The North Coast is famed for incredible surf spots and whether you are an experienced pro or a total beginner, there is a location ideal for all abilities.
Cornwall is no doubt one of the most popular locations to take to the waves. There are many popular surfing destinations throughout the region that are particularly great for people learning this exhilarating sport. For those that know their messy waves to swell directions, Cornwall also offers an ideal spot to perfect your technique.
The summer season brings everyone out in their masses to capture a piece of the action but autumn is actually one of the best times to surf. The less crowded beaches mixed with relatively mild air and warmer sea temperatures (thanks to our relative proximity of the gulf stream pushing up water from the southern Atlantic Ocean) give you a great chance to catch those regular swells. So, if you’re heading to Cornwall on a surfing holiday or you’re looking to learn the basics on a family break, here are 10 fantastic family surf escapes in Cornwall’s finest locations.
The Light House
Experience luxury alongside North Cornwall’s coastline at a stay in The Light House in Bude. Get family and friends together, and take to the waves at the beautiful choice of nearby sandy beaches and discover a stunning contemporary coastal home designed and built by owners who have featured on the TV show Grand Designs. Indulge in this relaxing surf stay and feel the sand between your toes with just a short walk to the glorious Atlantic shores.
For a stylish stay, just a stone’s throw from Whipsiderry and Porth beach, this cool coastal apartment is the ideal surf retreat. Here you’ll enjoy spectacular sea views, contemporary accommodation, and easy access to plenty of attractions and the best surfing spots in the county. Atlantic Bliss at Zenith also bases you in an ideal location to enjoy the surf hub of Newquay, home to Fistral Beach. The whole family will love this incredibly exciting stay with top conditions to take to your board.
Overlooking the bay of Crackington Haven, you’ll find this little gem just a short walk from the stunning sandy Cornish shores. Here you can enjoy a tranquil setting with a charming patio area to enjoy outdoor dining overlooking sea views. This idyllic surf spot is great as it offers a mix of family-friendly surf conditions to waves for the more experienced. Valley Breeze bases you in a fantastic spot to explore further afield too with the nearby locations of Bude and Widemouth Bay just a short drive away.
Renowned for its surf school and beautiful sandy beach, Kennack Sands is the idyllic surf haven. So why not treat the family to stay just 900 yards from this stunning coastal spot. No 5 The Beach is a fantastic apartment offering a contemporary setting on the captivating west coast offering you a fantastic base to explore the surrounding area whilst taking to the board and enjoying those Atlantic waves.
Just a short drive from the stunning sands of St Ives, you’ll find an idyllic bolthole offering spectacular uninterrupted views and boutique accommodation. Rosecott is a charming reverse level property providing the perfect spot to explore the west coast and the exhilarating surfing beaches that surround you. St Ives itself is a surfing mecca for families, with Porthmeor beach providing a large stretch to take to the waves. If you’re looking for some expert advice, head to the nearby surf school for equipment hire and lessons.
Although the south coast of Cornwall isn’t a premiere destination to head out on the waves, Falmouth is a brilliant place for beginners and families looking to enjoy a relaxed surfing break. Overlooking the harbour, Perfect View provides a beautiful stay enjoying contemporary accommodation with a spectacular decking area for perfect al fresco dining. This idyllic bolthole bases you in an ideal spot to enjoy the nearby surfing beaches of Swanpool, Gyllngvase and Maenporth which produce some half decent waves in the right conditions.
Explore the exquisite west coast on a surf stay at The Puffin in Mullion. This south-facing property situates you at a stunning cliff-top location overlooking the ocean and bases you just a short drive from the beautiful National Trust beach of Poldhu. After a long day catching those west coast waves, you can relax in the tranquility of this comfortable accommodation and get the family together for an evening meal on the outside decked area.
This boutique-style retreat is ideal for soaking up the best of the North Cornwall coastline. Placing you within easy reach of top surf spots including Polzeath and Widemouth Bay, this tranquil cottage offers the ultimate rural and coastal mix. Nestled in the Valency Valley yet just a few miles from the Atlantic Coast, this contemporary barn creates a warming ambience and relaxing surf escape for the whole family.
Treat family and friends to the ultimate indulgent surfing retreat with a stay at Miners in Carharrack. Basing you just a few miles from the golden sands of Portreath and Porthtowan, this breath-taking spot offers a relaxing stay with an idyllic mix of rural and coastal experiences. You’ll enjoy spacious accommodation with a contemporary vibe and take advantage of a relaxing hot tub, warming log burner and spacious balcony with seating overlooking amazing countryside views.
