An 11 day tour of Great Ocean Road, Victoria: One of the most spectacular coastal drives in the world

Clinging to an upturned lifeboat, in heavy fog and battling a relentless swell, a young English sailor named Tom Pearce got his first sight of Australia from the water after his ship hit a reef and sank on June 1, 1878.

Pearce was miraculously tossed on waves through an opening in the soaring cliffs at Cape Otway and survived the wreck of the Loch Ard, washing up on the sand inside a gorge, later named after the ill-fated ship.

Fast-forward 138 years and this treacherous and wildly beautiful stretch of coastline is still putting on a ferocious show this sunny spring morning.

It's hard not to think of young Tom and 19-year-old Eva, the only other survivor of the wreck, as we stand on a cliff looking down on that gorge, its rich yellow beach and the famous 12 Apostle limestone stacks in the distance.

When they were thrown in the water they also became immersed in the story of Victoria's Great Ocean Road, their tale told to this day on signs along the cliff-top trails, eight kilometres from Port Campbell.

Regarded as one of the most spectacular coastal drives in the world, the 243-kilometre touring route has also been called the world's longest war memorial, having been built by returned World War I soldiers and dedicated to the fallen.

To mark its 30th birthday this year, Scenic has launched a new 11-day Victorian Discovery tour taking in this dramatic coastline. The tour – a round trip from Melbourne – visits the famous surfing beaches around Geelong and Lorne before heading to Loch Ard Gorge and the Twelve Apostles, Warrnambool, the spa town of Daylesford and historic gold rush city of Ballarat.

At the Museum of Australian Democracy (MADE) in Ballarat we see the original Southern Cross flag as our guide regales us with the heroics of Eureka Rebellion leader Peter Lalor.

Stories of fortunes made and lost, grand buildings rising, pubs burning down and Lalor's journey from rebel gold miner to Speaker of the Victorian Parliament add depth to the sight-seeing around the town built during the Victorian gold rush.

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In Geelong, the National Wool Museum is custodian of one of our nation's most important narratives. It celebrates the crucial role played by wool farmers in turning early Australia from a country of failing crops into an export powerhouse.

Step-by-step, a mix of antique machinery and new technology tells the story of how Australia rode to economic prosperity on the sheep's back.

Our guide brushes us up on our primary school history lessons as we walk through an exhibition showing how fleece becomes fabric, explaining how farms in this part of Victoria during the booming 1860s produced some of the finest grade wools on earth. To this day, the very best quality wool available is still known as Geelong grade in wool-classing circles.

Sheep are not the only animals to make a cameo appearance in the tour. At Warrnambool's Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village we meet a pair of woolly white Maremma sheep dogs who are celebrities in the seaside town.

The guard dogs were the inspiration for the 2015 Australian movie Oddball, which shines a light on a project started here in 2006 that uses Maremmas to protect the area's penguins from fox attacks. A new puppy's arrival made the local paper's front page on the day of our visit, and extra visitors are now expected to their ocean-view home.

The dogs share the limelight at Flagstaff Hill with a host of attractions including a replica 1870s outdoor village showcasing a range of maritime trades that sustained the area's economy. A nightly sound and laser light show brings this shipwreck coast to life, portraying the important role of shipping in the overall growth of Victoria.

But it's the exhibition of jewellery and artefacts salvaged from at least 180 historic shipwrecks along this rugged coast that is the real star of the show.

A trove of personal items went down with dozens of doomed souls and the stories of those ill-fated passengers looking for new lives in Australia have been pieced together over the years through their possessions.

The renowned collection includes a priceless diamond ring and a porcelain peacock – currently valued at $4 million – salvaged from the wreck of the Loch Ard.

It's regarded as possibly Australia's most valuable shipwreck artefact, but it's the sight of a pretty watch belonging to young Eva's mother, who drowned on that fateful night, that tugs the heart here at the end of what must be our nation's best road trip for enthralling, nation-building stories.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO

COLONIAL TRAMCAR RESTAURANT

Step back in time and dine, colonial style, in a lavishly decorated vintage tram, the first of its kind in the world. The restaurant on wheels takes a trip through Melbourne's city streets as you enjoy Australian wines and seasonal dishes. Glide past the Crown Casino, Melbourne Exhibition Centre, the city's historic railway stations, famous shopping streets and riverside precincts.

MELBOURNE SPORT TOUR

Go behind the scenes in the city that proudly hosts Australia's most popular sporting events. Visit the hallowed ground of the Melbourne Cricket Ground and enjoy the interactive fun of the National Sports Museum, custodian of the nation's biggest collection of sporting memorabilia. Wander the cricket, football and horse racing halls of fame and relive our greatest Olympic moments in an exhibition celebrating our medal-winning athletes.

FOWLES WINERY LUNCH, STRATHBOGIE RANGES

Located among dramatic granite ranges, the family-owned Fowles vineyards and winery produces award-winning cool climate wines including the winner of the Great Australian Shiraz Challenge trophy.

Sit down at the Cellar Door Cafe overlooking sweeping plains and enjoy a farm-to-table feast produced by sustainable producers around the region, including the winery's own vegie patch.

ECHUCA PADDLE STEAMER LUNCH

Step aboard the iconic PS Emmylou and cruise the Murray River as you dine on fresh produce sourced from the region famed for its eponymous fish, cheese, olives and craft beer.

Cruise amid towering river gums and watch from your deckside table for riverbank wildlife on the historic ship powered by a 1906 steam engine.

KINGFISHER CRUISES

Glide through the world-heritage-listed Barmah Wetlands on board MV Kingfisher and see the river red gum studded country that is a place of deep significance to the Yorta Yorta Aboriginal people.

Thriving with at least 200 species of bird, 50 different types of mammals and unique flora, the wetlands eco tour is laced with commentary on the landscape as well as storytelling around the myths and legends of the local people.

WHERE YOU'LL STAY

THE SCHALLER STUDIO, BENDIGO

The wide avenues of this elegant gold rush town are lined with magnificent heritage buildings. Another work of art is the Schaller Studio, which pays homage to Mark Schaller's creative vision of Bendigo, 150 kilometres north-east of Melbourne. The hotel is adjacent to the town's arts precinct and features original paintings in every room, sculptures throughout the garden and an eight-metre mosaic on the entrance wall.

GRAND HYATT, MELBOURNE

The iconic Grand Hyatt in the Melbourne CBD is a resplendent example of how opulence should be done. Home to one of the city's finest restaurants – Collins Kitchen – the hotel's rooms and suites echo renowned interior designer Joseph Pang's grand vision, and eclectic original Australian artworks and the classy Ru Co bar (popular for its signature Incognito cocktail) add to the chic.

PEPPERS SPRINGS RETREAT AND SPA, DAYLESFORD

It will be hard to drag yourself away from the hotel's open-air mineral pools long enough to sightsee in this pretty resort town.

Fed by the area's subterranean hot springs, the spa has floating hammocks to relax in, massage therapies and a sauna.

Argus Dining Room and its Cocktail Lounge are among the best in town, with rooms and garden blending heritage exteriors with contemporary amenities.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

scenic.com.au

TOURING THERE

Scenic's 11-day Victorian Discovery tour – a round trip from Melbourne (including one night "Special Stay" at the Grand Hyatt) visiting Lorne, Warrnambool, Daylesford, Ballarat, Bendigo and Echuca, begins in May 2017. From $4795 a person, twin share. Includes a mix of free choice and exclusive activities, accommodation and 18 meals.

Angie Kelly travelled as a guest of Scenic.

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