If the prospect of donning a winter wetsuit to battle icy North Devon swells fills you with horror, pack your bags for sunny California instead. Berti reports back on a surfing road trip of a lifetime…
Back home in North Devon I am preparing for the winter surf season. Conditions are favourable this time of year, thanks to big swells and consistent waves but it’s numbingly cold – even when kitted out in my hood, gloves and boots. Whilst I have lived here for almost two years, I still haven’t toughened up to the local Iceman standard. Fortunately for me, I’m switching my winter suit for board shorts and west country weather for sunshine and palm trees, to go on the surfing road trip of a lifetime.
In light of California Surf Day, which takes place on 20th September, I’m being flown out for a special trip to celebrate this important day in the Golden State’s Calendar and the fact that surfing is now an official sport in the Olympics!
With a giant coastline stretching for 840 miles, California is known as the home of surfing in the USA. With its many different surf breaks, points, reefs and big wave spots, it’s no wonder that it is home to some of the world’s greatest surfers.
My ultimate surfing road trip will take me from LAX to the famous hotspots, including Huntington Beach, Malibu and Santa Cruz, and to Kelly Slater’s very own Surf Ranch, where I’ll be watching the pros take on the longest, rideable open-barrel.
About fifty minutes from the airport lies my first destination Huntington Beach otherwise known as “Surf City USA”. My base for the next two days is the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa. A surf chic paradise nestled opposite the 8.5 mile long stretch of white sand that is Huntington Beach. The rooms here are spacious with huge beds and private sea facing balconies. The beach offers breaks all the way along those 8.5 miles but you will find the most famous on either side of the Pier, which is Huntington’s main landmark.
Longboarding with McKinnon Surf
My Californian surf experience begins next to this pier with pro longboarder Rocky Mckinnon. As well as running the main surf school on Huntington beach, Rocky spends his time shaping boards and helping people with disabilities learn to surf through the use of a tandem board.
Longboarding is a new experience to me. I’ve surfed for years but always within my comfort zone on a shortboard. In my head, switching to something more closely resembling a boat sounded easy. This was until I try to turn and before long I’m toppling off the board like an amateur. After a few more waves and some expert coaching by Rocky, I get the hang of it, which makes me see the value of having an experienced instructor – something I’ve never invested in before.
As much as I loved the longboarding experience, I was desperate to get back to shortboarding. I stumble across a surf shop next to the pier that opens up for rental and great coffee at 6.15am in the mornings. I’ve never seen such a great selection of boards for rent – usually you get the standard foamie. For a jetlagged Brit, I can think of no better way of watching the sunrise than with a soul-fulfilling morning surf.
If you’d rather run than hit the waves, you can still get in the surfing spirit by racing the Surf City USA Marathon (which also includes a half marathon or 5K), held on the first Sunday of February every year. Finishers receive a surfboard-shaped medal after running the flat beachfront course throughout Huntington Beach.
Bars and restaurants line Huntington Beach but are set back behind the main road. From fine dining to American sports bars serving local beers there’s always something that will hit your mood and appetite on the head. For farm-to-table vibes head to Blue Gold for a menu that celebrates the produce of the Californian vineyards, citrus groves, land and sea.
Breakfast hangouts don’t get better than Pacific Highway with surfy décor and indoor/outdoor seating. An atmosphere that’s part Bali, part Tulum, and very Southern California, the dining room is the perfect place to relax, unwind, and even watch some of the WSL (World Surf League). Food wise my go to was the SoCal Breakfast Burrito, which I highly recommend. This place also has a cocktail bar for those who fancy.
Other foodie spots to note include Ola Mexican Kitchen serving up addictive nachos, tacos and margaritas. The Hyatt Regency Huntington’s very own restaurant is fine dining at its best. Not only is the food and wine fantastic but they will set you up with a moonlit bonfire on the beach where you can roast Smores (a marshmallow sandwiched between two chocolate biscuits)! After all that surfing you will have earned it.
Plan your trip to Huntington Beach
The next stop is Hermosa Beach. After a few days in California you really start to notice how healthy everyone looks. In opposition to the pale hunched balls of anxiety that you see barging their way through the London streets, here everyone seems to be ripped, tanned and happy. It really becomes apparent in Hermosa as here you can find many of the US volleyball players training on one of the many pitches that line the L.A beaches.
