Take the scenic route in Australia
How much can you see in five days along the Great Ocean Road? Historic towns, lighthouses, parks, beaches, birds, shipwrecks, and....
The Olympic Games in Sydney and Tom Cruise's "Mission Impossible II" movie certainly put Australia on the map. So much so that down under is now one of the top 10 destinations for tourists from the United States, Europe, and Japan.
And why not? Australia boasts beautiful cities with clean air, a variety of internationally renowned cuisines to choose from, and a magnificent countryside.
So, if you've been considering visiting Australia, you're certainly in for the experience of a lifetime.
What are the sightseeing options apart from Sydney?
Well, Melbourne is the second-largest metropolis after Sydney, Among its other attractions, this capital of the state of Victoria has quaint tramways and the Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary, and visits to penguin and seal habitats.
But one of the big drawing cardsfor tourists in the region is Victoria's Great Ocean Road, located around the state's southern tip. The road is said to be a conscious emulation of California's scenic Pacific Coast Highway, especially near Monterey.
Historically, access to the farms and settlements in this thickly forested region was available only by boat, on foot, or by horseback along rough tracks.
However, with twin needs to open up the land and employ Australia's World War I returnees and, later, the Great Depression's unemployed, the government commissioned this 250-mile highway. Fifteen years of backbreaking work began in 1918, and the new "travelers' road" opened in 1933.
And what a road it is. Visitors can enjoy breathtaking views of the ocean, rain forests, shipwrecks, penguins, whales, seals, and the nature-sculptured beauty of unusual rock formations.
The Great Ocean Road winds its way around ragged cliffs, wind-swept beaches, and tall bluffs, passing lush rain forest, towering eucalyptus trees, and fishing villages that date to the 1820s. Not to mention some of the best surfing areas in the world.
The road begins at Torquay, approximately 15 miles southwest of Geelong. Each township along the road has a unique identity. For example, kangaroos graze on the Anglesea Golf Club near the Great Ocean Road. Just a bit farther, the little town of Aireys Inlet features an elegant 1891 lighthouse.
Also near Aireys Inlet is the Angahook Lorne State Park, which is crisscrossed by mountain creeks, waterfalls, and walking trails.
Traveling on to the township of Lorne, you'll find a settlement that was carved out of the forest in the mid-19th century, and which became a holiday retreat for wealthy pastoralists.
Today, Lorne has a touch of the French Riviera with a mix of smart boutiques, open-air cafes, colorful beach umbrellas, and children paddling in the sea.
Beyond Lorne, the road clings to the edges of Mount St. George and Mount Defiance as it heads toward Apollo Bay. This picturesque township is surrounded by hills that slope down to the ocean. Look up as you get close to the nearby cliffs, and you'll see dozens of multicolored hang gliders chasing the rising air thermals.
On the pier, you'll encounter fishermen selling live crayfish.
The road then veers inland through the Otways National Park, a magnificent rain forest of towering eucalyptus, blue gums, and mountain ash trees. The park features streams cascading seaward and provides a haven for more than 200 bird species.
Other Otways highlights include unusual stands of Douglas firs and California redwoods. It's also a great place for bird-watching. You may spy rare birds such as the king parrot flying overhead. Or, at ground level, you might be rewarded by the sight of a satin bowerbird or an emu strutting along.
As the Great Ocean Road moves toward the limestone cliffs of the Port Campbell National Park, the natural rock formations know as the Twelve Apostles dominate the coastline. These craggy rock columns out at sea have been carved by eons of wave and wind action.
Farther on, you'll discover the historic township of Port Fairy, a place once denounced as a refuge for smugglers and pirates.
In 1835, a whaling station was established there. Soon, Port Fairy's beaches were littered with great bony frames and rotting carcasses. In fact, so many southern right whales were taken that, by the mid-1840s, the whaling station was forced to close.
Despite the passage of time, the antique character of Port Fairy's original buildings has not changed. However, many now house elegant accommodations and acclaimed restaurants.
This well-regarded holiday resort draws visitors to see its bobbing fishing boats, historic buildings, and mutton-bird colony. But it's also known for music. The Port Fairy Folk Festival is held in early March each year, and the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival takes place annually in October.
Twenty-five minutes' drive east is the 19th-century seaport of Warrnambool, which has evolved into the most sophisticated city in the area. The city is the commerce center for the area and home of the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum.
It is also commonly accepted as Victoria's southern right whale "nursery. "Fortunately, almost 200 years after Warrnambool's waters were depleted of whales, these gentle creatures have returned to give birth, breech, and play in the ocean between May and October each year. They can be viewed from a specially constructed platform as they swim to within approximately 110 yards of the shore.
