Many people credit the ’50s movie and ’60s TV show Gidget for bringing surfing to mainstream America, but long before that surfers enjoyed a rich culture — in fact, it dates as far back as the late 19th Century along the California Coast. The origins of the movement can be traced to a series of visits by Hawaiians and later Duke Kahanamoku, who’s credited with bringing the sport from Waikiki Beach to the American mainland with the help of fellow surfer George Freeth.
Their legacy continues to live on around California’s top surf spots, varying from killer waves in the north to historic breaks in the shadows of a nuclear power plant in the south, all popular long before anyone ever heard of a Malibu.
It is said Santa Cruz was the first break ever caught by a surfer in California, back in 1885 when a group of Hawaiian students rode boards made of local redwood. But it wasn’t for another 50 years Santa Cruz became synonymous with the U.S. surf movement as boards evolved from wood to fiberglass and surf shops started to pop up along the local boardwalk. One such shop was that of Jack O’Neill, of the now iconic O’Neill brand, one of the first creators of the modern wetsuit — built to extend the surfing season in the chillier waters off Northern California. Today, in the same place as the original O’Neill surf shop is the Dream Inn, built in 1963 steps from the beach and Santa Cruz beach boardwalk many dub the western Coney Island. The iconic 1960s structure with zigzag roofed annex was recently updated to bring it back to its original family hot spot status, including a clean white facade and a beachfront pool with deck chairs and an outdoor lounge. All rooms feature a crisp color palette of neutral colors with bolder wooden shutters, subtle striped carpeting and head-on ocean view from spacious private balconies. The hotel is close to Steamer’s Lane, considered one of the top surf breaks in California, and Light House Point, home to the Santa Cruz Surf Museum.
When you check in to the charming Cape Cod-style Beach House Hotel in Half Moon Bay, you’re also just a half-mile from one Maverick’s, one of the continent’s most famous monster breaks. Coined “Surfing’s Mount Everest,” the area draws a skilled group of wave runners and hopeful riders aiming to tackle swells that migrate across the Pacific and — according to some, in a tale that reached most via a recounting in the San Francisco Chronicle — reach heights of 100 feet at their most historic. The waves are usually at their most ominous from December through March, but this year Maverick’s seen a more active Pacific storm cycle that’s extended the high season into April. While not for the novice or even mere intermediate — people have died in this surf — Maverick’s can be seen best in day trips from boats leaving nearby Pillar Point Harbor. Others simply choose to stay indoors at one of the Beach House’s loft-style rooms, which maintain a comfy charm (in contrast to the opulence found at Ritz-Carlton’s Half Moon Bay down the road). The Beach House’s location also offers easier access to the restaurant and galleries of downtown as well as to the casual seafood eateries of the harbor. Additionally, the hotel offers a small pool, despite the almost-always brisk weather, and a pretty incredible jogging path through grassy beach dunes (with occasional surfer and pelican crossing). Southern California’s Huntington Beach has taken on the moniker “Surf City,” stemming back to surf pioneer Duke Kahanamoku surfing its famous pier break in the early 20th century. Today the city is home to the weeklong U.S. Open of Surfing held every summer, as well as a Surfer’s Walk of Fame. The iconic beach stretches for miles — a flat plane of white sand with a lively downtown known for renegade teenagers dating back as far as residents Jan and Dean, whose early 1960s single Surf City made the city nationally recognized. Huntington Beach is among the best of all California’s famous surf spots for new surfers, given the width of the break and accessibility of smaller, more isolated waves far away from the real pros. In terms of hotels, a number of chains including Hilton and Hyatt ( H) offer large waterfront resorts. Smaller and more charming, however, is the Shorebreak Hotel directly across from the famous pier, a cool, loft-style boutique retreat along the main downtown drag. With sandy feet and surfboards welcome, guests mingle in a hot spot lobby with modernist rattan seating areas, teak hardwood floors and surf-themed artwork (there’s more original surf art in the rooms). Retractable doors open to an interior courtyard lounge with open sky, and rooms have spacious terraces and ocean views that make surf reports redundant. Further south in San Diego Country lies the infamous Trestles, located within the sprawling San Onofre State Beach at the edge of the Camp Pendleton Marine Base. This otherworldly landscape of infinite sand dunes, known for its multitiered break, was the Californian’s top surf spot in the 1930s. With land rights reverting from the military back to the public after World War II, the site became home to the San Onofre Nuclear Power Generating Plant. Despite the unsightly double domed reactors, only one of which Southern California Edison keeps active, the surfing hot spot continues to thrive, with many surf locals preferring the nuclear generator to the behemoth hotel or condo development that likely would have filled its space and brought more congestion on the waves. With no hotel in sight, the only overnight option is a commute to San Clemente or a camping or RV spot along one of the park’s designated spaces.