The World’s Ten Best Surfing Countries
John Seaton Callahan 2712 words
10) Portugal, including the Azores and Madeira archipelagos
With a long and convoluted coastline on the Atlantic ocean, plenty of winter swell and one of the most adventurous histories of maritime exploration of any nation in the world, Portugal is a natural as a surfing country of significance.
While most of the attention in recent years has been on the massive winter waves at Praia do Norte in the fishing village of Nazaré, where the new world record for the biggest wave ever ridden was set at 86 feet (26 metres) by Sebastian Steudtner in 2020, Portugal has many other spots for surfers, ranging from urban beaches like Carcavelos near Lisbon to high quality right point waves in the Ericeira area.
The waves around the fishing town of Peniche are a favourite of many surfers in Europe, as the peninsula can have an offshore wind from several directions, has many accommodation options and surf schools and has the world-class beachbreak of Supertubos nearby.
In addition to the mainland waves, Portugal has several island groups with powerful Atlantic waves. These island groups have been sovereign Portuguese territory for centuries, including the Azores in the mid-Atlantic and the archipelago of Madeira, which has been a Portuguese possession since 1425.
The Padrão dos Descobrimentos, or the Monument to the Discoveries, in Belem, Portugal, a suburb of Lisbon
Morning waves in the Atlantic ocean at Praia dos Coxos in Portugal
Evening surfing at Praia dos Coxos in Portugal
While Japan or Japanese sponsors are no longer host to 30% of the World Tour events as they were at one time in the 1980’s, when every professional surfer has at least one Japanese sponsor, Japan is a vibrant and contemporary surfing nation somewhat off the beaten track in 2022.
Japanese surfers, male and female, continue to surf in large numbers and the Japan surf industry produces some of the best quality surfboards and wetsuit products in the world, although now little known or used outside of Japan.
The Japanese archipelago of nearly 7 000 islands gets plenty of swell from the Pacific ocean with the autumn season of western Pacific typhoons offering world-class conditions in several areas of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu when powerful typhoon groundswells combine with offshore autumn winds.
The southern islands of Japan have some of the best surfing in the country, with coral reef breaks and legitimate big wave spots during typhoon season on several islands, like Okinawa and Amami-Oshima. These islands are popular with Japanese surfers and frequently feature in Japanese-language magazines and videos, but see very few foreign visitors.
Chou-dori Avenue in the Ginza district of Tokyo, one of the world's busiest shopping streets
Habushi-ura on Niijima Island, an overnight ferry ride from Tokyo
Morning waves in the Pacific ocean in Miyazaki, Japan
8) Morocco, including Western Sahara
The Kingdom of Morocco in North Africa has been on the surfers map as a northern hemisphere winter surf destination since the late 1960’s. European hippie surfers made the trip across the Strait of Gibraltar in Volkswagen vans to surf, camp and smoke hashish at Anchor Point near Agadir during the cold European winter.
More incredible righthand point waves were discovered in the 80’s and 90’s in other areas of the coastline and as more local Moroccans discovered surfing, talented local surfers started picking up sponsorships and doing well in contests across Europe.
With a liberal visa process of 30 days on arrival for many western passports, with no advance reservations or any other requirements necessary, Moroccan tourism thrived in pre-pandemic days. Millions of visitors arrived from Europe on package holiday trips and the country became a favourite destination for “strike missions”, surfing media projects where a positive forecast is received and a group of professional surfers and videographers fly in from around the globe on short notice to take advantage of exceptional swell and local conditions to produce images and video clips.
Moroccan annexation of most of the former territory of the Spanish Sahara in 1975 remains controversial. This annexation is not recognized by the United Nations and is actively opposed by neighbouring countries in the region. There has been no fighting since the 1990’s with a UN peacekeeping force in the area and Moroccan control of Western Sahara is a fact on the ground.
As travel from Morocco to the Western Sahara region is encouraged by the Kingdom in an effort to promote international acceptance of Moroccan sovereignty over this vast, resource-rich but nearly empty territory, more surfers are venturing into the area to ride the waves of the many exceptional right point breaks on the edge of the Sahara Desert.
