A road trip through the Australian state of Victoria offers dramatic coastal scenery, lush rainforests and historic towns. And the surf's always up, says Tony Wheeler

Apart from Hawaii there's probably nowhere that has a stronger connection with surfing than Australia. But where is the country's surfing HQ? Bondi Beach in Sydney? Surfers Paradise on Queensland's Gold Coast? Wrong and wrong again, it's Torquay. Looking remarkably unlike Basil Fawlty's Torquay, this one is just 60 miles from Melbourne in the state of Victoria. It was in Torquay that surf gear company Quiksilver grew up before moving to the US, and where Rip Curl is still based.

Apart from Hawaii there's probably nowhere that has a stronger connection with surfing than Australia. But where is the country's surfing HQ? Bondi Beach in Sydney? Surfers Paradise on Queensland's Gold Coast? Wrong and wrong again, it's Torquay. Looking remarkably unlike Basil Fawlty's Torquay, this one is just 60 miles from Melbourne in the state of Victoria. It was in Torquay that surf gear company Quiksilver grew up before moving to the US, and where Rip Curl is still based.

Nobody goes to Victoria on a first visit to Australia. They go to Sydney, or the Barrier Reef, or Ayers Rock. A great shame: on the map of Australia, the smallest mainland state may look like a cartorgrapher's afterthought, but it is still the size of Britain and contains more than its fair share of wonders. Fortunately - and despite the 24-hour flight simply to get there - Australia enjoys a remarkably high re-visit rate. On a second trip, Victoria often makes the itinerary, and visitors see what they've been missing. In the course of a five-day, 500-mile circuit from Melbourne, we combined ocean, mountains and gold-mining history.

Torquay's Surf City Plaza could be a modern shopping centre almost anywhere - except that it is entirely dedicated to shops selling surfing fashions, surfboards and assorted surfing paraphernalia. It's also home to Surfworld, a museum devoted to surfing's history, surfing movies and the development of the modern surfboard. Once you've sorted out why the thruster board has three fins you can head a few miles south to Bell's Beach, home to the annual Rip Curl surfing championships. Or perhaps have a go at surfing yourself: Torquay's surf school instructors will have you slashing waves and complaining bitterly about "drop ins" in no time. A two-hour lesson, including board and a wetsuit, costs £15.

The town is also the starting point of the Great Ocean Road, one of the world's great drives. Like California's Highway One, it was carved out of a rugged coastline as a Thirties job-creation scheme. From Torquay, it winds, twists and turns past stunning stretches of beaches, rock-strewn headlands and through a string of coastal resorts. Lorne, less than 100 miles from Melbourne, is easily the number one for shops, restaurants, hotels, a fine stretch of beach, some great surf and Australia's most popular swimming race. The annual "Pier to Pub" attracts up to 4,000 swimmers who race three-quarters of a mile across the bay and follow it up with a beer in the pub. The seafood is terrific along the coast but Lorne is the Great Ocean Road's culinary capital. It has one of Victoria's best-loved restaurants, the eccentrically named The Arab: soon to celebrate its 50th birthday. Just forget about stopping in Lorne on a weekend; it is far too popular as a Melbourne getaway.

Lorne also has a dense parrot population: every tree, road sign and telephone wire seems to be a perch for pink and grey galahs, bright red rosellas or red and green king parrots. The attractions don't end with beach and town; the hills climbing back from the coast are cloaked with dense green rainforest hiding fast-running rivers punctuated by waterfalls and some great walking trails. In April this year Lorne surfers saw a remarkable sight, a rusty 4,000-ton North Korean cargo ship just a few hundred yards off the notoriously tricky coast. In fact the Pong Su had just dropped off 275lbs of high-grade heroin with a street value of £90m. Trying to get ashore through heavy surf one of the crew was drowned, the police grabbed another and a comic four-day chase up the coast ensued before the ship was finally boarded by commandos and taken to Sydney - "a sinister trick to tarnish the image of the dignified Democratic People's Republic of Korea", North Korea's official news agency reported.

The Great Ocean Road continues through Apollo Bay, then deserts the coast to wind through the beautiful Ottway forests and gets back to it on the Shipwreck Coast. When Victoria's gold rush kicked off in the 1850s, dozens of ships were soon heading for the unfamiliar coastline, with often disastrous results. In fact the most famous of these shipwrecks was also the last passenger ship to come to grief along the coast. In 1878 the Loch Ard ran on to rocks just east of Port Campbell. Only two people survived: a young Irish emigrant named Eva Carmichael and Tom Pearce, the equally young ship's boy who saved her. Media hopes of a front-page romance - even then disaster and young love sold newspapers - were quickly dashed when Eva headed back to Ireland. Perhaps Tom was a bad bet; just three years earlier he had also emerged unscathed when the Eliza Ramsden went down in Melbourne's Port Phillip Bay. Today that wreck is a very popular scuba dive.