If you’re looking for a secluded spot nestled in the Cornish countryside yet want to take advantage of North Cornwall’s best surf beaches, a family break in this spacious and contemporary farmhouse is the idyllic choice. You’re only a few minutes’ drive to the sandy shores that adorn the coastline including the family-friendly surf beaches of Fistral, Crantock, Holywell Bay and Perranporth. With comfortable accommodation and large outside space for al fresco dining, Martins Place is a great place to get the whole family together on an adventurous surf escape.
Look outside of the usual Gold Coast haunts you will find less crowded line ups. You can choose between surfing with dolphins at Byron Bay or discovering uncrowded beach breaks as you travel along the coast. Go and explore. Here are some classic east coast destinations.The combination of geography, weather and surf culture has made Australia’s east coast one of the most popular places on Earth for surfers.
200 kilometres south of Sydney the south coast stretches from Wollongong through Shoalhaven down through Ulladulla. The Shoalhaven region has some of Australia’s best surfing spots to suit all styles and abilities. Aussie Pipe and Bawley Point are a couple of the heaviest waves on the east coast, but there are plenty of uncrowded beach breaks, reefs and points to explore. The local surf culture is fun and relaxed. There are plenty of waves to be caught all year round and often a surfer can have the water all to themselves.
Another surf town off the beaten path. Coffs Harbour is 527km north of Sydney, about six-hours drive or there are daily flights from Sydney (1 hour), Brisbane (45 minutes) and Melbourne (2 hours). Six different beaches offer sandy bottomed point breaks that can handle big swells along with beach breaks to suit everyone from groms to superstars. Coffs Harbour has a great surf community with miles of unspoilt beaches. Definitely one to visit.
Once a small hippy town Byron Bay has grown into one of Australia’s must visit surf towns. With stretches of beach and the Pass a long point nearby it has a bubbling community and very hip bars, cafes and places to stay. There are also festivals and plenty of art and music to keep you entertained apres surf.
The Sunshine Coast
If you are thinking about tropical points, long mellow rides, or great beach breaks and miles of crowded coastline then the Sunshine Coast is for you. From classic leg buckling points in Noosa, to hard to get to classics like Double Island point the Sunshine Coast has it all and with a much mellower vibe than the Goldie.
Why not drive it?
Great east coast road trips were once the stuff of legend. Flying into Sydney or Brisbane buy a van and then drive down or up the coast was the way to see the east coast of Australia. With more flights people are now more likely to fly into one of the major airports and just hang out in Sydney or the Gold Coast. But with over 800 miles of coastline to explore between the Sunshine Coast of Queensland and Ulladulla in NSW they are missing out on so many gems, beach side campsites, empty waves and experiences the road trip provides.
Surf tours, rentals and activities
Australian Surf Tours
Locations: Sydney, Thirroul and Bendalong in New South Wales
“More Than Just a Surf Camp”. AST will take you on a surfing adventure that will give you that little bit extra out of your holidays. Surrounded by amazing waves, idyllic scenery and staff with a passion for life, this should be your next destination! Learn to Surf and Surf Guiding also available.
Locations: Depots in Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Cairns, seasonally in Broome and Bear Rentals offer collection and return to most other major Australian cities.
At Bear Rentals we run a fleet of fully kitted out Land Rovers – think of everything you need for that dream Australian road trip and that’s what we provide! We set our campers up so you can get off beaten track to find the perfect break away from the maddening crowds.
Walking On Water & Ulladulla Surf Schools are a multi award winning company offering Surfing, (beginner, intermediate and competition level), Surf Safaris, Water Skiing, Wake Boarding, Wake Surfing, SUP, Kayaking, plus the furiously fast, 60 MPH Boogie Slingshot! The awesome range of activities and surf courses have the highest quality coaching and Australia’s best instructor to pupil ratio’s.
Locations: Arrawarra and Byron Bay (travelling from Sydney)
Experience the Aussie surf lifestyle on a Mojosurf 5-14 Day Surf Adventure travelling from Sydney to Byron Bay stopping at the awesome Spot X Surf Camp right on the beach. Mojosurf will take care of all transport, surf lessons, accommodation, food and surf equipment – you just have to come experience it!
Locations: New South Wales. The entire Coffs Coast, including Arrawarra, Crescent Head and as far north as Angourie.
Grab a friend and book a full personalised Luxury Surf, Sights & Stay Guided Tour Package which fits all levels of surfer and non-surfers with sight-seeing, eco-tours and many additional activities also included. With a beautiful beachside apartment and a delicious breakfast provided, this is a value-packed, stress-free Aussie holiday you’ll remember!.
