There’s more to summer than Southern California sunshine and south swells. Mike Lay, the Cornish logger who’s known for dropping style on all sides of the Atlantic, knew from a young age that he needed to broaden his horizons to escape the fickle summer months in the U.K., and he’d soon embark on a national rite of passage: the European surf trip. From the yawning barrels of Hossegor to the generous swell windows of Peniche, Europe has a flavor for every taste, if you look in the right places. Here’s Lay’s definitive list for a summer romp through Western Europe.
1. Hossegor / Biarritz
First, you get in your van or your car in England or Scotland, you get a ferry to France, and you drive the eight hours from Northern France to Hossegor. You could try to surf in Brittany, but it's hit-or-miss up there, so you head as fast as you can down to Hossegor for pumping beachbreaks. It's the center of the European surf scene. That's one of the best feelings when you get to Hossegor – under your own steam with your vehicle, you've left your front door the day before and you've reached this surfing mecca. It can also be overkill on the surf vibes, this manufactured machine around the surf industry. Hossegor was originally just a giant sand dune that had extremely good barrels on it. When people realized that there was a value in tubular waves, they started this massive development. Its reason for being is surfing, which is great, in one sense, if you want a pure surf trip.
But Biarritz is a special place for me. It's the first surf trip my buddy and I did when I was 16. We got a flight from Bristol in England to Biarritz, where we spent a week. We rented bikes and we'd cycle every day from this youth hostel through this forest down to the beach. It was two- to three-foot and offshore every single day, and we thought that was what surf trips were, what we thought 'good' France was as young surfers: good weather, sunshine, offshores. Like heaven. I've been back to Biarritz every year since, a decade on. Biarritz is golden. If you ask me about a spot in France, Biarritz has to be the one. It's a great city — there are things to do outside of surfing — and it's also one of the gateways to the rest of Western Europe.
2. San Sebastián
After Biarritz, the next stop is San Sebastián and the Basque region of Spain. San Sebastián is an incredible place — the food, the night life, the surfing, all of it. The whole of the Basque region is a really interesting cultural and political area to roam in, especially if you've got a van, and you can go mobile. You'll have a good time, no matter what.
I've never heard a bad thing said about San Sebastián. You get this combination of old European architecture and Pintxos, which is cheap, delicious tapas-style food. You pay a Euro for these mouthfuls of flavors that are amazing. The beer is incredible, the night life is incredible, the people are incredible. It's an interesting place full of people with ideas – there will always be a conversation to be had beyond the mundane and beyond what you're used to at home.
If you cut off the northwest corner of Spain, most people will go west from San Sebastián. They'd go through Zarautz, and they'd go to Mundaka, naturally, because it's the best wave in all of Europe, though it doesn’t really start breaking until fall. There’s not much else you need to say about it. You could get the best barrel of your life when you’re there.
This is where opinion splits. Many people go to Mundaka and eliminate this whole elbow of Spain to go straight to Portugal. Personally, I like to go west into Galicia, which was considered the end of the known world in Roman times. If you've got two weeks to drive slowly through that whole western road and then back south, it's so worth it. It's kind of like traveling back in time in Europe. There's subsistence farming. You know the menu of each restaurant by heart before you even see it, because it's exactly the same localized specialty as the last place you went to. And there are these little coves that are dotted along the coastline. You get these good banks and incredible waves that you have to yourself.
On my most recent trip to Galicia in May, the forecast was terrible – wind swell with onshores on top of us. Just crappy swell the whole time, with one day of vague possibility at the end of our two-week window. So we went to this spot which is just around the corner from Cape Finisterre. It’s basically as far as you can go west, so if there's any swell on the Atlantic, it will pick it up. We got there, and it was windy — a little offshore — but it looked like it was going flat, and it was low tide, so it didn't look inviting. It looked like there could've been a little lefthander in the distance. And it turned into this Endless Summer moment: it was only waist-high, but the wind was protected from the sand dune, there was no one, and there were these perfect lefts coming in. It's a sight I'll remember for the rest of my life.
It's nice if you have the time to trace the entire coastline instead of skipping a whole piece of it. If you're going to do a road trip, you have to do it properly. You see everywhere. You've got to circumnavigate the coast of Europe. You can't just skip chunks off because you’re in a hurry to get somewhere else.
5. Peniche / Lisbon
If you were to carry on south, Lisbon is an amazing place and is a city full of variety. There's so much, from art, to music, to good food. And the people are incredible. The Portuguese are my favorite. There's a friendliness that is light and ready on the surface with Portuguese people, and their company is refreshing.
End it with Lisbon and head back north. There are some amazing winter places in the south, like the Algarve. It's almost the border between Europe and Africa, so it's cool to punctuate the trip by going all the way down. But if you're looking for surf, it gets windy in that part of Portugal, and you won't get much down there in the summertime.
So how long should you plan on the trip to last, if you’re doing this right?
“The key is to take your time and let the experience happen. What’s nice about the European surf trip is that it’s not about finding that Nirvana spot,” says Lay. “It's more about finding the little-known spot and having an unexpectedly good surf, or a surf that exceeds what you thought it could be. There are so many beaches in Europe like that. That's where my best memories of these surf trips have been – turning up somewhere, not knowing what the surf forecast was, maybe just knowing that it would be offshore and protected there, and having an amazing surf. That's what will happen if you take your time and don't rush. You can get some transcendental surf on your own or with your mates when you won't expect it.”
“The time I did it most comprehensively took two months and required 5,500 miles of driving, and we did the whole coastline. We'd stop here and there if we liked a place. It was bliss. I'd read Anna Karenina, like, 900 pages of Russian literature. I can't dedicate enough time to a book like that on most trips. You need entire days on windy Portuguese beaches to finish them.”
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