World's Coolest Surf Towns
Surfers worth their wax know that the beach on Oahu’s north shore near Haleiwa has some of the best reef breaks. But ask a salt-in-the-veins surfer which towns are best for off-wave chill outs and local culture, and head-scratching ensues.
“It’s funny, I’ve always looked at the surf, not so much at the town,” says Pierre Wilkinson, a South African who’s surfed from Australia to Zanzibar and just about everywhere in between. “I’ve surfed in many places where there is very little to do out of the water.”
For die-hard fans like Wilkinson, the waves always win. But for those seeking a blend of cowabunga thrill and après-surf scene, there are plenty of cool towns where good food mixes with a barefoot vibe, and browsing galleries and shops is as fun as catching waves.
Consider California’s classic surfin’ safari destination of Santa Cruz, with its 106-year-old boardwalk, or Byron Bay, Australia, where surfers fuel up at The Top Shop before paddling out to the swells at Wategos and The Pass. Or the many draws of Bundoran, a town on the west coast of Ireland, where a world-class surf competition and a thriving pub and music scene collide.
Read on for more beach destinations you can sink your 10 toes into, even if you never hang 10.
Browse among the 700 boards at family-run Hansen’s Surf Shop, and take your pick to world-famous Swami’s beach, named for the nearby Self-Realization Fellowship Retreat, Gardens, and Hermitage. During winter months, the right point break, reef breaks, and beach breaks lure a steady stream of local and international surfers. Stroll the short walk to downtown Encinitas, full of Mexican restaurants like Juanita’s, whose fish tacos are worth the wait in line. And get your beach-tunes fix at Lou’s Records, an institution for SoCal vinyl lovers.
Nosara, Costa Rica
Visitors to this Pacific paradise strike it rich with endless beaches and abundant wildlife. Playa Guiones is where surfers plunk down, while yogis do the downward dog at the open-air studio at Hotel Harmony, founded by a couple who met surfing. At nearby Ostional Beach, thousands of olive ridley sea turtles crawl ashore once a month to lay their eggs. Nosara’s private Biological Reserve supports hundreds of species of birds, howler monkeys, and other rainforest creatures, and the bar at Lagarta Lodge delivers killer sunset views.
British Columbia draws serious skiers and oenophiles, and surfers, too, have come to adore B.C.—especially Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The 2013 Rip Curl Pro surf competition shredded here in June. The rustic buildings around Main and Campbell streets are worth a glance. Shelter Restaurant is replenished daily by Tofino’s fishermen, and locals gather in the bar to watch Vancouver Canucks hockey. Eagle Aerie Gallery displays the works of award-winning Canadian artist Roy Henry Vickers.
With its terracotta and whitewashed ramparts, and blue wooden boats bobbing in the sea, Essaouira is about as far from a hammock-on-a-palm-tree surf town as you’ll get. The fortified medina (a UNESCO heritage site) is a 10-minute walk from the beach through labyrinthine lanes with piles of spices, handcrafted wood pieces, fabrics, pottery, and argan oil products for sale. Soothe any sore muscles or nerves at one of the dozens of hammams, such as the upscale Azur Art & Spa, also a permanent gallery for local artists.
Byron Bay, Australia
Miles of sandy crescents put Byron Bay high on the must-see list for beachcombers and surfers lured by the omnipresent swells at Wategos and The Pass. And this tight-knit community nearly 500 miles up the eastern coast from Sydney happily welcomes travelers into its midst. To mingle, stop by The Top Shop, a popular post-surf coffee and breakfast hangout, or belly up at Woody’s, founded by surfers back in the ’70s. If you can get up by sunrise, a hike to the lighthouse (start at The Pass) will prove well worth it.
When winter arrives with waves topping 50 feet, thrill-seekers converge on Oahu’s north shore, the self-proclaimed surf capital of the world. Pastel-hued Haleiwa town brims with art galleries and cafés where surfers fuel up before challenging nearby Waimea Bay and the Banzai Pipeline. For those looking for a real chill out, stop at Matsumoto’s for a serving of shave ice, similar to a snow cone, doused in tropical-flavored syrups.
On the Emerald Isle’s west coast, passion for pubs, music, and surf culture collides. The town of Bundoran has played host to the European Surfing Championships four times, and a good old-fashioned pub crawl is within walking distance of the main reef break. Some of Ireland’s top rock bands regularly jam into the wee hours at bars like Chasin’ Bull. Its counterpoint is 114-year-old Brennan’s Criterion Bar, whose no-music policy encourages lively conversation.
