The California coast really does live up to all the images – gorgeous women, masses of wave set ups and that laid back vibe and lifestyle. And because my trip was in February it brought the added out-of-season benefits of lack of crowds (on land) and real surfing for surfers.
California is bigger than I thought and offers what the media would call Extreme Sport opportunities for everyone. Whilst at Huntington Beach we discovered that we could reach Mammoth Mountain ski resort within two hours. That was really something for me – surfing in warm water then skiing on the slopes, all in one day.
Our plan was to quickly make our way down from San Francisco to the Newport Beach area and then to work our way back up the coast visiting all the famous spots you see on Eurosport or in the latest WCT hotshots “this is my home break with me at 15 years old” videos. Well that was my plan. My friend doesn’t surf!
So to Newport Beach: We didn’t see any famous Newport Wedge, in fact what we did see – from the Boardwalk – were a lot of pelicans and weak banks with pitiful conditions of about 1-2ft slop.
So let’s move quickly up the coast to the more promising Huntington Beach (and Boardwalk).
Huntington Beach reeks of the surf culture. It supports several shops larger than any in the UK all very close to each other. This area also has a museum of surfing history and outside Jack’s Surf Shop, a Walk of Fame immortalises several surfer heroes.
Here you can surf next to the pier in view of everyone – if your head’s that big. I found that there were, in fact, far better banks working in a 10-minute walk south of the pier. I shared these peaks with one other local surfer whilst 20 or so jostled for position next to the pier – madness. (Remember what surfing is really about.)
As it was a beach break it was strongly reliant on the banks and tides. I found there was a good peak with a nice wall on high tide, but by low tide you found yourself paddling through a lot of white water to get out the back, only to be frustrated by a lot of closeouts.
At Huntington Beach, we stayed at the Colonial Inn Youth Hostel – and I can personally recommend this as a surfers’ haven with very friendly helpful staff. The cost is cheap and the vibes in general are mellow.
With reluctance we moved north, following the Pacific Coast Highway One (PCH 1) as much as possible, though being forced inland many times due to El NiÃ±o.
Now, if you are really into crowd avoidance, then I would recommend surf exploration between Santa Barbara and Monterey. This stretch of coastline had some of the best formed waves I saw on the trip and they were empty!
Our next stop was Santa Barbara (and Boardwalk.) You can sniff the money in this strong cafÃ© culture where the main street hosts very opulent shops. I would think it’s buzzing in the summer.
Unfortunately, the Santa Barbara surf didn’t really show, though there was potential off the end of the harbour wall – you can see it breaking from the main beach. Don’t paddle out, instead walk around the harbour and enter by the little beach at the end of the wall. This is a beautiful town and I could happily settle there.
Santa Cruz was our next major stop. Now this place was working! Luckily for me there was a travelling surfer, Phil, from Bournemouth, working at the youth hostel where we were staying. He knew Santa Cruz well and the next morning gave us the grand tour of surf spots. There are a lot – including Mavericks; special boards are available in the shop.
‘Steamer Lane’ was pumping in the 8-10ft range. There were a lot of surfers out, though with plenty of peaks it handled them all. I chose to avoid this ‘ego’ spot (again) and made my way along the coast to a place called ‘The Hook’, which was breaking around 4-5ft, clean and peeling a long way. This is only 10 minutes from ‘Steamer Lane’ and you pass at least eight other spots on the way.
‘The Hook’ was a really good wave with plenty of plus+ factors to it. Access is down the cliff (steps provided) to the point. A short paddle out finds you in the line up. Once you catch the wave it breaks diagonally to the beach, ensuring a long ride – not unlike many other breaks in the area. It isn’t a particularly heavy break though I would advise exiting where you entered as the beach is littered with rocks making it awkward on a high tide to get out.
I hired a surfboard at the shop across the road opposite the Boardwalk – ignore the comments, they’re a bunch of charlies and will automatically think you’re a kook.
Our last destination was The Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. I was mildly surprised at this spot. Conditions were slightly shifting – overhead waves with 3 out on long boards. Access didn’t seem too bad. As soon as you jump off the rocks and paddle away to the line up it doesn’t seem to show any difficulties. Though saying all this I only watched – and remember that Alcatraz is across the way and those notorious currents were deterrent enough to would-be escapees.
We stayed at Fort Mason YHA, which was huge, with friendly people and well located for a wander into downtown SF.
A last point: For seven years I lived in Newcastle with Tynemouth as my local break. Late last year I finally resigned myself to having to move to find more job opportunities. Sod’s law saw me starting a career (good) in land-locked Nottingham (bad).
My point is that it was only a substantial increase in my salary which meant I was able to comfortably afford this trip. So was this the best or the worst move I have ever made? Not sure. But don’t call me a weekend warrior!
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our North America Insiders page.
Trail Finders and Continental Airlines.
Â£220 including tax.
Campus Travel Â£32.50 – 10 days world wide insurance.
Alamo – seven days for a powerful Pontiac Grand Am SE 1.8I (about the size of a Rover 400) arranged through Trail Finders.
I’d recommend the Motel 6 chain as good value and a lot cheaper than similar and often worse accommodation.
We also used youth hostels where possible as they were even cheaper and it was good to mix with other travellers
for a good laugh and to swap travel tips.
Loads of food places – we mainly chose Denny’s for a good-value feed. It’s similar to a Little Chef but with larger portions!
We used Let’s Go California – it was excellent.
6’4″+. The waves have plenty of power and can get big, though I happily borrowed an old 5’10” swallow tail twin fin for Huntington.
I opted to borrow and hire, so I don’t know how much airlines charge or how they treat boards. The price of boards in California is pretty good with plenty of deals to be snatched. Generally prices in the USA for everything were one-third cheaper than the UK.
3mm is considered a winter suit with boots/gloves. I took my 5mm which was great and probably more appropriate if you’re thinking about surfing around the San Francisco area. The boots came in handy for access to the reef breaks.
Crappy Snappy Fixed Lens Camera – because the Minolta AF Water Camera, which I spent a lot of money on, has water damage!!!