Locations: Bondi Beach, Byron Bay and Maroubra Beach
Join the friendly LETS GO SURFING team on world famous Bondi Beach or beautiful Byron Bay for an unforgettable Aussie Surf Experience! We provide expert local surf knowledge and advice plus board and wetsuit hire at all our locations. With over 21 years of experience, the LGS team caters for all level of surfer, from beginner to advanced.
Costa Rica is one of the few Central American nations that hasn’t got a blood soaked history of civil wars, guerrilla fighting, CIA-inspired coups and crazed despot dictators. There are no commie insurgencies or private armies here. Which in layman’s terms means it’s safe. The flip side of this is the number of tourists who head here to do the Centro thing without putting their necks on the line, and consequently (as tourism is the biggest industry) the cost. Dirt cheap Costa ain’t. If you’re stopping off here as part of longer Centro trip then you’ll definitely feel the financial pain when compared to neighbouring countries. That said, prices aren’t crazy and if you do your research you can stay somewhere for a couple of weeks without completely blowing your travel fund.
CR has been on surfers’ maps since the ‘60s and it’s a chilled and easy trip. The waves are consistent and fun, suitable for pretty much everyone, from those just starting out to the numerous pro’s who spend a few months here on winter escapes knowing that they’ll score good surf, day in, day out.
Guanacaste is Costa Rica’s northernmost province and it’s home to loads of good spots which break pretty much all year round. Size wise, well, you can leave the rhinochaser at home. The surf is rarely bigger than head high, but equally it’s rarely less than shoulder high. Now that’s consistency. With a Pacific-facing coastline which is all exposed to the same swell and has the same thermal conditions, it’s also not the kind of place where you spend hours each day checking spot after spot: if it’s on then it’s on. Hiring a car is worth it if there are a few of you, otherwise just get a transfer from the airport to one of the main towns and spend what you save on Imperial, the local beer of choice.
Tamarindo is one of the most popular options for an ‘everything you need within a 10-minute walk’ trip. It’s a beautiful spot with the town itself lying between two national parks. The main road through the town is lined with places to stay and places to eat, and you’ll meet plenty of people on their twentieth trip here; if it ain’t broke and all that. Within walking distance of the town you’ve got Rivermouth (a hollow right), Pico Pequeño (a reef which can barrel with the right swell direction), and Playa Langosta (a selection of hollow beach break peaks—some better than others, and some more crowded than others, so take your pick). Aside from all this good shizzle right on your doorstep, the other big pull to Tamarindo is access to the classic spots of Witches Rock and Ollie’s Point (of Endless Summer 2 fame). As both these spots are situated in a national park, there’s no accommodation close by and access is only really by boat (or a sketchy and not-really-worth-it 4x4 mission). This fact keeps crowds to a minimum, and you can expect to score some classic surf with only a handful of other guys in a properly stunning locale. Boats leave Tamarindo at first light and return at dusk. It’s not cheap though – you’re looking at around $100 for a day trip.
Ten kilometres (six miles) south of Tamarindo is Playa Avellanes and its neighbour Playa Negra. If you’re after the quiet life then this is a good place to stay…and you can be in the water before the Tamarindo dwellers have even finished their breakfast. Playa Avellanes has a rivermouth and a beach with plenty of quality peaks, while Playa Negra has a perfect righthand reef break.
When you’re travelling around a new country, it’s often the towns that you hear about first; your knowledge of the surrounding breaks then complete the picture once you’ve spent some time there. Nosara is a prime example of this – it’s the next well-known town down the coast from Tamarindo, and the destination of choice for many CR veterans. More chilled out than Tamarindo, there are just as many decent breaks around but fewer surfers vying for a piece of the action. Junquillal, Playa Marbella and Playa Pelada will keep you plenty busy for starters.
Continuing south along the Nicoya Peninsula, Playa Coyote is a long beach with fairly average waves but a fun righthand point at its southern end.
The next gathering point for surfers is the area around Santa Teresa and Mal Pais, a beachside community which sprawls along the coast for several kilometres. (Technically, it’s situated in neighbouring Puntarenas province, but it completes the stretch of coastline already described so it makes sense to include it here.)
There are loads of groovy little haunts here, from backpackers through to swish rental houses with pools. The Funky Monkey and The Green Rooms are both popular with surfers. Surfwise, there are dozens of fun beach break spots straight out the front which keep the multitude of visitors happy. And if you happen to be here when a bigger pulse of swell rolls in, then you’re in luck – there are several reefs close by which can get pretty fruity.
