Victoria’s Great Ocean Road ends just east of this enticing coastal city, which puts you within a short trip of natural wonders like the Twelve Apostles and Bay of Martyrs.
Here craggy stacks, arches and caves have been sculpted from multicoloured limestone by the raging Southern Ocean.
This is a coastline with a harrowing past, claiming upwards of 600 vessels down the centuries, and the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village will give you the background on these disasters.
In winter Logan’s Beach in Warrnambool is a calving site for southern right whales, and you can witness the spectacle from a panoramic lookout.
1. Great Ocean Road
Warrnambool is just off the western end of a National Heritage-listed stretch of road curling for 243 kilometres east around Cape Otway to the city of Torquay.
This awesome achievement came about after the First World War, and was constructed by some 3,000 returned veterans as a memorial for their lost fellow servicemen.
The great thing about being in Warrnambool is that you’ll be close to many of the Great Ocean Road’s most cherished scenes.
Bay of Islands and the likes of the Twelve Apostles are a breeze from the city proper, on a journey as inspiring as the destinations.
2. Bay of Islands
For 32 kilometres between Warrnambool and Peterborough there’s nonstop jaw-dropping ocean views.
You can reach a handful of beaches along the coast, but the real joy of the Bay of Islands lies in its towering limestone cliffs and giant stacks, slammed by the Southern Ocean.
The coastline harbours the only marine cormorant nesting site in Victoria, as well as rare plants like the fragrant spider orchid and the sun orchid.
Top of your agenda have to be the cliffs and gnarled stacks of the Bay of Martyrs, which can be admired on a four-kilometre walking trail.
There are wondrous views and a wetland reserve at Massacre Point, while at Peterborough, all the little bays are named after yet another shipwreck and you can take in incredible panoramas on the golf course.
3. Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village
You can bet that an area known as the Shipwreck Coast has some exciting stories to tell, and this heritage-listed site and attraction cascading down the cliff to Lady Bay is the place to hear them.
Flagstaff Hill is the setting for Warrnambool’s original lighthouses, as well as its garrison, and is designed like a maritime village from the 1870s, mixing historic architecture with new constructions.
Over 10 hectares there are more than 40 buildings and vessels to explore.
Here you’ll discover Victoria’s largest collection of shipwreck artefacts, the most astonishing of which is the Loch Ard Peacock.
This earthenware peacock statue was produced at Minton Potteries in Staffordshire in 1873 and designed by French sculptor Paul Comolera.
Remember to stay until after dark for the Tales of the Shipwreck Coast Sound and Light Show, presenting the coast’s Aboriginal culture, its whaling history and the disasters that made it so feared among mariners.
4. Port Campbell National Park
Continue on from Bay of Islands and you’ll be in Port Campbell National Park, which runs east from Peterborough to Princetown.
The majestic limestone stacks soaring above the waves in the national park are some of the stars of the Great Ocean Road.
The most photographed are the Twelve Apostles, seven monolithic figures rising to 50 metres tall.
But some other headliners are the London Arch, a natural arch stranded after its bridge collapsed in 1990, and Loch Ard Gorge, a cove of clear blue water walled by yellowy cliffs capped with lush vegetation.
This was named for the Loch Ard clipper, wrecked at this spot with a luxury cargo in 1878. At the easternmost limit of the park are the cliffs of the Gibson Steps, with a staircase zigzagging down the face to the beach, where you can view immense stacks from below.
And finally, The Grotto is a mixture between a natural arch, cave and blowhole, best visited late in the day when you can see the sun setting through the aperture.
5. Logan’s Beach
Pretty much every year between June and September, southern right whales migrate to this beach in Warrnambool to calve.
What’s remarkable is that these giants will come to within a few hundred metres of land, close to enough to be seen in detail with the naked eye.
A long, multilevel and fully accessible platform has been set up high atop the dunes tracing the beach for a perfect view of the surf.
Southern right whales spend most of the year deep in the Antarctic and travel to warmer waters in the winter.
This species was hunted indiscriminately in the 19th century, but bounced back since whaling was forbidden in 1938.
6. Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve
This wildlife reserve about ten minutes north-west of Warrnambool rests inside a vast extinct volcanic crater.
Rising from the otherwise flat landscape is a cluster of volcanic cones, above a lake and wetlands.
The reserve is home to a profusion of native wildlife, including koalas, kangaroos and emus, as well as birds like blue wrens, ducks and swans.
There’s also compelling ancient human history at the site, in the form of Aboriginal kitchen middens and excavated artefacts proving that people were here before a gigantic eruption 34,000 years ago.
You can come for a stroll along the boardwalks and more taxing hikes around the volcanic cones, and there are scheduled walking tours revealing the site’s Aboriginal heritage.
