For many surfers worldwide, surfing is not a sport, it is a lifestyle. Part of the lifestyle of any committed surfer is to travel and surf a bucket list of the world’s best waves, the locations made famous on Instagram and in countless surf websites, magazines and video clips of top surfers riding perfect waves.
Surfing is a seasonal activity. Every surfing location worldwide has a season favorable to good waves and conditions and a season of bad waves and unfavorable conditions. Committed surfers study their favorite locations to learn the right conditions for the best waves. These factors include knowing the best swell, tide and wind direction so they can try to be in the right place at the right time for the best waves.
While it is possible some of the world’s best surfing waves have yet to be discovered, waves breaking in remote locations not yet having been seen or surfed by anyone, these are ten of the world’s best (known) surfing locations.
Raglan Point, Waikato District, North Island, New Zealand
The rugged black sand beaches of the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand get near-constant winter groundswell from the Tasman Sea, with this groundswell focused on the long left points at Raglan. From being featured in the seminal surf flick “The Endless Summer” in the early 1960’s, the waves at Raglan have grown in fame and popularity, hosting surfers from around the world in a wide range of accommodation options during the winter months of April to October.
From the fast and expert-level waves of Indicators and Whale Bay to the slower but perfect waves of the inside section at Manu Bay, Raglan has earned a reputation as one of the world’s most consistent surfing locations.
Few surfers have traveled to Raglan and left disappointed with the lack of surf. Most have left town rather tired, with rubber arms from paddling back up the point, after long thigh-burning ride after long ride.
Playa Zicatela, Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, México
Deep in the steamy tropical regions of mainland México is Puerto Escondido, a holiday boomtown that has grown enormously since the discovery of world-class surfing waves in the early 1970’s.
It was American gringo surfers, driving down to Oaxaca from California and Texas who first encountered the incredible waves of Playa Zicatela, which from April to October, hosts one of the biggest and most powerful beachbreak waves on earth. A peculiar combination of favorable underwater bathymetry and consistent groundswell from the south Pacific Ocean ensures Playa Zicatela is almost never flat and can host surfable waves well over 40 feet on the face (12 meters) in season. Refraction from an underwater ridge outside the harbor breaks the straight lines of long-period groundswell into rideable peaks, each with distinctive characteristics and all producing enormous tubes.
With the wind offshore every morning and a powerful thunderstorm every afternoon, the routine in “Puerto” is easy to slip into for the thousands of surfing visitors who arrive every season - surf in the morning and siesta after lunch, surf again in the evening after the rain, then cold beer and fresh seafood for dinner with friends.
The Superbank, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia
The string of righthand point waves in the far south of Queensland state in Australia have been producing flawless tubes and champion surfers for decades. Locations like Burleigh Heads, Currumbin Alley, Kirra Point, Greenmount Point and Snapper Rocks are as legendary as the surfers who developed their skills in these waves, including World Champions Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson, Rabbit Bartholomew and Peter Townend and the Australian legend Michael Peterson.
The secret to the incredible waves of these right points is in the sand flow from south to north, from the Tweed River up the coast to Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island.
When the groynes that bracket the entrance to the Tweed river were constructed in 1963-65, the intention was to keep the entrance open for the fishing fleet. Little consideration was given to sand flow and no thought was given to surf quality. The groynes starved the beaches north of the Tweed River of sand and over several decades coastal erosion became a major problem.
In the late 1990’s a plan was made to install a sand-bypass pumping system to take sand from the south side of the Tweed and pump it onto the beaches on the north side, restoring the natural littoral drift of sand from south to north.
Once the system was operational in 2001, the results were nothing short of miraculous. With sand filling in the gaps between the rocks, long, hollow waves could now be ridden from Snapper through Greenmount to Kirra Point and with so much sand now returned to the beaches, coastal erosion was effectively halted.
The Superbank was created to solve a coastal erosion problem and in doing so, officials created one of the world’s best surfing locations.
The Banzai Pipeline, North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii, USA
When it comes to world-famous surfing locations, none are more famous than The Banzai Pipeline at ‘Ehukai Beach Park on Oahu's North Shore.
