Surf’s up, America! The season for breaking out your waxed boards is upon us. Surfing, an iconic American pastime, boasts a like-minded community in coastal towns across the country. Thanks to the fact surfing can’t be enjoyed just anywhere (it all depends on dynamic surf spots), certain towns are known better than others for fostering the lifestyle.
Best For: Couples who want to enjoy unsurpassed natural beauty steeped in Polynesian culture and colonial history, from Captain Cook to the U.S. annexation of Hawaii
Hanalei Town sits on the North Shore of Kauai, one of the least developed and most beautiful islands in the Hawaiian chain. The local Hawaiians, or “Ka poe Hawaii,” maintain a strong sense of identity and connection to their Polynesian ancestry, making this the perfect place to catch some waves while learning about the long, and sometimes fraught, history of the 50th state.
The town is surrounded by diverse wave-riding spots, from the beginner-friendly waves of the Hanalei Pier (watch out for local kids jumping off the end) to expert-only reef breaks where experience and a healthy respect for the local pecking order are prerequisites. “There are many waves on the island that are not suitable for visitors,” says Evan Valiere, one of the many world-class surfers from this island (a list that also includes Bruce and the late Andy Irons). “But come with a good vibe and respectful attitude, and it will be a place that you will never forget.”
October to March
At Rent-a-Local Kauai, beginners can learn to surf and advanced surfers can get tips on riding heavy waves from a cadre of local Kauains, including Valiere, who teaches in the mornings and drops into 12-foot tubes over razor sharp coral in the afternoon (+1 808 635 3826).
According to Valiere, if you want to “grind” (local slang for “eating,” especially when you’re famished), head up the hill from Hanalei Town to the Kilauea Fish Market. “If you want a real local experience,” he says, “Go to the Hanalei Taro Company for a lau lau plate of chicken or pig. Lau lau is a steamed meat in a taro leaf.”
Leave civilization behind and hike through the five valleys of the Napali Coast State Park.
Hanalei has a lot of big resorts, but why seclude yourself? Vacation rentals are often a better deal and help you experience the town.
Respect is an important term in surfing lineups all over Hawaii. If you bring a good attitude and a smile, you will get the same in return. Also, if you’re ever in doubt about where to surf, ask the lifeguards. They are among the friendliest and most experienced in the world.
Tofino, British Columbia
Best For: Couples and surf travelers who want to trade the bleached-blonde surfer dude vibe for something more hip and outdoorsy … and don’t mind wearing a bit of extra neoprene
California may be one of the surfing world’s spiritual centers, but one of the surfiest towns on the West Coast of North America is far to the north. Tofino, British Columbia, is an old fur trading and logging town that just happens to sit in one of the prettiest spots on Vancouver Island. Clayoquot Sound, compromised of nearly 350,000 hectares of land and ocean, is cool, misty, full of wildlife, and utterly spectacular. Although winters can be harsh, the spring and summer bring warmer air temperatures and almost nonstop markets, festivals, and cultural events.
“All of our beaches are beginner friendly, especially in the summer,” says local professional Peter Devries, a man who currently surfs better in head-to-toe neoprene than perhaps anyone in the world. “The huge tides flatten out the beaches and create very mellow beginner waves. There is the odd exception where the banks can change and get powerful and hollow, but there is always somewhere that is good for beginners. South Chesterman Beach and Long Beach are great places to learn.”
March to September. Winter sees the biggest waves, if you don’t mind freezing air temps and raging storm surf. Everyone else will appreciate more warmth and sunlight in exchange for slightly smaller waves.
Tofino Surf School owner and operator Jeff Hasse is a local institution. Also, check out Storm Surf Shop for any of your surfing needs.
Just because you’re at the edge of a lot of wilderness doesn’t mean you have to rough it. Check out the rugged splendor of the Wickaninnish Inn.
“For a small town, Tofino is blessed with a lot of good food,” says Devries. “My favorite restaurant is called SoBo—everything on the menu is amazing!”
Starting in March, gray whales migrate from Baja to their summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. It’s estimated that some 40 to 50 stay around the coast of Vancouver Island until around June. Hop in a whale-watching boat and pay your respects to one of the sea’s great migrations.
In the summer the sun rises at around 5 a.m. and doesn’t set until 9:30 p.m. You can surf early, eat breakfast, take a nap, and still manage a hike before lunch.
Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina
There's a whole history to this town's name (think rum, shipwrecks, and Colonial times) in North Carolina's Outer Banks but recent history proves it's all about the surf. Thanks to the town's Southern sensibility, there's a slow-paced, come-as-you-are scene. Throw in some great country cooking, true Southern charm, and some magical swells, and you have one of the best surfing towns around. It's brimming with the type of surfer guys and girls who come year after year. Stop by the Pit Surf Shop & Boardriders Grill, where most surfers buy their gear and Tuesday Taco Nights serve up some delicious Mexican for tired-out wave riders.
Stay: Surf Side Hotel right on the beach offers oceanfront rooms, free Continental breakfast, and an indoor/outdoor pool with hot tub.
