Thurso in winter has the best surfing in Europe. Just don't forget your drysuit. By Simon Calder
Hawaii. Bondi. Thurso. The last is the odd one out, and not just because it fails to end in an "i". Thurso is a little easier to reach from most places in Britain; it has a more inspiring coastline and, in the lengthening nights as the year extends towards its dark conclusion, several dozen fewer degrees of warmth. But in terms of surfing, there is not much to choose between them.

From the south, you approach mainland Britain's northernmost town across petrified lowlands: murky, scruffy patches of freeze-dried earth, with all the goodness concentrated into the odd, optimistic patch of cultivation. Many of Thurso's 8,000 souls reside in the uneasily uniform housing that hems in the huddle of gaunt municipal granite at the heart of the town. Near the sea, however, manmade structures shrink back from the power of the ocean.

If you were to let the tide sweep you out due north from here you would meet first the polar ice cap and second Siberia. The anvil-flat north coast of Scotland, extending horizontally from John O'Groats to Cape Wrath, is exposed to everything the Arctic can hurl at it.

The bruised and beautiful shoreline should be the perfect place to experience stormy solitude - but it isn't. At Crosskirk, five miles west of Thurso, the ruins of a chapel and a lonely cemetery look out over blackened rocks. So, too, do the darting eyes of a vanload or two of surfers. A trio of them have come from Edinburgh, 300 miles south; a more adventurous couple have traversed the globe and are diametrically opposite their home in the South Island of New Zealand. Shivering with each Arctic bluster, they gauge the potential risks and rewards of paddling offshore to try to catch the ultimate wave.

You would not want to learn the craft hereabouts. To figure out how to stand up on a seven-foot piece of moulded polyurethane foam in rough water, go elsewhere; the British Surfing Association's advice for this whole stretch of coast warns "Experienced surfers only". But once you have cracked the patience-exhausting business of getting yourself and your surfboard on to a breaker, and felt the thrill of harnessing all that latent energy, sooner or later you will feel the tug of Europe's best surf.

Low-pressure areas and storms in the Pentland Firth, between the mainland and Orkney, make for some of the heaviest seas in the world. Many of the graves in the cemetery belong to seamen who perished on the rocky North Shore, but the same brute force of water attracts tourists by the Transit- load. A flash of fibre-glass erupts from the sea and creates a miraculous vortex as it accelerates for a high-velocity ride along the crest of a devilish wave. This is Surfer's Paradise, UK. As the drysuited figure bobbed about in the adrenalin afterglow, having just descended from a height of 10 feet or more above the surrounding water, I realised that surfing must be the one sport where understatement, not exaggeration, prevails.

The surfer needs to know the water as intimately as do the fishermen setting out from the small port of Scrabster, around the bay from Thurso. A crucial distinction is between waves whipped up by northern gales, and the swell generated from within the brooding sea. A "glassy" surface, undistorted by the wind, is ideal; but with Iceland and Norway being closer neighbours than London, the shrewd surfer realises the risks of sudden changes of conditions.

If you are not attracted by the idea of tackling the elements head-on, then discovering Britain's finest beaches may appeal. The square chin of a shoreline that juts out from Scotland turns out to be pocked by crescent- shaped bays. Many of these do not possess the appropriate ground profile to create great surf, so they remain blissfully empty throughout the winter - and, say the locals, most of the summer, too.

Unlike other seas at this latitude, the North Atlantic drift means the water never freezes. That explains why the dead-end fishing port of Reay boasts a harbour that looks a sight more sturdy than any of the frail cottages around it, and beyond it a sheen of sands that warm with every darkening degree of the sinking afternoon sun. The blot on the grey horizon that welds itself to the steely waters is white, and obvious: Dounreay nuclear power station was located here to take advantage of the isolation, but the huge blank globe in which the isotopes regenerate comprise a far uglier manifestation of energy than the pure potential of the sea - a mid-century dream of the future that for some, has become a nightmare of the present. Northern Scotland is littered with evidence of men overestimating their own powers and underestimating nature.

Back through the gloom to Thurso, in search of apres-surf. The digital component of Hawaii Five-O signifies it was the 50th state to become United. At Thurso, Five-O is more likely to be the score by which the local team lose against Buckie Thistle. The only kind of surf culture you're likely to find here emanates from one of the baronial halls that administered to a united serf-dom, and the closest most visiting surfers come to a wipe-out is a heavy night at the bar of the Central Hotel.

The local surfing community, for whom the waves represent a better chance of sporting success than does playing for Wick Academy FC, meet the visitors to discuss the foibles of the sea, to talk of faraway shores. Sea, sand, surf and sun - Thurso cannot claim a full house, but at this wildest part of Britain that hardly seems to matter. The word that really counts is "extreme".

When to go

The surf is at its best in the last three months of the year. Non surfers might enjoy the area more in midsummer.

How to get there

Simon Calder paid pounds 236 for a return ticket on British Airways (0345 222111) from Heathrow via Edinburgh to Wick, and rented a car from Richards Garage (01955 604123) in Wick for pounds 45 per day. An alternative is to travel by rail via Inverness to Thurso, but public transport along the coast is limited.

Where to stay

Options are limited. Simon Calder paid pounds 25 per night for bed and breakfast at the Royal Hotel, Traill Street, Thurso (01847 893191). A double room costs pounds 30.

Who to ask

Caithness Tourist Board, Whitechapel Road, Wick KW1 4EA (01955 602596).

The British Surfing Association is based at Champions Yard, Penzance, Cornwall TR18 2SS (01736 60250).

Comments