Five Unexpected Places to Learn to Surf

The idea of surfing usually conjures up images of tanned and laughing people sharing a gentle roller at Waikiki in Hawaii, or the machine-like waves at Malibu in California. But did you know that almost any destination near a large body of water is likely to have access to waves and someone to teach you the basics? You don’t even have to be near the ocean nowadays; there are plenty of surfers, and even surf schools, around the Great Lakes and rivers with standing waves.

Besides, the best-known waves in the world such as Malibu, Puerto Escondido, or Jeffrey’s Bay, are often ridiculously crowded and too dangerous for beginners. The more off-the-beaten-track surf spots will afford you a better learning opportunity. If there are fifty other surfers out, it can be hard to get the right of way, and you may find yourself pulling off of many waves in order to let better surfers go down the line. As a beginner, you also have the luxury of not needing perfect waves to get the basics down and have an amazing time doing it.  The bottom line is: the more waves you can have to yourself when you’re first learning, the sooner you’ll be the one racing down that perfect wave.

If you’ve ever felt the pull of surfing and wanted to learn, but aren’t heading to a classic surf destination on your next trip, don’t worry – you may still be able to learn how to surf.

Here are five unexpected spots pick up the skill of riding waves:

Tofino, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Perched on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, is a small town called Tofino that’s located within the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Clayoquot Sound. Picture walking to the surf break through temperate rainforest full of giant Douglas fir and cedar trees, and paddling out to the waves breaking on a cobblestone beach. Orca sightings are common.

For a small town of under two thousand year-round residents, Tofino has a surprising number of surf schools and shops. Raph Bruhwiler, one of Canada’s few pro surfers, and his sister Catherine are among the instructors at Bruhwiler Surf Camp. They offer group and private lessons (C$70/C$200 for 2 hours), as well as two-day co-ed or women-only intensives (C$150).   Surf Sister, which offers women-only and co-ed groups, focuses on creating a friendly and supportive environment for women to learn to surf, while still offering lessons for guys.

A few other places in Tofino that offer lessons are Pacific Surf School, West Side Surf, and Live to Surf.

Although a few of these camps and schools offer packages with lodging, the more affordable way to go would be to camp or stay at a hostel. Whalers on the Point Guesthouse offers dorm beds for C$27-$34/night. Tofino Trek Inn has rooms for C$65-$95/night, or dorm beds for C$25-$35/night. Campsites are available at Mackenzie Beach Resort. If you want to splurge for more unique accommodations, you can try staying at the organic and environmentally friendly EcoLodge within Tofino’s Botanical Gardens. Rooms are C$145-$195 in the summer high season.

The best season to visit Tofino in terms of weather and water temperature is summer. The waves in winter can be too big for beginners and very, very cold. You’ll still need a wetsuit during the summer (most surf shops and schools provide these during lessons, or rent them out), but it will be a lighter one than in winter, and you won’t need to wear boots or gloves in the water during peak summer.  Whether you decide to camp, stay in a hostel, or luxe out in more expensive digs, make sure to reserve ahead during the summer. Tofino is small and can get booked up quickly.

>> Book flights to Vancouver or look for hostels in Vancouver


Less known for surfing than many of its neighboring countries in Central and South America, Ecuador is nonetheless a great location to catch some waves. The water is warm, the living is cheap and the waves can get quite good. Three-course set lunches (almuerzos) can be had at local restaurants for as little as $2, including such local specialties as choclo (barbecued corn) or ceviche.

The best time to visit is the Southern Hemisphere’s summer from January to May (most of Ecuador is located in the Southern Hemisphere). Water temperatures hover in the 70’s Fahrenheit all year round.

Casa Del Sol hotel offers yoga classes along with surf lessons, and is located directly on a great surfing beach. Learn-to-surf packages start at $750 per person for a double room, including six nights’ accommodation, breakfast and dinner, two lessons per day for five days, and sightseeing tours.

A great way to enhance your Ecuadorian surf trip is to learn Spanish at the same time. Study Spanish and Surf has two-week-long packages for $800, in which you get to stay with a local family in the beach town of Manta, four hours of Spanish lessons a day and surf lessons for two hours a day. They have another location in Montanita as well, which charges $126/week for homestay accommodations and surf and Spanish lessons.

>> Book airfare to Quito or find the best Ecuador hostels


A small European country with a lot of coastline, Portugal is riddled with surf camps that will get you standing up on uncrowded waves suitable for beginners. You can learn to ride the waves all day, then kick back with some grilled fish followed by a glass of port for dessert.

Peniche, a peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic, is a consistent wave magnet with coastline facing south and north, which means there are spots that light up in almost any swell and wind direction.  The best time to learn is in the summer, when the water hovers between 65 and70 degrees Fahrenheit, and the waves are smaller and more conducive to learning.