The wave breaks in a hollow tube on an offshore shelf of ancient lava with some coral growth. It was first surfed on film by California great Phil Edwards in 1961, as The Pipeline had a fearsome reputation for being too steep and powerful to be surfed. Phil proved them wrong, but it took a few years for surfboard design to advance to the point where surfing Pipeline was manageable.
No one assumed a more causal approach than Gerry Lopez, who earned the unofficial title of “Mr Pipeline” in the 1970’s with his mastery of the monstrous tubes. Images of the incredible waves of The Pipeline have appeared in innumerable magazines, videos and Instagram feeds, having hosted a professional surfing competition every December since the early 1970’s. The “Pipeline Masters” title has been won by great surfers like Shaun Tomson, Kelly Slater and John John Florence.
Pipeline is a wave for advanced surfers only and if the waves are good, the lineup is always crowded with expert surfers. If you are not an expert surfer, know your limitations. Do the lifeguards a favor and stay on the beach.
Restaurants, Tavarua Island, Mamanuca Islands, Fiji
Although Tavarua island had been surfed by the mid-1970’s by traveling surfers, the perfect reef wave at Restaurants in the Mamanuca Group in Fiji remained a secret spot for years, with the name only spoken in whispers among the in-crowd.
A shallow coral reef wave, Restaurants is perfectly aligned with the southeast tradewinds and southwest groundswell, producing a long and mechanically perfect wave unequaled anywhere in the south Pacific. Eventually, the surf campers on the tiny uninhabited island of Tavarua were leaving piles of rubbish, including metal cans, plastic debris and used toilet paper. One of these campers was New Yorker writer, surfer and author William FInnegan, who wrote about surfing and camping at Tavarua in his Pulitzer Prize winning memoir “Barbarian Days”.
The local chief Druku, who’s tribe had formal possession of the island via traditional ownership, asked two of the regular visitors to build a surf camp on the island. Druku wanted to get the camping mess under control and if possible, to make a little money for the tribe.
From basic beginnings Tavarua Island Resort was born in 1984, with Restaurants out front and another world-class wave at Cloudbreak a short boat ride away.
Tavarua quickly became the best surf resort in the world and began hosting top surfers, photographers and filmmakers and eventually, professional surfing contests in the world-class waves of the south Pacific.
Mundaka, Vizcaya, Spain
On the Basque coastline of northern Spain not far from the border with France, there is a small fishing town with a harbor, a Catholic church and a river emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. Formerly a town of rough Basque-speaking fishermen, the town has been transformed into a surfers haven.
Where the Guernica River meets the sea is a sandbar, constantly replenished and shaped by the river current which creates the legendary waves of Mundaka, considered to be the best wave in Europe when the conditions are right.To have the right conditions at Mundaka has always been a challenge, as there are several critical factors that need to align before the wave shows its true quality.
The first factor is swell. Mundaka is an autumn or winter spot, it needs a significant north Atlantic swell to start breaking and the second most important factor is the tide. Low tide is a must, the lower the better, for the wave to break along the sandbar as hollow and steep as possible.
As every surfer knows, sand moves. In the case of rivermouth sandbars, sand moves quite a lot from one season to the next and even from one swell to the next. To get a perfect session at Mundaka, with the sandbar perfect, a big swell, the offshore south wind coming out of the valley and a low tide for the best shape, is not an easy thing to do at all.
Surfers have been traveling to Mundaka since the late 1960’s to see and surf this remarkable wave and for those that have gotten a session where all the variables were aligned, they have ridden some of the best waves of their lives.
The tone of their voices, similar to someone recounting a religious experience, when describing the perfection of the long, hollow, offshore waves has only perpetuated the legend of Mundaka for the next generation of local and visiting surfers.
Rincon Point, Ventura County, California, USA
As surfing grew in popularity in postwar southern California, surfers began to spread out, driving to the north and south of their Santa Monica stomping grounds to find new waves.
