There are certain challenges any surfers worth their salt water have to take on. Some are blissfully isolated, others are crowded but iconic, and several lie somewhere in between. With summertime looming, what follows—in no particular order—are ten must-surf spots that will keep you busy at least until Labor Day, and possibly for the rest of your life.
Frisco and Cape Point Beaches, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina
Few places along this shifting, storm-battered strip of barrier-island sand are as pretty, or offer such a welcome combo of waves and remote escape, as Frisco—which breaks well on south swells and whose Gulf Stream–strafed waters are warmer than beaches to the north—and Cape Point, whose iconic lighthouse beach breaks on any swell. The town of Buxton offers basic services: stop at Scott Busbey’s Natural Art Surf Shop for gear, and at the Orange Blossom Bakery for apple and peach fritters. The Park Service’s Frisco campground is the most secluded, while the Cape Hatteras campground is closest to the waves. Check beforehand for beach-access restrictions, which are dictated by piping plover nesting.
One of the most offbeat beach scenes—and some of the best waves—in the East. During the summer, the area around Montauk’s Ditch Plains teems with crusty locals, hedge fund billionaires, supermodels, fashion designers, celebrities (Jimmy Buffett and Coldplay’s Chris Martin are regulars), and visiting California pros. They’re drawn to the beautiful bluffs, the clear water, and the consistent cobblestone reefs that focus Atlantic energy into everything from mellow longboard waves to punchy beach breaks along Ditch’s inner bay. Summer weekends can be a zoo, midweek days can be pleasant, and in the off-season, Montauk’s a ghost town. Spread out to the south, aiming for the less-crowded beach breaks near Hither Hills State Park, which also has some of the most sought-after camping in the state. At Surf Bar and Surf Lodge (around $300 per night during the summer), you’ll find a perfect representation of Montauk’s interesting Malibu-meets-Manhattan vibe.
The renovation of New Smyrna’s historic Canal and Flagler streets has created a pedestrian-friendly area filled with bars, galleries, restaurants, and shops. And the empty 24 miles of beaches at the Canaveral National Seashore lie right next door. New Smyrna and the Cape’s wide-open beaches break on pretty much any swell the western Atlantic can dish out, from nor’easter-spawned groundswells, to trade wind–driven southerlies, to hurricane-generated eastern swells. The waters are warm, and you’ll find plenty of peaks to spread the crowds. This is also one of the best spots in the world to fish for snook.
Tahoe-blue water, 400-foot-tall dunes, and charming villages that resemble a hybrid between Cape Cod and Newfoundland make this stretch of Michigan’s Northwest Lower Peninsula a little-known American paradise. During late summer and early fall, cold fronts churn up strong southwest-veering north winds, but the waters can still be quite warm. Join wetsuit-clad Michigan freshwater surfers in front of the Platte River Campground, or head to the protected lee of the Frankfort Jetty, 20 miles south. If the waves are flat, this whole area is simply insane for a stand-up paddleboard cruise. Either Third Coast or Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak can get you going.
Second and Third Beaches, La Push, Olympic National Park, Washington
Wondrous coves of soaring cliffs and craggy offshore islands sacred to the adjacent Quileute Indian Nation make this a must-surf. Pick up a backcountry permit from the Olympic National Park Ranger office for $5. Camping fees are $2 per person per night, and you’ll need to either rent or bring a bear can for camping. Tip: The hike in is a little longer (1.4 versus .7 miles), but campsites along Third Beach offer privacy by way of huge boulders—and there’s a beautiful waterfall at the cove’s south end. The beach-break surf ranges from giant North Pacific monsters to head-high wind swell groomed by downsloping morning offshore winds. The water is damn cold, but the location makes it worth the hike and the paddle.
Though summertime swells come from a tropical source, you’ll be lucky to find water warmer than mid-sixties temps at the gorgeous breaks along the mouth of the Ogunquit River. The river mouth holds a long right- and short left-hand wave. If it gets crowded here, plenty of empty peaks can be found along the broad, sandy beach that runs to the north. This place can especially pump in late summer and early fall, when tropical swells and nor’easters become the norm. Local surfers talk story over morning coffee and pastries at the Village Food Market.
The Beachmere Inn is a classic, beachfront New England retreat that’s been welcoming visitors for more than 70 years.
