Paia, Maui, Hawaii
Best For: Families who want a laconic town that caters to every member without all the kitsch and hustle of the larger tourist centers
Most Hawaiian towns are surf towns, but none have the artsy, eccentric vibe of Paia on Maui’s North Shore. What started as a sugarcane boomtown is now a hangout for artists, surfers, and wind sport enthusiasts from around the world. Although not known as a surfing mecca like Oahu’s North Shore, partially due to the daily side-shore winds that shred the lineups most afternoons, this actually works in favor of visiting surfers, according to local pro surfer Zack Howard: “There are a lot of great surfers here, but in general, the level is lower than in places like Oahu, and that means there are a lot of waves for everyone.”
Novices should check out Paia Bay. If you want to rub shoulders with Maui’s elite, paddle out at Hookipa—just make sure your shoulders can handle a workout, as it doesn’t break close to shore. If you happen to be in town during a big winter swell, drive west down the Hana Highway and pull off between mile markers 13 and 14. From the bluff you can watch an international crew of big-wave hellmen tow into waves breaking over the outer reef known as Jaws.
When: November to March
San Sebastián, Spain
Best For: Couples who want to spend nights enjoying the bars and world-class restaurants in one of the most romantic small cities in Europe and afternoons surfing off their hangovers
San Sebastián, or Donostia in the local language, is the cultural capital of Spain’s vibrant Basque country. Though not as renowned for waves as its northeastern neighbors in France, it more than makes up for it by being a center for music, cinema, and molecular gastronomy for all of Europe.
“Donostia is a marvelous place with a lot to offer both in and out of the water,” says local surfer and city tourism official Jokin Arroyo Uriarte. “It’s a small city where you can surf at Zurriola Beach then walk over to the old part of the city for a few pintxos (Basque referring to small portions like tapas), a couple glasses of beer, and an incredibly authentic ambiance. Apart from having one of the most beautiful bays in the world, Bahía de la Concha, the city has a love affair with surfing and tons of infrastructure for the visiting surfer.”
When: June to November.
Santa Cruz, California
Best For: Santa Cruz is the field trip that all students of surfing, young and old, should take once in their lives.
Santa Cruz is a little town with a long surfing history. Its marquee spot, Steamer Lane, was a proving ground for aspiring West Coast big-wave riders in the 1950s. Men like Peter Cole, Ricky Grigg, and the Van Dyke brothers rode giant winter swells here on wooden longboards—sans leashes and wetsuits—in order to practice for the even more powerful waves of Hawaii. It was this penchant for wintertime surfing that lead Jack O’Neill, who lost an eye in an accident at the Lane, to develop the modern surfing wetsuit.
You don’t have to brave ship-capsizing surf or risk either of your eyes to enjoy Santa Cruz. Tucked between sea cliffs and redwood forests, this NorCal gem boasts a fantastic surfing museum and 11 surf spots, including the Californian classic, Pleasure Point.
When:September to May
Best For: The discerning surfer who insists that the wine be just as good as the waves
Biarritz is the only surf town in the world with a royal history. In 1854, Empress Eugénie convinced her husband, Napoleon III, to visit the area. They then bought the land and built a palace on the beach, which made Biarritz one of the hottest resort towns in Europe. Screenwriter Peter Viertel brought France its first surfboard in 1956, when he came to shoot location shots for The Sun Also Rises.
Still considered the birthplace of European surfing, Biarritz is a nice combination of French high culture and SoCal surf culture, putting a decidedly surfy spin on the notion of joie de vivre. Start surfing on La Grande Plage (the Big Beach) in front of the town center. If it gets too crowded, local Cape Breton transplant David Hanguehard recommends checking out surrounding beaches such as La Côtes des Basques, Anglet, and Guethary.
When: September to November.
Beat the summer crowds and catch the best swells that the Atlantic can offer.
Byron Bay, Australia
Best For: Families. Australia is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and Byron Bay and the rest of the country will enchant all age groups.
In an entire continent of surf towns, Byron Bay stands out as one of the spiritual and historical homes of surfing in what is, pound for pound, perhaps the greatest surfing nation in the world. Despite a tendency toward the upscale, Byron is at heart a hippie town that favors live bands, relaxed cafes that source local ingredients, and plenty of “all natural” everything. Combine that with the naturally cheerful disposition of many Aussies and you won’t find better waves in a more pleasant setting anywhere in the world.
The town’s main wave, the Pass, is a classic right-hand point break that accommodates all levels of surfers, though it can get crowded on good swells. Beginners should stay on the beach and more advanced surfers can head south to Broken Head, which has great beach breaks and other classic points.
When: June to September.
The Southern Hemisphere winter barely touches Byron, with only a slight chill in the mornings and mild-to-warm temperatures during the day. The swell pumps the whole time.