The Traveller’s Guide To: Surfing Europe
Forget Maui and Malibu, the perfect wave is nearer than you think. Chris Nelson and Demi Taylor scour the European coastline for the best breaks available
Saturday 26 July 2008
No, but Europe has some of the best surf spots (breaks) and surfers on the planet. This ancient Polynesian art was brought to the attention of western culture by Captain Cook on his trip to Hawaii in 1778, but the modern surf lifestyle actually landed in Europe in the 1950s and quickly established bridgeheads in south-west France and Cornwall.
The British immediately took surfing to their hearts: it was cold, wet and difficult - a challenge to be endured in those pre-wetsuit days. Today there are over 2.5 million surfers across Europe. You can ride Spanish point breaks as perfect and machine-like as Malibu in California, you can charge thundering Scottish reefs as cylindrical and blue as those of the legendary Pipeline on Hawaii's North Shore, or risk life and limb on the 50ft monsters that rear up out of the depths off Ireland's Atlantic fringe. Alternatively, you could simply enjoy a fun session in shoulder-high peelers (perfectly formed waves), breaking on a golden Cornish beach.
I can just about stand on a huge foamboard, what next?
Wave-riding is one of the most frustrating yet rewarding things you can do: all surfers never really stop learning and progressing. Once on your feet, the next step is to get from the white water onto the green, open face - the unbroken part of the wave. You can save a lot of time and tantrums by opting for a few improver lessons with the British Surfing Association's accredited coaches. There are a number of excellent centres located across the UK that will help guide you from beginner to intermediate.
Jessie Davies (07884 436 831; www.risesurf.co.uk) is one of the UK's most renowned surfers and runs Rise Surf School, based in Tynemouth in north-east England. Her courses are perfect for aspiring surfers. Cornwall's Dominique Kent (07828 830844; www.purebluewater.com/surfing-adventures) has been at the forefront of women's surfing for over a decade and is a British Longboard champion. She currently coaches the British Junior Surf Team and offers friendly and supportive group or individual tuition.
Sam Christopherson (07971 990361; www.c2csurfschool.com) at Coast 2 Coast Surf is based close to Edinburgh and offers improver's lessons as well as trips to the north, east and west coast. With a little bit of perseverance, you'll be ripping before you know it and frothing for your first "surfari".
A good destination for a surf novice?
The Algarve is one of Europe's sunniest destinations; the weather attracts millions of northern European holidaymakers every year. Luckily for wave-riders, it also happens to be one of the most wave-rich locations on the continent. What makes it perfect is the fact that it has not one, but two coastlines. When the exposed west coast is being hit by big surf, those looking for something a bit more manageable can enjoy smaller waves on the south coast. Both coastlines boast empty breaks, so with the right guides you won't have to tussle with the locals for the best waves.
Try The Surf Experience (00 351 282 76 19 43; www.surf-experience. com) based in Lagos. These crafty expatriates saw the potential of this region back in 1992 and have been guiding lucky surfers around the best breaks ever since. They accommodate singles or groups of male and females of all experience levels. It's very sociable and a great place to meet fellow surfers.
Some romance among the waves?
To balance some surf with a bit of culture, fine food and romantic walks, head for Lisbon. The waterside suburb of Cascais offers easy access to central Lisbon and to the beaches of Costa Estoril via a fast and frequent train. It's also just a short hop to the more exposed western breaks such as Praia do Guincho and Praia Grande.
With such a great climate, a fly-drive camping option is great fun and great value - and if it does rain, what better test of a relationship? Orbitur Campismo Guincho (00 351 21 487 0450; www.orbitur.com) is a large site set within trees offering shady pitches, but also has cabins to rent. For flights into Lisbon try surfers' favourite TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; www.tap.pt) as boards go free as part of your allowance; British Airways no longer carries surfboards at any price.
A bit of a challenge?
Head for Morocco. Not technically part of Europe, of course, but as far as surfers are concerned it's been part of the European surf tour since the Freeride generation of the 1970s chugged south along the Atlantic coastline in their VW Combi vans. The annual winter pilgrimage to the awesome waves at Taghazoute is now part of surfing folklore.
