If you are a surfer, or thinking of taking up surfing, one thing you will learn is that you want to know a good surf spot.
What is a good surf spot?
A good surf spot will have all the following:
A Favorable Wind and Swell Window
A wide swell window – around 180 degrees or more – and reliable offshore winds are sometimes all you need to get world-class waves.
Plenty of Long Rideable Wave Faces
No matter the type of surf spot you’re paddling out at – beach break, point break, or reef break – perfect-peeling waves will always be your dancing ground.
A long and smooth oblique wave face that breaks steadily down the line is the opposite of a pounding closeout shore break wave.
A Comfortable Paddling Channel
Paddling out and duck diving are not the most pleasant things about surfing. A smart side channel will save you a lot of energy and will spare you a few two or three-wave hold-downs.
Consistency All Year Round
There’s nothing better than heading to a surf break that constantly delivers above average, very good or world-class conditions throughout the year, under sunny skies or torrential rains.
A State-of-the-Art Ocean Bottom
Whether you’re surfing in a beach break with shifty sandbars or having fun in a coral reef break, a predictable seabed that helps shape the wave to perfection is mandatory.
A Long Stretch of Beach
There’s nothing more comfortable than knowing that, when you’re exhausted, you will always paddle in toward a sandy beach and a nice coffee house, instead of having to negotiate the exit up a tricky rocky cliff.
Uncrowded Surf Zone
Who wants a perfect wave that is breaking in a war field, where surfers battle all the time for the best rollers? Crowded surf spots are stressful environments where you rarely score.
Warm Air and Water Temperatures
Cold water surfing can be an unforgettable experience, but you can’t beat the idea of being in the water with a pair of modern boardshorts and a shirt.
Surfing perfect waves in shark-infested waters is a bit like eating a tasty, gourmet meal in a war theater. It just doesn’t match up; it is a dangerous contradiction.
Polluted waters are unhealthy environments and have nothing to do with sports activity and having fun in salt water. Surfing is all about embracing the benefits of seawater, and not getting seriously ill.
Again, what makes a good surf spot? Any non-surfer might think it’s ridiculous how surfers’ group together fighting for the same waves despite having the entire coastline to choose from. With seemingly endless miles of breaking waves, why do surfers choose to sit within such proximity? The unfortunate truth is, when it comes to wave quality, all beaches are not created equal. For example, on a trip to Witch’s Rock (Roca Bruja), first-timers may feel a bit discouraged by their initial wave check in Playas Del Coco. Even though the two beaches are situated a stone’s throw away on a map, there is an enormous difference in wave size.
Diving deeper into the subject of what makes a good surf spot, we must acknowledge two characteristics. The first is swell window. In other words, does the beach have the correct geographical orientation to receive the full force of oncoming swells? Revisiting our example of Witch’s Rock and Playas Del Coco, you can notice from the maps how Witch’s Rock has a wide-open swell window to the South Pacific while Playas Del Coco is very much closed off.
In addition to swell window, we must also recognize a second characteristic: unique geographical features. Because most surfers are not up-to-date with their geographical jargon, we have coined our own names to describe the unique layouts of different beaches. Here are the most popular.
Beach Break – These are the most common types of surf spots. Beach breaks are sand bottomed surf zones that have an open swell window. The swell approaches the coastline from deep water and will crest as it reaches shallow water. Witch’s Rock is a great example of a beach break. Not only are the sandbars deposited perfectly, but the famous rock sitting offshore will refract oncoming swells so there are nice, peaky waves in the surf zone.
Point Break – Point breaks are dreamy for three main reasons: higher percentage of quality-shaped waves, predictability of each wave, and increased length of ride. Traveling towards the coast from the open ocean, a swell will always break first in shallow water. When an individual swell line approaches an abnormal point in the coast, the wave will uniformly peel along the point, creating perfectly groomed waves. Costa Rica is fortunate to be blessed with some of the best point breaks in the world. If you want leg burning lefts, head down south to Pavones. If you prefer a zippy right-hander that looks like Kelly Slater’s wave-pool, cruise up to Ollie’s point.
Here are some of the best Surfing Spots in the World
Pipeline, Oahu, Hawaii
Here it is — the granddaddy of all waves.
Most surfers will never be good enough to ride here, but everyone dreams of bobbing along its perfect crest. Located on the island where modern surfing was developed, this is one of the heaviest waves in the world, scaling more than six meters over a shallow base of razor-blade table reef.
Ride this flawless water tube and you’ve communed with one of nature’s finest creations.
Supertubes, Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa
The best right-hand ride in the world, according to Surfing Magazine editors, Jeffrey’s Bay offers long, fast barrels off an intense point break.
