It’s time. You’ve wanted to learn how to surf since watching Point Break in the early ’90s, and the cold truth is that if Keanu Reeves can do it, you can do it too. Lucky for you, with the opening of new surf schools and cheap flights to popular surf destinations, learning to surf has never been easier. Pack up those boardshorts and grab a wetsuit because 2019 is the year you’re finally going on a surfari. Here’s where to do it.
Where to paddle out and get comfortable
Santa Cruz, California
Last year, California made surfing the state’s official sport. The move was an appropriate one, as Californians and visitors alike take to the waves constantly up and down the state’s 840 miles of Pacific coastline. Among the best places to learn in the state are Cowells Beach and Capitola Beach in Santa Cruz, where the waves gently rise and take their sweet time to “break” with the whitewater curl you need to propel yourself forward — meaning you have plenty of time to position yourself on the wave. Also, since you’re over a reef, the wave breaks in more or less the same spot every time, making wave selection a lot easier.
Also, since this is a well-known beginner spot, the vibe is a lot more chill than at other peaks along the Santa Cruz shore. You could join the droves of beginners and make your newbie foibles among dozens of others doing the same thing, but your best bet would be to visit these beaches during spring and autumn after the summertime crowds have left and the kids are back in school. (At any time of year, you’ll want a 4/3 wetsuit, and the O’Neill surf shop is conveniently located on 41st Avenue.) These breaks are ideal for bailing out of the Bay Area on a day trip to the beach, as well, as Santa Cruz is just an hour and a half from the heart of San Francisco.
Best beginner wave: Capitola Beach and Cowell’s, both easily accessible from town
What else to do: Visit Natural Bridges State Beach, which houses a beautiful butterfly preserve as well as the rock bridge that made it famous. This state park is also among the best spots in the area to spot a seal. The Santa Cruz Wharf and Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk are your spot off the sand, with shopping, dining, and rides.
Ditch Plains — Montauk, New York
Ditch Plains is where New Yorkers go to learn how to hang ten. Long Island has a more laid-back, casual vibe than Manhattan or Brooklyn, and combined with the mellow waves of spring, summer, and fall, this is a great place to learn how to surf without having to travel to do it. The beach break is long and expansive across Ditch Plains Beach, allowing plenty of space for you to paddle out cautiously and get comfortable. White sand runs into cloudy blue water and creates a scene of striking visual contrasts, and surfers in black wetsuits tend to look like seals working their way down the wave.
Experienced surfers tend to line up further east of the beginner’s break, though you’ll encounter a minor crowd if you visit on a weekend or a warm, sunny summer day. The water can be quite cold depending on the season, so be sure to rent a wetsuit along with your board, both of which you can grab in town at Air and Speed. In the summer, you can usually get by with a shortie wetsuit, and you definitely won’t need thicker than a 3/2.
After your morning surf, Joni’s is awesome for a healthy lunch. But be warned: As good as that lunch may be, accommodations in Montauk are expensive — making the area a great place to also work on your #vanlife skills.
Best beginner break: Near Rheinstein Estate Park
What else to do: If the weather is on your side, keep outdoors and check out Long Island’s extensive collection of hiking trails. Montauk proper has an excellent restaurant scene that expertly blends Long Island’s Italian heritage with the flavors of the ocean just offshore. Before sunset, head to the Surf Lodge for live music and drinks.
Where to dive in
Malibu Popoyo — Costa Esmeralda, Nicaragua
If long, gentle waves flowing into soft sand beaches and a local beach culture with hints of both the Wild West and a Rasta-fied summer camp calls to you, Nicaragua is where you want to be for your first surfing experience. As the country works to recraft its image to tourists following recent bouts of social strife, a number of hot new attractions have popped up to showcase the Pacific coastline. Many of these are boutique surf retreats catering to rise of the eco-tourism that has taken hold in the Caribbean. Malibu Popoyo is the cream of the crop, a new surf school and lodge with guided access to 10 world-class surf breaks, including the classic break of Playa Santana right outside its front door.
The setup is all-inclusive, with an onsite restaurant and bar, a yoga palapa, and a pool. What makes Malibu Popoyo ideal for beginners is the pro guide that escorts you to the breaks, with daily access to mellow longboard cruisers perfect for finding your footing on the board. The only thing you need to watch out for is the bar tab back at the lodge, the one exclusion to the resort’s all-inclusive mantra.
Best beginner wave: Playa Santana
What else to do: Relax. Costa Esmeralda is a sleepy, slow-moving kind of place. Locals long ago adopted the mantra that “what can be done today can also be done tomorrow.” Have a surf, then tuck into a good book on the beach, preferably with a glass of chicha in your hand. You’ll stick out like a sore thumb if you’re in a hurry.