Those without three months to burn can fly to Casablanca on Royal Air Maroc (020-7439 4361; www.royalairmaroc.com), which carries boards for free, and stay with Pure Blue Surf Adventures (01326 316 363; www.pureblue water.co.uk/moroc) where they'll guide you around the less well known northern regions.
Can I see the world’s best surfers first hand?
The ASP World Tour works rather like the Formula 1 Grand Prix championship. There are events across the globe, with two taking place in Europe: the Quiksilver Pro France (19-28 September 2008) in Hossegor, south-west France; and the Billabong Pro Mundaka (29 September to 12 October 2008) at the legendary rivermouth break in Mundaka, Northern Spain. Unlike F1, you can watch all the action for free - in Hossegor you get so close that you feel the spray from huge thundering barrels detonating on the beach.
But to see some thrilling action you can't do better than actually getting in there and sharing a few waves with world champions: it's like having a kick around with Beckham, Ronaldo and Fernando Torres. One option would be head to the beach at Le Penon, where the surfers go to get a few waves in their down time during the Hossegor contest. Either check out the action from the dunes, or get out in the water with the likes of Kelly Slater, Andy Irons or Mick Fanning.
Les Fougeres (00 33 558 43 78 00; www.hotel-lesfougeres.com) is a friendly hotel only 10 minutes' walk from the contest area. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) and easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) fly into nearby Biarritz.
Can I stay away from the crowds?
The Spanish regions of Galicia and Asturias sit on the Costa Verde, or Green Coast, and boast some of the most pristine beaches you'll find anywhere in Europe. Here it's possible to surf alone for your entire stay. The fractured coastline is bombarded by the turbulent Bay of Biscay, delivering consistent swell, yet the bays and coves always offer a sheltered spot to catch some fun waves.
The towering Picos de Europa mountains are a spectacular snow-capped backdrop in Asturias, while Galicia offers a true "big country" feel like that of the wilds of northern California. The best months to visit are September/October and May/June. Brittany Ferries runs an overnight service from Plymouth to Santander (08703 665 333; www.brittany-ferries.co.uk), with a new link from Portsmouth to Santander starting next April; P&O Ferries (08706 009 009; www.poferries.com) currently sails from Portsmouth to Bilbao.
The most unexpected place to surf in Europe?
The truth is wherever there's a large body of water you can get waves - in the US they even surf on the Great Lakes. Italy has a fine wave-riding tradition that dates back to the arrival of travelling Aussie Peter Troy in 1963. There are good waves to be had on both coastlines all through the winter and spring, but the islands of Sicily and Sardinia have become real surfing hotspots. You'll also find a surprisingly large and hardy crew of surfers taking to the waters off Norway and Iceland.
Can I keep my carbon footprint down?
Yes. There's no need to leave the UK. You can find world-class surf right on your doorstep, wherever you live in Britain. There are over 11,000 miles of coastline to choose from - and no UK city is more than two hours from the beach. With new wetsuit technology, year-round surfing is no longer the preserve of the hardcore fan. In Cornwall, the Perran Sands Caravan Park (www.havenholidays.com) overlooks the huge surfing beach at Perranporth and offers comfortable year-round static caravans within walking distance of some great surf. Check out Aggie Surf Shop (01872 552574; www.aggiesurfshop.com) in nearby St Agnes for advice if you're in the market for a new board.
In the north of England, Scarborough has three beaches to choose from and the guys at Secret Spot Surf Shop (01723 500467; www.secretspot.co.uk) are a friendly bunch who are always happy to offer advice. They even have a four-day surf forecast to help you plan your weekend away. North Bay beach is a two-minute walk from the Rockside Hotel (01723 374747) run by local surf legend Del.
In Scotland, Thurso is mainland Britain's most northerly town and home to a truly awesome wave, the right-hand reef known as Thurso East. Around the town lie endless golden beaches such as Strathy, Melvich, Farr Bay and Torrisdale. Wake up, grab your board and dash the 30 seconds from your tent at Dunnet Bay Campsite (01847 821319) into the crystal blue waters of Dunnet Bay.
Chris Nelson and Demi Taylor are the authors of 'Surfing Europe' (Footprint, £24.99)
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