An Insider Guide to Australia’s Surf Capital with Board-Maker Michael Di Sciascio
Board-maker Michael Di Sciascio gives us a surfside tour of his home in Torquay, Victoria, the heart of Australia’s surfing culture.
23 June, 2022
The great, rolling surf of the Southern Ocean has been luring visitors to Torquay, Victoria, for decades. Michael Di Sciascio was one of them. After leaving school at 15 to focus on surfing, he arrived in 1979 with his eyes on the waves, landing a job shaping kneeboards in the surf capital of Australia. The board maker never left.
"Torquay has been very good to me," he tells SUITCASE. As the owner of the award-winning Strapper Surf, Di Sciascio's hand-shaped boards are a regular sight on the swell at iconic Bells Beach, just outside town. After 43 years, Di Sciascio is now a pillar of the surfing community, both in and out of the water.
Board-maker Michael Di Sciascio | Photo credit: Julian Kingma
Torquay is synonymous with the sport. Acting as a gateway to the country's Great Ocean Road, it is a mecca for sandy-toed campervan drivers with boards strapped to their vehicles and a course plotted along the coast's lazy limestone curves. They'll stop in the town to soak up the salty air and clink bottles on the beach, find tips on the best breaks, and pick up gear. The surfing lifestyle isn't just played out on the waves, but infiltrates the shore, too. It's the kind of place where you'll spot the server who poured your morning coffee riding a barrel on Jan Juc Beach come sunset. For Di Sciascio, that's the joy. In his words, "if the surfing is pumping, the town will be, too".
The craftsman helps us navigate his home town with recommendations on where to hit the waves and where to kick back when visiting the Australian surfing capital.
Surf's up: a local guide to Torquay's beaches, bars and independent boutiques
Torquay Beach, left, and surfers on Bells Beach at sunrise.
How would you characterise the coastline surrounding Torquay?
The Great Ocean Road, which officially starts in Torquay, was built by returned soldiers after the First World War. It's an amazing 240km drive. Along it, you'll find Bells Beach, the most famous surf break in Australia. Just 10 minutes out of Torquay, Bells Beach lays claim to being the first surfing reserve in the world. Between Torquay and Bells, there are about 22 spots offering everything from easy beginner waves through to high-performance surf - it's a golden mile. The cliffs have a very Australian colour - they glow orange at sunrise. The vibe is relaxed. We embrace the coastal environment and the lifestyle.
How did Torquay make its name?
The global surf brands Ripcurl and Quiksilver started here. There's a world-renowned surf-shop precinct, with a dozen or more surf shops in one small area. It's also home to the world's longest-running professional surf event, which happens each Easter on nearby Bells Beach.
We're surfing newbies. Where should we start?
Avoid the kids learning to surf at Cosy Corner on Torquay Front Beach and head to Back Beach for lessons. It has a variety of quality waves and friendly conditions. It's where I started.
What's the best spot for a sunrise surf?
The best waves are on the reefs at Bells Beach and Winkipop. Mornings offer the best surf conditions, so I'd recommend getting in the water early. Jan Juc Beach is the go-to surf spot after work thanks to its reliable waves. You'll always catch surfers young and old there enjoying a sunset surf and drinks.
Pancakes at Doc Hughs, a recommended breakfast spot.
The best place to grab a post-surf breakfast?
In the centre of the surf-shop precinct is a hole-in-the-wall coffee and toasty shop called The Kiosk. It's open from 6am every day and is a local institution. The owner, Valeri, roasts the coffee himself and does an amazing job. I love this place! If you're wanting to sit with an ocean view, try Doc Hughes on the Torquay esplanade.
What about a low-key lunch?
A local surf-industry favourite is the vegetarian Ginger Monkey Café. It's a super-chill set-up and the duo behind it, Jayne and Cath, are awesome.
Any dinner recommendations?
We are super-fortunate in Torquay, and along the Great Ocean Road, to have loads of quality dining options. Torquay Hotel is sensational, as are the pubs in Jan Juc, Aireys and Lorne. In Australia, pubs don't just offer food, drink, and music - they're community hubs.