Warrnambool, one of the largest towns along the Victorian coast features one extraordinary Loch Ard relic in its excellent Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village. It's a porcelain peacock, five fragile-looking-feet high, which somehow washed ashore from the wreck, still in its packing case and virtually undamaged. The town started life as a whaling station. But despite driving the southern right whales to near extinction, the giant creature's numbers have recently rebounded and now attract hordes of whale-watchers between July and October each year when they breed and raise their young just offshore. You can fly overhead on whale-spotting flights or view them from a whale-watching platform above Logan's Beach just north of the town.

Port Fairy could well be Victoria's bed & breakfast capital but this pretty little port town also has the distinction of predating Melbourne. Sealers and whalers had already established themselves here when the first English settlers arrived in Melbourne in 1835. The town is still an important fishing centre, and the many fine old buildings have made it a popular tourist attraction. The Dublin Inn and the Belfast Bakery hint at an Irish influence, and in fact for the first 50 years the town was known as Belfast.

"Good grief, the Queen's staying here too," I thought when we left Goble's Mill House for dinner in Port Fairy. In front of the riverside B&B was a car toting a small flagpole on the front and crowns where normally you'd find licence plates. Furthermore the chauffeur was accompanied by a blazered gentleman with E II R embroidered on the breastpocket. In fact our fellow guest was the Queen's man in Victoria, Governor John Landy. Back in 1954 he was narrowly beaten to the first four-minute mile by Roger Bannister.

We turned north from the coast to Hamilton, epicentre for Victoria's "squatocracy" - the early settlers who moved in grabbed what turned out to be prime grazing land and as a result became very rich indeed. Hamilton was also the hometown of Reginald Ansett, whose airline started life with Hamilton-Melbourne air services in 1936. Ansett Airlines went disastrously bankrupt in 2001, an event which proved very fortunate for Sir Richard Branson's recently established Virgin Blue airline in Australia. Hamilton has an interesting little Ansett Transport Museum.

We continued north, dodging one wallaby which hopped across the road in front of us, to Halls Gap in the Grampians. These spectacular rocky ridges and peaks are noted for plentiful wildlife - we soon saw lots more wallabies - and a number of Aboriginal rock art sites. Halls Gap may suffer from some tacky tourist development but you leave the crowds with remarkable speed when you set out on the park's walking tracks, many of which lead to spectacular waterfalls and lookouts.

If you arrived in Victoria in the 1850s and survived the Shipwreck Coast you were probably heading towards Victoria's goldfields. So we did, too. Bendigo and Ballarat are the two major towns in the gold country region but this area to the north-west of Melbourne is dotted with interesting little centres, some of them thriving, some of them picturesque ghost towns. All of them were endowed with some extraordinary Victorian architecture - the city fathers in the gold-rush era ploughed a lot of the wealth straight back into civic improvements. Confronted by Maryborough's magnificent railway station, completed in 1891, Mark Twain pronounced it a "train station with a town attached".

If Lorne is Melbourne's coastal getaway then Daylesford is the gold-country equivalent. It bills itself as a gourmet centre, and has also become a thriving gay and lesbian community. Adjacent Hepburn Spa was a health resort way back in the gold-rush era, and recently "taking the waters" has become fashionable again.

Yet you need not stray far from Daylesford to find wide plains of ragged grassland marching off towards a horizon which seems to be in close proximity to infinity - until you hear the growl of a 747 flying into Melbourne's airport, less than an hour away. But the great outdoors stretches as far as the end of the runway.


Getting there: see "Something to Declare" on page 2 for details of bargain flights to Melbourne and elsewhere in Australia.

Getting around: a medium-size rental car will cost about £180 for five days from Melbourne; all the leading car-rental companies will quote all-inclusive rates if you book in advance from Britain.

The winding, swooping Great Ocean Road is a favourite for motorcyclists but ride carefully: it claims a few of them every year. Cyclists also enjoy the coast route.

There are regular daily V/Line bus services along the Great Ocean Road as far as Apollo Bay, less frequently from there through Port Campbell although Warrnambool and Port Fairy can be reached daily from Melbourne, as can Halls Gap and most of the Gold Country centres.

Groovy Grape (00 61 8 8371 4000, www.groovygrape.com.au) runs three-day two-night backpacker tours between Melbourne and Adelaide via the Great Ocean Road and the Grampians for £120 with accommodation in hostels. The Wayward Bus (00 61 8 8410 8833, www.waywardbus.com.au) runs a similar three-night trip sticking to the coast for £125 if you stay in hostels or up to £230 for a single room.

Where to stay: Victoria has been having a love affair with bed & breakfasts and you'll find interesting examples all along this route. Try Stanmorr (00 61 3 5289 1530, www.stanmorr.com, £55 double) in Lorne or Goble's Mill House (00 61 3 5568 1118, £65) in Port Fairy, while stylish Daylesford even has a genuine Japanese ryokan, the Shizuka Ryokan (00 61 3 5348 2030, £110) in nearby Hepburn Springs. More economically there are numerous motels, a wide choice of backpacker hostels (Halls Gap has a very modern YHA ecolodge; call 00 61 3 5356 4544) and campsites.