The bay is divided into sections, so there are plenty of choices — Kitchen Windows, Magna Tubes, Boneyards and, gnarliest of all, Supertubes.
Expert surfers flock here for rides up to 300 meters long.
Teahupo’o, Tahiti, French Polynesia
“Teahupo’o is one of the most perfect and feared waves in the world,” says Paul about this unique Tahiti reef break.
“It’s a short, intense ride and when it gets above 10 feet it’s one of the most surreal waves in the world — almost cartoonish.”
The heavy hollow-breaking wave is as dangerous as it is rewarding — the name means “Wall of Heads.”
Uluwatu and Kuta, Bali, Indonesia
This paradise island attracts expert surfers from Australia and Hawaii, plus beginners from across the globe — all can enjoy these perfect glassy faces.
P-Pass, Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia
P-Pass (short for Paliker Pass) is known for its incredible right-hander.
“It’s just flawless, blue, reef-pass tubes,” says Paul.
Due to a remote location and the relatively high cost to reach it, the spot remains largely uncrowded despite its superlative rides.
The wave of legends is surfed by only the gutsiest of board riders.
The mammoth peak forms as a result of hair-raising storms out at sea and reaches bone-chilling heights of 25 meters.
The only way to reach this wave is by boat or jet-ski; come at it at the wrong angle and your fish food.
In 1994, skilled Hawaiian big-wave surfer Mark Foo died surfing this point.
Those surfers who do conquer its peak join a small club of overachievers.
Cloud Nine, Siargao Island, Philippines
This dramatic and powerful reef break, which crashes onto shallow razor-sharp coral, offers right and left death rides.
Fearless surfers will experience a slice of paradise or hallucinations as waves wrap over them like a liquid cocoon.
Skin and sometimes bone are often ripped to shreds by the ocean bed.
Lance’s Right, Sipora, Mentawais Islands, Sumatera Barat, Indonesia
Near a seaside village on the tiny, beautiful Indonesian island of Sipora is a killer right tube that’s worth the time, money and effort it takes to find it.
Warm water, mechanically consistent waves, a cove lined with palm trees and dozens more world-class waves nearby — no wonder the place is called “perfection” by avid surfers.
Sultans, North Male, Maldives
A consistent reef wave that’s absolutely pumping in the spring, the rocks at Sultans can be hazardous, so going with a live-aboard outfit such as Surf Atoll is recommended.
The expert wave spotters can also deliver surfers to other fine points among the Maldives’ 1,190 coral islands.
Trestles, Orange County, California
The combination of easy paddle-outs and consistent high-quality breaks make the Trestles one of the most revered destinations in Southern California.
Five spots make up the Trestles and provide a variety of left- and right-handed barrels — the best surf (and the biggest crowds) are found at Lower Trestles.
“There’s no other wave in the world that allows for such high-performance surfing, and the fact that the A-frame is located in Orange County — the heart of the surf industry — makes it the epicenter for progressive aerials and surfing,” says Surfing Magazine editor in chief Taylor Paul.
Honolua Bay, Maui, Hawaii
Finding this right-hand point break is tricky.
Locals may respond to requests for directions with “go back home,” but this is a world-class ride with the bonus of whale spotting from your board.
Rincon, Santa Barbara, California
While it doesn’t break often, when the surf is up, Rincon is the best point break in California, offering long, steep, right-hand waves on most big northwest swells.
When that happens, this world-famous spot gets extremely crowded.
Manu Bay, Raglan, New Zealand
Made famous in the 1960s as a location in the surf classic, “The Endless Summer,” atmosphere is key at this sleepy town.
Bars and cafes play surf videos and serve healthy smoothies and fresh cakes.
The waves on this wide-open bay range from one meter to about three, with an occasional barrel.
Riyuewan, Sanya, Hainan Island, China
China isn’t known for its beaches, let alone its surfing, but Hainan Island offers untouched tropical beaches with consistent uncrowded waves.
Local outfit Surfing Hainan arranges transportation to beginner spots, such as Riyuewan Bay, and lesser known locations.
Jaws, Maui, Hawaii
The most iconic big wave reef break on the Hawaiian Islands takes its name from the ferocity of its legendary waves.
It’s a right and a left, and both offer giant barrels — and potentially deadly consequences — for anyone who’s crazy enough to ride them.
Waves can reach an unbelievable 27 meters in winter, when strong winds create the monster swells for which the break is famed.
Surfrider Beach, Malibu, California
These small, perfectly formed crests where Johnny Fain and Miki Dora surfed in the 1950s are a great place to grab a longboard and surf Beach Boys-style. Unfortunately, the place is absolutely rammed for exactly this reason.
Superbank, Gold Coast, Australia
Superbank produces tubes and solid walls.