San Onofre State Beach, Trestles to Trails, California
This five-mile stretch is a SoCal time warp that has some of the most consistent cobblestone reef break and sandy beach break in the state. Trestles begins just south of San Clemente, with juicy left-handers at Cotton’s Point. A few blocks south lie the more fickle Barbwires and the tapered right-handers of Upper Trestles. Another mile south, remarkable right and left A-frames make Lower Trestles one of best (and most crowded) high-performance waves on the planet. But just to the south lie the mellower and more spread-out lineups of Middles and Church’s Point. Further south is San Onofre Beach, a classic, Gidget-style “drive-on” beach replete with woodies, VW vans, barbecues, bocce ball, old-school longboarders, and very friendly vibes. For a secluded beach break, hike down Trail 3, south of the defunct San Onofre nuclear plant. San Clemente abounds in food and nightlife, while San Onofre’s San Mateo Campground is a beautiful mile-long hike or bike to the beach.
A winding 14-mile drive through vintage California ranchland drops you off at this tiny, well-run 22-acre park—one of the few public access points on 40 miles of wild and spectacular coastline. Jalama is wide-open to swells from the south to the north. Waves can range from fun, head-high beach-break peaks to the heaving reef-break A-frame bombs three-quarters of a mile south at a reef called Tarantulas. Recently, Santa Barbara County launched an online reservation system for the campground, and the beachfront campsites are heaven, with #64 offering the most seclusion. From there, it’s an easy shoreside hike down to Tarantulas—or trek northward, along an epic sweep of beach.
Sure it’s crowded, sure it’s touristy, but just the fact that Duke Kahanamoku made this beach one of surfing’s ancestral homes means you need to catch a wave here. Waikiki’s blue-water spots break all year long, but are best on summertime south swells. Queens and Canoes are the easiest for beginners, while the farther-offshore Populars, Threes, Fours, and Kaisers are a long paddle (nearly a half-mile)—and can be filled with experienced locals. Respect for the lineup, a smile, and a greeting can go a long way toward breaking the ice and fetching you a wave. If these “town” spots are too packed, you can often find much less crowded conditions by driving east to the beaches below Diamond Head. It’s more exposed to the breezes and incredibly consistent, thanks to swells generated by the easterly trade winds. Treat yourself to a night at the Royal Hawaiian, the classic, pink landmark that dates back to 1927.
The beaches around Lahaina offer year-round waves from the south and north. Right in town, the Breakwall can offer up fun beginner longboard waves on the inside and rippable-to-bombing rights and lefts on the outside, depending on the swell direction. But it can be crowded. Best summertime bets are the breaks just to the south and west of town like Launiupoko Park and Thousand Peaks, which both offer spectacular, rainbow-bathed views of the West Maui Mountains. Ten miles north of Lahaina, the fantastical, gin-clear right-handers of Honolua Bay reel off against a Tolkien-esque jungle-and-cliff backdrop. If summer trade winds blow very hard, a sneaker wind swell will wrap into Honolua, and you can catch it head-high and empty. Score an after-surf burrito at Ono Tacos.For lodging, consider Puamana, a quiet, beachfront neighborhood along Lahaina’s south side. Plenty of options are available via VRBO.
There might be no better vacation than a surfing holiday. Water, sun, waves, and a cold one at the end of the day sound A-OK to us. Luxury hotels are increasingly beginning to feel the same way—and not just in Hawaii. If you're an East Coaster or don't have the time to make the hop to Honolulu International, you're far from out of luck. Excellent surf lodges are popping up all over the place. We sought out the very best, keeping geographical diversity in mind. We dare you to read this without daydreaming about booking a flight.
Kauai, Hawaii For a nice change of pace from the crowded, aggro scene on Oahu's North Shore, check out the St. Regis Princeville, situated directly on Hanalei Bay. The island's premier luxury hotel offers full spa services, a world-class Robert Trent Jones Jr.–designed golf course, and multiple top-notch restaurants that run the gamut from laid-back bar food to near-Michelin-star-worthy dining at the Kauai Grill.
Even better, the hotel is just a few minutes up the road from Hanalei, arguably the best little surf town in the world. Head there in the evening for poke (aka Hawaiian sushi) at the Dolphin's outdoor bar, then walk down the street to the divey Tahiti Nui for one of its famously stiff mai tais.
