Susan Gough Henly makes tracks for the best beaches in Victoria.
Victoria has more than 2000 kilometres of coastline with hundreds of beaches offering everything from safe swimming to world-class point breaks, fabulous fishing to wicked windsurfing, not to mention windswept wilderness on the one hand and barbecues, bathing boxes and beach cricket on the other.
So what makes a great beach? You might as well ask what makes a great song. There is no one formula. Sometimes you want a hot dance number, other times a romantic ballad.
But all 12 beaches I have selected, from east to west, have something that sets them apart, be it their broad sweep of sand, crystalline water, gorgeous surrounds, diversity of offerings, or simply that they are that special spot beloved by locals. Whatever their distinctive quality, it elevates them to the greatest hits list.
They are not all swimming beaches; some in fact are so wild it would not be wise to venture into the water. My advice is to swim only at patrolled beaches.
Croajingolong National Park
Pristine beaches stretch along the 100-kilometre-long Croajingolong National Park, a UNESCO world biosphere reserve in East Gippsland. Historic Point Hicks Light Station's delightful cottage accommodation makes a great base for explorations and terrific seal- and humpback whale-watching.
To its west, the wide sweep of West Beach stretches 10 kilometres to the huge, orange lichen-covered boulders at Clinton Rocks. It is a fabulous strand for beachcombing but there can be dangerous rips so swimming is risky. To the east is the pretty and sheltered Honeymoon Bay, with a boulder-dotted beach and interesting rock pools at low tide. Not far away are some of the highest sand dunes in Australia.
At the western tip of Ninety Mile Beach is the thriving fishing port and beach town of Lakes Entrance. There's something for everyone, with fish and chips and picnic facilities and paddleboat and canoe hire on the waters of Cunningham Arm.
A historic wooden bridge leads to the dramatic white-sand beach where you can swim between the flags in summer or learn to surf.
A five-kilometre round-trip trail goes to a lookout to view the only entrance to the Gippsland Lakes from the Tasman Sea.
Norman Bay is huge, which is lucky since so is the Tidal River campground, but there is space for everyone on the wide beach, with hard sand perfect for cycling, cricket and kite-flying.
There are wetlands to explore along Tidal River and kids love to ride their boogie boards in the bay when the tide turns. You can take a pleasant walk to Squeaky Beach, popular with surfers, so-called because its pure-white quartz sand squeaks underfoot.
On the other side of the Prom are protected and pristine beach gems such as Sealers Cove, where the mountains plunge into the water; tiny Refuge Cove, popular as a safe harbour for boats; and Little Waterloo Bay, with its fine white sand and aquamarine water. All three are accessible via walking tracks and offer wilderness camping facilities. Bookings required.
Stretching from Sandy Point to Walkerville, Waratah Bay is a stunning sweep of white sandy beach that has panoramic views across to Wilson's Promontory. With its wide, flat, sandy bottom, it is a surf beach that is generally very safe.
At Sandy Point there is access to the tidal Shallow Inlet, which is popular with fishermen as well as windsurfers. At Walkerville, you can still see the old kilns built into the limestone cliffs.
(Summer lifeguards at Sandy Point)
Between Phillip Island and Wilson's Promontory, the little beach town of Inverloch has safe swimming and protected beach and boat fishing on Anderson Inlet, an expansive ocean beach backed by low grassy dunes, a learn-to-surf school and some serious surfing breaks below the cliffs at the Bunurong Marine Park.
Monash University even runs a dinosaur dig on Flat Rock during February and there is a fabulous shell collection at the Bunurong Environmental Centre.
A bucolic track shaded with coastal banksias alongside a dramatic sweep of cattle pasture leads to Bushrangers Bay on Western Port Bay. You get panoramic views of the wild coastline including an impressive basalt spire called Elephant Rock at one end of Bushrangers Bay. It won't take you long to realise why it is so-named.
The sea tends to be rough so swimming is not advised but there is plenty of room on the beach for sports and picnicking.
The track continues on to the magnificent, historic Cape Schanck Lighthouse. It is actually part of the Two Bays Walking Track on the Mornington Peninsula between Bushrangers and Port Phillip bays.
From the bike path at the top of the cliffs, you can look down at the pretty little Half Moon Bay tucked into a cove in Port Phillip Bay. The beach is a perfect spot for sunbathing while the bay gets deep quite quickly, making it a good spot for swimming laps.
You look across to the Black Rock Yacht Club and over Red Bluff to the city buildings in the distance.
In the bay, the HMVS Cerberus, which was scuttled here to make a breakwater, is now on the National Heritage list. There is a pier for fishing, benches for picnics and the fish and chippery behind the beach offers a great deck for enjoying the view.
Just a little way along from the Bells Beach surfing hangout, Point Addis is a dramatic crescent of sandy beach backed by rugged sandstone cliffs.
Starting at a lookout with breathtaking views of the arcing coastline and aquamarine water, you walk for five minutes through coastal scrubland in the Cape Otway National Park (a side trail offers an Aboriginal cultural walk with cliff-top views) to the stairs down to Southside and Addiscott beaches.
The waves tend to be mellow here while at low tide you can walk past (or participate in!) the stretch of "clothes optional" beach all the way round the rock-pool ledges to Bells Beach. The Point Addis Marine Park offers good snorkelling and scuba diving to look for colourful senator wrasse in the kelp forests.
The six-kilometre-long sweep of Fairhaven Beach is the longest beach on the Great Ocean Road. Toward the western end is a memorial arch commemorating the road's construction during the Great Depression. More suited to experienced bathers and surfers, it is potentially hazardous, with usually moderate waves but often quite strong rips.
Lifeguards operate in summer in front of the surf club.
At low tide there is lots of room for beach cricket and kite flying as well as surf casting. Hang-gliders often ride the air currents above the beach while the Pole House would belong better in the Jetsons cartoon.
The quintessential unpretentious Victorian beach town, Apollo Bay has a pretty, protected, crescent-shaped beach backed by lush, green, rounded hills. Popular with families, there are learn-to-surf classes and the wide beach has plenty of room for beach games.
The grassy foreshore has great barbecue facilities, a playground and skate park. The Apollo Bay marina houses a small fishing fleet and you can buy fresh seafood from the fishermen's co-op. There are loads of fishing options from the breakwater, beach and on fishing charters.
A terrific visitor information centre has all you need to know about the Great Ocean Road and the Great Ocean Walk, which starts right outside.
Towering sand dunes frame this pristine yet wild beach that offers an alternative venue for world surfing championships when there's no surf at Bells.
It is unsafe for swimming but it makes great beachcombing, especially when you can bring your dogs here any time of the day, year-round.
Johanna Beach is mid-way through the 91-kilometre Great Ocean Walk but there is also road access off the Great Ocean Road, 30 kilometres west of Apollo Bay, as well as lovely, scenic campsites.
Just outside Portland is a four-kilometre crescent of fine white sand rimming the turquoise waters of Bridgewater Bay, offering great surfing, windsurfing, beachcombing, and surf casting.
The cape shelters the beach from the Roaring '40s while a good swell generally lines up to form long, gentle waves.
You can explore the area as part of the 250-kilometre Great South West Walk or visit Australia's largest permanent fur seal colony at Cape Bridgewater on foot or with Seals By Sea in a rubber speedboat.
Behind the sheltered end of the beach near the cape, Bridgie Cafe offers delicious fish and chips and other beachside necessities. Whites and Blacks beaches on the cape's western side offer more extreme surfing and fishing.
More information: See parkweb.vic.gov.au for beaches in national parks and watersafety.vic.gov.au for lifesaver patrols.