Hopping over to the next province, Puntarenas, those looking for consistent surf breaks should head to Playa Hermosa, located 10 minutes south of Jaco. Not be confused with Playa Hermosa in the Guanacaste province, this serious surfing haven is home to both national and international wave lovers. With world class waves aplenty, this spot is hosts a local grassroots surf contest called ‘Backyard Surf Series’ featuring the best surf talent in Costa Rica plus Playa Hermosa holds the International Quiksilver Surf Championship every year. The area has plenty of bars and restaurants for those looking to hang out, surf, eat and grab a beer.
– Roger Sharp
WHERE TO STAY
BOOK SURF CAMPS
At BookSurfCamps.com you can search, compare and book all 119 Costa Rican surf camps from one easily digestible page. Whether you are planning to improve your surfing skills or to simply start learning, surfing in Costa Rica will give you the challenge you are looking for! Select one of the best surf vacations on BookSurfCamps.com and let the surfing fun begin. No booking fees and friendly customer support!
Surf Inn Hermosa invites you to enjoy a slice of Pura Vida paradise where the pressures and priorities of life are left behind.
Nestled in the heart of Playa Hermosa and with beautiful coastline and some of the best surf in Costa Rica on the doorstep, Surf Inn Hermosa has become a highly sought-after destination for those looking for the ultimate surf experience.
Enjoy this boutique style hotel as a solo traveler, with friends or as a family, with four one bedroom studios a few hundred feet from the beach and two oceanfront apartments available. These vacation rentals were custom built and designed to help you enjoy the beach all day long!
Surf Inn Hermosa offers a surfing program for everyone, from beginners who want to learn to avid surfers looking to improve and everything in between, their local surf instructors help you to achieve your surfing goals.
Hailed as the Costa Rican surf travel experts, for over 18 years CR Surf have planned trips for surfers of all ages and abilities. Working with local boutique hotels to fit all budgets and partnering with surf camps with quality boards and certified instructors. Plus the company promotes sustainable tourism and are 1% for the Planet members.
Continually keeping surfers informed of news and upcoming events, CR Surf have published well over 850 surf reports and forecasts and have helped thousands of surfers and their families with their vacations, successfully linking them up with the best places to surf, stay and play in Costa Rica.
With a mission to help surfers unite their communities by promoting sustainable tourist and protecting costal ecosystems, use their expert services to maximize your time catching waves and find ‘pura vida’!
“Costa Rica and surfing go together like scones and jam!”
For a brilliant family-adventure-holiday, Frijoles Locos Surf Shop in Playa Grande on the Gold Coast of Guanacaste, ticks all the boxes.
Their years of experience with showing families a fab time really shines through with the Frijoles Locos Family Packages which includes accommodation, airport transfers, not-to-miss activities, private family surf lessons, all the beach equipment rentals you need and so much more. Prices start at $2400USD for a family of 4. For more details have a look at
Olas Verdes is a sustainable beach hotel, with direct access to Playa Guiones through a short walk across the Wildlife Refuge; and 15 minutes from Nosara Airport. Offering casual luxury, Olas Verdes Hotel has the best location to explore the towns of Guiones and Nosara. Wake up with the waves and stay in comfort, while enjoying in-house surf and yoga lessons. El Manglar restaurant features delicious meals and smoothies with fresh organic ingredients. Free breakfast, Wi-Fi, beach cruisers, laundry and parking. Ask for the room specials and discounted Liberia Airport shuttles.
Real Surf Trips is home to the most swell exposed and wave-rich surf zone throughout Costa Rica’s Guanacaste coast. From beginner surf packages to the most perfect waves for experienced surfers looking to progress to that next level; this is exactly what an all inclusive surf trip is supposed to be. Whether you’re looking to book a vacation rental for the entire family, or you just want to add in a few yoga classes to your Costa Rica surf trip, Real Surf Trips features every amenity and experience Costa Rica has to offer! All you have to do is show up at the airport and they take care of the rest: first class accommodations, one-of-a-kind service and over 20 years of local surf knowledge, guaranteed to give you the Costa Rica Surf Trip you’ve been dreaming of!
If you haven’t heard of i-escape, you’ve been missing out on its handpicked collection of unforgettable places to stay across more than 50 destinations.