Moroccan taxi in Safi
One of the many quality waves in southern Morocco, near the city of Agadir
Emiliano Cataldi surfing in Western Sahara, on the edge of the Sahara Desert
7) France, including Polynésie Français, Nouvelle Calédonie, Réunion, Martinique, Guadeloupe
Surfing has a long tradition in France, from the late 1950’s when the sport was first introduced in the resort town of Biarritz in the Basque Country in 1956 by Peter Viertel, a German-born Hollywood screenwriter from California.
Surfing caught on in the Basque region of southwest France and then spread throughout the country in the 1960’s. By the 1970’s, French surfers had arrived in the overseas French territories like Réunion in the Indian Ocean, Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean and Tahiti and the other islands of Polynésie Français in the Pacific.
French surfers began to travel outside France as well, to Hawaii in the northern hemisphere winter and to Australia, to surf with the best surfers in the world at the time and participate in professional competitions, opportunities not available in Europe in the 1980’s.
Since the 1990’s surfing has exploded in popularity in France, with top tier professional competitions in the autumn wave season and several French surfers have qualified to compete at the highest levels of professional competition.
Surfing schools have proliferated in the summer months and many international surfing labels and brands have their France headquarters in Hossegor, north of Biarritz.
Improvements to wetsuit technology resulting in warmer, more flexible wetsuits have been a boon to winter surfing in France, making mid-winter surfing more accessible and enjoyable for thousands of surfers from Hossegor to Brittany.
Metropolitan France has hosted many professional surfing events at Hossegor and Lacanau
Indian ocean waves at St Leu on the French island of Réunion
Waves in the south Pacific ocean in the overseas French territory of Nouvelle Calédonie
6) New Zealand
New Zealand may be small in terms of population with less than 5 million people, but in surfing terms it outranks much larger countries. There is a huge variety of waves, an east coast and a west coast and a wide variety of wind directions on two major islands and dozens of smaller islands.
Surfing in New Zealand was present at the time of the Polynesian Maori people, who are recorded having arrived by canoe in the main islands of Aotearoa by the 1200’s. In 1915, the great Hawaiian surfer and swimmer Duke Kahanamoku gave a surfing exhibition in New Zealand and by the 1960’s, the Kiwis had several hundred surfers and sent competitors to the World Championships in California in 1966.
While surfing in New Zealand is certainly popular as an activity among New Zealanders, where the country shines is as a surf travel destination for visiting surfers. With generally friendly, English-speaking local surfers, thousands of kilometres of coastline on two major islands, several possible swell directions and winds from every direction, there are good waves breaking somewhere in New Zealand nearly every day of the year.
The only problem is you may need to do a lot of driving to find these good waves. As with any temperate climate country, the weather is always changing in New Zealand, with cold fronts from the Tasman Sea and occasional seasonal cyclones from the south Pacific ocean. Fortunately for travelling surfers, New Zealand has good roads and a large network of caravan parks, where self-drive camper vans can find accommodations, many of them on the coast.
Surfing in the Tasman Sea on the west coast of the North Island, in the Waikato District of New Zealand
Fruits and vegetables for sale on the honour system in New Zealand
Waves in the Tasman Sea in the Taranaki Region of the North Island
5) South Africa
South Africa ranks high on the list of best surfing countries in the world for the quality and quantity of its waves. Few countries have as many good waves as South Africa with as few local surfers to enjoy them.
From the shark-netted warm waters of the Indian Ocean in Durban to the frigid Atlantic Ocean surrounding Cape Town, South Africa has a great variety of waves and of course, one of the best waves in the world at Jeffrey’s Bay, considered the world’s best right point wave.The lack of local surfers was not always the case, but it is estimated there are fewer active surfers today in South Africa than there were in 1985, nearly 40 years ago.
While surfing has grown in South Africa during this period, political turbulence, deteriorating public services and high levels of criminality have driven many South Africans to emigrate, most of them educated white English-speakers and many of them surfers. As surfing in South Africa has always been associated with the English-speaking community and not the Afrikaans-speakers or the many other ethnic groups, emigration has significantly reduced the number of active surfers in South Africa.