Backdoor, Oahu, Hawaii
An experts-only spot, the reef bottom here creates potent, hollow, fast and intimidating world-class tubes.
Epic, though not quite as epic as its North Shore neighbor, Pipeline.
Non-expert surfers should probably just experience this break from the beach.
Rincon, Puerto Rico
Not to be confused with Rincon, California this once sleepy Puerto Rican town on the Caribbean Sea has become famous for surfing.
The green hill is a great place from which to scout the best surf.
Hanalei Bay, Hawaii
Set in a sandy, horseshoe bay, Hanalei on Kauai is particularly pretty, with waterfalls tumbling down magnificent tropical cliffs in the background.
Pros love it for its overhead tubes and consistently fine waves.
Others just love the super-chill vibe of a perfect beach town.
Even professional surfers come close to cracking their boards at this classic wave, which breaks over live coral and on top days offers 150-meter rides.
Pedra Branca Ericeira, Portugal
Along this sublime surf beach 48 kilometers north of Lisbon on the Atlantic coast you’ll find a sleepy fishing-village-turned-surfer town with six kilometers of stunning beach, including the sandbar Sao Lorenzo and the epic Pedra Branca reef break. It’s one of the best waves in Europe.
Killer Point, Taghazoute, Morocco
Popularized by hippies in the 1960s, this southern Moroccan village makes for an utterly unique surf trip.
A perfectly peeling wave breaks over a cliff shelf, which was named after the many killer whales in the area.
Tofino, Vancouver Island, Canada
The surfing capital of Canada offers a picturesque break on the west coast of the island.
Unique feature: it’s surrounded by a looming rainforest.
Suitable for all abilities, the only prerequisite is a thick wetsuit — it gets cold out there.
Ponta Preta, Maio, Cape Verde
In Portuguese “Ponta Preta” means black point, and if this was a ski slope it would most definitely be a black run.
This break over exposed reef offers thrilling rides in winter for expert surfers.
Black’s Beach, San Diego, California
One for seasoned professionals, Black’s Beach is one of the most powerful breaks in California.
San Diego’s best surfers flock here; it can get crowded on weekends.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Buxton, North Carolina
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has been popular since the 1970s and renowned for good surf caused by deadly hurricanes, which have over the years caused numerous shipwrecks and given it the nickname “the Atlantic graveyard.”
Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka
Not just a great surf spot with a right-hand peak, surfers here share the beach with wild monkeys and elephants that graze in the forest nearby.
Things to remember
Reading the Report
Unless you live across the street from the beach, it’s a good idea to check out the surf report ahead of time. Use one of the many online surf report sites available to get a general idea of what the waves are like or check the online buoy data. Keep in mind that each individual surf spot will be different depending on swell size and direction as well as tide and wind. If you’re a beginner, look for waves in the 1 to 3-foot range – anything bigger will offer you little more than discouragement.
Once you’ve located a surf spot that’s offering small, 1 to 3-foot waves (about chest high and below), make sure the wave quality is suited to the type of surfing you want to do. Usually the best waves for beginners are slow, mushy waves that are nice and soft but still offer a decent shoulder to ride. Closed out waves will work if you’re new to surfing and still working in the white water, but just make sure they’re not heaving too hard top to bottom, as that will prove extremely challenging.
Good longboard spots are excellent waves for beginners, although advanced long boarders in the lineup may disagree.
The Crowd Factor
Before you paddle out and join the fun at the spot you’ve chosen, it’s important to assess the crowd. If you’re completely new to surfing, it’s generally best to avoid crowds entirely, unless you’re in a group lesson setting or everyone else in the water seems to be a beginner too. The reason you don’t want to paddle out into crowded conditions is that you run the risk of getting in the way and endangering more experienced surfers, who will not treat you kindly for doing so. Also, the logistics will not be in your favor: if there are 30 people competing for just a handful of waves every few minutes, chances are you’re not going to bag any rides anyway.
Always make safety your priority. If the crowds are too thick, or the waves are too big, do not paddle out. If you’re completely in the dark about where to surf, try asking an employee at a local surf shop where he recommends you go for a few beginner waves. Generally, fellow surfers are more than happy to help direct you to a preferred wave zone – and away from theirs.
See Waves, Go Surfing
One of the golden rules of surfing is never drive away from good waves. If you’ve found fun waves that aren’t too crowded, stay there! Often, if you continue driving the coast, you’ll only find fewer desirable situations.
The adage works well. If you see good waves that fit your criteria for size, quality, and crowd – go surfing. You’ll have fun and you won’t spend the morning wasting time and gasoline. Now that you know what to look for, it’s just a matter of being patient and getting out there when the green light says go.