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California’s Seven Best Surf Spots

Where to catch a wave on the West Coast, from Monterey Bay to Newport Beach

  • Newport Beach. Photograph by Mr Tom Cozad

It started with a chance encounter in Hawaii. In 1907, Mr Jack London, the Californian adventurer and writer, had arrived in the islands aboard his schooner, the Snark, when he marvelled at a man enjoying the centuries-old practice of wave riding. The “young god bronzed with sunburn”, as Mr London later described him, taught the writer to surf, which he in turn implored his countrymen to do, too.

“Go to. Strip off your clothes that are a nuisance in this mellow clime,” Mr London wrote. “Get in and wrestle with the sea; wing your heels with the skill and power that reside in you; bit the sea’s breakers, master them, and ride upon their backs as a king should.”

That same year, the same bronzed god travelled to Redondo Beach, California. Mr George Freeth, an Irish-Hawaiian, had been hired by railroad magnate Mr Henry Huntington to demonstrate his prowess to promote a new electrified rail line from Los Angeles. Mr Freeth drew crowds to the sands. They gasped and swooned – and California embraced a new sport.

More than a century later, surfing has become a global industry, lifestyle and – soon, at the 2020 Games in Tokyo – an Olympic event. But its heart belongs along the blessed coastline of California, where surf kings and queens still go in search of the best breaks and beaches. The possibilities are almost endless but here follows a selection of the best spots, chosen by in-the-know local Mr Kurt Narmore, founder of LA surf clothing brand Noon Goons, with further contributions by Mr John Moore, the designer and co-founder, with pro surfer Mr Kelly Slater, of LA menswear brand Outerknown, and Ms Johanna St Clair of San Francisco’s Mollusk Surf Store.

Best for Instagram: Rincon Point, Santa Barbara

  • Photograph by Mr Tom Cozad/A-Frame Photo

The Beach Boys sang about Rincon in “Surfin’ Safari”, recognising one of California’s most famous surf spots. It lies just south of Santa Barbara, wrapping around a small beachfront neighbourhood with a handy carpark on the north side and stunning views. But it is not, Mr Narmore says, a place for amateurs to rock up and go. “You gotta know how to surf and know the etiquette while being aggressive enough to get a beautiful ride,” he says. “Bring lunch and a couple different boards, depending on what the tide does throughout the day. This is definitely a place to go for more than just an hour.” Just south at “Little ’Con”, the next point along, Mr Narmore recommends Cliff House Inn, a low-key beachfront hotel, and, five minutes to the north, the “very mellow, very calming” restaurants and beaches of Carpinteria, a small city on the way up to Santa Barbara.

What to wear

  • Battenwear Local Slim-Fit Cotton-Ripstop Shorts

  • Yuketen Arizonian Leather Slides

Best for hanging out: Newport Beach

  • Photograph by Mr Tom Cozad

Mr Narmore grew up on this stretch of sand, where the Balboa Peninsula hooks its finger into the Pacific south of LA. “It’s great for all types of surfers,” he says. “The pier, aka Blackies, is typically the spot for the old timers, loggers and beginners. Depending on swell direction, the waves increase in size from the jetties that span the few miles of beachline.” Each jetty is named after the adjacent street. Mr Narmore favours the waves between 56th and the Santa Ana River, which divides Newport and Huntington Beaches. On the other side of the Pacific Coast Highway here you’ll find The Frog House, “the most iconic surf shop in the world… You can go in here and always get a laugh. No one wears shoes, and shirts are required never.” Further south along the coast, Mr Narmore recommends Alta Coffee, “my all-time favourite hangout, especially after a good surf or even for a date. Good food, good vibes, good coffee.”

What to wear

  • Outerknown Happy Striped Organic Cotton-Twill Hoodie

  • Mollusk Vacation Mid-Length Cotton-Blend Swim Shorts

Best for celeb spotting: Malibu

  • Photograph by Mr Bryce Lowe-White

Just west of LA and fringed by the Santa Monica Mountains, the beaches of Malibu are, Mr Narmore says, home “to the most famous wave in the world”. At Surf Rider Beach, where a right-hand point break is a gift to all levels, those who care to people watch are almost guaranteed a sighting of a famous rider. “Pro surfers, models, actors – they all come here.” As a result, the on-shore distractions are of another order, including a beachfront outpost of Nobu and, right next door, Little Beach House Malibu, a quite sizeable new addition to the Soho House map. On the other side of Malibu Lagoon, Mr John Moore recommends John’s Garden for lunch, inside the Malibu Country Mart. “I’ve been going here since high school for a sandwich and a smoothie,” he says. “My favourite is not even on the menu any more – simply a pile of avocado and provolone cheese on wheat bread and two orange wedges on the side. They’ll still make it for you… it’s called the Duchess. Get a bag of Have’A Corn Chips to scoop up all the avocado that falls off the bread.”