The beauty of Encinitas, California, is that surfing is not seasonal here. Every day brings good weather, good surf, and good times. The town is just half an hour from San Diego and is known as the "it" spot for surfing in the area. Everyone, from beginners to pros and locals to out-of-towners, has adapted to the surf culture, made famous for Swamis, an internationally known wave spot. Visitors won't find a lack of surf schools or camps in this town. And Mexican food is the real deal in Encinitas. Head to Raul's Shack where locals go for craft beer, cocktails, and, of course, great tacos.
Stay: The five-star Rancho Valencia resort is just twenty minutes from the beach. Surf lessons are offered and the chef, a surfer himself, lives nearby in Encinitas.
Montauk, New York
Montauk in the east end of the Hamptons, New York, woos fashionistas, trust-fund babies, and a whole lotta bling, but the small fishing town has also long been the stomping grounds for laid-back surfers. City dwellers and board-happy suburbanites make a beeline to this sleepy little town that comes alive during the summer months. Surfers even stay all season long, nabbing bar, lifeguard, and waiter jobs to live and breathe surf here, considering the rarity of great waves on the East Coast. At night, expect lively beach bonfires and packed bars and restaurants. All the surfers head to Ruschmeyer's for a night cap, dancing, and debauchery.
Stay: Shack up at the Surf Lodge, a hip boutique hotel that hosts outdoor concerts and surf events.
Given its history as being a mecca for surf culture, Malibu is undeniably one of the most iconic surf towns in the USA. Less than an hour's drive from Los Angeles, Malibu was made famous by regular cameos in many a Hollywood movie, which displayed its undying surf culture to the world. Celebrities still continue to flock to this sunny, glam little beach city for it's great waves, hot nightlife, and even some beach blanket bingo. Ride some waves then grab a bite at Nobu Malibu where you're likely to bump shoulders with a celebrity or two.
Stay: Malibu Beach Inn, on "Billionaire's Beach" with 47 breathtaking, ocean-view guest rooms.
Best For: Couples and serious surf adventurers who want to wander through the labyrinthine corridors of some of the world’s oldest cities and also catch the waves of their lives
Taghazout, Morocco, is a surfing oasis in the middle of a long, rugged coastline that is inundated with waves. This ancient Berber encampment became an outpost for European adventurers trekking into southern Morocco in the 1960s. And throughout that same period, surfers “discovered” the region and set up shop in Taghazout. Today, there are a lot of French and Spanish surfers mingling with the native Moroccans and Berbers in what still feels like a frontier town on the edge of the desert. The waves are almost always long-period ground swells—which means great shape and plenty of power—and the winds consistently blow offshore.
Beginners should start at beaches like Panoramas or Crocodiles and work their way up to the point breaks, which are considered among the best in the world. To sample the crème de la crème, go for a surf at Anchor Point or Killer Point and learn why surfers often describe the waves there as “freight trains.”
Surf Rider Camp is run by one of Morocco’s best surfers, Yassine Ramdani. All ages are welcome in private and group lessons (Telephone: +34 679 070 327).
“Don’t leave without trying a tagine, a traditional stew cooked in a large clay pot,” says Ramdani. “You can get great traditional food at Cafe Florida.”
Located on the water’s edge, Surf Maroc’s Taghazout Villa is a surfing clubhouse and outfitter for anything you might want to do in Taghazout and the surrounding environs.
Head in to Agadir’s central market, Souk El Had, to pick up bottles of argan oil, a locally grown panacea that is said to be good for everything from cooking to hair conditioning. Or treat yourself to a hammam, a local tradition of Turkish-style steam bathing.
If you go exploring for waves, which you should, 4WD and plenty of water are necessary.
Best For: The salty surf traveler who doesn’t mind surfing in cold water or rain
Ireland, known among surfers as “Europe’s cold-water Indonesia” should be on the bucket list of every surfer. And Bundoran should be the start of any surfing adventure on the Emerald Isle. This centuries-old fishing village catches just about any swell that steamrolls through the North Atlantic and onto a smattering of beaches and reefs that suit different levels of surfers.
The water may be cold, but the pubs and locals are always warm, serving up national specialties such as Guinness and oysters to the tune of traditional Irish music. “Bundoran is a town with many sides and the real Bundoran can only be found with the help of the locals,” says Pete Craig, surfer and owner of the outfitter Bundoran Surf Co. The main surfing beach is Tullan Strand, but if you want to venture out, ask locals about the surrounding reefs and beaches, which work on a variety of swells.
Go September to November, when the water is warm(ish), the tourists have gone home, and the Atlantic is pumping.
“The Bridge Bar is a rite of passage for most surfers,” says Craig. Situated overlooking the Peak—Ireland’s most famous reef break—the Bridge is a unique mix of old-school Ireland and surf culture, always with a warm welcome and cold beer. "It’s a great place to meet locals, surfers, and musicians. If you feel like hearing a live band, go to the Chasing Bull."
A good budget option is to get a room with the Bundoran Surf Co., where you can meet other surfers and plan trips up and down the coast. For a higher-end stay, opt for an ocean-view room at Fitzgerald’s Hotel.
Take a day trip to Slieve League, an area of sea cliffs that are some of the most breathtaking in Ireland. Closer to Bundoran, Craig recommends the Donegal Craft Village “for arty folk” or even just rambling through Donegal County. “Just driving around Donegal, you get a feel for the old Ireland that hasn’t been packaged for tourists yet.”
If you buy a round for the locals, which you should, expect to be drinking for the rest of the night.