Peniche Surf Camp offers packages with different levels of surf lessons and accommodation. Seven-night surf camps during the summer, which include shared hostel-style rooms in a house 150 feet from the beach, start at 332 Euros (around US$490). If you’re on a tight budget, consider bringing your own camping gear and pitching a tent in one of Peniche Surf Camp’s seven sites for the low price of 10 Euros (US$15) a night. A la carte surf lessons run 35 to 40 Euros per person for a half day.

A little further south of Peniche lies Ericeira, a small fishing village lined with typical blue-and-white painted houses and cobblestoned streets, 27 miles north of Lisbon. Surf’inn is just one of the many surf camps offering all-inclusive packages in the area. For 350 Euros per person per week during the summer, you’ll get a campsite, daily breakfast, five dinners, and five days of surf lessons (two 90-minute sessions per day).

>> Find a hostel in Portugal, book train travel in Portugal, or learn about what to drink in Portugal

Hainan Island, China

About the same size as the state of Maryland in the U.S., Hainan is a tropical island off the south coast of mainland China. Think of it as the Hawaii of China. The south and east coasts of Hainan Island, though sheltered on all sides by neighboring countries from long-distance storm swells, pick up swells generated during winter monsoon and summer typhoon seasons. The most consistent time for waves is between October and February. Hot and humid in the summer, the winters can get a little colder, necessitating a 3/2 full wetsuit.

Hainan is growing in popularity as a destination for Western travelers, and has long been a vacation spot for mainland Chinese.  For the past three years, Hainan’s first surf shop and school, Surfing Hainan, has run the Surfing Hainan Open competition, which is growing in recognition every year. The Association of Surfing Professionals, which governs the surfing World Qualifying Series and World Championship Tour,  plans to hold one of their Women’s Longboard World Championship competitions here later in 2011. Surfing in Hainan is still in its fledgling stages, so most of the time you won’t find yourself competing with too many other surfers for waves.

Surfing Hainan, located in Dadonghai on the south coast, offers all-inclusive three- and five-day surf trip packages starting at US$550 per person.  Prices include airport transfer, three meals a day, accommodation at a hotel right on a point break, and a guide with transportation to take you to other surrounding breaks. They also offer two-hour surf lessons for 300 CNY (US$40) per person.

Golden Beach Resort on Riyue Bay is a good self-catering option for those who don’t want to spring for a full-on surf trip package. Twin rooms run 480 CNY (about US$75)/night. However, you won’t find a surf shop close by, so you’ll need your own board and accessories (wax, wetsuit) if you want to try surfing Riyue Bay on your own.

>> Book a tour of China, check out other lesser-known places of China, and learn more about Hainan

Montreal, Canada

Apart from having delicious, multi-ethnic foods, a vibrant night life, and back-to-back festivals during the summer, Montreal also has very consistent waves. So consistent, in fact, that you can surf them for minutes at a time. The waves in Montreal are formed by the Saint-Lawrence River running over the rock bottom, creating standing waves. There are several known and named waves along the river that are the most commonly surfed.  One of the more popular spots is called Habitat 67, named for the adjacent cubic housing complex built as part of the Expo 67 World’s Fair.

If you’ve never surfed before, you’ll definitely need to take a lesson. The Saint-Lawrence is a strong running river that can be tricky to navigate due to current. You’ll need to be a decent swimmer, and comfortable in moving water. Kayak Sans Frontières offers full- (C$105) and half-day (C$70) lessons. Imagine Eco Surfboards also offers 2-hour lessons for C$89 + tax. Call ahead to make sure they’re offering lessons for the time you’ll be there.

Le Jazz St-Denis hostel has dorm beds for C$29 a night, and doubles for C$130 per night during the summer. The stone building is over 150 years old, with warm antique interior décor. Its location is smack in the middle of the vibrant Latin Quarter, surrounded by bars, cafés and restaurants.

Summer is by far the best time to visit Montreal, for the water temperature, weather and to take advantage of the thousands of outdoor dining terraces and the many festivals that often hold free events outdoors. The Just for Laughs comedy festival, The International Jazz Festival, and the Montreal World Film Festival, are just a few of the summer outdoor event highlights.

>> Book airfare to Montreal and find hotels in Montreal

More and more people are discovering that almost anywhere there’s moving water, there are waves. Surf communities are cropping up in so many unexpected places. If you’re headed to a destination near water and have always wanted to surf, do some research and ask around – you may be surprised to find that there’s a surfboard and waves just waiting for you to paddle out.

Learn more about surfing around the world:

Photos by: -kay.c-, Pol Malacara, SURF&ROCK (Miguel Navaza), Surfing The Nations, brotherM