5 Places to Learn How to Surf
Discover how to catch the waves and hang 10 in top beach towns.
From little-known Sayulita, Mexico, to Oahu's iconic North Shore, these beautiful beach breaks are perfect for novice riders and die-hard surfers, alike. (Getty Images)
The world discovered modern surfing through Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, a Honolulu native who became an Olympic medalist swimmer at age 21. It was 1912. Duke's good looks, graceful style and unusual hobby of "wave sliding" attracted attention from onlookers. By his death in 1968, the Duke – Hawaii's Official Ambassador of Aloha – won eight Olympic medals, appeared in 28 Hollywood movies and rode a monster wave in Waikiki for 1¼ miles – the longest ride ever recorded. Fast forward to today, and beginners can experience the thrill of surfing in artificial wave pools and take lessons around the world, including these five destinations where the surf's up.
Make the pilgrimage to Waikiki Beach, where the Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort towers over the land where the Duke was born. He's featured in old photo murals near Lappert's ice cream shop and on the hotel's History Wall; his life-size statue on Kalakaua Avenue is one of Honolulu's top selfie stops.
Dave Carvalho, who founded Big Wave Dave in 2010, runs one of the many recommended surf schools a few blocks from the beach breaks. "Once the fundamentals about balance and focus are revealed, surfing is a sport that takes practice and instinct because no two surf days are ever the same,he says. On flat days, try stand-up paddleboarding among sea turtles, hike Diamond Head, shop or visit Pearl Harbor. AccesSurf teaches those with disabilities adaptive surfing and swimming on the first Saturday of every month at Barbers Point Beach Park. What's more, Waikikis affordable lodging ranges from the efficient Aqua Aston Hotels to the high-style Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club, a boutique property whose Surf Concierge arranges private lessons and guides.
Santa Cruz, California
California boasts hundreds of surf breaks, many with year-round swells. Historians say the sport began in 1885, when three Hawaiian princes arrived at military academy in San Mateo, California. Recognizing rolling surf when they visited Santa Cruz, the princes made o'lo style surfboards of local redwood and hit the waves. Surfers like Daniel McGregor III, a San Francisco Uber driver whose surfboard is always strapped to the roof of his car, takes advantage of the ideal surfing conditions. "Santa Cruz has 15 world-class surf spots in one town," he says. "You could drive 2,000 miles up the Pacific coast and never even find one spot like that," he adds.
Adding to this upscale beach town's allure is Jack O’Neill, a local sailor who invented the wet suit and a surf brand. Santa Cruz is also one of nine surfing reserves around the world, designated to preserve its 23 surf breaks and surrounding environmental and cultural assets. Drop by Club Ed Surf School and Camps or the Richard Schmidt Surf School for gear and lessons. Parents who check into the stylish Dream Inn Santa Cruz can watch kids learn from the Jack O'Neill Lounge terrace. On flat days, head to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, a family memorial to a son killed while practicing the sport he loved.
[See: The 10 Best California Beaches.]
Oahu's North Shore, Hawaii
The world-famous reef breaks off Oahu's North Shore can be up to 50 or 60 feet high in winter, when spectators hope to catch champions in town for the Hawaiian Cup, Billabong and Vans competitions. "There’s a reason people come here from all over the world to surf – the surf is better," says Regan Constad, an entrepreneur from Williamsburg, New York, who takes lessons from Uncle Bryan's Sunset Suratt Surf Academy in calmer Haleiwa. "It's more predictable; waves break with a certain rhythm, and far enough from shore so that you have time to get up and catch your balance for a long ride in," he says, adding “The water's warm so you don’t have to wear a wet suit, there's no seaweed and the views are just gorgeous."
Beginning surfers can bunk at the luxury Turtle Bay Resort, spectacularly situated on a peninsula. Beginners, kids and dogs surf off its protected sandy beach in summer and, around the point, in calmer Kalewa Bay in winter. Turtle Bay has a legendary sunset view pool bar, a surfing school, a shrine to pro surfer Andy Irons in the lobby and abstract photos of surfing elites acing Banzai Pipeline, the enormous wave off 'Ehukai Park.
Bocas Del Toro, Panama
A Panamanian province of tiny islands, Bocas del Toro draws beach bums, nature lovers and surfers thanks to its golden beaches and crystalline Caribbean waters. Surfing conditions vary seasonally with the most reliable months between December and April. Instagram-worthy surf spots catering to surfers of all skill levels include reef breaks that can be shallow and dangerous, point breaks and beach breaks. Base yourself on Isla Colon, Isla Carenero or Isla Bastimentos (all of which areconnected by boat), and find lessons and rental gear at the Mono Loco, Escuela del Mar and La Buga Surf Schools.
Most island inns and hostels are owned by surfers or have in-house guides. The popular Selina has lodging with community living areas, coworking spaces and bedding ranging from suites to hammocks. Their two Bocas del Toro locations are the Selina Isla Colon, perched on a beach ideal for surfing, and the solar-powered Red Frog Bungalows on Isla Bastimentos, which is just a short ferry ride from the must-see nightlife in Bocas Town.
Surfers love Mexico's Riviera Nayarit not only because of its accessibility from Puerto Vallarta International Airport, but also its variety of long and short waves off the Pacific Coast. While Stinky's and El Anclote are the closest breaks to the luxury Punta Mita development – a popular place to find the lavish second homes of A-listers and Hollywood celebrities – most surfers prefer the friendly, counterculture beach town vibe of Sayulita, a half-hour drive north.
New arrivals check-in at the beachfront Lunaazul School and ask for El Papas, one of the top local surfers. At Lo de Marcos Surf Skool, you can also partake in stand-up paddleboarding and snorkel sessions on flat days. Even better, Sayulita is packed with shops, galleries, a vibrant nightlife and great eateries. Check out Chocobanan, Tacos Nati and Paninos for a memorable bite; youmay even spot a celebrity having pizza at La Rustica. Visitors who don't want to sleep on their board will find Sayulita accommodations at all price points, including camping, private villa rentals and the popular Villa Amor Hotel.
About En Route
Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.
Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.
Edited by Liz Weiss.
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