There’s a reason surfing’s a popular American pastime; few travel pleasures beat finding a cool surf town that fosters a like-minded sense of community. The beauty of great surf towns is that they combine the best waves with a laid-back beach vibe. Dozens of surf towns dot America’s coasts, but only a few can truly lay claim to being terrific surf spots. Grab your surfboard and head to one of these coastal towns known for great surfing, a welcoming beachside community, great hotels and magical waves.
Montauk in East Hampton on Long Island may be known for wooing the fashionable set but this sunny coastal town also attracts laid-back surfers. During the summer months, the town’s coastline of coves, reefs and points comes alive with throngs of surfers as well. It's rare to find great waves on the East Coast, which makes Montauk a jewel for surfers.
Manhattan-based surfers drive into town in packs, taking over this affluent fishing community to ride some terrific waves, especially at Ditch Plains Beach and Turtle Cove. The water is cold here, perhaps only proving the dedication of hardcore surfers. Most out-of-towners shack up at the Surf Lodge, a lifestyle-driven boutique hotel that hosts outdoor concerts and surf events.
Just an hour's drive from Los Angeles, Malibu is a mecca for surfing, mixed with a tinge of Hollywood. For decades, Malibu has been a haven for celebrities who’ve come to ride waves, or simply play some beach blanket bingo. Surfers congregate primarily on Surfrider Beach, and it's not uncommon to ride waves with famous faces, like Anthony Kiedis of the ’90s band Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Malibu is also where the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps protect oceans, waves and beaches, was founded in 1984. Stay at the oceanfront Malibu Beach Inn, one of few hotels in the area right on Carbon Beach.
What's great about Encinitas? You can practically surf any day of the year in this coastal beach city just 30 minutes north of San Diego thanks to the great weather; temperatures rarely dip below 40 degrees or reach over 85. The surf scene here is equally welcoming, and you'll find everyone from newbies to professionals hanging out on Moonlight Beach, the center of recreation -- surfing, beach volleyball, surf fishing and bonfires abound here.
Many residents of Encinitas have adapted to the surf lifestyle (you'll be hard-pressed to find a garage in town that doesn't have a surfboard out front). Check into Rancho Valencia, a 5-star resort just 20 minutes from Del Mar beaches that offers surf lessons; the executive chef is a surfer himself who lives in Encinitas.
4. Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina
This gem of a surf spot in the Outer Banks of North Carolina embraces a more slow-paced, Southern style. This no-frills surf town caters mostly to college-age surfers during the high-peak summer months. Kill Devil Hills is a magnet for consistent swells.
Take a break from the waves and visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial, the site of the world's first controlled-powered flights. Outer Banks Beach Club Resort is a comfortable resort with 1- to 3-bedroom suites, fully furnished kitchens and 2 pools, indoor and outdoor.
Oahu’s North Shore may be home to world-renowned surfing competitions but the small town of Paia on Maui is known for embracing a surf culture without the tourists. Some locals will claim it’s the best surf town on the Hawaiian Islands. Just 5 miles from the major city of Kahului, Paia is a unique surf town with yoga studios, organic-food restaurants and a whole lot of hippies, hipsters, artists and sunburnt surfers.
While kitesurfing and windsurfing are the beach’s claim to fame, board surfing gets an A-plus for the beach break waves and miles of reef—and, of course, the community’s signature leftist, liberal attitude really amps up the character here. The hip and stylish Paia Inn boutique hotel is the surfer’s preferred crashpad.
6. Santa Cruz, California
The dividing line between Northern California and Southern California, the college town of Santa Cruz is a surfer's paradise. The notoriously big waves here have drawn world-renowned surfers like Kelly Slater.
Meanwhile, great beachside restaurants that are popular with the surf crowd include The Crow's Nest, where you’ll find vintage surfboards and surf memorabilia on the walls. Surfer's shack up at Dream Inn, a 163-room boutique right on the beach with great views of Monterey Bay.