Maybe it’s the sun-streaked hair, the frequent smiles, the eyes always gazing west, looking to the horizon to see when the next set might roll in. It’s the unmistakable look and vibe of a California surf town, places that live and breathe for that next big break. Surfing has long been one of the most iconic symbols of the California lifestyle, and now it’s been recognized as the state’s official sport (and as of 2018, September 20 has been declared California Surfing Day).
Come, get a new bikini or board shorts, put your toes in the sand, and watch the action—or maybe catch it from the oceanfront balcony of your room or waterfront seat at lunchtime. Better yet, go for it yourself—take a surf lesson and hit the waves. The hardest part will be deciding where to go, since there are plenty of locations that will fit the bill.
There’s Huntington Beach, for instance, which also boasts the International Surfing Museum and the world’s longest surfboard. Or, head to celebrity-frequented Malibu, or Newport Beach, which offers excellent bodysurfing and is known as the cradle of the sport; it’s nearby famous Orange County hotspots San Clemente and San Onofre State Beach, home of the world-famous Trestles. And of course there’s Santa Cruz, with its beginner-friendly Cowell’s, next to the Santa Cruz Wharf; and San Diego, where you can take your pick of several surf spots and go board shopping at the venerable Hansen Surfboards. Read on to explore the surfer meccas along the California coastline.
Orange County’s surfing tradition dates back more than 100 years, when pioneering Hawaiian surfer George Freeth performed wave-riding demonstrations during the dedication of the new Huntington Beach Pier in 1914. In the 1920s, surfer and Olympic swimming medalist Duke Kahanamoku also surfed at the pier. But the sport really took off in the 1950s and the 1960s when Huntington Beach began hosting major events and emerged as the most important surfing city on the American mainland. As local surf legend Corky Carroll has said, “Orange County is the cultural center of the surf world, and Huntington Beach is like the heartbeat.”
Huntington Beach’s stores echo the theme. In front of Jack’s Surfboards, the Surfing Walk of Fame honors top surfers with engraved granite stones in the walkway, while nearby Huntington Surf and Sport immortalizes local surf legends with hand- and footprints in a Surfing Hall of Fame. See one of Duke Kahanamoku’s longboards at the International Surfing Museum.
Of course, there’s plenty of surfing in Orange County beyond Huntington Beach. Down at The O.C.’s far southern reaches are San Clemente and San Onofre State Beach (where top surfers ride the legendary breaks at Trestles). Back up the coast, see board-free daredevils bodysurfing at Newport Beach’s experts-only the Wedge.
Want to give surfing a try? Consider Corky Carroll’s Surf School in Huntington Beach or Bolsa Chica State Beach, head south to San Clemente Surf School, or book an early-morning “dawn patrol” session at the Endless Sun Surf School in Newport Beach.
Stretching for more than 30 miles along the Pacific and Highway One, Malibu has achieved almost mythological status among Californian beach towns. Hollywood stars and top athletes live in oceanfront homes here, under an elegant veil of privacy on long stretches of beach, and enjoy front-row seats for surfing and unforgettable sunsets.
While it may sound exclusive, there is plenty of Malibu magic for visitors to access too. Considered to have some of the most perfect waves anywhere, Malibu’s Surfrider Beach, just off Malibu Pier, was named the first World Surfing Reserve; nearby Zuma Beach is a sun magnet for locals and families. In winter, Point Dume, at Malibu’s north end, provides an ideal perch for spotting migrating grey whales.
The perfect aesthetics stretch beyond the beach, too. The Getty Villa—the original home of the Getty Museum, which opened in 1974—focuses on Ancient Greek and Roman Art (admission is free, but you need to make a reservation). For more contemporary, beachy masterpieces, check out the 30 historic surfboards on display, some dating back to the 1910s, at the Surf Museum at Pepperdine University’s Payson Library. And for wearable art—and perhaps to spot one of the local celebs—browse the shops at the Malibu Country Mart and Malibu Lumber Yard, two upmarket shopping centres, located next to one another.
Afterwards, grab a bite at Malibu Farm, the organic café and restaurant that sits on the pier. Or browse the fresh catches—and try one of the famed ahi tuna burgers—at Malibu Seafood, opposite Dan Blocker Beach. To spend the night like an insider, get a room at the 47-room Malibu Beach Inn, a former motel located on the so-called Billionaire’s Beach, which was given its original makeover by Hollywood mogul David Geffen.
