A great surf town is the nearly magical sum of consistent waves, inviting accommodations, friendly locals, fun nightlife, delicious food, and plenty of activities should the ocean go flat. The following is a list of the world’s best surf towns, picked not necessarily because they are home to the best waves, but because the sum of their parts makes them inviting for locals and visitors alike. Plus, for each town, locals tell us where to eat, stay, and play.
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.
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.
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.
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 whole family can enjoy Southern California’s signature blend of classic American beach culture with a refreshing Mexican twist.
No area of the United States says “surfing” quite like Southern California; and no SoCal town is quite as surfy as Encinitas. It’s an easygoing mix of West Coast counterculture—from skaters and snowboarders to surfers—and New Age spiritualists. Aside from having some of the oldest and most well-respected surf shops in the country, it is also the home of La Paloma Theatre, which in its 84-year history has premiered countless surf films.
For a few waves to yourself, cruise down to Moonlight Beach, which supports a wide range of surfers, from beginners on its central sandbars to more advanced surfers at its north and south ends. “I love the energy of Encinitas,” says local surfer and body surfing guru Ed Lewis, who has opened the world of body surfing to a much larger audience through the shaping of handplanes. “As you drive up the freeway, you can feel the energy of it,” he says. “It has everything you could ask for: culture, great food, spirituality, great surf spots, a long history of surfing, surfers and shapers—and the people are friendly and happy.”
Autumn sees a high percentage of north and south and north/south combination swells rolling in with favorable wind conditions and comfortable water temperatures.
SoCal beach boys are half the reason America fell in love with surfing. Take a lesson from them at Leucadia Surf School to see why.
According to Lewis, for a post-surf feast grab lunch at Mozy or Swami’s cafés. A nice dinner can be had at Roxy’s, where the falafel burger and their old-fashioned ice cream bar are local traditions. Afterwards, either catch a movie at La Paloma or get a drink at the other Encinitas institution, the Daley Double Saloon.
“If you want to do it right, rent one of the houses on the bluff,” says Lewis.
Lewis recommends a trip to the Meditation Gardens at the Encinitas Self-Realization Fellowship. Not only can you find a slice of inner peace, you can see the famous, experts-only reef break called Swami’s from the bluff. If the outer world is more important to you than your inner one, take a studio tour with local eco-artist Rodney McCoubrey.
Encinitas is one of the few places in the world where traffic will voluntarily stop for you when you cross the road. Don’t ask questions, just give the driver a wave and go about your business.
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.
Best For: Young people looking to burn the candle at both ends
With 4,655 miles of coastline and an increasingly surf-crazy populace, Brazil is poised to become the next great epicenter of global surf culture. Nowhere is this better exemplified than Brazil’s island capital of surfing, Florianópolis, or Floripa, as the locals prefer. There are 42 different beaches to suit all surfing tastes, from the novice-friendly Barra Da Lagoa to the heavier Joaquina Beach, where they sometimes hold professional surfing competitions. The only thing more consistent than the Southern Hemisphere swells is the nightlife. Expect to surf a lot of afternoons, because the parties go late.
This part of Brazil receives year-round swell, but it averages slightly smaller in the summer (November to February).
Nexus Surf offers equipment rental and lessons with lead instructor Ernesto Hecker, a local with extensive international experience in surf instruction.
“A simple but awesome locals’ favorite is Cirrus,” says Nexus Surf managing director and Floripa transplant Hans Keeling. “It serves a great buffet of home-style, fresh, organic foods on a ‘pay per kilo’ basis, along with fresh-squeezed juices—all at super-reasonable prices.” The atmosphere is completed by the local surfer crowd that frequents the restaurant to recount the best waves of the day while nonstop surf videos play on TVs in the background.
When the sun goes down, head to Confraria Club, a local hot spot for traveling DJs and live shows. After winning his seventh ASP World Title in 2005, Kelly Slater even took the stage here to strum a few songs on the guitar. “Confraria definitely does not disappoint in terms of beautiful people but still manages to maintain a relaxed, chill vibe consistent with Floripa’s surf culture and roots,” according to Keeling.
Rent a villa or beach house through Floripa Vacation Homes.
If you get tired of the coastal heat, head to the highlands of Santa Catarina inSão Joaquim National Park.
The winds are highly variable and can quickly turn from swell-grooming offshores (blowing from the land) to wave destroying onshores (blowing from sea). The good news is that the coastline is very craggy, meaning there is always a beach positioned for favorable winds if you know where to look.
What is your favourite surfing town?