Best Places to Learn to Surf

Need an idea for where to take your next vacation? Why not visit a surf camp? You'll soak up some rays, hang in a laid-back beach town, and meet a ready-made group of travelers soaking up the local culture. Find our top ten places to learn to surf below.
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Surfer in Santa Cruz, California
Santa Cruz has waves of all sizes and some of the best surf schools in the country.  (Photodisc/Getty)
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With learn-to-surf camps all over the world and some three million Americans taking to the waves every year, learning to rip is a great way to decide where to take your next vacation. Though most people have heard of Malibu and Oahu's North Shore, they're not necessarily the best places to start. "When you're just learning, warm water, a sandy bottom, and small rolling waves are essential," says Rick Civelli, a lifelong surfer who also teaches surfing. Stoked yet? Here are the ten best destinations where beginners (a.k.a., "Barneys") can learn to rip.

Margaret River, Western Australia
Margaret River might be best known as Australia's wine-making region, but it's also home to elite surf competitions. Because of its remote location on the country's western coast, it's one of the world's least crowded major surf spots and has plenty of beginner-friendly breaks. "Margaret River Mouth, where the Margaret River flows into the Indian Ocean, is a great spot to learn," says Josh Palmateer, who runs a surf school there. "There are always waves, but they break on a sandy bottom."
Lessons and rentals: Josh Palmateer's Surf Academy
When to go: December though April (waves can get mighty—think 40-footers—in late-March and April)
How to get there: Margaret River is 169 miles from Perth and its international airport. It's an easy three-hour drive, with lots to see and do along the way.
While you're there: Caves are found all over the region, with self-guided or organized tours readily available. Wine aficionados will want to visit one of the 90 wineries in this area known for its cabernets.

Inch Marlow, Barbados
The best thing about surfing in Barbados—other than the 77-degree, leave-the-wetsuit-at-home water—is that the island is one of the few in the Caribbean to offer consistent surf conditions year-round. On the protected Barbadian southern coast, the waves are routinely two to six feet high, making them ideal for novices.
Lessons and rentals: Zed's Surfing Adventures
When to go: December to June
How to get there: Grantley Adams International Airport is your only option in Barbados. It's a three-and-a-half-hour flight from Miami and about five and a half hours from New York. Inch Marlowe, where Zed's is based, is about 20 minutes from the airport.
While you're there: Even when you're not surfing, it will be hard to stay out of the water. You can snorkel from the beach or hire a powerboat for an excursion to one of the island's premier diving sites.

Cowell's Beach, Santa Cruz, California
First, the bad news: A wetsuit is almost always required when surfing in Santa Cruz. Oh, and this spot, known as the region's best beginner's spot, can get really crowded. But it's just 50 miles from San Francisco, the waves are gentle, and they break for what seems like miles, giving beginners ample time to perfect their form. When the crowds are fierce, hiring an instructor to school you on etiquette and help you claim some space is worth the money. Dylan Greiner, who runs Santa Cruz Surf School, guarantees a 3:1 student-to-instructor ratio, and all his instructors are lifelong town residents.
Lessons and rentals: Santa Cruz Surf School
When to go:
June through October
How to get there: Mineta San Jose International Airport is 27 miles from Santa Cruz; San Francisco and Oakland airports are roughly 50 miles away (about a 90-minute drive).
While you're there: The Santa Cruz Beach Train, which departs from the Beach Boardwalk, makes a three-hour round-trip ride to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. It might sound touristy, but the ride through the ancient forest aboard the open cars of a restored steam train will appease even the coolest customer.

Carlsbad, California
The beach towns north of San Diego are sandy and the waves break slowly, making it (relatively) easy for first-timers to stand up on their boards. Book a lesson with local pro surfer Rusty Friesen of So Cal Surf Lessons: He guarantees that you'll catch a wave after just one two-hour lesson, or your next lesson is free. If you're visiting with kids, you'll want to hit SeaWorld and LegoLand, which are just minutes from the beach.
Lessons and rentals: So Cal Surf Lessons
When to go: Year-round (no wetsuit required June through September)
How to get there: San Diego International Airport is 31 miles from this quaint surf town. If you're flying into Los Angeles International, 90 miles away, wait until well past rush hour to drive down the coast—or be prepared to spend three additional hours in your rental car.
While you're there: After you've done the big theme parks, wander through the extensive California Native Plant Garden at the Agua Hedionda Lagoon, a 400-acre coastal wetland preserve.

Playa Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica
Nosara has several beginner-friendly surf breaks within a few miles of the village, and there are plenty of hotels just steps from the beach. "The surf is ideal for beginners because there are no drop-offs in the sand as you enter the water," says Tim Marsh, who runs Safari Surf School with his brother Tyler. Waves break about 100 to 150 yards offshore and roll in slowly and gently. Almost half of the region is protected forest, and the beaches border the Ostional Wildlife Refuge, home to thousands of howler monkeys, pizotes (tree-dwelling raccoon-like animals), and birds.
Lessons and rentals: Safari Surf School
When to go: November through March
How to get there: Shuttle flights to Nosara's regional airport depart from Liberia's Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport and San Jose's Juan Santamaria International Airport daily.
While you're there: The Nosara Yoga Institute, a renowned center for teacher training and yoga retreats, offers daily classes for tourists.

Published: 13 Apr 2009 | Last Updated: 11 Jun 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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