The Great Ocean Road turns 82 this year.
You'd think we knew this famed stretch of scenic drive well enough by now. But spend a few days exploring - looking beyond the postcard, detouring off the asphalt now and again - and you might be amazed at what there is to discover. Tiny dinosaurs and 65-million-year-old plant species. A not-so-sly grog industry. Carnivorous snails. Forests of grass trees. And one of the finest bouillabaisses, packed with seafood plucked from the Southern Ocean.
To drive the Great Ocean Road is to appreciate the awesome beauty of Victoria's south-west coast. But the 243 kilometres of snaking blacktop reveals little about the land's vitality. The surest way to see beyond the bitumen is to take a walk.
The Great Ocean Walk, opened a decade ago, traces this crumbling coastline for 100 kilometres from Apollo Bay west to Port Campbell National Park and the Apostles. A condensed option tackles the latter half of the trail in four days, but we embark on an even shorter one - a two-day taster of the guided hike run by ecotourism outfit Bothfeet.
Unlike some of Australia's more austere walking operators, Bothfeet coddles its guests with such luxuries as heating, ensuite bathrooms and mercifully light daypacks. Walkers are met in Melbourne and driven to the lodge, a collection of sleek cabins in celery-top pine and spotted gum with views over tree ferns and a daily reveille by rowdy kookaburras. "All people have to do is enjoy the walk," says Bothfeet founder Gavin Ronan. "Everything else is taken care of behind the scenes."
Guide Marie Killeen proves to be an excellent interpreter of the untamed environment. Our first day begins with koala spotting en route to Aire River - we see seven blobs in the manna gums overhead - before striking out along a path fringed by coast beard-heath, its white flowers scenting the air with warmed honey.
Yellow admiral butterflies lead the way through corridors of dense scrub splashed with the scarlet pea flowers of running postman. We trace cliff-top ridges with one eye on the see-through shallows of the Southern Ocean and the other on the ground beneath our feet, where earthmoving echidnas have left trip-traps in their frenzied prospecting for ants.
Morning tea is at Sentinel Rock, an elevated clearing with views to Castle Cove, the popular lookout where road and walk intersect. Brilliant pastures of emerald green - such an un-Australian green - tumble down hillsides and end at iron-stained sandstone cliffs that plummet sheer to a golden crescent of sand. Sentinel Rock is one of many dramatic stops where walkers can witness the ceaseless battle between eroding stone and roiling sea.
We trudge on through sparser bushland and tracks fringed with wildflowers: native fuchsia; eggs-and-bacon plants; and the aptly named donkey orchids with their floppy, comical ears and tongues.
In a stringybark glade with a carpet of heather, dappled sunlight tints the trees gold, the ferns silver.
Over the next rise lies a low forest of grass trees, their soaring flower spikes crusted with butterflies.
The coast's original inhabitants, the Kulin nation, used the stems to make weapons, the resin as glue, and the leaves for weaving baskets. An infinitely useful plant.
While we admire the bizarre mood-lamp forms, Killeen reveals we are standing directly above Dinosaur Cove, a 90-metre sea cliff from which palaeontologists unearthed hitherto unknown polar dinosaurs in the 1980s. It's impossible to visit but Killeen points out images from a book showing the chicken-sized dinosaurs buried beneath us.
After lunch we descend onto Johanna Beach where the shoreline is a graveyard of cuttlefish, driftwood and purple pipis splayed into art-and-craft formations on the sand. Mouthwash-coloured water churns constantly in opposing rips, creating a diabolical sea. Perhaps I've always misinterpreted the names Great Ocean Road and Great Ocean Walk. I thought the "great" referred to the road, which is indeed spectacular, and the walk, which is likewise. But it is this Southern Ocean that is truly great. A raging, faintly terrifying phenomenon.
We cover the final three kilometres from beach to lodge in sunshine, past wary cows and playful calves, to find fresh scones and hot tea waiting for us. And hot footbaths to soothe weary feet after our 11-kilometre hike. It's all very civilised.