Hanalei Bay, home to the late, great Andy Irons and big-wave legend Laird Hamilton, offers multiple surf spots, many of which are just a short paddle from the throngs of honeymooners on the St. Regis's private beach. The waves range from sandy-bottomed beginner breaks to expert-only bombs where you'd be wise to respect both the ocean and the locals. When you're done for the day, paddle back to the hotel to watch one of the most awe-inspiring sunsets you'll likely ever see.
Dana Point, California Located on a 150-foot bluff overlooking Salt Creek Beach in surf-crazy Dana Point, California, the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel is perhaps the country's preeminent hotel when it comes to mixing luxury with a love of surfing. However, that wasn't always the case. "For years, the Ritz-Carlton tried to hide the Salt Creek surf break from its customers; they thought it was just the riffraff out there surfing, and they put up walls and stuff to block the view," explains Matt Thomson, founder of Wavecation.com. "But then a few years ago, they realized what an incredible amenity those waves were, and they set it up so the hotel has great views of the waves, and they run surf camps, and rent boards, and do family lessons and stuff. If you're a surfer, it's truly an awesome place to stay."
The hotel offers all the lux amenities and services you'd expect from a Ritz-Carlton property, including a full spa, a fitness center overlooking the Pacific, and a bevy of restaurants highlighted by Chef Richard Sandoval's Raya, which serves up fresh California seafood with pan-Latin flare.
Salt Creek is a powerful and technical break that attracts the pros when it's really going off. For the rest of us, the Ritz recommends making the five-minute trip to Doheny State Beach, where mushier waves are ideal for longboarders, groms, and other beginners.
Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina The tiny island of Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, has an unusually rabid surf culture owing to its consistent swells, clear water, and surprisingly high-profile contingent of surfers—such as Ben Bourgeois and the Hobgood brothers—who either call the area home or never pass up a visit there.
Swells are best during the autumn hurricane season and into the bitterly cold winter, but a beach that faces south-southeast helps ensure that tasty East Coast breakers pepper the shoreline year round.
The Blockade Runner Beach Resort is a short walk from the Wrightsville bar scene, which stays hopping thanks to tourists, thirsty locals, and college kids from nearby UNC-Wilmington. For the flat days, the hotel offers paddleboard rentals and SUP yoga classes, as well as in-room massages to keep you loose for when the swell picks back up.
From $300 per night (peak season); from $95 per night (off season).
California Coast Based in Los Angeles, Vintage Surfari Wagons collects and refurbishes iconic Volkswagen Westfalia Campers and then rents them out to nostalgic adventurers, many of whom use the VWs to cruise the Pacific Coast Highway and chase their own endless summer. The campers are ideal for two, though proprietor Bill Staggs points out that the berths are big enough for two couples "as long as everybody's getting along great."
The world's your oyster when you rent a Surfari Wagon. You can cruise from Trestles to Steamer Lane if you want, stopping anywhere and everywhere in between. And though the VW Westfalia is a legendarily finicky vehicle, thanks in no small part to an underpowered engine and a decidedly nonaerodynamic shape, have no fear. Vintage Surfari Wagons has an army of mechanic friends up and down the coast who specialize in Volkswagens, and the company is dedicated to making sure you have the best surfari possible.
Los Cabos, Mexico For south-of-the-border action on the wave-rich Baja coast, Wavecation.com's Thomson wholeheartedly recommends Cabo Surf Hotel in Los Cabos, Mexico. "This is just a classic, classic surf lodge," he says. "There's an incredible pool with a restaurant and bar right above the surf break. Your wife could be at the bar sipping a margarita, and you could be out in the lineup and wave to her."
The hotel has its own board-rental shop and hosts the Mike Doyle Surf School, which offers group, semiprivate, and one-on-one instruction. Three different breaks are in the immediate vicinity, including Old Man's, recommended for beginners and longboarders, and La Roca and Zippers, which are a bit more advanced. Prime surf season runs from March to November, but the hotel's beaches see waves suitable for beginners all year long.
Santa Barbara, California Cradled between Butterfly Beach on the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, the Spanish Colonial–style Four Seasons doesn't fool around when it comes to catering to the surf-hungry crowd. For $1,500 a day, you can hang with local boy and three-time world champ Tom Curren, who will personally pick you up, scope out the local surf spots—including world-class point break Rincon—and spend the day surfin' USA with you, provided you can keep up.
