The Best Places to Learn to Surf in the World
We get it, you’re a kook, don’t want jellyfish, sharks or sea urchins in your life. You want to try this mythical act of standing on a wave, feeling the ocean’s inertia, and allowing it to take over your body and fill with it a warm glow that reaches your toes. Maybe you have an image of a beautiful man/woman on a beach, running up to you as you sit under the shade of a coconut tree, to revel in your surfing ability and strong physique, then make love endlessly until the next swell arrives when you are whisked away to walk on water again. If any of this is you, we’d recommend LSD. If you just want to learn to surf, you should read on for the best places to learn to surf in the world.
We’ve broken it down into two categories, for those who –
Playa Cerritos, Baja California, Mexico
Budget $60USD a day for food, hostel, surf school, tacos, lots of tacos
Usually: Always a wave, warm water with boardshorts and bikinis guaranteed
Sometimes: Can seriously pump and be huge, but you will always be able to find a small wave to learn on.
Crowds: Tourists with the same goals as you, so maybe make some friends? Go in the winter for maximum scarcity.
Other stuff to do: If you like diving, check out the plethora of epic dives to see Grey Pacific Whales, Sea Lions, and Whale Sharks
On Season: Good all year round, but I would aim for March-June, where you’ll be able to enjoy uncrowded waves
Our favorite surf school: Mario Surf School, honest guys with newish boards, mention us for a kook discount
High on the list is this warm water, consistent wave, and delicious tacos-bearing country. Cabo San Lucas is a quick 3hr-ish flight from Southern California, and feels a million miles away. People worry a lot about safety in Mexico, but I would go as far to say that, I would rather walk down the main roads in Todos Santos and La Paz then in Downtown LA or some areas of San Francisco. While it is true that you can get into trouble in Mexico, if you don’t draw attention to yourself by flashing money and stay in the relatively occupied parts of the country, you will never have an issue.
Playa Cerritos is roughly an hr’s drive north of Cabo San Lucas. If you don’t feel like driving, you can get a bus that will take you straight to Todos Santos. From there, you can get a taxi to Playa Cerritos and, depending on where you stay, you can get away with walking. There are plenty of surf schools, cheap accommodation and even cheaper food, so you can spend a while there without breaking the bank. There are a ton of expats living in the area, so if you are feeling spendy you can get everything you could ever want, from acai bowls to legit Italian food.
We’d recommend getting an AirBnb (this is our favorite, pictured below) or Hostel close to the beach and signing up with a surf school for a week. By avoiding the surf school accommodation, you’re most likely meet more people, and enjoy more of what Baja has to offer.
One of the coolest things about Baja is, you can surf both on the Pacific side and on the Sea of Cortez. So you’ll be able to find offshore winds somewhere at any time of the year. Old Man’s reef has a great surf school in front of it called Cabo Surf Hotel. The hotel attached is fairly fancy compared to other places around, and if you want to blow money after your learning the basics session at Cerritos, I’d head here for a slightly more advanced wave. The Mike Doyle Surf School is based in the hotel, and they have some really nice boards and instructors if you want to try your hand at a reef break.
Nusa Lembongan, Bali, Indonesia
Usually: Warm, good to learn sized consistent waves, albeit over a deep reef break
Sometimes: A few waves to choose from, so if you’re feeling adventurous there are options
Crowds: Depending on season, but usually not too bad: < 10 people is very common. In the rainy season (our favorite time to go) expect very few people
Other stuff to do: Scootering around to your hearts content, rock jumps, great nightlife, and all the manta rays and snorkeling/diving you can stomach
On Season: The rainy season sounds a lot worse than it is, and if you’re okay with 1 hr of rain a day, Dec and Jan will be cheap as chips.
Our favorite surf school: Newbro Surfing These guys grew up here and have been surfing Bali since they were teeny babies, thus expect them to know both the waves and the lineup. Its always nice surfing with a local and these guys will make you feel at home.
Bali holds a special place in most surfers’ hearts due to its pumping waves, friendly people, and dirt cheap cost of traveling. Expect drunk Australians at every turn, reef breaks, island vibes and basic living services. Indonesia as a whole is a very safe, friendly country, full of amazing food, people and smiles. It is very easily accessible from Australia, however, it is becoming increasingly popular with Americans and Europeans due to its rapidly developing infrastructure and cheap flights. You’ll fly into Denpasar, the airport on the main island of Bali. Bali itself deserves a whole article or two dedicated to it, but Nusa Lembongan is a great step back from the bustle that is now Bali, whilst still enjoying the comforts of electricity, delicious cuisine, and relatively close medical facilities.