Backpackers, sun-seekers, and seasoned surfers from around the globe roam the dirt streets of this thatched-roof village. The tropical hideaway on the Pacific coast is speckled with palm trees, jewelry hawkers, and low-cost accommodations like Hanga Roa hostel, with its toes in the sand at La Punta, the town’s famous surf point. Eat from the bicycle ceviche stands that roll along the beach, and come sundown, join the wriggling masses at the bars and discos that thump well into the night.
New Smyrna Beach, FL
With average temperatures of 75 degrees, family-friendly New Smyrna Beach is perfect for year-round outdoor living. The nearly six-mile waterfront loop follows the Intracoastal Waterway, Indian River, and Atlantic Ocean through varied neighborhoods. Pick an outdoor café along Third Avenue, called “Eat Street,” or stroll the palm-lined Flagler Avenue, whose history dates back to the 1920s. At New Smyrna Beach’s oldest surf shop, Nichols, you can rent a kayak to explore the waterways—or a bike, board, boat, or beach chair, if that’s more your speed.
Jeffreys Bay, South Africa
Referred to as J’Bay by locals, this surf destination at the southern tip of the African continent is bucket-list material thanks to long stretches of sandy beach and near-perfect right-handers (waves that break from right to left when viewed from the shore). The city was built around the sport, and denizens and surf pros actively pursue the passion side-by-side. Jump into local life with a lesson from Surf-JBay and oysters at the beachfront Kitchen Windows restaurant, named for the area’s most famous surf break.
Santa Cruz, CA
There’s a retro vibe to this surf city some 70 miles south of San Francisco. It’s the kind of place that inspires you to eat cotton candy on the boardwalk and throw your hands up on the roller coaster (rides are $1 on Monday and Tuesday nights). The 106-year-old seaside amusement park is the West Coast’s answer to New York’s Coney Island. Surfers make a beeline for Steamer’s Lane, which locals claim is the country’s best surf spot. At Olitas on the wharf, $6 will get you a taco and a margarita on Tuesdays; walk, bike, run, or skate it off along scenic West Cliff Drive.
This South American temple of surf is home to many expats who came to surf La Puntilla, Infiernillo, and Punta de Lobos surf points and stayed, lured by the laid-back life and local customs. Every October and December, an International Surf Championship is held at La Puntilla Beach, and Punta de Lobos—often hailed as South America’s best surf spot—hosts the National Surfing Championship each summer. Rent a board at Pichilemu’s first surf school, Manzana, or learn to say “howdy” in Spanish and master the surf at the Pichilemu Language School, which offers weeklong combined courses.
Surfers and tourists looking for a contagious mellow vibe will find it at this hibiscus-scented surf town on Maui’s north shore. Candy-colored wooden shacks that once housed mill workers now function as shops, cafés, and art galleries. Charley’s, popular with locals (and Willie Nelson), often hosts live music. Don’t leave without a souvenir from the boutique Alice in Hulaland or a freshly caught seafood meal at Mama’s Fish House, served on the beach surrounded by tiki torches.
San Sebastián, Spain
A sophisticated food scene with a side of surf and siesta is the specialty of this Basque town on the Bay of Biscay. Arzak, Spain’s first three-star Michelin restaurant, is just a few streets from the preferred surf beach of La Zurriola. Jump in to a pickup game of beach volleyball or soccer, or paddle out to join dozens of surfers bobbing in the waves. Conditions are perfect for beginners during the summer months and much more adrenaline pumping during winter. Tapas (called pintxos in these parts) are the social glue in San Sebastián, with options including the notable Bar Zeruko.
Batu Karas, Indonesia
This fishing village is free from the tourist buses common in the resort town of Pangandaran, 18 miles away. Relax on the beach, catch a wave, or simply watch them roll in from the tranquil JavaCove Beach Hotel, and you’ll understand why surfers prefer to keep Batu Karas a closely guarded secret. The lush green jungle tumbling into turquoise seas is pinch-me scenery (as in, Pinch me—am I dreaming?) and extends into the village. It’s a one-dirt-lane cluster of thatch-roofed warungs, where locals will rent you a surfboard or serve some homemade grub.