Lodge manager and chef Ha Nguyen visits the lounge each afternoon to outline the night's menu. Tonight it will be chestnut, corn and chia seed dumplings - excellent, by the way - a lovely slab of local beef cooked medium-rare with blood-orange relish and a kipfler salad, and a pistachio and lime cake with mascarpone to finish. The calories don't count because we've earned them, and we will burn them tomorrow.
Day two begins beside the Gellibrand River at Princetown for an easier 8.5-kilometre trek to Port Campbell. "Another busy day on the trail," quips Ronan as we set off; in two days we see just five walkers. By contrast, nearly two million tourists make the pilgrimage by road to Port Campbell each year.
There are, disappointingly, no sightings of the Otway black snail, an endangered, carnivorous mollusc. But in the clearing where we pause for tea we spy a wedge-tailed eagle soaring overhead and a muscular Eastern grey kangaroo, huge and still, silhouetted on the hillside. It's a classic Australian tableau.
The beauty of the setting is tempered by the force of the 40-knot winds, strong enough to blow birds from bushes. A storm is brewing. Fat raindrops pelt down as we arrive at the final, and newest, stretch of track - a road underpass to the Twelve Apostles Visitor Centre. Every Bothfeet walker is rewarded at Port Campbell with a scenic helicopter flight along the coastline, an aerial celebration of their achievements.
For Killeen, who has led this trek for five years, its appeal lies in spending time with like-minded people. "It's kind of like the principles of the Slow Food movement," she says, "but applied to tourism."
It's an apt description, and a neat segue into the second leg of our south-western odyssey: a tour to meet the producers, restaurateurs and innovators who lend a unique flavour to the district. If the theme of the walk is erosion and the slow disintegration of an ancient land, the human story is one of rejuvenation.
Not far from the Apostles lies Cooriemungle, a picturesque hamlet where every farmhouse has an orange-brick chimney and a grey-brick dairy. Blessed with prodigal rains and grasses, much of the region is prime dairying country, but lately the industry has diversified. At Apostle Whey Cheese, Julian Benson supervises a herd of 250 cows, crossbred Jersey-Aussie reds that yield full-flavoured milk rich in butterfat. This is a key consideration for his cheeses, ranging from brie to blue, even a lavender-scented havarti that's produced for a nearby lavender farm. Visitors to his 150-hectare property can visit the calving shed (look for the Mooternity Ward sign), watch cheese being made and then taste it. It's nothing like going to a supermarket and grabbing cheese off the shelf, says Benson.
Down the road, Jason Spaull and Melanie Pollock have turned their farm into a chocolate factory. Each day they hand-temper premium Belgian couverture into 47 products, including giant freckles, caramel-filled echidnas and praline mice. Gorge Chocolates are a distinctly local delicacy, sold only on site and at 30 outlets along the Great Ocean Road.
The town of Timboon, the source of some of Australia's best soft cheeses, excellent ice-cream and a diverse distillery, has a similarly progressive spirit. Freshly transplanted Frenchman Matthieu Megard has revived the defunct cheese factory with L'Artisan Cheese, where the third-generation fromager turns organic milk into handmade triple creams, Reblochon-style washed rinds and chalky bries. Megard sells his cheese in five states and supplies restaurants such as Vue de Monde and Jacques Reymond.
In a converted railway goods shed above Powers Creek, former dairy farmer Tim Marwood sells his Timboon Fine Ice Cream and taps into the town's shady 19th-century roots as a hotbed of sly grog by distilling single malts and spirits. His single malt, first bottled in 2009, is crafted in a distinctly Australian way, letting temperature extremes work their magic on the alchemy between spirit and wood. It's a winning approach - the Timboon Port Cask was named overall champion at the 2013 Australasian Whisky Awards.
There's also a good restaurant on site, run by chef Simon Yarham and maître d' Tim Mitchell. Yarham's mouth-blowing bouillabaisse appears to be equal parts seafood and garlic and makes uncommonly great eating in this unassuming dairy town.
We spend the night in Princetown at Pebble Point, a bush retreat comprising six stylish tents perched above the Great Ocean Road to capture meditative views over the Gellibrand Valley. Guest are greeted by a welcome letter from Huon Gibson Quill, aged three, whose great-great grandfather Glen Cairn Wilson ran the Ozone Dining Rooms and Guesthouse on this spot.