Beach volleyball at VolleyCamp Hermosa
I’ve had a few forays into amateur volleyball in my youth. Unfortunately, I have to say I suck at it. My style is wild and undisciplined, I spend most of my time burrowing out of the sand after many an unnecessary dive. Our instructor was on the American team and towers over me in the mid six foot range. Generally the regulation net height for men’s beach volleyball is 7 foot 11 but after looking at me up and down, my instructor sets the net for the women’s height regulation… After a lesson learning the basics (I realised I knew nothing) a volleyball match ensues. My learnings are thrown out of the window in the heat of the moment and my volleyball losing streak continues.
I eat my feelings at Playa Hermosa. An open plan restaurant with tables and seating outside looking onto the beach. They specialise in fresh seafood and craft cocktails. If you don’t mind getting your hands dirty I recommend the Garlic Marinated Dungeness Crab.
Plan your trip to Hermosa Beach
Venice feels like Huntington and Hermosa on acid. While my earlier destinations had a chilled and peaceful vibe, Venice feels strange, quirky but amazingly vibrant. The world famous Venice boardwalk is a big part of what makes the area unique. Souvenirs, palm readings, skate and surf shops, medical marijuana dispensaries, the list of attractions goes on and on. Make sure you visit muscle beach and the amazing Venice skate bowl. The bowl itself is mesmerising – a whole community of skaters revolves around this location and some of the locals will blow your mind with their skills.
I’m staying at the famed Hotel Erwin. Parked in the centre of Venice it’s the perfect place to make your nest with spacious rooms decorated with skate and surf photos, and a huge roof terrace bar. Away from the hectic boardwalk it becomes calmer and more residential. Pretty houses line the Venice canals and a ten minute walk from the beach you can find Abbot Kinney road. Think of it as the Notting Hill of L.A with trendy restaurants, coffee houses and lots of fashion boutiques.
The Butcher’s Daughter
You can’t visit Venice without a trip to cult hangout, The Butcher’s Daughter. The style is bohemian chic with a plant-based restaurant and juice bar. It’s known as a “vegetable slaughterhouse” for how they treat fruit and veg as a butcher would meat: chopping, filleting and carving fresh produce into healthy vegetarian dishes and pressed into juices.
Plan your trip to Venice
A new day dawning, we travelled up the coast to the famous Malibu Surf break. One of the most famous longboarding spots on earth that has achieved almost mythological status among Californian beach towns. Hollywood stars and top athletes live in oceanfront homes here. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself paddling past celebrities such as Anthony Keidis in the water. The area has become quite gentrified and so it’s also home to some fine dining restaurants including Carbon Beach Club.
Considered to have some of the most perfect waves anywhere, Malibu’s Surfrider Beach, just off Malibu Pier, was named the first World Surfing Reserve; nearby Zuma Beach is a sun magnet for locals and families. In winter, Point Dume, at Malibu’s north end, provides an ideal perch for spotting migrating grey whales.
Surfing with Aqua Surf School
The surf is quite small on the day we arrive but the quality of the break seems to give a wave no matter what the swell. If you’re looking for a great local surf school you can’t find one better than Aqua Surf. Our instructor Garret hails from the giant waves of Hawaii but after breaking his back on a particularly bad wipeout onto a reef he has contented himself with showing others how to rip it up on the smaller but perfect Malibu break.
For a post surf snack, head over to Duke’s. A surfy, laid back Hawaiian hangout on the Pacific coast highway for Kimo’s Original Hula pie – chocolate cookie crust, macadamia nut ice cream, hot fudge, toasted mac nuts and whipped cream – total over the top American indulgence at its finest!
Plan your trip to Malibu
After Malibu it was time to pick up our beasts of burden for a road trip to Ventura. To complete my California dream, my first choice is naturally a Mustang. But it seems that everyone else had the same idea and there appear to be none on offer. I make do with another American classic – a Chevrolet Traverse. It’s a novelty to me to actually drive a new car as my own is a busted up 2005 Rav 4 held together with duct tape (what you need for those Devon roads with their habit of flooding). This one didn’t even need a key or have a handbrake and is easily big enough to fit a couple of surfboards in the back.
After a scenic drive along the famous highway with its red cliff coast, we arrive at Ventura. With beautiful beaches and mountains it’s both a surfer and hiker’s paradise. We check into Ventura Beach Marriott – an oasis two blocks from the ocean before heading to Surfer’s Point. Like Malibu, I don’t catch the biggest waves here but the highlight is my lesson with Chipper Bro – a lifetime surfer and ex world champion freestyle frisbee player who gives a one-of-a-kind surf presentation on ocean wave science.