With a team of passionate travellers at the helm, i-escape will help you find and book boutique hotels, stylish guesthouses, eco-retreats, safari lodges, stunning beach huts and chic villa rentals – all in some of the world’s most stunning and fascinating locations. Every property has been personally visited by one of the team, and their reviews tell it like it is – the highs, the lows, and everything in between. You’ll pay the same, or sometimes less, as going direct to the accommodation owners, and you might even be treated to extra perks when you arrive.
Here are 10 i-escape retreats in some of the world’s finest surf locations.
This tropical paradise eco-hotel is a stone’s throw from Playa Guicones – one of the most stunning surf beaches on the Nicoya Peninsula. The wood and wicker furniture, palm trees, freshwater pool and open-plan layout give the hotel the feel of a 1950’s Hawaiian resort. You won’t find plasma TVs or high-tech gadgets, instead luxury comes in the form of a healing centre, organic food and sunrise yoga on the beach. The rooms’ private patios, hammocks and outdoor showers make the most of the tropical garden setting; look out for howler monkeys, hummingbirds and iguanas, and keep the windows open to let the sound of the waves lull you to sleep. website: www.i-escape.com/the-harmony-hotel
Camps Bay Cape Town, South Africa
With the majestic backdrop of the Twelve Apostles, Camps Bay is one of Cape Town’s highlights. The palm-fringed beach is known for dramatic sunsets – and for some of the city’s hippest bars and restaurants. A short walk from all the action, these apartments are sleek and modern with private terraces and plunge pools – but the real stars of the show are the breath-taking ocean views. Stay here and you can take advantage of South Africa’s world-class surfing then return to your apartment for a soak in a sea-view tub and a well-deserved beer. Each sleeps 2-6; self catering. website: www.i-escape.com/ebb-tide
Bali Luxury Private Villa
Seseh Canggu, Indonesia
This blissful villa-for-12 has it all – chic, tropical décor, garden bathrooms, an infinity pool and an unbeatable location. Set in exotic gardens, it is hidden away at the edge of an unspoilt fishing village, with views of swaying rice and palm-fringed surf. Happily, it is just 40 minutes from Denpasar airport. The atmosphere is exclusive, private, laid-back and utterly luxurious. A team of delightful staff intuitively second guess your every need; the only decision you need concern yourself with is whether you can fit in a massage before sunset cocktails and canapés. website: www.i-escape.com/bali-luxury-private-villa
Taru Villas – 906
Hikkaduwa Sri Lanka
This mellow bungalow, hugging Hikkaduwa’s golden shores, is blissfully unpretentious. Check the surf every morning from the veranda and enjoy a pre-breakfast swim in your pool. Hikkaduwa’s buzzy surf scene is a short walk away, with some of the best surf breaks in southwest Sri Lanka – though the incredible home-cooked food and the nothing-is-too-much-attitude of the staff make it hard to leave the tranquillity of the villa. Hikkaduwa is also a popular diving location; highlights include the Hikkaduwa Gala caves, rocky-bottomed Kiragala and some fascinating wrecks. Sleeps 2-6. website: www.i-escape.com/taru-villas-906
Villas de Trancoso
Trancoso Bahia, Brazil
Just a couple of hundred yards from the beach in the surf-haven of Bahia, you’ll find this stylish collection of villas and suites. After you’ve sampled the plethora of beach and reef breaks, unwind in your private villa, laze around the pool, or head to the main cabana for a refreshing cocktail. The elegant villas are made from Brazilian wood and palm thatch, and are decked with fine white linen, romantically-draped mosquito nets and colourful rugs – conjuring up a proper luxury beach vibe. Salvador da Bahia has a sandy coastline that covers hundreds of kilometres – perfect for finding surf spots for all levels. website: www.i-escape.com/villas-de-trancoso
Pacific Coast Mexico
This romantic jungle retreat with a private beach and laid-back vibe is just 10 minutes’ from the surfy town of Sayulita; yet the hidden jungle setting and the sound of waves and birdsong will make you feel miles away from civilisation. Days pass blissfully; there are 29 colourful rooms and casitas but you’d never know it thanks to the acres of space, and the giant fern and palm tree camouflage of the beautiful shoreline. If you have your fill of surfing, go humpback whale watching or simply swing in a hammock, sipping margaritas and watching pelicans out at sea. website: www.i-escape.com/playa-escondida
South Sands Boutique Hotel
Salcombe Devon, United Kingdom
There aren’t many stylish UK hotels that are literally right on the beach. Here, there’s nothing between you and golden sands – and once here, there’s no need for a car. This is a watersports paradise, with surfing, sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, boating and waterskiing on your doorstep. And once you’ve worked up an appetite, the light and airy restaurant, serving delicious, fresh seafood, has wonderful views across the Salcombe estuary.