7. Warrnambool Botanic Gardens
William Guilfoyle (1840-1912), the man behind the Melbourne Royal Botanic Gardens, laid out Warrnambool’s own Botanic Gardens, which opened in 1879. Guilfoyle’s original design is still intact, composed of open lawns and wide, meandering paths.
As you explore, you’ll see mature trees, a genteel band rotunda, a fernery, a lily/duck pond and brilliant formal beds.
About one in ten of the plants here are labelled, some 70% of the garden is exotic and there’s an important collection of bamboo.
If you happen upon a tree that you want to identify, a complete tree map of the gardens is published on the website.
8. Cheese World
Since way back in the 19th century dairy farming has been the backbone of Warrnambool’s economy.
The Warrnambool Cheese and Butter Factory (WCB) was founded in 1888, and maintains a cellar door for sales and tasting.
There you can try award-winning varieties like Heritage Cheddar, Coon, Mil Lel and Cracker Barrel, all just across the road from where they’re made and matured.
Factory tours aren’t provided at the moment, but the staff are clued-up and will give you lots of insights about how the cheese is made.
There’s a cafe on site too, for delicious ploughman’s lunches and cheese platters, or refreshing SunGold milkshakes in summer.
9. Foreshore Promenade
Warrnambool has won awards for its oceanfront track, rambling east for 5.7 kilometres from the Breakwater to Point Ritchie at the mouth of the Hopkins River.
As well as the beautiful sandy beaches, The Flume and Loagans Beach, there’s a ton of leisure amenities along the route, especially if you cut in towards Lake Pertobe.
You’ll come to lookouts, open lawns, tennis courts, lakeside walking tracks, a boat rental station, picnic areas, memorials, a skate park, a mini golf course, the lifesaving club, barbecues and a host of places where you can take a seat and relax in the sunshine.
10. Lake Pertobe Adventure Playground
One of the great assets of the Foreshore Reserve is a huge playground that would be the envy of any city park.
Right by the lake’s shallow waters, this is designed as a year-round free attraction, covering eight hectares and appealing to everyone from toddlers to teenagers.
To list some of the equipment there’s a maze, giant slides, flying foxes, trampolines, sandboxes, swings and all kinds of wooden climbing obstacles bedded in sand.
You can also play mini golf or rent a paddle boat close by, and there’s grassy space all around for a game of cricket or soccer.
11. Thunder Point
Out of all the dramatic oceanscapes around Warrnambool, Thunder Point, just west of the foreshore, is arguably the best place to watch the sun go down.
Right by the car park there’s a wooden platform extending to the edge of the cliffs where you can contemplate the ocean and the tortured bluffs and outcrops that greet it.
If things get too cold in winter you can still get a magnificent view from the car park.
And if you fancy a walk there’s a trail leading from here to Shelly and Levys Beaches, both abounding with outcrops, rockpools and inviting sand.
12. Childers Cove
Roughly halfway to the Bay of Island is a piece of coastal scenery receiving much less fanfare than it deserves.
Childers Cove is a pair of inlets cutting in 200 metres, and both enclosed on three sides by tall cliffs with a blend of limestone and sandstone.
Outcrops and stacks in varying tones litter the coves, and are battered by the raging surf.
As well as being overshadowed by more famous neighbours, one reason Childers Cove is unfrequented is that the access road is discreetly marked, so it’s likely you’ll have the beaches to yourself when you come.
13. Warrnambool Art Gallery (WAG)
Run by the city council, this institution has a history going back more than 130 years.
Since 1886, the Warrnambool Art Gallery has assembled thousands of works of very diverse origins.
There’s salon and colonial landscape painting from the 1800s, indigenous artefacts, contemporary Australian printmaking and Avant-Garde Modernism by the likes of the Angry Penguins.
You can view curated selections from this inventory, as well as important national and international touring exhibitions, and the work of artists from the Warrnambool area.
14. Hopkins Falls
At more than 90 metres across, one of the widest waterfalls in the state is a mere 15 minutes by car from Warrnambool.
Here the Hopkins River drops 12 metres over angular basalt rocks, and there are lots of vantage points for perfect views and photos.
You can check out the falls from two lookouts at the top and one from below.
Naturally there’s a bigger discharge following a rainy period in the winter months.
At this time of year you can also watch baby short-finned eels slipping down the falls at the start of an epic migration that will take them to the south-east of New Guinea in the Coral Sea.
15. Griffitts Island
There’s more beautiful scenery beyond the Great Ocean Road, a short drive west at the south end of Port Fairy Bay.
Now uninhabited, the low-lying Griffitts Island is joined to the mainland by a walkable causeway, and in the 1830s and 1840s was the site of a whaling station.
In 1859 a lighthouse was erected at the tip of the island, which 160 years later is still operating, with a range of 14 nautical miles.
Nowadays, Griffitts Island is most celebrated for its birdlife, and up to 90 species have been recorded here.
The most profuse are short-tailed shearwaters (muttonbirds), which breed here in their tens of thousands between September and April.