In 1907, a young Irish-Hawaiian lifeguard named George Freeth paddled a plank into the ocean at Redondo Beach, caught a wave, and made headlines as "The Man Who Could Walk on Water!" "This is where the rock hits the pond," says five-time U.S. champ and former Miller beer pitchman Corky Carroll of Huntington Beach. "It's the cultural center of the surfing world." True enough. In the 50 miles between Malibu and Huntington Pier lie more historic surf spots than you can count on your toes. So what if the air occasionally burns your throat and local surfers sport enough tattoos to make a Papuan highlander pause? Surfing, despite its warts, is still the coolest thing you can do with your pants on. Here's a quick primer for planning your own surf-cradle pilgrimage.
HOW-TO: At Corky Carroll's Surf School (714-841-0253) group instruction runs about $250 per week. Or take a private lesson ($75 per hour) from the 52-year-old legend himself.
PROVING GROUNDS: Malibu, west of Santa Monica, has been a glamfest ever since Duke Kahanamoku demonstrated the sport here for his movie star pal Ronald Coleman in the 1920s. Today, board-straddling crowds have inspired the nickname Mali-Zoo, but the renowned point break still cranks on a summer swell. Farther south, the condo enclaves of Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach offer five miles of peaky sandbar breaks ending at the Redondo Beach breakwater, which kicks up a thumping left during big winter swells. Palos Verdes is loaded with nasty reef breaks and even nastier locals (read: for serious surfers or the suicidal only). Beginners are better off just north of Huntington at Bolsa Chica State Beach's novice-friendly beach breaks.
ARMCHAIR VERSION: Start with the grilled mahimahi at Captain Jack's in Sunset Beach (562-592-2514), a surf-star watering hole owned by Jack Haley, who was the first U.S. champ back in 1959. Then drop by the International Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach (admission, $2; 714-960-3483). And if you're timely enough to arrive before August 1, go directly to Huntington Pier. During two weeks of back-to-back competitionsthe U.S. Open and the Ocean Pacific Promore than 100,000 scantily clad spectators converge on this beach to watch the finals. It's enough to make Al Gore hula.