Nosara, Costa Rica
Nosara, on the western edge of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, is home to a great beginner wave on Playa Nosara that has drawn a number of surf schools to its shores with one goal: getting first-timers in the water and standing up on a surfboard. Here, you can stay in a luxury accommodation and receive professional instruction at resorts like Surf Simply, which offers video instruction courses along with personalized teaching both in and out of the water. In true Pura Vida style, they also give you smoothies during the lesson and have helped cultivate a surf scene that perfectly embodies the country’s laid back spirit.
Nosara is also home to a strong female surf scene including women-only surf retreats and the Nosara Ticas Surf Club, a group that helps women learn to surf in a supportive environment. A typical day on the beginner wave here sees riders of all ages and backgrounds, and even if the surfing isn’t enough to get you hooked, the turquoise water should do the trick.
Best beginner wave: Playa Nosara
What else to do: Lots of yoga. Nosara is a wellness haven, and an early-morning stroll through town will lead you past numerous yoga studios filled with locals and tourists deep into their Ujjayi breath. Join a class or head down to the beach to work on your solo practice. You can also visit rescued animals at SIBU Sanctuary.
Vila Nova De Milfontes — Alentejo Region, Portugal
The idea of surfing in Portugal can be an intimidating prospect, considering that this western European nation is home to the skyscraper-sized waves of Nazaré. Certainly, any first-timer would be right to fall into a panic attack at the thought of paddling out to an 80-footer. To quote every surfer of all time, “Just chill, bro.” Head about three and a half hours south of Nazaré to the Alentejo Region, where you’ll find a collection of cozy, welcoming surf schools and a series of rippable beginner waves.
At the north end of Alentejo Natural Park, Alentejo Surf Camp houses up to 20 people hostel-style in its villa. Its instructors guide you through the basics of paddling and standing up on small waves and then send you back to the villa to take advantage of a private bar to relax in and sort through the day’s photos.
Best beginner wave: São Torpes, at the far north end of the park, is an uncrowded and simple wave to learn on. If you’re with the surf school, they will likely take you to closer waves, but by venturing only about 20 minutes north, you’re stepping away from many of the tourists visiting the park.
What else to do: Eat. For being such a small beach town, Vila Nova De Milfontes has some incredible cafes specializing in fresh Portuguese cuisine as well as lighter options made with local produce that are perfect for a day at the beach. Do lunch at 18 ePiques, visit local markets, and when it’s time for petiscos, or tapas, head to Ritual.
Kuta — Bali, Indonesia
Bali is paradise in nearly every sense of the word. Wide open beaches lined with mellow cafes and bars ring the southern portion of the island, while an hour’s drive from the coast puts you among the monkeys and yogis of Ubud. While experienced surfers hang out at Canggu’s Echo Beach and in the swells of Uluwatu, Kuta is home to easy beginner breaks that don’t sacrifice the turquoise water or the health-and-wellness scene that this Indonesian island is so well known for.
The cool thing about surfing in Bali is that the scene here embodies the carefree surfer’s mentality. Rent a surfboard from a guy on the beach — this should cost you about $5 for an hour and requires no paperwork or signatures of any kind — and paddle out with your crew. Or, go the more formal route and take a lesson through Odyssey Surf School.
Best beginner wave: Kuta Beach, within walking distance or a short motorbike ride from anywhere in town
What else to do: Due to a consistent flow of young backpackers, Kuta has a hopping nightlife scene. After your session on the water, start with a Bintang beer at a beachside cafe, and then move into one of the many “beach clubs” as the evening progresses. Here you’ll find DJs spinning top 40 and dance tunes to a crowd of people alternating between dancing and poolside lounging. Get there early because there’s nothing better than watching the sunset over the water from a beachside infinity pool, cocktail in hand.
Surf Yoga Beer — Various locations
You’re probably already skilled at one of these three things — wave-riding, asanas, or brew-drinking — and this is your chance to learn the other two. Surf Yoga Beer promises “fitness adventures worldwide” with professional instruction and a crew of people who apparently party just as hard as they work out. The trips are all about building a positive and supportive community around travel, culture, and surfing. Adventurers come with various levels of surfing experience — from just starting to advanced.
You’re likely to glean tips from surfers slightly more experienced than you and, as long as you’re not a dick, they’ll probably even take you out and help you get comfortable on a beginner wave. Upcoming retreats take place both in typical surf hotspots like Nicaragua and Mexico along with more off-the-beaten-wave locales like Morocco. And if the surfing part turns out to not be your jam, you can always spend more time on the yoga mat or check out the locale.
Best beginner wave: Varies by location, but the instructors will lead you right to it.
What else to do: Yoga and beer drinking, of course. Because Surf Yoga Beer’s clientele is both adventurous and outdoorsy, you should also expect some epic side jaunts like hiking or zip lining, depending on where you are in the world.
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