LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA, February 27, 2006 – Lauded as one of the greatest coastal drives on earth, Victoria’s Great Ocean Road has lead countless travelers along the Shipwreck Coast to the prized spectacle of the iconic Twelve Apostles. Now, with the opening of the Great Ocean Walk, those prepared to hoof it can opt for a closer look at the region’s abundant wildlife and stunning scenery, previously inaccessible by road or foot.

From the seaside village of Apollo Bay, just two hours from Melbourne, the trailhead to the Great Ocean Walk leads the way to beautiful coastal vistas of secluded beaches and wetlands, lush fern gullies and towering rainforests, picturesque coves and rugged limestone cliffs populated by kangaroos, koalas, echidnas, wallabies and an abundance of Australia’s bemusing birdlife. Stretching 56 miles to Port Campbell National Park, the eight-day, seven-night walk offers ambitious long-haul bushwalkers an inimitable new experience, while also catering to day trippers with optional “step on and step off” trails ranging from four-to-nine miles and signposted for easy navigation.

At sundown, hikers can opt to sleep under the stars at seven designated “hike-in” campsites or choose from “walk-in and walk-out” accommodations along the trail offering warm Aussie hospitality and the promise of a comfortable bed and a good meal at the end of each day.

Entering the trailhead at Apollo Bay, climb the cliff tops to Marengo overlooking the Little Henty Reefs, bulging with bull kelps, Storm Point and the exposed, aptly named Bald Hill. Hike through sheltered fern gullies and coastal scrub to scenic Shelly Beach bordered by a forest of majestic blue gums inhabited by koalas and nocturnal Yellow-bellied Gliders.

Trace the rugged border of the 32,000-acre Great Otway National Park, an archeological goldmine of fossils, including those of dinosaurs recently unearthed, formed 150 million years ago. Explore rainforests laced with streams, waterfalls and rapids, surrounded by giant Mountain Ash (the world’s tallest flowering plant), Blackwoods, Eucalypts, Stringybark, Weeping Spleenworts and densely vegetated fern gullies boasting more than 30 species.

After a picnic on the beach at Blanket Bay, follow the song of kookaburra through grass tree forests to the estuaries of Parker Inlet where blue-winged parrots, sulphur-crested cockatoos and feathertail gliders can be spotted. Close out the day at Cape Otway Center for Conservation and Ecology (www.capeotwaycentre.com.au) — an environmentally friendly bed & breakfast committed to the protection and rehabilitation of injured wildlife – where a gourmet meal awaits followed by a “spotlighting” tour (Aussie night safari) to view possums, sugar gliders and other nocturnal animals. At daybreak, observe eastern grey kangaroos and swamp wallabies as they graze at breakie (breakfast), or explore the surrounding forest in search of elusive long-nosed bandicoots, platypus and potoroos (a miniature kangaroo).

Visit the 150-year-old Cape Otway Lightstation to relive the region’s dramatic shipwreck history, detouring along the trail to Rainbow Falls, a cascade generated from a spring in dune limestone that casts a beautiful rainbow in the afternoon light.

Saunter through wind-sculpted sand dunes to the shores of Station Beach, littered with driftwood from the western currents of the Great Australian Bight. Continue west through fields of wildflowers, as Peregrine Falcons fly overhead guiding the way to the peaceful estuarine waters of Aire River and the costal headlands of Johanna Seaside Cottages (www.johannaseaside.com.au).

In the morning, meander to Melanesia Beach, one of The Walk’s most stunning sections where crystal clear waters take on extraordinary colors. Climb the trail from beach to cliff tops before turning into the forest at Moonlight Head, emerging atop some of the highest sea cliffs in mainland Australia from which whales can be spotted June to September. Descend the 350 steps to Wreck Beach, and scavenge for the giant anchors of two historic shipwrecks, the “Marie Gabrielle” in 1880 and the “Fiji” in 1891, embedded in the rock shelf.

In 2006, the first of four Glenn Murcutt lodges is scheduled to open at Moonlight Head Lodge (www.moonlighthead.com), offering luxury-eco accommodations with expansive ocean views.

The final stretch of the Great Ocean Walk leads to the iconic puzzle-piece coastline along Port Campbell National Park with views of the world-renowned Twelve Apostles — giant limestone stacks formed up to 20 million years ago – on the approach to Glenample Homestead. Enroute watch for pods of dolphins in the waters below, and kangaroos (and their joeys) that are regular grazers in nearby paddocks. On arrival, descend the Gibson Steps to the beach below for a daunting view of the gigantic rock stacks, sitting just offshore, the tallest measuring 123 feet, and a peek at the local fairy penguin population (numbering more than 1000) as they come ashore at dusk.

Land packages to experience the Great Ocean Walk by guided group tour are available from Ecotrek (www.ecotrek.com.au) — offering three-day hikes with camping style accommodations and meals from US$390 per person – and Bothfeet (www.bothfeet.com.au) — offering three-day hikes with luxury accommodations and gourmet meals from US$955 per person (based on twin share). Qantas Airways, Air New Zealand and United Airlines offer daily non-stop and direct flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Melbourne.

For information about the Great Ocean Walk, log onto www.greatoceanwalk.com.au, or visit Tourism Victoria’s website at www.visitmelbourne.com.

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