For visiting surfers, South Africa is one of the world’s best values for money, as a favourable exchange rate makes nearly everything less expensive than at home.
Local surfers are generally friendly and accommodating of visitors, but visitors must raise their awareness quickly to adjust to South African levels of criminal behaviour and violence, which are far higher than many western countries.
Surfing in the Indian Ocean on the north Coast of KwaZulu-Natal province
South Africa has great surfing and incredible wildlife viewing opportunities
Jeffrey's Bay in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa is regarded as one of the best surfing locations in the world
With a long coastline on the Pacific ocean including both the Baja Peninsula and the mainland plus the coastline on the Gulf of México, Mexico is one of the best surfing countries in the world.
Relentless southwest and northwest swells crossing the Pacific ocean from seasonal storm activity in winter and summer provide nearly non-stop waves on the Pacific coast, delighting local and visiting surfers year-round.
Outstanding surfing locations include hard to access right point breaks on the Baja Peninsula, some of which take days of off-road desert driving to reach, the long right point waves of Salina Cruz and the thundering beachbreaks of the mainland like Pascuales and Puerto Escondido, which serve up some of the largest rideable waves in the world on a regular basis.
México has been a surf travel destination for as long as there has been modern surfing, with the first adventurous California and Texas surfers strapping their longboards to the roof of Mom’s station wagon and heading south to Baja and to the mainland in the 1950’s.
Hundreds of thousands of gringo surfers have followed in their tire tracks, looking for “olas buenas”, eating rice and beans, drinking tequila, dodging the rapacious Federales and trying to avoid “Montezuma's Revenge”, the brutal Mexican diarrhoea that has affected many travellers to mainland México since the days of Hernán Cortes and the Spanish conquistadors.
Isla Natividad in Baja California Sur is only accessible by plane or boat
Playa Zicatela in Puerto Escondido in Oaxaca state is one of the world's best beachbreak waves
Train travel in México is an experience for adventurous travellers
3) USA, including Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, Guam
Including the US mainland, Alaska and various island groups like Hawaii and Puerto Rico, the United States of America is a surfing powerhouse, not only for the quantity and quality of waves, but for the many world champion surfers the country has produced.
Oddly enough, Florida has produced more World Champion surfers than California, Hawaii or Puerto Rico, with the generally poor quality of Florida surf a powerful incentive to learn to surf well in average conditions.
Such is the quality and variety of waves available under the Stars and Stripes, from the long winter point waves of Rincon in California, the world-class reef waves on the North Shore of Oahu, the winter warm-water waves in the Atlantic ocean in Puerto Rico, and the frigid waves of Alaska, that many surfers find it unnecessary to travel outside the boundaries of the US for any surf adventure they may wish to have.
Visiting surfers, in particular professional surfers and aspiring pro surfers have long flocked to the North Shore of Oahu in the winter months, as it is a short flight and cheap plane ticket from the surf media centre of Southern California. Overcrowding is a fact of life on the North Shore, as locals aggressively defend their turf against the encroachment of outsiders and conflict is the inevitable result.
Puerto Rico is a more relaxed alternative to the hectic North Shore scene in the winter months and has long been a favourite of east coast surfers. Good manners and a basic knowledge of Spanish goes a long way with the local surfers in Puerto Rico, but there are usually plenty of waves for all in a winter season.
Malibu in southern California was first ridden in 1927 and has been an icon of California surfing ever since
The North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii has some of the best surfing conditions in the world
Queen's Surf at Kuhio Beach in Waikiki is the home of traditional Hawaiian longboard surfing
There is no doubt that the southern continent of Australia has it all where surfing is concerned - a long and mostly accessible coastline on three oceans, the Indian, Southern and Pacific and more high-quality wave setups than you could surf in a lifetime.