The hotel’s beautifully styled, peaceful rooms flaunt New England décor, seascape colours and plantation shutters. Families will love the self-catering Beach Suite apartments and the sailing school next door. website: www.i-escape.com/south-sands-boutique-hotel
Yallingup Margaret River, Australia
Windmills Break hotel is named after the stunning local surf beach. The Margaret River estuary is one of Australia’s best surfing regions and its annual Classic Surfing Championships are held in November. The hotel has 10 acres of gorgeous gardens, and an infinity pool with loungers and a hot tub. The rooms are dressed in warm chocolates, creams and beiges, with striking landscape photographs on the walls. Yallingup, Eagle Bay and Bunker Bay beaches are all close by, as are the vineyards and wineries of the Margaret River region. website: www.i-escape.com/windmills-break
Hossegor Gascony, France
The Landes region of southwest France boasts some of Europe’s largest pine and cork forests, highest sand dunes and world-class surf breaks. This boutique B&B is a real hidden-gem with just four gorgeous bedrooms and cool designer touches, from vintage surfboards to Le Corbusier chaise longues. Decor is beachside-industrial chic: sun-bleached kilims on polished cement floors, brilliant Plümacher prints on white walls. Come in early October when the town of Hossegor hosts the Quiksilver Pro France competition. Respite from the Atlantic breakers comes in the form of strolls through the pine forests or loungers by the hotel’s heated pool. website: www.i-escape.com/lake-loft
This quirky, cosy riad is hidden deep within Essaouira’s medina – right at the hub of things, yet only two minutes’ from the beach. Its three apartment suites are arranged around a central colonnaded courtyard, and are amazing value. All have kitchens, sitting areas and exquisitely comfortable king-size beds – but if you’re feeling lazy, there are plenty of restaurants in the vicinity. Essaouira is a surfers’ paradise in winter and perfect for kite surfing in summer. When you’re not in the ocean, you can go camel riding, quad biking or pony trekking along the coast to the sand dunes at Sidi Kaouki. Or follow the coastal highway south towards Agadir to see goats climbing trees in the Argan forest. website: www.i-escape.com/dar-lazuli
We’re rolling down the spine of an ancient volcano, tumbling down to the sea. Outside the window it’s the colour of deep earth, the colour of an island that’s been turned inside out, exposing its fertile guts and dark green belly. Giant palm fronds high five the car as we twist around the jungle track with 50 Cent and Lucky Dube riding shotgun. Lucky’s crooning right now, telling us, ‘Good things come to those, who go out and make them happen.’
Clearly Lucky never tried finding a road to the beach on the west coast of São Tomé.
‘I think it’s here,’ says John Micheletti. ‘The bay we saw on the map.’ He’s pointing out the window but all we can see is the same thick ribbon of jungle that’s hemmed us in for the past hour as we’ve unsuccessfully tried to poke the nose of the Toyota Prada towards the beach. John turns off the road into a narrow trail that cuts into the bush. Branches claw the doors as he nudges the car further down the footpath, barely wide enough for two people to walk side by side.
‘I don’t think this is a road,’ quips Beyrick de Vries from the backseat. There’s a hollow thud as the chassis connects a hump of rock, followed by a grinding sound that slows the car down, but it’s impossible to turn around. John pushes harder on the accelerator. The car breaks free and is catapulted into a clearing. Ahead of us lies the beach where impossibly tall palms dip down to the shoreline. Beyond that, an onshore breeze licks the back of a wedging beachbreak.
‘Ramps!’ shouts Beyrick, and we start taking the boards off the roof.
São Tomé is located off the west coast of Africa in the Gulf of Guinea, a dark speck that rises abruptly from the sea. Along with its smaller twin, Príncipe, the islands form part of the Cameroon Line, a 900-mile chain of volcanoes that stretch from the hinterlands of Nigeria into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.
The entire island is in fact a volcano, formed by hot spot that has steadily bubbled up lava from the Earth’s mantle over millennia. The same type of volcanic activity forged the islands of Hawaii and has imbued São Tomé with its dark soil and wrinkled coastline. A coastline that, for the most part, remains unexplored.
The exception is along the east coast, where our eclectic crew had convened like the start of a bad joke: William Aliotti, a Frenchman raised in the Caribbean Islands, Beyrick de Vries from South Africa and John Micheletti from Nigeria. We were hardly the first surfers to visit this former Portuguese colony, however.