That evening we dine at Fluid State Beer Garden. An atmospheric craft-beer bar and artisanal pizzeria with sourdough-crust pizza and charcuterie. A hedonist’s dream. For freshly caught seafood, be sure to check out the Beach House market and The Jolly Oyster.
As for other activities, in Ventura you can enjoy world class theatre, walk through the Botanical Gardens and take it all in from the heights of Grant Park that offers panoramic views. For adventurous types there’s stand up paddle boarding, kayaking and whale watching, as well as hiking and diving.
Plan your trip to Ventura
After a scenic drive through olive groves, watching birds of prey circling, we arrive at Morro Bay. A beautiful little fishing town with a completely different vibe to our previous destinations. We check into The Landing at Morro Bay and head to Tognazzini’s – an artisanal fish and chip shop where you pick the catch of the day and how you’d like it cooked. I opt for the shark tacos – getting revenge for the fear they have instilled in me over the years. It sits in front of Morro Bay’s major landmark Morro Rock, a bird sanctuary and sacred burial ground that’s known as the “Gibraltar of the Pacific”. As far as birdwatching goes, I only encountered seagulls, but I was delighted to be greeted by an army of chipmonks who emerged from the rocks as I walked.
For our surf lesson we head to Morro Rock Surf Shop. Home to the local Central Coast brand AzHiAzIaM (pronounced: As High As I Am). I fell in love with the shop after the surf legend retailer described one of the skateboards on sale as “bitch’in”.
Our surf lesson is with a local legend known as the Big Kahuna (a title given to him by Hawaiians for his mastery of the water). Surfing next to Morro rock makes this a soulful experience and the cold water this far up the Californian coast starts to remind me of home. We are also lucky enough to see another local hero (or heroes) in action. You’ve heard of goat yoga, now prepare yourself for the goat surfer who is something of a legend in these parts…
After an exhausting surf session, get your protein fix at Morro Bay House of Jerky, which has some of the best tasting jerky on the Central Coast, all made from a 20 year old family recipe. Crill’s Saltwater Taffy is a must stop on the Embarcadero. Find an enormous selection of homemade salt water taffy, caramel corn and ice cream. Dutchman’s Seafood House is also worth a visit.
Plan your trip to Morro Bay
Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch
We drive two and a half hours to what feels like the middle of the desert. Parked near the city of Visalia is Kelly Slater’s world famous surf ranch. A manmade wave designed by the 11-time world champ (and former beau of Pamela Anderson in her Baywatch days) that promises a highly technical and scientific ride. The wave is too fast not to mention exclusive for everyday surfers but you can get tickets to watch the pros in action at the World Surf League Freshwater Pro. First held in 2018, the competition takes place annually.
It’s no wonder that surfing is now an official sport in the Olympics, the competitors are true athletes, warming up on exercise bikes before their heats with physiques like true Olympians. There’s a wave every 4 minutes, one left, one right and they are marked on technicality, tricks and how deep they get into the barrel. Between heats, average customers are given an opportunity to ride the wave (I heard a rumour that it’s $5K a go) but on experiencing the speed, money doesn’t get them very far, with many wiping out within seconds. This only serves to highlight how good the pros really are – many of which are hoping to compete in the Olympics in 2020.
After the competition, we stroll around the venue. The vibe is a mini festival with pop up wooden bars and trucks serving beers, cocktails and an array of street food. The day ends listening to live music under the desert stars with many cooling off at the Perkins Lake. I hear the location is soon to be the home of a new reality TV series “Ultimate Surfer” – think X-Factor for surfers.
Now to Santa Cruz, the birthplace of mainland surfing in the US, when in 1885, Hawaiian royalty visited the area, rode the waves on surfboards crafted from redwood trees, and the rest is history.
Unfortunately not even a 20ft redwood board could surf the flat waves today but I still visit the world famous break Steamer’s Lane, known to have taken many lives with its deadly currents and waves that break near the rocks. I take a stroll on the famous boardwalk for a house of horrors experience reminiscent of the recent horror flick “US” which was filmed here.
Lunch is at Jack O’Neill’s – a restaurant inspired by the famous one-eyed surfer and founder of the eponymous surf company O’Neill, who helped to bring the sport to the world stage, developing the modern-day wetsuit. An invention I am very thankful for and without which I wouldn’t be surfing in England. Speaking of which, my flight beckons from Santa Barbara to return me to those cold waters, and so ends my Californian dream.
Plan your trip to Santa Cruz
Berti Holmes is a Personal Trainer at Bodyism and Hiking Guide at Yeotown Radiant Health Retreat. He splits his life between London and North Devon.
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