These waves and consistent conditions have produced more World Champions than any other country, since American surfing legend Greg Noll and a group of surfers and lifeguards travelled to Australia in 1956, to put on a series of lifeguarding and surfing exhibitions. The Californians wowed the few hundred Australian surfers of the day with their lightweight, manoeuvrable “Malibu” boards and progressive technique.
The Aussies, with their characteristic athleticism and competitive attitude, put down their cricket bats, “Aussie Rules” footballs and tennis racquets and took up the challenge to outsurf the Yanks. By 1966, they had done so, with Nat Young of Australia winning the World Championships in California.
For visiting surfers, from the long warm-water point breaks of Queensland on the east coast, to the powerful waves of the Southern ocean in Victoria and South Australia to the long left reef waves of the bone-dry desert in Western Australia, the Australian continent is a surfer’s paradise from one side to the other.
Australia has hosted hundreds of thousands of visiting surfers since Noll’s pioneering group in the late 1950’s, with most visitors initially shocked by the vast distances between major cities like Sydney, Melbourne and far-distant Perth and the strange and mostly empty “outback” interior regions.
After enough driving, visiting surfers have found perfect surfing waves on all coasts during all seasons, confirming Australia’s status as one of the best surfing countries in the world.
Bells Beach on the Great Ocean Road in Victoria is an iconic surfing location in Australia
Many professional surfing events are held in Australia, like this one at Johanna Beach in Victoria
The Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge at sunset
If a website or a magazine were to do an authoritative survey of the 50 or so Best Waves in the World, it is likely 20 or more of them would be located somewhere in Indonesia. That’s how blessed this archipelago nation is with high-quality waves, on both the Indian and Pacific oceans.
The Indian ocean side of the country is known to surfers worldwide, with the secret to Indonesia’s incredible quantity and quality of surf linked to two factors: swell and wind.
The southern Indian ocean is one of the world’s great swell generators, with storm after storm in the high latitudes from April to October pushing groundswell to the northeast, where after 5 to 7 days of travel time, these long-period groundswells meet the coral reefs, points and beachbreaks in the 18 000 islands of Indonesia, on the equator.
Anywhere the prevailing dry season southeast wind can blow offshore is a potential surfing wave. Some of these waves, like Uluwatu and Padang Padang in Bali, Scar Reef in Sumbawa, Nihiwatu in Sumba, Desert Point in Lombok, G-land in East Java, Panaitan Island in West Java, Lagundri Bay in Nias, and the offshore islands of the Mentawai, Batu, Hinako and other island groups are very good surfing locations indeed and have drawn travelling surfers since their discovery in the 1970’s and 80’s.
Modern surfing in Indonesia began in Bali, where Robert Koke, an American entrepreneur, established the Kuta Beach Hotel in 1937 in what was then the Dutch East Indies, where he imported several surfboards from Hawaii and began surfing at Kuta Beach. The hotel was destroyed during the Japanese occupation of WWII and surfing disappeared from Bali for decades before the 1970’s.
In 1972, the seminal Australian surf film “Morning of the Earth” introduced audiences to the fantastical waves of Uluwatu on the Bukit Peninsula and the development of surfing in the archipelago has been proliferating ever since.
Surfing has spread to all the major islands on the Indian Ocean side of the country, led by travelling “feral” surfers, many of them Australians, who posted up in remote villages for months at a time, living a local lifestyle to surf perfect tropical waves with no other surfers around.
More recently, surfing has been introduced on the Pacific side of Indonesia, remote islands like Morotai and Halmahera that rarely see any foreign visitors at all. These islands have large Christian populations and have remained largely undeveloped since the end of WWII and the departure of the Japanese Imperial Army.
This discovery of even more perfect ocean waves on the Pacific side of Indonesia has only confirmed what many surfers already know: Indonesia is the greatest surfing country in the world.
New waves are currently being found on the Pacific side of Indonesia, a traditionally Christian and undeveloped area
From one end of the vast archipelago to the other, Indonesia is the world's greatest surfing country
Since their discovery by surfers in the mid-1980's, the Mentawai Islands have been proven to be some of the best tropical surfing anywhere in the world