The Ozone burned down in the 1970s but Huon's parents, Gavan and Georgia Quill, have rekindled the family tradition of coastal hospitality in this upmarket camp where guests snuggle beneath Onkaparinga blankets to a symphony of pobblebonk frogs. The attached bathrooms, sleek cabins with a glass wall facing the valley, are a highlight.
The tents are cyclone rated, which is some comfort during a wild night of southerly busters that eventually cuts power across the district from Princetown to Forrest, our next stop.
This is a bleak development on two fronts. First, there's no hot water for morning showers. Second, there are no meals and no beer-making at the Forrest Brewing Company, about 85 kilometres away in the heart of the Otways. There is, however, beer. Three years ago Matt Bradshaw and his sister Sharon opened their microbrewery and café in the town's old general store to serve the growing ranks of mountain bikers and outdoor adventurers who flock to this former timber town. "We figured mountain bikers were the types to drink beer," Sharon says. "It's a very casual kind of town. They come in here in their camping gear or Lycra."
They brew batches of natural craft beer thrice weekly - power supply permitting - all of it hand-bottled, labelled and capped. The offerings include Silvertop Ale (a softly hopped Kölsch), an Irish Red that chef Ben Kirkwood uses to make beer cheese sauce for his kranskies at the brewing company's café, and a light oatmeal stout with toasty flavours and a hint of coffee.
Another recent transplant bringing new life to old country is Dan Hunter, the Mugaritz-trained chef whose cooking at the Royal Mail Hotel at Dunkeld in western Victoria saw the hotel repeatedly crowned the country's best regional restaurant. There is understandable excitement now he has relocated to Birregurra to take over Sunnybrae, the fine-diner run by veteran chef George Biron for more than 30 years.
When we visit, the restaurant - rechristened Brae - is gutted and crawling with tradies. Hunter is creating a 50-seat dining room, a "huge" kitchen and a seated bar area. The restaurant is at the rear of an 1860s red-brick cottage on 12 hectares with an orchard, an olive grove, 16 oaks inoculated with truffle spores, and an organic kitchen garden that will largely dictate the menu at Brae.
The people of Birregurra have been "phenomenally welcoming", says Hunter, who arrived here last August to discover the local pub is called The Royal Mail and had a sign in the window at the time: "Royal Mail seeks second chef or apprentice."
As a kid, Hunter spent summer holidays at Apollo Bay, a tradition he and his wife, Jules, continued when they lived in Melbourne. "So there has been this thing hanging in our minds for years now, to be in this area," he says. "We want to be here for a long time. This is my house now. We will do whatever we can to make people feel at home."
Closer to Melbourne there are more changes afoot. The region's most lavish resort has opened at the choice address of One Great Ocean Road. The RACV Torquay Resort is a $115 million monolith with five-star facilities and blanket views over Bass Strait.
On the Bellarine Peninsula, Lance Wiffen, Lizzie Franklin and the team at Sea Bounty are bringing the angasi oyster back to life in Port Phillip Bay after it was all but fished out in the late 1800s. From a start-up harvest of 18,000 oysters last year, they're aiming to rear a million angasi in 2015.
Meanwhile, some of the finest traditions of the Surf Coast endure. Kosta Talimanidis arrived in Lorne from Thessaloniki in 1974 to work at his brother Chris's restaurant, and opened the landmark Kosta's Taverna two years later. He had no liquor licence, no phone, no tax file number, but he had good food. Fortunately he met his wife, Pam (a law student originally from Wangaratta), a year later. "And that's why I'm still in business," Kosta laughs.
The Talimanidises sold Kosta's in 2003 and opened A La Grecque on the Great Ocean Road at Aireys Inlet a year later. Pam, as head chef, fuses the Greek techniques learned from her mother-in-law with the best local produce, including her own pheasants and partridges raised on their bush block behind Lorne.
They spend three months of the year in Greece but always return promptly in August. "Believe it or not, after all these years, this is home now," says Kosta.
"I have been all over the world and this is the most beautiful land I have ever seen. From Anglesea to Warrnambool, have you seen anything better?"