People would look at Jessica Bellofatto like she had two heads when she started paddleboarding 10 years ago. “But now I can do a headstand on my board and it barely warrants a double take,” says Bellofatto, one of the pioneers of SUP yoga and a BOGA Boards ambassador. Case in point: Five years ago, only 75,000 boards were sold in the United States. By 2011, that number had doubled. Today? It’s hard to pass a body of water that doesn’t offer some kind of SUP-based experience.
The sport has moved from obscurity to part of the scenery because it can be either challenging or relaxing. Adrenaline junkies can battleboard on rapids; endurance athletes can race for miles on open sea; peace seekers can meditate on flat water or under the stars. The sport has its U.S. roots in Hawaii, which still has a robust scene, but with SUP’s rapid growth, these other communities have also made big names for themselves, each for their own reasons.
Best for: Relaxation
Hamptons, New York
How do New Yorkers de-stress and get their SUP fix? Head to Penn Station, hop on the LIRR, take a three-hour nap, wake up in the Hamptons, and rent a board. East Hampton–based Paddle Diva is famous for building female-friendly boards and for its popular Sunset, Stargazing, and Full Moon Paddles, co-hosted by Bellofatto, who brings yoga and meditation to the board. (Since it’s always safety first, participants sport glow sticks or headlamps when the darkness sets in.) The next morning, paddlers can treat themselves to a thalasso tub seawater hydrotherapy massage at Gurney’s Montauk Resort.
Best for: Romance
Dana Point, California
Dana Point is the birthplace of the Battle of the Paddle, an event ranked as 2014’s most competitive SUP competition. But Dana Point also has a decidedly romantic SUP side. Paddling around the harbor guarantees wildlife sightings, including garibaldi fish, dolphins, seals, and, depending on the season, migratory whales. Stay at the luxurious St. Regis Monarch Beach, where you can book a private “surf butler” to take you out for a couple’s paddle and gourmet picnic. For the best views of the bay, climb the bluffs and crash at the B&B-style Blue Lantern Inn, and then book an intro SUP lesson with SUP Fitness Laguna.
Best for: Variety
Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina
Bordered by the Atlantic’s breaking waves to the east and the calmer Intracoastal Waterway to the west, this barrier island boasts convenient access to varied water conditions. Because of its summer wind pattern, Wrightsville Beach is a prime place to go a mile offshore and downwind for the entire length of the five-mile-long island. The East Coast’s largest SUP race, the Carolina Cup, is held here and was one of Outside’s must-attend SUP races in 2014. Refuel at Epic Food Co. in nearby Wilmington, but if you prefer to paddle to your next meal, there are plenty of dock-and-dine options, like Fish House, a favorite among local paddlers, who recommend the flounder po’boy washed down with a Mason/Dixon.
Best for: Challenging Yourself
The American birthplace of SUP has no choice but to push the boundaries. That means island hopping by paddleboard, which paddlers attempt each July at the 32-mile Molokai 2 Oahu World Championships. The race finishes just east of Honolulu, where paddlers find a lively local SUP scene. Stay at the Modern Honolulu, which offers board storage for guests who bring their own boards and is a 15-minute drive from Hawaii Kai, where Zen Waterman and Blue Planet Surf host weekly Wednesday technique coaching and two-mile time trial lessons for more advanced paddlers.
Best for: Bespoke Experiences
We awarded Bend the 2014 world’s best SUP getaway because of its diversity of venues. Want flat water? Head to the Cascade Lakes, ensconced in the mountains of Deschutes National Forest. Looking for speed? Float down the Deschutes River right though town. Exploring the outlying lakes and rivers is easy—rent a jacked-up camper van (complete with board rack and six-pack of Oregon craft brew) from Bend-based Ramblin’ Vans. In town for more than a few days? Design and build your own board at Eager Beaver Surf Co.
Best for: Whitewater Paddleboarding
Richmond is the only urban area with Class IV rapids right in town (and it’s our 2012 Best River City), so it’s no surprise that whitewater paddleboarding (aka battleboarding) is serious business here. Stay at the new Marriott in Schockoe Slip, where you can walk to Brown’s Island and rent a board at the Riverside Outfitters outpost, recognized by the American Canoe and Paddle Association for having the world’s largest whitewater paddleboarding school. In May, the city’s annual Dominion Riverrock Festival features SUP cross and SUP enduro events.
Best for: Finding an SUP Lifestyle
Austin, the self-proclaimed “SUP capital of the world,” lays claim to the world’s largest SUP Meetup group (5,620 members), the world’s largest paddleboard manufacturer (SUP ATX), and SUPZilla—a 25-foot-long, 8-foot-wide paddleboard. Weekly SUP gatherings include SUP’N’Sip, but for more productive paddleboard functions, local businesses schedule corporate “board meetings”—yup, you can conduct your office meeting on a paddleboard. Stay at the Lake Austin Spa Resort, and strengthen your core in its ABS-olutely Paddleboarding class.
Plus: 3 Always-Follow SUP Commandments
1. Wear a leash. It may seem silly to be attached on flat water, but if the wind unexpectedly picks up, you don’t want to fall off and become separated from your board as it drifts downwind.
2. Dig deep and plant your paddle. With proper paddle strokes, you can paddle in any condition and wind direction. Submerge your paddle blade, extend your arms, and use your core to pull the paddle along the board’s rail. Take it out at your feet, not the tail of your board.
3. Look up, not down. For good balance, especially if you’re riding waves, focus on the horizon. Looking down limits your perspective and is more likely to put you in the drink.