Tough as it is to drag yourself away from the ocean, head inland a short distance and you can also walk through hills and canyons, filled with spring wildflowers and even waterfalls, on trails in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. For a cool guided experience, take one of the two-hour Malibu Wine Hikes on the rolling terrain of Saddlerock Ranch vineyard; walks include stops to see Chumash cave drawings, a meet-and-greet with a film-star giraffe (he was in Hangover 3) and, of course, a wine tasting.
Sometimes it seems as if everyone surfs in San Diego County. When the surf is up, there’s a steady stream of dudes (and plenty of dudettes, too) slipping into wetsuits. When they’re not in the water or on the beach, they’re driving their cars, boards strapped to the rooftops, heading for such fabled breaks as Bird Rock, Oceanside Pier, and the legendary Windansea (featured in the Tom Wolfe bestseller, The Pump House Gang). But why let them have all the fun? Try getting out on the waves yourself with a surf lesson from Surf Diva Surf School at La Jolla Shores, a popular spot for novice wave riders with sandy bottom beaches and gentle waves.
Short of that, the best way to truly immerse yourself in California’s surf culture may be to stop by Bird’s Surf Shop in Ocean Beach, where hundreds of boards are hung from every conceivable location, including the ceiling. It’s a place where surf films premiere and locals hang out and talk wave sets. Another legendary San Diego surf spot is Swami’s, so named for the Self-Realization Fellowship that sits high on a bluff overlooking a great break. Parts of the 13-acre property are open to the public and the lovely gardens beckon surfers and beachcombers alike to spend some time in a meditative state.
If you’re interested in learning about surfing history, the California Surf Museum in Oceanside celebrates the county’s surfing tradition. Step inside to see historic boards and exhibits honouring legends who have carved the waves here.
Throughout the county, especially in beach towns like Leucadia and Encinitas, you’ll find plenty of board shops, including Hansen Surfboards (open since 1961); stop by these venerable hangouts to get tips, or info on booking local lessons. And even if you never plan to get in the water, you can still buy a pair of board shorts and power up with breakfast at such classic surfer haunts as Pipes Cafe in Cardiff-by-the-Sea and Beach Break Cafe in Oceanside.
The endless summer lives in Huntington Beach. Southern California’s beach culture thrives along this city’s curving shoreline, where you can bicycle down an oceanfront path, play volleyball, and, of course, surf.
Go to the International Surfing Museum, and you’ll see up close how this Orange County town, with 10 miles of beaches and consistent swells, got its nickname of Surf City, USA (don’t miss the World’s Largest Surfboard on display). Surfing forefathers George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku both surfed here in the early part of the 20th century, and the U.S Surfing Championship—now summer’s Vans U.S. Open of Surfing—was first held here in the late 1950s.
If you'd rather run than hit the waves, you can still get in the surfing spirit by racing the Surf City USA Marathon (which also includes a half marathon or 5K), held on the first Sunday of February every year. Finishers receive a surfboard-shaped medal after running the flat beachfront course throughout Huntington Beach.
Year round, surfing definitely sets the tone, and even if you never grab a board, there’s shopping at leading surf retailers and great viewing of some of the local dudes riding the waves alongside the landmark Huntington Beach Pier.
From the pier, it’s just a short walk to Main Street’s surf shops and restaurants, many with sidewalk tables or decks that let you bask in fresh ocean breezes and sun-soaked afternoons. Huntington’s newest outdoor mall, Pacific City, is where you’ll find one-of-a-kind artisanal eats and stylish boutiques—all with an ocean view.
You can get a taste of the Surf City life with stays at Huntington Beach luxurious beach resorts—like the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach (known for its kid-magnet pool playground), Waterfront Beach Resort, and Paséa Hotel & Spa, opened in 2016. Check out Paséa’s Treehouse Bar for a rooftop cocktail at sunset. Or discover the more natural sides of town by trying horseback riding in the 354-acre Huntington Central Park, or by hiking and bird watching in Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a restored wetlands and one of Southern California’s most vital coastal habitats.
