You might not get a gaping barrel out at Bells, but just try to look at those walls and not mind-surf the crap out of it. Photo: Differding
The History-Making Aussie Surf Community
By Jock Barnes
Where: Bells Beach is 60 miles southwest of Melbourne in the Australian state of Victoria. Bells and its large reef bottom faces southeast into the Bass Strait Sea, which separates Tasmania from the Australian mainland. Its positioning leaves this world-famous reef open to large swells produced by the very productive Roaring Forties, as well as plenty of other passing southern storms.
What: Bells and the surrounding area are a rural surfing community largely responsible for the birth of the surf industry and professional surfing as we know it. It's named after the family who first took ownership of the land for farming purposes.
George "Ming" Smith won the first contest—a local, grassroots affair—held at Bells in January of 1961, and the one-pound prize made this the first recorded professional surfing event.
The event was later rescheduled for the Easter weekend and was officially named the Bells Beach Classic, and is more recently known as the Rip Curl Pro. Did we mention it was the place that ushered in perhaps the most groundbreaking innovation in surfboard design to date? Yep, Simon Anderson's infamous introduction of the thruster to the surfing world changed everything in 1981 when he won the event in flawless fifteen-foot Bells Bowl. If that's not enough history for you, it also has the distinction of being the longest-running professional surfing event.
It’s not all long rights, there’s plenty of beachbreak nearby to keep it interesting. Photo: Differding
When: Bells has the potential to break all year round, but fall (March through May) or autumn, as it's known in Australia, has the most favorable conditions. There are frequent offshore winds, and the weather systems are still passing far enough to the south to produce swell and not cut up the conditions.
Why: Nostalgia will be the main draw card for any self-respecting surfer. This isn't a trade-wind-groomed, pina-colada-sipping surf adventure, but if you're adventurous and can tolerate cold water and schizophrenic weather, then there are a lot of waves, history, and countryside to explore here.
How: A flight to Melbourne from LAX will set you back about $2,200. From there you have options, but renting a car in Melbourne is the only way to do this trip properly. For those of you on a shoestring budget, there are trains and bus services that will take you to Geelong, which is about fifteen miles from Bells. It may save you the expense of a car rental, but it's probably more hassle than it's worth.
The Rip Curl store in Torquay. Photo: Steve Ryan
Places to stay: Bells is a surfing reserve, a title permitting it from being developed. Surrounding areas such as Fairhaven and Anglesea offer bed-and-breakfast-style facilities, but for the most part you'll probably stay in Torquay. There are many outlets on offer, so you will have little difficulty finding the comfort you desire at various price ranges.
If you are booking accommodation before your arrival, remember Victoria is one of Australia's coldest states, so if you're not going in summer, heating is a must. Those looking to save money might consider a camper van, but take into consideration that some towns will only permit you to camp in designated areas and fine you for disregarding the laws.
Places to eat: There's a Macdonald's in Torquay, but I have no idea how it got its hands on this wholesome surfing community. There are plenty of healthy and modestly priced restaurants in that town, but when in Rome, eat where the Romans do. Locals know their 'hood, and if you're looking to eat and mingle with the local crowd, go with The Bird Rock Café located at the western end of Jan Juc Beach, which you will find halfway between Torquay and Bells.
Babes and dudes: Can't give you much of an idea on what type of dudes you should expect to find, but as far as the ladies, Victoria has had one hell of a track record in the looks department. Bells is an hour and a half from Melbourne, and while it's probably not the strongest region in the state, it holds its own.
In Melbourne, try St. Kilda's night strip. Once there, you'll just have two names to remember: The Vineyard and The Esplanade Hotel, or "Espy" as it's referred to in local slang. Both these places rock especially on weekends and you can leave your smooth tricks and one-liners at home because Melbourne chicks are among the most grounded and easy to talk to women the land down under has on offer.
The walls just line up, feather, and hold, awaiting the biggest end gouge you can muster. Adam Robertson. Photo: Steve Ryan
Crowd factor: Like any well-known surf spot, Bells is subject to over crowding, though that's not to say you can't get it uncrowded. Winkipop, located right next to Bells, is the more favored of the two points, and when Winki starts to fire Bells can become overlooked.
Bells has three distinct takeoff spots, depending on the size and direction of swell. Rincon runs closer to the foot of the cliff, and South Side goes almost around the corner of the cliff and will be on when the swell is smaller. The Bowl is where it breaks when there's more than four feet of swell. There are also many other waves in the region that offer world-class surf without the influx of crowds.
Stuff to bring: Apart from summer, Bells is cold, so pack accordingly. Two 3/2 full suits (or steamers as they call them down here) is a necessity because no one likes a wet, cold wetsuit. Booties are a good idea, too, but there's rarely a need for gloves or hoods. The waves move a little slower than the Queensland style pointbreaks, so thicker and slightly longer boards will work better.
If the surf is flat: Torquay marks the start of the Great Ocean Road, which is an epic three-hour drive along some of Australia's most beautiful and rugged coastal landscapes. Thanks to seemingly endless sweeping bends, the drive is slow, but with so much to see it would be a crime to rush this journey. Just when you think you've come to the end, it's saved the best for last. The Twelve Apostles is one of Australia's most iconic landscapes, so don't forget your camera. Another fantastic part of taking this drive on a flat day is that it can be head high or bigger when Bells has not even a ripple—so don't forget your boards.
Also check out the Surf World Museum in Torquay for a slice of Australian surf culture. Aside from that there's golf, the local wineries, or if you're looking to hunt a bargain, both Rip Curl and Quiksilver's worldwide headquarters are in the center of Torquay. A lap through the factory outlets could have you stocked up for years to come.
For the adventurous at heart, you can also take a Tiger Moth flight over The Great Ocean Road and surrounding coast.
Helpful Web sites: To cover all of your tourism and accommodation questions, check out torquaylink.com.au. For weather, wind, and swell forecasts, go to coastalwatch.com. And if you're feeling frisky and want to go the camper van route, check out wickedcampers.com.au.