Since 1885, when three Hawaiian princes attending military school on the mainland rode Santa Cruz waves on boards carved from redwood, California has fully embraced the sport—and culture—of surfing.
A long line of California surfers, including “father of the modern surfboard” Bob Simmons and wetsuit inventor Jack O’Neill, have since expanded the sport’s horizons. The Golden State even has an official holiday dedicated to it: September 20 is California Surfing Day. In advance of the celebration, a group of surfers and creatives toured the Southern California coast and learned more about the region’s storied surf culture.
“The people and surfers are what make the surf culture very unique and different in California,” says visual artist Matty Leong. “Every place has its own awesome surf community and everyone supports each other and knows each other, which I find very cool. There's also history at every break; some surfing legends started surfing some of these breaks in California.”
Leong was joined by surfers Tara Sachi, Alicia Kelley, and Carson Myers, as well as artists Nolan Omura, Sho Niimura, and Collin Blaney, with Los Angeles photographer Alex Qian acting as guide.
The group kicked off their journey by landing at Los Angeles International Airport, where they checked into the Los Angeles Airport Marriott before a day of testing the waters in Malibu and Ventura. They also sought out the best breaks (and post-surf eats) in Huntington Beach and Dana Point. Although the destinations were all surf-centric beach towns, each had its own vibe, says Qian. “Ventura was charming and felt homegrown, Huntington Beach felt historic and quick-paced with all the competitive surfers that rolled through in the past, and Dana Point had the polished museum full of history, set in one of the nicest backdrops.”
Follow this itinerary to create your own Southern California surf tour, inspired by the group’s favorite stops.
Before paddling out, get a sweeping view of the surf from the Ventura Botanical Gardens, 109 acres carpeted with more than 20,000 plants in the hills above town. Then immerse yourself in iconic waters with a session at California Street, or C Street, a surf spot with reliable waves that hosted the first professional surf contest in 1965.
MadeWest Brewing Company’s Ventura Pier taproom serves up unparalleled views of C Street along with award-winning pints, and Spencer Makenzie’s eatery was a big hit with the crew. “You need to get the fish tacos,” Qian recommends. “The restaurant had a friendly atmosphere and was recommended by the locals at Ventura Surf Shop.” Another favorite: the beachfront Jolly Oyster Shuck Shack, where you can eat fresh oysters on a picnic table at San Buenaventura State Beach Park.
Swing by Walden Surfboards or Ventura Surf Shop, both part of the local surf fabric, for help shopping for any crucial gear or advice for your next stop. Recover from an active day in the water at the Crowne Plaza Hotel Ventura Beach, located right on the beach and just two blocks from downtown.
Dating back to 1914, when Hawaiian George Freeth put on a surfing demonstration to celebrate the opening of the city’s new pier, Huntington Beach has steadily built its reputation as “Surf City USA.” It’s all captured in the Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum, Surfers' Hall of Fame, and Surfing Walk of Fame—and you’re never too far from one of Huntington’s many surf shops.
With exposure to swells coming from all directions, at least one of the beach breaks in town is likely to be generating rideable waves on any given day. The scene is concentrated around the pier—and so are the crowds, which dissipate as you head north or south.
If you’re in town on a Tuesday, browse the offerings at the Surf City Nights Farmers Market, where vendors sell seasonal produce, fresh-cut flowers, and locally made goods like honey and bread. Afterward, grab dinner at Duke’s Huntington Beach, named in honor of Duke Kahanamoku, the famed Hawaiian surfer whose 1920s California surf exhibitions helped grow the sport. Make the ocean-inspired Paséa Hotel—which is close to both the ocean and shopping at Pacific City—your home base. “The Paséa Hotel that was steps away from the waterfront where we surfed,” Qian says. “This was great since we could wash up and head out to dinner right away from the beach.”
Just 30 miles down the coast, you’ll discover another essential surfing hub in Dana Point. Today the best waves are on the north side of town, at Salt Creek, a picturesque spot popular with surf photographers, or to the south at Doheny State Park, which attracts beginners and longboarders.
Hobie Surf Shop established the first surf store in Southern California in 1954, and you can still browse the offerings just two blocks from the original location. Students of surf history will want to check out the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center just south of Dana Point in San Clemente, which houses one of the largest collections of artifacts, surfboards, and photos from across the globe.
After your history lesson, head to A’s Burgers, a Pacific Coast Highway institution since 1970 that specializes in burgers, onion rings, and hearty breakfast burritos that will keep surfers fueled-up through their next epic session in the water. Tuck in for the night at Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa, conveniently located near the waves at Doheny State Park.