Surf’s up: These laid-back beaches and friendly breaks are ideal for beginner surfers looking to learn the basics.
If you’ve always wanted to learn how to surf, you’re far from alone. Surfing is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country—and will likely become even more so when the sport makes its debut at the 2020 Olympics in Japan. And as surf simulators (via artificial wave pools) grow in popularity nationwide, even landlocked wannabes don’t have to travel to the coasts to learn.
For the foreseeable future, though, the ideal place for surfing novices is at the beach, the way the Polynesians (who invented the sport) have been doing it for centuries. The best beginning beaches have a lot in common: sandy bottoms (rather than rocky ones or coral reefs) that won’t scrape you when you fall, local surfers who are forgiving of newbie mistakes, and a break that doesn’t require a long paddle out to meet the waves. With those parameters in mind, here are eight great beaches for learning to surf across the United States, from Hawaii to Florida.
Nothing says surfing like legendary Waikiki Beach on Oahu, and the break named Canoes is at the heart of it, set directly across from the pink behemoth hotel known as The Royal Hawaiian. Yes, it’s crowded here, but at this exceptional beginners spot, the spirit of aloha prevails, and there are enough waves to go around. The rides are consistent and long, breaking both left and right, and the scenery looking toward the beach is memorable, especially the ancient volcano of Diamond Head. Surfboard rentals abound at Waikiki.
Santa Cruz, California
Though Santa Cruz lost the legal trademark of “Surf City” to Huntington Beach in Southern California, it remains one of the best spots on the West Coast for beginner surfers. Tucked into a cove between the wharf and Lighthouse Point, at the northern end of Monterey Bay, Cowell Beach is protected from winds and easy to paddle out to. Locals are patient because surf schools regularly hold lessons here, especially in summer when the south swells roll in. Note that you’ll want to rent a wetsuit if you don’t have one because the water is chilly year-round here. There’s a surf rental shop, Cowells Beach Surf Shop, directly across from the wharf.
Devil’s Punchbowl State Natural Area
Otter Rock, Oregon
This sandy break, set within the Devil’s Punchbowl State Natural Area, about 120 miles west of Portland, is so popular that it’s often called the Waikiki of Oregon. Protected from the winds by coastal bluffs and a huge headland to the north, the surf here is generally gentle. However, the water is cold year-round, making wetsuits mandatory. As protected parkland, the coastline is pleasantly undeveloped, and there’s plenty of room for surfers to spread out. Close-by Pura Vida Surf Shop rents equipment.
Cocoa Beach, Florida
Cocoa Beach, a barrier island 60 miles east of Orlando, identifies itself as the surfing capital of the East Coast. It’s also where 11-time world champion and legend Kelly Slater grew up surfing and still lives today. Most surfers head to the Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier, where the water is warm, the bottom is sandy, and the relatively small waves break year-round—all of which make it an excellent spot for beginners. Numerous surf shops rent equipment and give lessons, including Ron Jon Surf Shop, the largest surf shop in the world.
Sea Isle City Beach
Sea Isle City, New Jersey
This five-mile stretch of white-sand beach, just over 20 miles north of New Jersey’s southern tip at Cape May, is a bona fide surfing community, with dedicated surfing beaches every few blocks (from 26th to 82nd streets). The surf breaks, spread out over the length of the beaches, are perfect for beginners, with a sandy bottom and gentle waves. Various surf shops in the area rent equipment.
Big Island, Hawaii
This family-friendly beach just south of the Big Island town of Kailua-Kona attracts surfers of all levels, where beginners can practice standing up on smaller waves near the shore. A rocky breakwater protects the small bay, keeping the water relatively calm (which is why it’s also a very popular snorkeling spot). Because the water is shallow and the bottom is rocky, though, note that it’s a good idea to wear booties. Across the street, Kahaluu Surf and Sea offers rentals and lessons.
South Padre Island
South Padre Island, Texas
This barrier island north of Mexico is at the center of Texas’s surprising surfing culture. You read that right: Texas and surfing. With miles of coastline and conditions that produce consistent, rolling waves that don’t often get too big for beginners, South Padre Island draws surfers who drive hours from Texas’s dusty hinterlands to catch a wave. The best surfing is fall through spring (due to hurricane-season winter swells), especially along the jetty on the south end of the island. Surf shops offering rentals are plentiful on the island.
San Onofre State Beach
San Clemente, California
Pulling into San Onofre State Beach, south of San Clemente, seems like what Southern California surfing must have felt like 50 years ago. Surfers back their vehicles right up to the mile-long surfing beach, offloading kids, surfboards, and beach umbrellas. The beach turns from sand to smooth cobblestones at the water’s edge, so some surfers choose to wear booties; they’re not necessary, though. There are all kinds of takeoff points along the beach, and you’re as likely to share one with a grandma as a 10-year-old, especially during the summertime south swells, when the water is warm and the surf is up. Several surf shops in nearby San Clemente rent equipment.