Southern California’s Best Surf Spots

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In LISTS, RESOURCES

“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.”


MALIBU

Stretching for more than 32 miles/51 kilometers along the Pacific, Malibu is a beach town like no other. Hollywood stars and top athletes escape to oceanfront homes on long strands of beach with front-row seats of surfers and unforgettable sunsets. Considered to have some of the most perfect waves anywhere, Malibu’s Surfrider Beach was named the first World Surfing Reserve; nearby Zuma Beach is a sun magnet for locals and families; aim for quieter weekdays if that’s your style.

You can shop for beach fashions, and maybe even spot one of local celebs, at the Malibu Country Mart and Malibu Lumber Yard, two adjacent and upscale retail centers. There’s dining and fishing on Malibu Pier (a great place to watch the action at Surfrider), and in winter, Point Dume at Malibu’s north end provides an ideal perch for spotting migrating gray whales.

SAN DIEGO

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 too. 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).

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 on local lessons. And even if you never plan to get in the waves, you can still buy a pair of board shorts and power up with breakfast at such classic surf hangouts as Pipes Cafe in Cardiff-by-the-Sea and Beach Break Cafe in Oceanside.

HUNTINGTON BEACH

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. Surfing definitely sets the tone in Huntington Beach, 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 Pier.

From the pier, it’s just a short walk to Main Street’s stylish boutiques and restaurants, many with sidewalk tables or decks that let you bask in Huntington Beach’s fresh ocean breezes and sun-soaked afternoons.

SANTA CRUZ

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.

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