Visions of clean, white-sand beaches, palm trees, and perfect surf usually accompany a first-time visit to Hawaii. But it’s not until you reach the country, away from Honolulu—the high-rise-laden, bustling nucleus of Pacific commerce and tourism—that you truly feel the “Hawaii” of your imagination. Haleiwa, the gateway to the seven miles of wave-filled wonder that are the North Shore, blends the stereotypical idyll of island leisure and a truly local-centric feel, while also providing the backdrop for the most substantial yearly aggregation of the surf world. A surfer’s heavy-wave Paradise, the North Shore (technically under Haleiwa town’s postal code) has all the waves, culture and allure you’ve been reading about in magazines and online for over half a century now.
The first waves ever surfed in the contiguous United States were ridden in Santa Cruz by brothers Jonah, David, and Edward Kawananakoa in 1885 (Mahalo for that, Hawaiians). Since then? The “surf” prefix was added to “town” and it’s been that way ever since. Yes, chilly waters and foggy skies be damned, this woodsy, unpretentious college town has always been surf-obsessed with a rich history of inventors, innovators, pros, and underground legends to prove it. With far more, bigger, better waves in such a concentrated (and very liveable) coastline than the surf towns in SoCal, it’s no wonder Santa Cruz takes one of the top spots.
3. Pa’ia, HI
Looking to visit a surf town in Hawaii, but the North Shore of Oahu sounds too much like surf-Coachella? The groovy little town of Pa’ia, on Maui’s north shore might be the place for you. While the coastline might not have the concentrated Hollywood Star Walk of surf spots like neighboring Oahu, Paia makes up for that with far less crowds and more power crystals. Filled with rootsy boutiques, cafes, organic food shops, and yoga studios, and patroned by a population of hippies, Christians, Christian hippies, artists, trustafarians, big-wave psychos, windsurfers, and tourist babes, Paia stands out as one of Hawaii’s most unique surf towns. And if you see Willie Nelson having a drink at Charley’s, tell him hi for us.
Maybe it’s something in the pizza up there. Or the bagels. Something channeled through the radio waves within a Bruce Springsteen tune. Whatever it is, New Jersey produces some great surfers. Specifically, the South Jersey beach town of Ocean City, which boasts more surf accolades than any northeastern surf establishment. Take Dean Randazzo, New Jersey’s only former ‘CT competitor, plus a deadly crop of aspiring WQS surfers. Even the local high school has won over a dozen state surfing championships, and despite some cold-ass winters, the locale’s consistency and nearness to ledgier surf up the coast puts it on the U.S. surf map.
Fishing poles, super swampers, and driving on the beach — you’re not in California anymore. This is Florida. And while Brevard County to the south has stolen the spotlight for pro-surfer production (think: Slater and the Hobgoods), the swell magnet of New Smyrna Beach is reclaiming that role. Over the inlet from Daytona Beach’s Spring Break madness, New Smyrna Beach is a quiet little community of core surfers that pretty much have something to ride every single day of the year. Sure, there’s a bit of a shark situation due to the nearby inlet, but maybe that’s how everyone’s gotten so good at doing airs.
There’s a reason why the likes of Jordy Smith, Filipe Toledo, and Yadin Nicol (to name a few) all moved to San Clemente out of anywhere in America. Well, actually a few reasons. 1) Lower Trestles; 2) Close enough to LAX; 3) Far away enough from LA; 4) Did we mention Lowers? Quiet little San Clemente, sitting at the bottom of Orange County, halfway between LA and San Diego, actually has a lot more to offer than the A-frame on the other side of the tracks.
Bear with us on this metaphor…If surf towns were the beds in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, then in all of Southern California, Encinitas is the bed that feels juuuust right. San Clemente? Wave-rich, but too sleepy. Oceanside? Too gritty. La Jolla? Too snobby. Pacific Beach? Too fratty. But Encinitas? Why, that’s a place with a variety of year-round surf, a rootsy bike-rideable town, and a community of ocean-minded families and individuals. In striking distance of more consistent surf spots up or down the coast (Not to mention Baja, Mexico is less than an hour south), lovely Encinitas, perhaps, is the surf town that the bear in the state flag is wandering toward.
Well south of Point Conception, the physical line dividing Southern California from the wild lands to the north, Ventura nevertheless does its best to stay removed from the hordes to its south. A working class-ish vibe pervades Ventura, though, like anywhere else in California south of, oh, say, Mendocino, if you’re living by the beach in Ventura, there’s a good chance you’re doing pretty well. If you hail from any further south than Oxnard and you make it known, be prepared for some focused stinkeyes at testosterone-charged breaks like Silver Strand (Oxnard, technically). But despite a rep for heavy localism in the past, Ventura has enough variety to offer a little something for every surfer: points, punchy beachbreaks, even an offshore, deepwater reef. Don’t like the vibe at one spot? No prob, Ventura’s got lots more.
9. Kill Devil Hills, NC
The thin strip of land far off the coast of North Carolina known as the Outer Banks can feel very, very removed. That’s precisely because it is. Rustic beachhouses are perched on stilts with hightides nearly at their doorsteps. Sea oats dance on the coastal dunes. Each year, hurricanes come close enough to send the residents running. Despite its sinister name, few American surf towns boast the peace of mind on offer in the Outer Banks town of Kill Devil Hills. That peace of mind, of course, is access to some of the best tubes on offer on the entire Eastern Seaboard. Sure, summer sees its fair share of visitors who want a taste of this town’s beautiful isolation, but in the winters? It’s just you and chilly, thundering peaks.
“They’re either out surfing, or they got a party going.” The lyric from Jan and Dean’s 1963 hit Surf City hit the nail on the head about Huntington Beach, California, and the town’s reputation hasn’t changed for half a century. Crowds battle for sets below the pier by day, and go on benders at any one of the city’s clubs that line PCH by night. The U.S Open of Surfing, held at Huntington since 1959, is the personified collision of waves, commercial stoke, and neon-outfitted teenagers looking for some crazy. Of all the cities on our list, though, you’d be hard-pressed to find a community with a deeper appreciation for surf history, with names like Carroll, Fletcher, Llamas, and Nuuhiwa as proud strands in its DNA. It’s also home to some of the country’s most reliable beachbreaks, churning surf year round. If surf is your livelihood, and its culture your foodsource, Huntington Beach is your mana.