Few can resist the funky, sunny, life-lovin’ vibe of the surf culture in Santa Cruz. Legend has it three Hawaiian princes brought surfing here in 1885, with legendary Hawaiian surfers such as Duke Kahanamoku following in their footsteps. Locals soon took to the consistent, easy waves at Cowell’s, and right-handed point breaks at Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point, and they’ve been carving it up ever since.
Thanks to local legend Jack O’Neills 1950s invention of the wetsuit to battle the Pacific’s notoriously chilly waters, newbies and experienced surfers alike can spend more time out there waiting for the perfect wave. If you want to give the sport a try, friendliest breaks are found at Cowell’s, next to the Santa Cruz Wharf; breakers fronting Capitola are usually novice-friendly too. Club Ed Surf School offers lessons for all abilities; equipment includes wide, easier-to-balance long boards and wetsuits.
To learn more about the local surf scene and its legends, visit the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, quaintly housed in a former lighthouse along West Cliff Drive. Look over the seawall to see top surfers riding the break at Steamer Lane. And to chill out like a legend, visit the beachside Jack O’Neill Lounge at the Santa Cruz Dream Inn. Surrounded by surfing memorabilia and a great view of Monterey Bay, sip a signature cocktail, or ask for Jack’s favourite after-surf libation, a Ketel One Martini. In October, the O’Neill Coldwater Classic attracts many of the world’s best surfers.
Check out an epic bodysurfing mecca along the O.C. coast
Back in 1971, a Sports Illustrated article about bodysurfing not only anointed Southern California “the cradle of the sport,” but proclaimed the Wedge at Newport Beach “the undisputed, full-out, righteous…king of body-surfing spots.”
Decades later, that assessment is still spot-on. The Wedge—where 20-foot waves frequently pound up against the man-made jetty that marks the entrance to Newport Harbour—is without doubt the premier bodysurfing spot in the country. The best part, though, is that you don’t have to brave the waves to enjoy it. In fact, given how rough the Wedge can be (especially after fall or winter rains), you might be better off joining the locals, who come by the thousands to laze on the beach and just watch the action when the surf is up.
Most of the year, the Wedge is even considered too raucous for most traditional surfers. Happily, though, any surfer (or bodysurfer) has plenty of other options along Newport Beach’s eight-plus miles of coastline. Despite its world-class credentials, you won’t find much serious-surfer attitude or territorialism along the beaches of this Orange County town—but rather a mellow, welcoming vibe.
With waves seldom more than knee-high, Newport Beach’s Little Corona is great for inexperienced surfers—but the waves are sweet when you catch one just right.
Take Little Corona, for instance, which is south of the harbour entrance. With waves that are short and seldom more than knee-high, this is a great beach for Barneys (inexperienced surfers)—but the waves are sweet when you catch one just right.
If this isn’t your first time riding the curl, you might want to try Blackies, just north of the Newport Pier. During the winter, northwest swells can produce perfect medium-size waves that draw surfers of all abilities. In the winter, it’s a little calmer, attracting wahines (women) with their kids, as well as gray bellies (older surfers) who prefer longboards to a short stick. Bonus: If the surf’s not up, join the locals sitting on the concrete wall separating the beach from the parking lot and sip coffee while enjoying the morning.
Further north, the beach between 52nd and 56th Streets, long known as Echo Beach, attracts serious surfers like pro Andrew Doheny, who grew up surfing at 54th Street and is considered one of the best surfers in the world. Indeed, Echo Beach—a 2009 documentary about Newport Beach’s 1980s surf culture—can often be seen playing in a loop at surfer grub joints like TK Burgers (as in “The Kind”), across from the Newport Pier; you can watch it while enjoying a classic traditional SoCal charbroiled burger, or perhaps a rib eye or ahi steak sandwich.
And if you need to learn to surf first? Take lessons at local spots like Endless Sun Surf School, Newport Beach Surfing Lessons, or Newport Surf Camp. And certainly, you’ll need some gear. A few blocks north of the pier, visit The Frog House, Newport’s quintessential surf shop. The Frog has been around since the early ’60s, and looks it: It’s chock-a-block with used surfboards, body boards, wetsuits, surfing DVDs, as well as skateboards and other surfer paraphernalia—so even if you’re not a pro, you can look a little more like one.
— David Lansing