’ll get wondrous views of the Otway Ranges.
The panoramas are even better atop the 45-metre Spiral Tower, or the cantilevered platform that takes you out over Young’s Creek.
Youngsters can learn the secrets of the rainforest on the Rainforest Ranger Trail, while if you’re in need of some exhilaration there’s a whole network of ziplines in the forest canopy, waiting to be ridden on the Otway Fly Zipline Tour.
14. Lake Corangamite
West of Lake Colac is the much larger Lake Corangamite.
In fact, at 23,000 hectares, this is the largest permanent saline lake in Australia, and forms a key part of the Western District Lakes RAMSAR site.
As the waters have receded in recent decades the salt levels have shot up, and for a long time this has deterred the fish and waterbirds that once abounded here.
But depending on the annual conditions, the salinity and lake level can fluctuate, and there are sometimes huge numbers of migrating waders like red-capped plover on the shore.
Any other time you can head here simply to gauge the size of the lake and watch the sunset from the east side at Red Rock.
15. Colac Visitor Information Centre
Colac has one of the two accredited Visitor Information Centres for the Otway Region.
This is an invaluable source for Colac, the Western District’s volcanic plains, the Otway Ranges and the farmland that exists between the two.
You can browse a whole library of leaflets and brochures, or ask one of the approachable staff members for some tips about anything from accommodation to obscure activities, food and drink trails, natural sights or mountain biking and hiking tracks.
And for something to take home, the centre’s shop is also filled with cute handmade gifts from in and around Colac.