One of the waves popularized at this time was a winter spot on the border of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties known as Rincon, where Rincon Creek empties into the Pacific ocean. Rincon is a winter season only wave, blocked by the offshore Channel Islands from south-angle swells but open to west and northwest swells common from October to March.
A long right point wave, Rincon was ideal for the longer and heavier boards of the 1950’s and 60’s and the perfectly shaped waves of this most iconic of point waves were equally ideal for the shorter, lighter and more maneuverable surfboards of the 70’s and 80’s. Rincon became so popular with California surfers it acquired the affectionate moniker of “The Queen of the Coast”.
Rincon has retained its popularity through the decades and despite the overcrowding, many surfers are of the opinion Rincon is the best right point break on the west coast of North America.
On a strong winter northwest swell, it is not hard to understand why as sets of perfectly shaped waves spin down the point, each hosting one or more surfers, surfing the best wave of their lives.
G-Land, Alas Purwo National Park, East Java, Indonesia
Indonesia is the best surfing country in the world and one of the best waves in Indonesia is in East Java, within the borders of the Alas Purwo National Park. In the early 1970’s, the wave was discovered by surfers flying from Jakarta to Bali. As they looked out the window over East Java, they saw waves breaking around a large point, peeling perfectly down a long coral reef.
The long left reef wave is known as “G-land”, named after nearby Grajagan Village, a fishing village at the end of the bay. The first surfing trips to G-land featured boat transportation from nearby Bali, hallucinogenic mushroom omelettes for breakfast, Java tiger tracks on the beach and accommodation in bamboo tree houses on the edge of the jungle.
G-land was the first surfing area to incorporate the concept of a “surf camp”, a type of monastic retreat based on surfing, training, eating well and still more surfing.Since the early 70’s, several surf camps have become established at G-land and thousands of surfers have traveled to this area of East Java to experience life at a “surf camp” and ride one of the world’s best surfing waves.
Lagundri Bay, Nias Island, North Sumatra Province, Indonesia
In the steamy tropical forest of Nias Island, a large island on the equator off Sumatra in equatorial Indonesia, there is a picturesque bay with one of the world’s most perfect surfing reefs, Lagundri Bay.
The famous waves were discovered by traveling surfers in the 1970’s, and these early surf travelers braved brutal conditions of heavy rain, soggy humidity and rampant malaria to surf the perfect tropical waves of Lagundri Bay.
By the 1990’s there were much improved accommodation options, some with air conditioning and gourmet meals. The wave had secured a reputation as one of the best in the world and well-worth the long and arduous journey to get there.
On March 28, 2005, the island of Nias including the Lagundri area was rocked by a huge 8.7 earthquake, which shook the island severely. Many buildings were destroyed and hundreds of people killed.
The earthquake raised the seafloor of the Indian Ocean in the Lagundri area by as much as two meters (six feet, 6 inches), improving the wave at Lagundri from very good to world-class.
Jeffrey’s Bay, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa
An hour or so down the N2 highway from Port Elizabeth is the quaint holiday town of Jeffrey’s Bay, which got its start as a supply town for the farmers in the area and a shell-collecting resort in the Victorian period.
It was only in the late 1960’s that surfers discovered the long point waves breaking over an ancient lava shelf that are now considered some of the best right-breaking waves anywhere in the world.
While the conservative, Afrikaans-speaking farmers of the area initially did not welcome the influx of hippie surfers, to say the least, regular pilgrimages to Jeffrey’s Bay were well-established by the mid 1970’s. Groups of surfers, often accompanied by girlfriends, photographers and filmmakers, arrived in the cold winter months of April to October and stayed for weeks to get a good day of waves and offshore southwest wind.
Many accommodation and food and beverage businesses have since grown in the Wavecrest area of Jefferey’s Bay to cater to surfing visitors. The town hosts an economically vital World Surf League professional event in the winter wave season every year, an event that draws large numbers of enthusiastic spectators from South Africa and around the world to the famous waves at Supertubes.
Text © John Seaton Callahan
Images © John Seaton Callahan except where otherwise credited