I have not yet managed to pinpoint the problem, but Noel and Australia just don’t go together. It won’t be the first place I’ve lived sans snow or ice during the festive period of Christmas, but the holiday marketing here is completely at odds with my Christmas sensibility. There were recent newspaper articles about summer reading and topless sunbathing. How does that get you in the mood for Christmas? What next, Christmas pudding at the beach? Yuletide barbies?

Fortunately, the arrival of two friends from Florida bounced me out of my grinch-like mood. They have been planning their trip for quite some time, and part of their whirlwind tour of Sydney, Tasmania, New Zealand and Melbourne involved me. They wanted to take in the Great Ocean Road. For me, it was an opportunity to revisit a spectacularly beautiful area that had I had seen once before, on our first trip to Melbourne ten years ago.

I picked Jay and Rita up at the airport on Thursday at noon and we set out right after lunch. We drove to the town of Port Fairy, a short distance beyond the official end of the Great Ocean Road. They had booked themselves into an elegant B&B on the water. I was able to get a room at the Merrijig Inn, just a block away. That evening Jay suggested that we sample the “degustation” menu of the Inn’s renowned chef. We started at 7 and worked our way through nine courses and wines, finally stumbling out of the restaurant just past 11 pm, satiated in every sense of the word.

Not surprisingly, breakfast at the Inn was not available until 8:30. It was nearly ten by the time we got on the famed highway. The far end of the road begins in the town of Warrnambool, which is a fine whale-watching spot in winter. From there, the road twists and turns its way along the coast and through the Otway range to the town of Torquay, famous for surfing.

In between the coastline is littered with spectacular limestone cliffs and stacks. Silent tombstones marking the sites of innumerable shipwrecks. There are at least 180 scattered along the southwest coast. The most poignant tragedy is that of the Loch Ard, an iron-hulled clipper launched in 1873. On a trip from England to Australia she entered the Southern Ocean in dark and foggy conditions, drifted too close to shore and was dashed against the reef of Mutton Bird Island. Of the 54 passengers and crew, two survived– an eighteen year-old girl and her rescuer, a crewman named Tom Pearce. Only four bodies were ever recovered.

Surveying the road started in 1918 and actual construction took place between 1919 and 1932, the Depression. It was built by 3000 returned servicemen (or “Diggers”) as a war memorial for fellow servicemen who had been killed in the First World War. The idea for the road had been suggested as far back as 1864, but even someone with no knowledge of engineering can appreciate the challenging nature of its construction. Between the towns of Anglesea and Apollo Bay, a ragged line of hills form cliffs which seem to fall headlong into the ocean, interrupted by the narrow slit of tarmac. Evidence of rock slides was everywhere.

Although the sky was overcast, the rain held off until we had we had taken the obligatory walk to see the most striking set of limestone stacks along the coast– the Twelve Apostles. Shortly afterward, it began to rain, and then to pour.  Jay and Rita and I had met bicycling.  That morning we had come across a few heavily-loaded cyclists and tried to imagine cycling the shoulderless road.  As we drove through the Otways, one of the last remnants of rainforest in southern Australia, the windshield wipers got a workout.

I slowed down, resigned myself to my confinement and looked forward to getting home safe and sound. There was a dinner party planned. The food was all cooked (thanks to some previous planning) and sparkling wine was on ice.  We had a reservation at a highly-touted restaurant the following night, thanks to Jay and Rita’s generous instincts.  It was the holiday season.  Time to say “cheers” and mean it.  Christmas might not be so bad after all.

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