Although not third world, it should be noted that Nusa Lembongan is not built to handle masses of tourists. There are no high rises, big resorts, or even well paved roads. Everyone walks or uses a scooter or a boat to get around. While still on the tourist trail, it has a lot slower vibe than many of these other places on the list due to its relative remoteness. It’s roughly an hr’s ferry from the main island of Bali, but feels much further and different from its busy and bigger island brother.
We love staying at Suka Beach Bungalow right in front of Shipwrecks, a great but advanced right hander. It’s walking distance to Newbro, theres a rockin’ bar next door, and you can spend $5 on a full fish from a local fisherman, who will be stoked. And did we mention its about $35 a night for your own bungalow and view like this?
The main learn to surf wave on the island is called Playgrounds. It is usually a slow rolling, easy to paddle onto left hander, fairly close to shore. It breaks on a high tide, and the water here is normally deeper, so you should not get into any trouble with a shallow reef or sea urchins…shudder. The current is pretty reasonable, and any decent surf school will be able to take you here and make you feel comfortable in the water (not stressed that you are going to cop a board to the face).
Sydney and the Central Coast, NSW, Australia
Budget $70-120 USD a day for meat pies, surf lessons and a roof over ya head
Usually: Tons of waves spread over miles and miles of beaches. Winter time usually has more favorable winds, but in summer you will still score
Sometimes: Absolutely nutcase good, theres a reason why 1 in 10 Australians surf
Crowds: It depends on where you go. Bondi will be bonkers. The Central Coast, not so much
Other stuff to do: Its a nation of cricket, rugby, beers down at the pub, and ragging on yours mates. Expect an outdoor adventure
On Season: Southern Hemisphere, mate! So Nov-Feb will be warm waters and you’ll want to crack a VB by midday
Our favorite surf school: Central Coast Surf School. Screw the packs of tourists at Bondi and Surfers Paradise, go exploring and find a slice of real ‘ocker life
Australia is one of surfing’s greatest Meccas, being the home to some of the best surfers in the world. As most Aussies live around the coast line, surfing has always played a huge role in people’s lives, with throwing a ‘sicky’ to get home early from work really an excuse to paddle out when the waves are good. Expect roos, spiders, and all the stories about jellyfish (blue bottles) and shallow reefs to be true. But the adventure will be worth the reward, in the form of glorious waves.
Thanks to Low Cost Carriers like Jetstar and AirAsia, flying to Australia is getting cheaper and easier. There are direct flights from LA, NY, London and a half dozen hubs where you might be stranded and craving a sea/surf change. Aussies are super friendly and love to travel, and will no doubt (if you are from the US) ask you questions about all you can drink soda machines and the fast food on offer back home. Public transport in the major cities (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane) is serviceable, but having a car for part of your adventure will be worth it if your budget allows.
Sydney is home to many beaches, from Bondi, Dee Why, Bronte, Avalon and many more. For the sake of this article, we will presume you are looking for a home base to learn and practice surfing on fun, easy waves. Bondi does fulfill these objectives, at the cost of crowded beaches, busy restaurants, and expensive pubs. If you like being the hub of activity, Let’s Go Surfing is a surf school we have tried which will get you standing with a smile. However, if you are a little more adventurous and want to escape the throngs of eastern European tourists, we’d recommend getting the train up north, stopping in Gosford NSW, and getting a bus to Avoca beach and an AirBnB. You’ll be able to say you stood up at a beach like Avoca or Terrigal and happily claim you didn’t hit or run anyone over with your 8 foot foam board.
If you’ve got the time and dough, after learning how to stand in Sydney or the Central Coast, drive up to Byron Bay, Crescent Head, Forster or any of the beaches between. Keep an eye out for lifeguards and flags as well. You are not meant to surf in between the flags, but if you stay just outside of them and you run into any trouble in the water, the lifeguards will give you a hand. Rip currents will suck you out into deep water faster than you can say the word ‘surfing’, but stay calm and paddle parallel to the beach. You’ll soon exit the rip and be able to paddle back towards the shore. Don’t let these obstacles stop you from surfing; if you can swim you can surf, and you won’t be able to get yourself into too much trouble if you follow basic safety rules.
