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Australia’s Best Guides – Stuart Dobson – Great Ocean Road

The Great Ocean Road is one of the world’s most spectacular coastal journeys and a mecca for Melbourne locals on the weekends and summer holidays. There is a lot more to it than just the usual tourist sites and Stuart Dobson is one of the best guides in Australia to reveal its secrets.

Please explain a little bit about who you are and what you do.
I am the co-founder and lead guide for Acacia Luxury Private Tours. We deliver luxury bespoke tours in Melbourne and the wonderfully diverse regions surrounding the city. My personal specialty is escorting visitors on one of the world’s most spectacular coastal journeys – Victoria’s Great Ocean Road.

I was born and raised on a dairy farm a veritable stone’s throw from the majestic limestone stacks that make up the Twelve Apostles, the scenic highlight of the Great Ocean Road and perhaps Australia’s most recognisable coastal landscape. Having this coast as my playground afforded me knowledge of secluded vantage points, the best wildlife spotting, and even locations for after-dark glow worm viewing. This local knowledge has proven to be indispensable as I strive to ensure visitors have a more intimate and connected experience with the ever-popular Great Ocean Road.

What got you started with guiding and what do you find most interesting about it?
My professional background is far removed from the tourism industry. Prior to launching Acacia Luxury Private Tours I enjoyed a career spanning two decades as a medical scientist and executive with an American medical devices company. While I enjoyed great fulfilment in the role, I had a yearning to escape the rat race and to become the steward of my own destiny. A midlife crisis perhaps? Probably not but there was certainly a sense of relief escaping the quarterly corporate business cycle.

Becoming a guide seemed like the perfect fit. My love of my Melbourne and Victoria is undisputed and I have always maintained a finger on the pulse by regularly dining, attending cultural events, and exploring the regions. I had become that person who visitors would reach out to for the latest advice when in town.

I relish the meaningful connections you form with guests and the privilege it is to play a role in their life celebrations and formation of lifelong memories. I also enjoy the relationships that we forge with various suppliers from restauranteurs and winemakers to local farmers and producers. As a small business owner you gain great visibility of the tangible economic benefits that tourism can brings to small towns and communities.

How do you bring the Great Ocean Road to life on your tours?
While the Great Ocean Road is renowned for rugged coastal scenery, perhaps it is less well understood that it offers the most extraordinary nature and wildlife experiences which is a focus of my tours. On our day trip we routinely encounter wild kangaroos, wallabies and koalas. A deeper exploration of the region offers the opportunity to see the elusive platypus in its natural habitat. The area is also a birdwatching paradise with reliable spotting of emus, parrots and water birds.

My tours also focus on the stories behind the region, from the tales of tragedy and heroism affiliated with the coast’s shipwreck history, to my own personal experiences growing up on a dairy farm.

Why do you think it’s important that people learn about the Great Ocean Road?
For many the Great Ocean Road is just the perfect location for a selfie and they overlook the region’s rich history.

Pivotal to the history of the settlement of Australia are the stories of tribulation faced by early free settlers who arrived by clippers sailing the treacherous Southern Ocean. The section of the coast from Cape Otway to Port Fairy is known as the Shipwreck Coast for good reason with an estimate of over 700 known wrecks, most of which remain undiscovered.

There is also the remarkable story of the construction of the road in perilous conditions by returned servicemen of World War One in honour of their fallen mates. Indeed, the 243-kilometre Great Ocean Road is designated a permanent war memorial, the largest in the world.

If people wanted to find out more about the Great Ocean Road are there any particular books, documentaries or websites you would recommend?
For a geological account of the Great Ocean Road I highly recommend “Written in Stone: Reading the Rocks of the Great Ocean Road” by Philomena Manifold. Her work combines research, writing, sketches and photographs to tell the 135 million-year story of the rocks of the Great Ocean Road.

For visitors to the Great Ocean Road I also recommend stopping by the newly constructed Great Ocean Road Heritage Centre in Lorne to explore the permanent exhibition “The Great Ocean Road Story: Building Australia’s Most Famous Road”.

Is there anything else you’d like to add that hasn’t been covered by the questions already posed?
Wherever possible we recommend spending two days to explore the Great Ocean Road with an overnight stay in the charming coastal hamlet of Port Campbell. I encourage my guests to rise early for a sunrise viewing of the Twelve Apostles and surrounding national park. At this time of day you often have these popular locations to yourself which completely transforms the experience. It feels almost spiritual.

What’s your favourite Australian animal and why?
The Little Penguin. We are blessed to have a 32,000 strong colony of Little Penguins on Phillip Island just 90 minutes south-east of Melbourne. Each evening at dusk visitors can witness their antics as hundreds or even thousands cross the beach and head to their nests. I never fail to succumb to their charm.