Back in 2001, Sam George and Randy Rarick had made their way here with legendary photographer John Callahan. George wrote that he thought they were pioneering the fun right point breaks they found, until he was joined in the water by a gaggle of São Toméan kids, riding boards fashioned from wood. It was a startling discovery.
São Tomé is isolated, lying 200 miles from the mainland, yet here was a wave-riding culture that George hypothesised had evolved independently of the Polynesians’ influence. He claimed the island holds definitive proof that surfing is an authentic African tradition. Proof like the board 12-year-old Jardel Félix holds under his arm when we meet him on the first day of our trip.
The board is four foot long with thin, pinched rails and a rolled bottom deck that ends in a sharp squaretail. The wide nose is rounded and mostly symmetrical, except for a kink on the left rail where the axe used to carve it had splintered the solid piece of wood.
‘Este é meu tambua,’ says Jardel proudly. This is my board.
It’s late afternoon and the tropical sun has unclenched its boiling fist. The air is warm but pleasant. We are still wet from surfing a zippy point break in front of the village of Santana where a group of kids on a flotilla of surf craft had joined us, riding the snapped halves of a thruster, an old bodyboard and even a block of Styrofoam. But mostly they were on tambuas, the rough-hewn boards made from the acacia tree.
We had heard about São Tomé’s homegrown surf scene and expected to find these local surfers in the water. We had not expected to find them busting airs.
Unlike the young kids on the inside, Jéjé Camblé was riding a fresh 6’0 Chili. Every time he did a big turn or hucked a frontside reverse, the small pack erupted in cheers. His face stretched into a broad grin when he paddled up to us and introduced himself in Portuguese.
Jéjé later tells us that he started surfing on a tambua after seeing an expat named Peter riding waves outside his village. ‘When I saw surfing for the first time I thought it was some kind of magic,’ he says. ‘Like walking on water.’
He soon discovered São Tomé had its own wave riders and, with their help, carved his own board. He started bellyboarding the whitewash, then catching open faces. Before long he was at backline.
‘For a long time I thought our generation were the first ones to surf using wooden boards in São Tomé’,’ says the 17-year old. ‘But then I started asking the adults. One of them told me no, we were surfing these boards long ago, when I was seven. Then I asked a man who was 50, and he said the same. He said when they were kids, they were surfing with wooden boards already. Then I asked my grandmother, she is 77, and she said back in the days when she was my age, younger people surfed with wooden boards. They rode waves just for fun.’
Aside from a trickle of tourists, São Tomé remains largely cut off from the outside world. Swathes of the island have no electricity and the economy relies on fishing and cash crops. The few scraps of modern surf equipment come by way of the occasional airline pilot who surfs and a handful of Portuguese expats. But São Tomé is the landing point for a deep-sea fibre optic cable linking Africa to Europe, and has excellent connectivity.
The following morning we spot the Santana crew hanging out on the wall of an old whitewashed church that sits on the water’s edge. They aren’t drawn there solely by their piousness. The wall offers the perfect vantage point to check the waves and pick up free Wi-Fi signal from the church. With thumbs scrolling, they sit glued to their phones, connected to their heroes around the world courtesy of the good Lord.
‘If I want to train my rail, I watch Tom Curren, or Mick Fanning,’ says Jéjé , looking up from his phone. ‘If I want to progress in surf, I watch videos of Julian Wilson and Gabriel Medina. If I want to be inspired, I watch Andy Irons.’
He pronounces Irons’ name with reverence, his Portuguese accent drawing the syllables out in a long shhh.
From Santana the road hugs the coastline heading south, giving way to impenetrable bays that we circumnavigate by driving inland. We had scoured the same coastline on Google Earth before arriving, marking off potential setups, logging GPS co-ordinates. But on the ground, amongst the crush of thick foliage, we are quickly disorientated.
John takes command, matching up the maps with his phone GPS, guiding the car west along the twisting dirt roads until we find a path to the beach or can drive no further. Then we get out and hike.
‘Are you kidding me?’ says Beyrick at the end of a sortie on foot. The band of dense bush we have just trekked through gives way to a crescent shaped bay. To our left is a rocky outcrop where a blowhole shoots plumes of water into the air as swells hit the headland, then refract into a left bowl. The wind is onshore but the waves are surprisingly well formed and powerful.
‘This reminds me so much of the setups in Costa Rica,’ says William out in the lineup, in-between sky-high punts. ‘Except there’s nobody here.’