The small Torquay restaurant Samesyn is very good, as is The Kyn and A La Grecque at Aireys Inlet, further along the Great Ocean Road. If you had to push me for my favourite, though, it would be The Captain of Aireys. It does the best pizza slices on the whole coast.
Pink-hued interiors at The Kyn, left, and one of the restaurant's cocktails
For something a little more refined, a standout is Moonah, a 10-minute drive from Torquay, near the Point Impossible surf break. It only has 12 seats, so you need to book weeks in advance. Chef Tobin Kent is next-level. He harvests seaweed and native plants from the beach outside, bakes all his own bread and uses fresh produce from the on-site garden. It's an experience.
Where should we stay when in town?
There's many a great Airbnb along the coast, some offering amazing surf lifestyle experiences. Or check out the pubs, which often have rooms to rent.
Any good bars around?
Lots of breweries, all with tap rooms: Bells Beach Brewing, Blackman's, Sou'west. Plus, you'll find a great wine-growing region, with more than a dozen cellar doors, within a 30-minute drive of town. Check out the award-winning Great Ocean Road Gin distillery at Aireys Inlet, too.
Let's talk about the surf… Where do you go, and why?
My favourite surf break is Winkipop, next door to Bells Beach. It's a right-hand point reef break - two waves that join to create one when it's big surf. It breaks from 0.6m to 4.5m and is world-class. The two waves give great variety and, while it can get busy, there's a strong local crew that surf it all the time - a Winki community, all stoked on surfing.
Board making is your craft. Is there a lively artistic community in the area?
Torquay, the coast and the surf lifestyle have always attracted musicians, artistic and alternative people. In part, that's what has delivered the creative success of the surf industry. But the scene is still very bespoke and underground. You need to look deep to discover it. Underground full moon parties are held regularly on a local muso's farm - and his band sometimes does dusk pop-up performances at obscure surf locations, playing off a generator.
For more accessible music, try the Aireys Inlet Open Mic. It's an annual event showcasing new and emerging local talent. If you're interested in the region's art scene, look up Nya Ethical, which produces organic, limited-edition art and apparel, or head to WaterMarks Photo Gallery to see photographer Barrie Sutherland's historical surf snaps.
What about Torquay's cultural offering?
The indigenous Australians from this area are the Wadawurrung. Torquay, Bells Beach and part of the Great Ocean Road are in Wadawurrung Country; the First Nations people have a living history of over 40,000 years here. The Narana Aboriginal Cultural Centre is 15 minutes from Torquay and really worth the visit.
For an insight into the lifestyle and culture of Australia, you should also check out the Australian National Surfing Museum.
The golden curve of Bells Beach along the Great Ocean Road.
Tell us about a place only locals know…
Point Addis and the back of Addis Beach are favourite hangouts for locals when the warmer months arrive.
The best way to spend a Saturday night?
At the Bird Rock bar and café.
And to soothe sore heads on a lazy Sunday?
Surf in the morning and hang at the beach or walk the Surf Coast Walk from Torquay to Bells. Follow that with a late lunch, wine and live music at the Bellbrae Estate winery.
Torquay is the home of some of the world's most iconic surf brands, but are there any independent surf stores we should check out?
Absolutely. My Strapper Surf shops, of course! We have two in Torquay. One is surfboard-focused and attached to our surfboard factory, out back. The other is more fashion-focused. Elsewhere, you should swing by South Coast Surfboards, Bells Beach Surf Shop, XTM Performance, Vanda, Stonker, Babel Surfboards and all the other indie and locally owned spots.
Any other boutiques and shops to visit?
My Blunt Skateshop is an urban lifestyle and fashion-forward skateboard and snowboard shop. I was a super-keen skateboarder as a kid and Blunt reflects the passion I and many of my team have around skateboarding and snowboarding.
A book to read while we're there?
The Rip Curl Story by Tim Baker is an amazing read about the origins of the Rip Curl brand in Torquay. Another great read is Salts and Suits by Phil Jarratt. It will educate and entertain you about how the surf industry started, with a heavy focus on Torquay.
Something to bring back as a souvenir?
Go for a surf at Bells Beach, walk the Surf Coast Walk, visit the Torquay surf shops and drive the Great Ocean Road. The experience is the best souvenir you'll find.
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