What place is Australia’s best-kept secret?
Wilsons Promontory is a coastal reserve located south-east of Melbourne at the southernmost tip of the Australian mainland. Think pristine white sand beaches decorated with rounded granite boulders, abundant wildlife, and a labyrinth of spectacular walking trails without the crowds all just three hours from Melbourne.

What haven’t you seen / done in Australia that you’d like to and why?
I am drawn to the rugged wilderness of the Kimberley Coast in the remote northwest of Australia. I can’t imagine a more beautiful landscape in which to appreciate the absolute vastness of this continent.

Finally, how can people follow you on social media?
You can follow us at @acaciatoursau on Facebook and Instagram.

Victoria’s Great Ocean Road

How to visit the Great Ocean Road

We are often asked about the Great Ocean Road – 243 kms of rocky coastline, west of Melbourne and considered one of Australia’s greatest road-trip destinations.  It boasts awe-inspiring coastal views, deserted white sandy beaches, beautiful rainforest scenery and beautiful national parks that are home to koalas, kangaroos and other wildlife.

Beach, Gibson Steps, Vic

The most scenic portion begins in Torquay, a town well known as a surfing hot-spot and ends in the whale-watching town of Warrnambool; in between are several picturesque coastal towns, a number of gourmet restaurants and a couple of boutique accommodation options. One of the most popular stops along the way is the world-famous 12 Apostles, magnificent natural rock structures that are more than 20 million years old, which rise up majestically from the Southern Ocean.

Great Ocean Road
Image: Tourism Australia

So, how best to experience all of this…

Many travellers opt for a longer stay in one of Melbourne’s excellent hotels and just zoot out to explore the Great Ocean Road on a day trip. However, be aware that a full day road trip is up to 12 hours with as much as 9 hours spent in the vehicle.  Along the way there will be great views of coastal cliffs, long sandy beaches, rural landscapes, the 12 Apostles and other ocean carved ‘architecture’.   There will be a stop for lunch and perhaps a walk in the rainforest & fern gullies of the Otway National Park and usually the option of a helicopter scenic flight.

Great Ocean Road
Image: Tourism Australia

Ultimate Great Ocean Road tour

Budget permitting our Ultimate Great Ocean Road tour showcases the iconic coastline by luxury touring vehicle before a 75 minute scenic, private helicopter flight back to Melbourne.  The day includes a gourmet lunch of local produce and fresh seafood served within sight of sandy beaches.  As you travel, our passionate local guide shares insight into Australia’s surfing culture, stories of the shipwrecks that line this coast and, with luck, will point out kangaroos or koalas.

Great Ocean Road
Image: Tourism Australia

The Twelve Apostles Lodge Walk

The active traveller may prefer The Twelve Apostles Lodge Walk: Operating between September and May and graded moderate, this 3 night / 4 day eco-lodge based walk is a great way to experience the coast and see Australian wildlife as the trail is alive with native flora and fauna including fur seals, wallabies and koalas.  Learn about the land through the eyes of the first Australians and the British convicts transported here on ships over 200 years ago. The coast is littered with shipwrecks from this time, and the tales of survival and loss are part of the fabric of the Great Ocean Walk.

Image: Tourism Australia

Self-drive The Great Ocean Road – 2 to 10 nights

For the independent traveller a self-drive discovery of the Great Ocean Road is a great option: However don’t rush!  Whilst the Great Ocean Road spans a relatively small distance if you whizz along it you will probably be disappointed.  There are three itineraries we recommend and they range from 2 to 5 nights but certainly a journey of even 10 days would be time well spent.

When travelling independently it is important to go slowly, allowing time to chat to the locals, make discoveries and explore.   Allow time for walks, poking about weekend markets, visiting points of interest and taking up local tours such as kayaking on Lake Elizabeth in search of Platypus.

Some of our favourite hotels in this area are:

  • Oscar’s Waterfront Boutique Hotel – a charming small hotel, an exceptional bed & breakfast
  • Drift House – modern conversion of a heritage building in the pretty town of Port Fairy
  • Great Ocean Ecolodge – a small guest house operated by the Conservation Ecology Centre
  • Royal Mail at Dunkeld – an award winning restaurant with lovely accommodation attached
  • Meringa Springs – a small, luxury lodge offering stunning views of the Grampians
  • Big Blue Backyard – three delightful guest rooms on the Mornington Peninsula

Tailor-made Great Ocean Road

But the best way to do the Great Ocean Road: If budget and time permit then a multi-day road trip hosted by an expert passionate guide in a comfortable vehicle with tailor-made activities, from Aboriginal experiences to whales at Warrnambool, can be designed to be pure Alquemie!


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