That night back in Santana we tell Joao, a Portuguese expat who occasionally guides visiting surfers around the island, that we found the wave at the blowhole. He looks at us quizzically and shrugs, ‘I don’t know this wave.’
The next day we’re loading the car when William asks, ‘Who’s got music?’ But our iPhones are useless on the Prada’s old sound system, a frontloader and tape deck combo. Instead we make our way to the market where we find bootlegged copies of 50 Cent and Lucky Dube amongst piles of fruit and fish. The duo become the soundtrack to which we navigate São Tomé’s hidden coast, finding our way to beaches and bays where we are unsure if we are the first to ride these waves on our modern tambuas. We wonder what the punchy wedges would do in the dry season offshores and contemplate the slabs we’d heard about further north. But mostly we just surf and hunt fish along the reefs. Reefs that are dark and rich like the jungle, forged from the same volcanic basalt that the island is built upon.
‘I’m the diamond in the dirt, that ain’t been found,’ Fiddy spits out the speakers as we climb higher into the interior. The sea has gone flat so we are making our way inland, cutting deep into the belly of the island, throwing faux gangsta shakas as we go.
Eventually we reach Pico Cão Grande, the highest peak on the island. The needle of rock twisting into the sky was formed when a volcanic plug exploded abruptly, hinting at the powerful forces bubbling just beneath the surface. On the way back to the coast John points out the cacao plants that grow along the sides of the road, their bulging orange pods dangling on thin stalks.
Cacao makes up 95 per cent of São Tomé’s exports, a throwback from its colonial past when it was cultivated on large plantations that remain dotted around the island. The seeds are plucked from the pod and shipped around the world where they are processed into chocolate and other delights. But here in the jungle, the plants grow wild and free.
When the swell rises again we head to Radiation Point north of Santana, where George and Rarick found the loping righthander that would come to define São Tomé’s surf potential. The tarred road disintegrates the closer we get, until we are bumping along a rutted track where wooden clapboard houses lie squashed against one another, piled up in a settlement that runs down to the sea. The bad road forces us to drive slowly, a few miles an hour. A stream of kids run out the houses as we pass by, pushing their homemade skateboards behind the car.
When we come to a stop they gather round, showing us the boards. The deck of the ‘rolling car’ or trote is a block of wood joined to trucks made from smoothed-out branches. Old wheel bearings have been fitted onto each end of the branch, which has to be carefully selected: too thin, and the branch will snap or the makeshift wheels will wiggle off. Too thick, and the wheels won’t be able to turn around on the wooden trucks.
The kids squeal with laughter as Beyrick and William give the boards a go, jerking stiffly from side to side down the road. ‘Oleo, oleo!’ shouts a tiny boy, no older than eight. He whips a small plastic bottle out his shorts and grabs one of the boards, squeezing a few drops of used motor oil onto the bearings, then flips it over and skates expertly round in circles, the steel wheels hammering the ground loudly.
Radiation Point gets its name from the towering radio beacon that dominates the peninsula and sits perched on undeveloped government land. We duck under a dilapidated fence and make the 20-minute walk through tall yellow grass the colour of wheat, catching glimpses of the wave until we get to the shoreline.
‘No, no!’ shouts one of the local surfers as we start walking over the rocks to paddle out. He points down to a fat clump of urchins wedged between the boulders, then motions for us to follow him to a gully where we slip easily into deeper water.
A handful of São Toméan surfers are at backline, riding hand-me-down surfboards, some with no fins that they still manage to rip gracefully. The wave runs for a hundred meters from the outside to the inside, a mellow pocket that accommodates noserides as much as big turns, much like an African version of Malibu.
‘How good is this?’ says John, sweeping his hand to indicate the waves, the bay, the entire island.
Back in the water in Santana, Jéjé tells us surfers from his village and Radiation Point rarely surf together. The long hour-and-a-half walk between the two spots makes it difficult. None of them has a car. But when one of them does make the trek, the local surfers are stoked to see each other.
‘There are not many surfers in São Tomé,’ he says. ‘Modern surfing is just beginning here. We see each other, we learn together.’
A set rolls in and Beyrick takes off, races down the line and launches a frontside air. Jéjé lets out a loud whoop before stroking into the next wave and attempts a huge alley-oop, almost landing it but he comes unstuck in the flats.
The kids on the inside go wild as they watch this tit-for-tat unfold, then go back to bellyboarding the reforms. But one of them starts nudging further up the point, eyes fixed on Jéjé and Beyrick. His little arms are paddling hard, legs kicking off the back of his wooden tambua, as the past and the present draw closer.