In the late 1800s, the only link between Melbourne and the Victorian coastal settlements was either inland by horse and coach or by sea. The southern waters of the Bass Strait were the main approaches to eastern Australia.
For many British voyagers, the rugged Cape Otway to Port Fairy coastline was their first sight of land. For many it was also their last. More than 160 vessels learned of the treachery of these wind-lashed coasts too late, earning this area the title of the Shipwreck Coast.
Accordingly, a Historic Shipwreck Trail marks the sites of 25 wrecks. One of the most famous sites is the Loch Ard Gorge, where an iron clipper foundered in 1878, leaving only two young survivors, Tom Pearce and Eva Carmichael. Strong seas swept them into the gorge.
An exhausted Tom had reached shore when he heard Eva's cries. He managed to swim out again and rescue her. He carried the girl to a cave and then struggled up the cliff to find help.
Miraculously, he found two horseback riders who formed a rescue party, which took Eva to safety.
Another survivor of the same shipwreck was a life-size earthenware peacock, which was washed ashore completely intact in its packing case. It now has pride of place at Warrnambool's Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum.
Wildlife is prolific all along the Ocean Road. You might paddle in a canoe alongside a platypus in the Otways, or swim with the dolphins in Port Phillip's waters.
The Serendip Sanctuary near Geelong is a bird-watcher's paradise. It has a captive breeding program for threatened species such as brolgas, Australian bustards, and magpie geese. It is also home to emus and hundreds of free-ranging kangaroos.
But maybe you'd like to go beyond viewing Australia's most interesting wildlife to something more active.
Picture this: The sea is clear and azure blue. Out across the ocean, a series of huge ripples make their way across the still water into the shore. As the swell gathers power and momentum, it begins to curl, sucking up the water in its path.
A young man on a surfboard pushes himself toward the wall of water with short, powerful strokes. He turns against the wave, and the energy of thousands of tons of water lifts him up and carries him toward the shore.
This is the scene daily at Bells Beach, Torquay, the mecca of the Australian surfing community. Without a doubt, Bells Beach is one of the finest surfing beaches in the world. Every Easter the International Surf Classic is held here.
However, other nearby beaches can also claim some fame. For instance, at Johanna Beach, the waves are even bigger.
Novices should head to the Go Ride a Wave surf school at Anglesea. It claims it will have most people standing upright on a board in the water by the end of a two-hour session.
Along with their business acumen, the original Scottish immigrants also brought golf to the local area. As a result, great courses abound.
It is not uncommon for visiting golfers to spend a week playing a different course every day. Of special note is Barwon Heads Golf Club near Geelong. Many people feel its treeless dunes make it a spitting image of Scotland's mideast coast, the home of the Old Course at St. Andrews.
The Anglesea Golf Club, situated at the beginning of the Great Ocean Road, may be the only course in the world where the greatest hazards are the hundreds of eastern gray kangaroos that graze the course daily.
If you're of a military bent, why not try the Queenscliff Golf Course located on an armed forces school site at Swan Island? Here, an official guard waves you onto a single-lane causeway, which crosses over from the Bellarine Peninsula. Here you'll also see hundreds of birds in flight, including the endangered orange-bellied parrot.
Don't ignore those hunger pangs. All along the trip, you'll want to indulge in the Great Ocean Road's culinary excellence by dining in a fine coastal vineyard restaurant, taking part in a tasting session at a boutique cheese factory, or sampling locally caught crayfish, king prawns, scallops, abalone, or crab.
Also look for wafer-thin Brezeli crackers and smoky caramel-flavored honey.
For a different and faster return journey to Geelong, the Princes Highway offers an alternative of only 117 miles.
Along the way you'll note compact historic timber and bluestone homesteads, farm buildings, and cottages from the 1870s. This route is also interesting for its geological formations of scoria cones and crater lakes, sculpted by nature about 4 million years ago.
Of culinary interest, the rustic small town of Birregurra offers a mouthwatering choice of local berries, organic vegetables, tender veal, and local farm duck. Also close by are Cobden's traditional German-style smokehouse and the Timboon Farmhouse Cheese Factory.
Regardless of whether you also tour Australia's northeastern seaboard, or its well-known cities, the Great Ocean Road - with its multitude of man-made and natural wonders - will be an experience you'll talk about long after your journey down under ends.
• For more information about the Great Ocean Road, see www.greatoceanroad.org.