What to wear

  • Stüssy Paradise Lost Printed Cotton-Jersey T-Shirt

  • Saturdays NYC Timothy Slim-Fit Mid-Length Swim Shorts

Best for pros: Laguna Beach

  • Photograph by Mr Tom Cozad

Not far south of Laguna Beach itself, after the historic city of galleries and arts and crafts cottages gives way to beachfront mansions, an almost hidden staircase leads off the Pacific Coast Highway, opposite 9th Street, to a secluded beach known to locals as Thousand Steps (there are no more than 250 steps cut through the cliffs, but never mind). “Once you get down to the beach, it opens to a very beautiful and large cove beach,” Mr Narmore says. “Beautiful reef rocks are scattered along the beach in front of huge cliffs under multi-million-dollar mansions.” When the water is flatter, body boarders and skimboarders flock here. Head-height barrels roll in in the right conditions, when only experts should apply. “If you don’t exit right, you’re getting slammed, hard, right into sand or rock depending on how far you go,” Mr Narmore warns. 

What to wear

  • Thom Browne Mid-Length Floral-Print Swim Shorts

  • Illesteva Leonard Round-Frame Acetate Sunglasses

Best for apres-surf: San Onofre State Beach

  • Photograph by Mr Jason Kenworthy/A-Frame Photo

Just south of San Clemente, half way between LA and San Diego, Mr Narmore drives as often as he can to “San O”, a state beach he describes as “probably one of the most magical places in California. You can drive your car on a dirt road right down to the beach and literally park on the sand. Barbecue, beers, surf, and all your homies – it’s a very nice vibe with amazing people and even better surf.” Great for all kinds of surfers, Mr Narmore says San Onofre is known especially for its laid-back atmosphere. It also offers a slice of surfing history, where pre-war surfing pioneers including Messrs Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison and Bob Simmons came to do their thing on old redwood boards. Those who want to linger longer can take advantage of the beach’s campsites.

What to wear

  • Faherty Baja Striped Double-Faced Cotton Hoodie

  • James Perse Slub Cotton-Jersey T-shirt

Best for a pre-office workout: Ocean Beach, San Francisco

  • Photograph by Mr Aaron Checkwood/A-Frame Photo

Follow the rocky coast south of the Golden Gate Bridge, past the landmark Cliff House, and San Francisco eases into the Pacific via the city’s own, simply named beach. A boon to sunbathers, it can also be a punishing place as the fog rolls in and rip currents roil beneath cold waves. But for the city’s serious surfers, it brings some of the Bay Area’s best waves to their doorstep. Executives gather at dawn to clear their heads before work, while those without the chops to take on the conditions are well served by surfer-friendly stores and cafes of Outer Sunset. Sure enough, it was co-founder Ms Johanna St Clair who recommended this beach. Her own Mollusk Surf Shop is three blocks back from the sand on Irving Street and stocks its own range of casual beach-inspired wear and more. She also flags General Store on Judah Street and Outerlands, a modern-American restaurant famed for its brunches.

What to wear

  • Noon Goons Printed Cotton-Jersey T-Shirt

  • Ray-Ban Clubmaster Square-Frame Acetate and Gold-Tone Sunglasses

Best for spectating: Monterey Bay

  • Photograph by Mr Frans Lanting/Gallery Stock

When the waves are good, a serious community of surfers gathers around Lover’s Point, at the southern end of Monterey Bay’s vast sweep. Winter brings the best ride, when the waves – and locals – are not to be messed with by all but the gnarliest boardsmen. But in the relative shelter of Carmel, just south of Monterey itself, conditions can favour even the beginner surfer. Whatever the water is doing, Monterey Peninsula, and its bay full of big-ocean wildlife, is one of the most startling sights in the state. The city is a worthy stop on the California tourist trail too, not least for its historic quarter, where Mr John Steinbeck immortalised the old sardine canning industry, and its aquarium, one of the world’s best. 

What to wear

  • Beams Aloha Camp-Collar Pineapple-Print Voile Shirt

  • Suicoke Kisee-V Webbing and Neoprene Sandals