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Surfin’ USA – Riding the Waves in San Diego

The coast of California is arguably the world’s best-known surfer paradise, along with Hawaii. Trusting the knowledge and instincts of local surf buffs is the key to an unforgettable surfing holiday in San Diego.

Sand between your toes, the feel of the fresh ocean breeze on your face and the sound of waves in your ear — that is California. Almost everything in San Diego centres on the ocean. Indeed, the San Diegans use the saying "life is a beach" to describe their attitude to life. Their passion for water sports is almost as great as the ocean. San Diego’s local surf culture dates back to 1916, when the first surf exhibition was held at Del Mar Pier. Since then, this southern Californian city has evolved into a unique surfing metropolis and is home to surf professionals, renowned surfboard designers and fascinating attractions related to popular culture. A case in point is the "California Surf Museum" in Oceanside, which honours San Diego’s surf legends and has a wide range of vintage boards and other surf memorabilia on display. Admission to the museum is free of charge. The "Surfing in San Diego" exhibit at the "San Diego Hall of Champions" in Balboa Park details the historical development that shaped the surf sport and lifestyle.

San Diego owes its reputation as a water sports mecca to its fantastic weather —the best in the USA— with more than 300 days of sunshine a year. Thanks to the agreeable water temperatures and good swells, surfing is possible in San Diego all year round. In addition, 70 miles of coastline and 33 public beaches are an irresistible invitation to ride the waves.

Photos: pictures provided/SanDiego.org/Joanne DiBona/Lisa Field/Brett Shoaf

Learn from the pros in surf schools

Learning to surf can be challenging – and seeing the ease with which Californian youngsters practice the sport can be a little disheartening. But the truth is: surfing is fun for people of all ages. For those who want to learn from the experts, San Diego has a wide variety of surf schools and camps, with group and private lessons on offer. Emiliano Abate set up his "Pacific Surf School" about ten years ago. Having taught more than 200,000 surf students, the former surf pro knows how the sport and the spirit of surfing enthrals the masses, but it can also be intimidating: "Many people are put off by the equipment, the ocean, other surfers and the complexity of surfing, before ever giving it a try. But at the same time, they would love to discover the sport. Our mission is to teach them the right technique so as to overcome that initial frustration. Everyone should have the chance to get to love surfing at their own pace."

A care-free surfing holiday thanks to local guidance

Beginners and advanced surfers deserve to find the perfect wave. To that end, the Swiss board sport tour operator "Sudden Rush" specialises in organising surf holidays in the form of camps. "Sudden Rush" offers camps all over the world, including in San Clemente just north of San Diego: "We cooperate with local guides who take the surfers to spots that individual travellers would not immediately find," says Tibor Baschnonga, CEO of "Sudden Rush". When it comes to surfing, local contacts and input are extremely valuable. His advice: "If you talk to your guide or the locals on site, you’ll soon know where the conditions are right for your personal surf level." Tiibor Baschnonga also points out that riding the waves without any guidance may mean overestimating one’s own skills or missing the perfect spot: "Natural phenomena such as the strength and direction of the swells can transform supposedly action-packed spots into shallow puddles – and vice-versa."

The right gear —meaning a suitable wet suit and board— is also a significant factor for an authentic and unforgettable surf experience in San Diego. Here, too, the surf travel specialist points to the knowledge of the professionals: "Purchasing or renting equipment without seeking any advice can mean ending up with gear that is not suited to one’s personal level or to the local conditions. A school or a camp enables surfers to step into the sea with the right equipment on any day." After all: passionate surfers are always in search of that individual experience that allows them to become one with nature. Surf camps or schools are not inconsistent with this. In the words of Tibor Baschnonga: "Having a local guide by one‘s side is the best way to get the best out of a surfing holiday, and to be at the right surfing spot at the right time."

Surfing in San Diego – the best spots:

For surf newbies: from Mission Beach to La Jolla

The long stretch of coast along Mission Beach and Pacific Beach is the most central location for surf beginners in San Diego. Mission Boulevard is also home to San Diego‘s illustrious beach and surf scene: the promenade is always bustling with joggers, walkers and cyclists; the numerous shops, bars and restaurants are an invitation to relax and linger. Those ready to take the next step can do what many Californians do, that is: strap their surfboard on the car roof and attempt the wind-shielded reef break at Tourmaline Surf Park.

Most of the surf schools and camps are situated along the Central Coast in La Jolla, where local youngsters also like to perfect their technique before moving on to bigger waves. There are innumerable reef breaks in the La Jolla area. For surf culture fans, Windansea is definitely worth a visit. This spot is featured in numerous surf films and literature, and is therefore hugely popular.

For experienced wave hunters: from Del Mar to San Onofre

Black’s Beach situated north of La Jolla is the place with "San Diego’s best waves". The beach break with up to metre-high waves is not easy to reach: a long hike across cliffs is required to get to the beach, followed by quite some paddling to the line-up.

Del Mar is one of the most reliable surfing spots in the north part of the county. Well situated for all types of swells, and offering a mix of sandy beach and reef ground, there is enough space for surfers and surfing right up to Torrey Pines State Beach.

Encinitas is one of the world’s most popular surfing places, with the fast waves of Cardiff Reef as well as the smaller Seaside Reef and the well-known Swami surf spot nearby. The world-famous San Onofre State Beach and Trestles, which is a bit challenging to access, are situated on the border with Orange County. Every September, the world’s top professional surfers take part in a major World Surf League contest at Trestles. But professional surfers can also be sighted there any other time of the year. Newcomers are recommended to get acclimatised first in the “inside“—i.e. the area between the line-up and the coast, where the smaller waves break— before taking on the point break. Those who prefer slower and easier waves will find them just down the coast, at Old Man’s.

(Text: Larissa Eichin)