Vancouver Island, Canada If you're allergic to crowded lineups, amenable to cold water, and don't necessarily want five-star treatment back at the lodge, Tatchu Adventures Eco Surf Village on Vancouver Island might be the place for you. Billing itself as "the only wilderness surf camp in Canada," the resort consists of 5,000 feet of boardwalk that wind around treehouses, a sauna, biomass outhouses, and a main lodge.
Be warned, this ain't exactly the Four Seasons—the village's website boasts electricity as an amenity—but it is a bona fide adventure, complete with rainforest hikes, slabby storm waves, gentler point and beach breaks, and the truly awesome natural surroundings of the Canadian west coast. Boards and wetsuits are provided, as are the services of surf guide Raphael Bruhwiler, who will make sure you get the most out of the occasionally tricky tidal waters surrounding the island.
Cocoa Beach, Florida The Florida surf scene is defined by often-mushy waves that ironically produce some of the best surfers in the world—the most famous of whom is, of course, Kelly Slater. The 11-time ASP World Tour champ hails from Cocoa Beach, one of the best places in the state to paddle out. The Surf Studio Beach Resort is perhaps the best place in town for Sunshine State surfers to stay. The low-key, family-owned, beachfront hotel is right on the water and offers board rentals. The most quality surfing is found by the Cocoa Beach Pier, which fares best during southeasterly wind chops or nor'easters.
Other Cocoa Beach surf attractions include Ron Jon's, currently the largest surf shop in the world. The Cocoa Beach Surf Museum documents the history of East Coast surfing, and of course Slater himself, who still lives there. Just don't be surprised if he snakes your wave. He's earned it.
Pacific City, Oregon Although it's not always mentioned as a surfing hotspot, the rugged and majestic Oregon coastline has some of the best waves you'll find on the mainland. The beaches of Pacific City are some of the most accessible in the state and feature two surf spots: the consistent, mellow, year-round rollers at Kiwanda Cove, and the faster, more powerful waves at ominously named Kiwanda Gas Chambers.
The best place to stay in Pacific City is the Cottages at Cape Kiwanda, a collection of two- and three-bedroom oceanfront suites that rival five-star hotels with their amenities. Each cottage features a private deck with a grill and ocean views, heated tile floors, and a fireplace. The kitchens are outfitted with the very best cooking gear, so after you surf, you can whip up a feast of that famous Oregonian seafood without leaving the privacy of your own pad. Even better, some of the cottages are pet friendly, so you won't have to send Fido to the slammer for the weekend. Everybody wins.
Montauk, New York Montauk has always been an East Coast surfing hotspot, thanks mostly to Ditch Plains, a classic rock-bottomed longboarding break that occasionally serves up as fast and hollow a wave as you'll find in the region. In recent years, the sleepy fishing town has undergone a bit of a renaissance and emerged as a vacation destination on par with its glitzier cousins to the west, the Hamptons.
At the forefront of this resurgence is a handful of chic hotels, perhaps the best of which is the Surf Lodge. New York City nightlife impresario Jayma Cardoso reopened the faux-divey hotel in 2012, offering all the energy of a typical Manhattan bottle-service club but with a beachy twist. The bar scene can get wild during the summer, so if you're looking for meditative peace and quiet, try elsewhere—but if you want to shred all day and party all night with the young and beautiful, the Surf Lodge is hard to beat. A parade of well-known indie bands keeps the back deck jumping while Byron, an on-site Australian-themed restaurant serves up seafood specialties such as steamed fluke and diver-caught scallops. Your seat overlooks Fort Pond Bay, where you can paddle all the way to downtown on one of the hotel's complimentary stand-up paddleboards.
In the spring of 2005, Keith Malloy and I did a 40-day road trip from Bend, Oregon, all the way to the tip of Baja, Mexico, in a truck powered by bio diesel and vegetable oil. We convoyed with friends and met up with a ton of colorful characters along the way. We surfed, we climbed, we slept in the dirt. I documented the trip in my first book, Bend to Baja.
The morning I took this shot, I woke up to check the surf and was surprised to see four feet sticking out of my friend's camper. I could only guess whose they might have been.