10 Best Little Surf Towns in America
Located at the southeastern tip of Long Island, Montauk boasts consistent surf—an East Coast rarity—along its beaches, coves, and inlets. City dwellers can get into surf shape with a class at Manhattan’s Surfset, pick up a custom ride from Brooklyn’s Union Surfboards, then head out east to sharpen their skills with a lesson at Montauk-based Corey’s Wave or Paddle Diva Watersports, which partners with the venerable Gurney’s resort for outings and instructions.
Book a room at the Surfhouse boutique hotel in Encinitas—founded by surfers and featuring surfing lessons as well as surf-inspired rooms—and you’ll soon be channeling your inner Rob Machado (the surfing legend still lives here) in this Highway 101 beach town north of San Diego. Surfers are up early to get into the lineup at the point break of Swami’s, the beginner- and longboard-friendly Pipes, and the come-all appeal of D Street. Sunset means it’s time to head to Biergarten for burgers, craft beer, and live broadcasts of World Surfing League action.
The tall seawall edging the south end of Town Beach in Narragansett helps generate some high waves with a long, steady beach break that’s a favorite of local surfers from beginner to advanced, especially after storms. Surfing legend Peter Pan leads a local scene that includes summer lessons and camps. Step out of the waves and you’ll find a classic New England beach town with small inns and B&Bs, shore restaurants and clam shacks, and a low-key, family friendly vibe.
Fast and steep breaking waves make Gooch’s Beach just outside Kennebunk a fun surf spot for beginners in the summer and a challenge for hardy winter surfers. The cold waters call for a wetsuit year-round, but you can soothe your surf muscles and warm up by the fire at the Grace White Barn Inn & Spa, which serves some of the best lobster dishes in Maine. Gear up at Aquaholics, a surf shop located in a former church, or take the scenic drive up Route 1 north to Scarborough (where you’ll find the state’s biggest waves at Higgins Beach) and take home a Maine-made short or longboard from McDermott Shapes.
New Smyrna Beach, FL
One of railroad entrepreneur Henry Flagler’s original resort towns, New Smyrna Beach is known for its Canal Street shops, miles of broad, white beaches, and a rich surfing culture. The affectionately shorthanded “NSB” is home to the Museum of East Coast Surfing, and the waves at Smyrna Inlet and Ponce Inlet help seal NSB’s reputation as Florida’s best surfing town.
Wrightsville Beach, NC
Burke Haywood Bridgers began surfing the waves of Wrightsville Beach in 1909, making him the father of North Carolina surfing, and this coastal community just outside Wilmington has been a surf city every since. Pro surfer Ben Bourgeois is among the local residents who grew up riding Wrightsville’s beach break, a forgiving environment for beginners that can get wild when hurricanes are churning out in the Atlantic. In addition to surf camps, the town hosts an annual pro-am surfing festival and the Wrightsville Beach Wahine Classic, an all-female surf competition for all levels of competitors.
South Padre Island, TX
Don’t let its Spring Break party rep deter you: most of the year, South Padre Island is a relaxed beach town known more for its ripcurls than its “beer curls.” The continental shelf is closer to South Padre Island than anywhere else in Texas, and the deep water just offshore helps make this barrier island one of the top spots for surfing on the Gulf of Mexico. Overhead waves aren’t unheard of near the beach jetties, but there’s also good surfing right in front of the hotels lining the beach. Adventurous visitors can take a 4x4 out to the Padre Island National Seashore for even bigger swells.
Charleston/Folly Beach, SC
The College of Charleston famously offers a surfing course for college credit, and when undergrads are ready to hit the waves they head down to Folly Beach. The Washout—named for a stretch of beach where houses were washed away by a hurricane—has been known to get 10-foot waves, but anyone can enjoy the thrill of surfing alongside the Folly Beach Pier, a local landmark stretching 1,000 feet into the ocean.
Santa Cruz, CA
Santa Cruz is literally surfing royalty: a trio of Hawaiian princes surfed the mouth of the San Lorenzo River on boards made of local redwood in 1885, and surfers have been donning locally made O’Neill wetsuits to challenge the city’s 11 world-class surf breaks ever since. Santa Cruz’s endless outdoor attractions include the city’s famous wharf and boardwalk with its Giant Dipper roller coaster and Charles I.D. Looff carousel, and the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum awaits a rainy-day visit.
The gateway to Maui’s sinuous Road to Hana, Paia is the hub of the island’s north shore surfing scene and close to Ho’okipa Beach, where surfers and windsurfers have each staked their claims on the island’s big winter waves. Surf shops, small boutiques, and restaurants line the modest streets of this colorful plantation town, which retains an island-flavored hippie vibe.