Australia: The Great Ocean Walk

The Great Ocean Road has long been one of Australia's top attractions. But now there's an even better way to admire the southern coast: a 57-mile trail called the Great Ocean Walk

At 7 A.M., we wake up to muesli and fresh farm-raised eggs. All this pampering and we haven't even worked up a sweat yet, so I'm eager to get started. Our first day is by far the hardest. We begin at what must be one of the steepest parts of the trail, about 19 miles in. After a quick, sharp ascent, we see the ocean stretching out in front of us, one long mass of crashing waves and coves underneath high, green cliffs. We're hundreds of feet up, and yet the waves are so loud we have to raise our voices to be heard.

Over six hours of hiking, we see waves, hills, and coves; waves, hills, and coves. We become blasé about even the most dramatic view. We grill Simon about all the local plants, and his answer tends to be, "That's a good question...." The Great Ocean Walk is still new, so we cut him some slack about not being the world's greatest expert on the flora. Instead we ask him about other things, such as the huge first-aid kit he's hauling--he has an arsenal of stories about the harrowing rescues he's made--as well as how likely it is we'll see a snake (very) and how likely it is we'll be bitten by a snake (not at all).

At a certain point on any vacation, a person can grow a little weary of talking only to her spouse--and Simon's quiet demeanor isn't much of a distraction. I'm hopeful we'll run into some grizzled Australian walkers, but we don't come across a single person the entire day. The view does remind me of the California coast, but there's no chance you could pass a day there without seeing another person, car, or even a building. It's a remarkable thing to have a place like this all to yourself.

"Welcome to our center of well-being," says Marianne Rieve, handing us cups of organic berry tea. She and her husband, Bryan O'Neill, opened the three-room Castle Cove B&B last December. Practitioners of reflexology, Reiki, and massage, they do treatments in the living room for $45 an hour. They also have plenty of interesting things to talk about. In her former life, Marianne worked at Sotheby's in London, where she investigated suspected reproductions of famous pieces.

Marianne and Bryan's 1960s farmhouse blends influences from their past and present careers. It's decorated with restored antiques, Egyptian watercolors, and dreamcatchers, and the rooms all have the most comfortable orthopedic mattresses and pillows. We're scheduled to stay here two nights, hiking in from one direction one day, the other the next (Marianne and Bryan drop off their guests at the trailheads).

On our way to Johanna Beach, a sometime site for the World Championship Tour of surfing, a thuggish-looking alpha-male kangaroo blocks our path and stares us down. We stop and look around. There must be at least 20 of them--a 'roo colony on the ridge. Lizzie told us that a group of kangaroos is called a "mob," and now I understand why. Simon takes the lead, assuring us that the mob boss isn't looking for trouble: "If harassed, a kangaroo will give you a bit of a box, but otherwise, they'll leave you alone." Sure enough, we come away unpummeled, with plenty of photographs. There's nothing like seeing a kangaroo to remind you just how far away from home you are.

Australia is fun because it's familiar enough to be easily navigated, but different enough to keep things interesting. Take the plants, for instance: The strangest is the grass tree (the "bastard bush," as Simon calls some other plant, doesn't live up to its nickname). The top of a grass tree looks like sea grass, and the bottom resembles the prickly outside of a pineapple. The plant thrives in the Otways region, and at one point along the trail, we're up to our necks in the soft bristles. It feels as if we're walking through a car wash.

A lot of people treat the Great Ocean Road like it's simply a highway to the Twelve Apostles, limestone formations off the coast. In fact, Marianne and Bryan get a lot of late-night, last-minute guests who pull over when they realize exactly how far the Apostles are from Melbourne (the 169-mile drive takes about five hours, because the road is very twisty).

The Apostles--there are actually 13, but not all are visible from the outlook--are the result of the erosion of the cliffs. The erosion continues: The "ninth Apostle" crumbled last year. On our last morning, following a short loop hike, we drive 30 minutes past the end of the Great Ocean Walk to see the formations.

The Apostles are stunning, like statuesque jigsaw-puzzle pieces that have drifted away from the puzzle. And they're definitely worth a visit. But to be honest, I'm a little bit underwhelmed. The viewpoint parking lot is full, and for the first time in days, Michael and I are surrounded by a mob of another kind: tourists.

How to walk the Walk

The ideal time to do this walk is late October to mid-May, spring through fall in Australia. The rest of the year, it's too cold and wet. Ecotrek customizes trips in terms of length, difficulty, and sites (011-61/8-8346-4155, ecotrek.com.au). Booking with Ecotrek makes the planning infinitely easier, but it's also possible to drive yourself and stay at the inns we visited. The Cape Otway Centre for Conservation Ecology starts at $183, and includes guided day and night walks and breakfast (011-61/3-5237-9297, capeotwaycentre.com.au). Castle Cove B&B, in Glenaire, starts at $84 (011-61/3-5237-9100).

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