We get it, you work busy hours in a small office and rarely have time off. Or maybe your girlfriend/wife/husband/lover/mistress hates getting wet and you have to keep them happy at a bar whilst you fulfill your life’s dreams to get stoked on nature’s playground. Either way, we chose the best options to be able to go for a paddle in the morning and be back in time for brunch. Choose what’s closest or easiest for your lazy self to learn the sacred art of wave riding.
Los Angeles, California, USA
Budget $70-120 USD a day for a room in an AirBnB or hostel, surf lessons and rentals, and food
Usually: Always will have a wave, try get in the water before noon as the wind has the tendency to turn onshore
Sometimes: The right day at the right spot will leave you speechless
Crowds: There are way too many damn people in this town. Shoulder to shoulder with some of the most aggressive surfers in the world.
Other stuff to do: Luxury watch shopping on Rodeo Drive, celebrity sighting on Sunset, probably eating a bunch of In-N-Out
On Season: We like August – November when the water isn’t freezing and the crowds are thinning from summer
Our favorite surf school: Malibu Surf Coach is king in northern LA, super nice guy who will take to you to some spots in Malibu away from the hordes.
Los Angeles is home to famous actors, musicians, and plenty of waitresses and waiters wishing they were one of these. There is always a wave to be found, whether up north in Malibu, or perhaps down in Manhattan Beach, but expect crowds of transient and learning surfers. Check out our article to get a breakdown of our favorite spots to surf in the region.
Los Angeles is easy to get to from pretty much any corner of the world. Being a part of the ol’ US of A, most foreigners will be able to get a 90 day visa which should cover them while going from bodyboarder to Kelly Slater. LA is definitely a city of drivers, so expect to either rent a car or spend 3 hrs a day on public transport. If you really hate driving, just stay as close to the beach as you can afford and you can probably get away with it. Just know that your options for food and shopping will probably be limited to what is walkable.
If we had a choice in the matter and money to spend, we’d have to pick learning to surf in one of Malibu’s many waves. We’d recommend getting a hotel in Malibu close to the pier, or if you’re feeling spendy, Nobu Ryokan just opened up and boasts epic views, and is right next door to Malibu Point. You could either learn to surf there, or make your surf instructor head up north to County Line or one of the many other open beaches where you will enjoy relative quietness. If you are okay with crowds or want to stay closer to the city, Venice Beach will definitely be the go.
Budget $80-140 USD a day for a room in an AirBnB or hostel, surf lessons and rentals, and food
Usually: The literal home of surfing, expect some of the best and biggest waves in the world. But for a kook like you, there will be plenty to choose from
Sometimes: You’ll see the biggest waves you may ever see in your life, along with the best surfers ever
Crowds: Lahaina will definitely have the most learn to surfers but it never gets obnoxious if you are willing to walk down the beach
Other stuff to do: Road to Hana, waterfalls, bamboo forests, whale watching, turtle
groping watching, the list goes on
On Season: The winter season is the best no doubt for surfers looking for advanced waves, but you’ll be fine year round
Our favorite surf school: Royal Hawaiian Surf School is one of the oldest companies around for a reason, they will fill you with the real Aloha spirit
The Aloha spirit is a unique thing, and when you spend enough time in Hawaii, I always find myself more relaxed and at peace with the world. Surfing here is a national pastime, and there is more history of surfing here than anywhere else in the world. Conversations with the locals are usually about the morning’s surf conditions and where the best place to go will be in the afternoon. You can hole up in a Marriott or Hyatt and never have to move a muscle (apart from paddling and standing up), or there are countless great AirBnBs close to the beaches.
Out of all the islands that make up Hawaii, our favorite is Maui, due to its relative lack of crowds, price point and sheer beauty. The hordes go to Oahu, so why not save yourself some cash and stress and enjoy Maui? It’s serviced by direct flights from many major US cities, or if you are coming from Europe you’ll usually have to transit through Oahu. Once on Maui, public transit is somewhat scarce, so if you are planning on having some freedom, a rental car will be a necessity. However if you want to just post up in Lahaina and go from hotel to beach to restaurant to bar, you’ll be able to pull that off.
Our favorite spot on the island is Lahaina, with many waves to suit all experience levels. This is the only place on our list that you’ll paddle past breaching turtles and offshore whales. The sheer beauty of Hawaii is in that it feels almost untouched.
Whaddya think? Did we get it right? Have a secret spot you want to share? Comment below.