I’M PERCHED ON THE END of a strange, red velvet throne in the humble International Surfing Museum at Huntington Beach, California, watching archival footage of 66 members of the local surf community help each other up onto a supersized surfboard. Like tiny toy soldiers they move into a tight formation before effortlessly surfing the required 10 metres to claim the world record for ‘most people riding a surfboard’. The screen switches to Kiwi-born Bob Steel, the man who built the famous 12.5-metre board that now hangs proudly outside the museum. As the clip finishes, who should walk in but Steel himself. His timing is purely coincidental – he hasn’t dropped by in months – and his appearance generates rock star-level excitement among the museum staff.
This image of a close-knit surf community pulling together to achieve their goal, and the genuine warmth they show the outsider who helped them in their quest, very much captures the spirit of this idyllic Southern Californian coastal town.
Huntington is perhaps better known as Surf City USA, so named for the year-round consistency of the surf. It’s been a Mecca for boardriders since the legendary Duke Kahanamoku introduced the sport to California back in 1925. Now the relaxed surf culture flows through the town as easily as the Pacific runs into the pristine waterways of Huntington Harbour, where rows of stylish multi-million dollar homes compete for attention.
I’m a novice surfer so my introduction to the local scene is via an instructor known as Surf Jesus (see pic top left and it’ll make sense). He tells me the real appeal for surfers is that “you can surf every goddamn day of the year if you want”. Huntington’s unique pattern of currents means there’s never an excuse not to get out there and enjoy the waves. Even in the relative depths of the Californian winter, the water is a bearable 16˚ in my wetty. The combination of waves to suit all levels, a beach voted ‘Best in California’ last year by readers of USA Today and a distinct absence of sharks all make it the perfect place for a learner like me. More adept surfers might want to head to the town’s iconic 555-metre pier. The closer you surf to the elevated walkway the more respect you command and if you have the skill and bravado to actually weave between its concrete pillars – which locals refer to as ‘shooting the pier’ – they might even buy you a beer down at Duke’s Barefoot Bar.
It’s at this very bar at the base of the pier that I share a few drinks and a mud pie withAussie surf legend PT Townend, the first IPS/ASP world surfing champion back in 1976. A resident for 40 years, Townend fell in love with the town soon after falling for his Huntington-born wife. The Queenslander has the air of a winner, his still-thick Aussie accent punctuated by sporadic bursts of So-Cal as he regales a bunch of us with tales of the local surf community.
Remarkably, these days he’s training the Chinese surf team for the Tokyo Olympics. The Chinese have identified this new Olympic sport as one to invest in and have sourced athletes with compatible physical attributes. Unfortunately, many of them had not so much as seen a surfboard before Townend came along, so you feel Disney would do well to keep an eye on them – if things go well it could have another Cool Runnings on its hands. Townend is clearly taking the mission seriously, learning Mandarin and spending six months a year imparting his surf wisdom in China. When I ask if he thinks they can pull off a shock and qualify for Tokyo 2020, his assessment is Aussie in its bluntness: “Not a bloody chance, mate . . . but keep an eye out for them in Paris 2024!”
Most of the action after dark takes place on Main Street, where local-run surfy bars and eateries rub shoulders with chic boutiques and restaurants. Fresh Californian seafood might be the go-to but there is also a host of stand-out Mexican and Vietnamese options. Don’t leave without trying the ubiquitous fish tacos and wash them down with some of the colourful and creative margarita options like the ‘lively’ Abreojos at Ola featuring a lipnumbing spicy chilli salt on the rim.
A much more affordable and traditionally Californian way to spend your evening (and add a splash of purple sunset to your Insta) is to position yourself at one of the many fire pits positioned along the beach and watch the sun go down over the Pacific. Either bring your own wood and drinks or prebook a spot from one of the hotels or beach hire operators and arrive with your fire pit already roaring for you. Chairs, blankets and, perhaps most importantly, s’mores are thrown in.
A good, albeit busy time to visit is in late July when half a million people descend on the town to watch the world’s largest surf competition, the US Open of Surfing. This nine-day event has been staged here for 60 years and the proximity of the pier gives surf fans a rare chance to get an up-close, wave-side view of the world’s finest weaving their magic.
Ever since Duke got the locals hooked back in the ’20s, legends have been made here and who knows, in a few years’ time maybe one of Townend’s Chinese prodigies will add yet more folklore to the town’s already rich surfing heritage.
WHERE TO STAY
Paséa Hotel & Spa
A perfect balance of stylish and laid back located right on the beachfront. Named one of the best coastal hotels in the US by Condé Nast. They even supply a pair of flip flops to keep!
WHERE TO EAT
at Paséa Hotel & Spa Southern Californian cuisine within a relaxed, rustic setting. If you like to watch your meal being prepared get a spot close to the action in the glass encased wood-fired inferno grill. If the fire pits at the beach sound too much like roughing it, have a cocktail next to the fancy one up on the rooftop lounge. meritagecollection.com/paseahotel
Bear Flag Fish Co.
A local favourite set in the food hall at Lot 579. Select your fish from the board then specify how you want it cooked. gopacificcity.com/ bear-flag-fish-co
Mama’s on 39
Only enter if it’s seriously your cheat day! This charming diner’s menu features favourites like deep fried steak, a 450g burger called ‘The Monster’ and a chocolate bourbon shake. mamason39.com
International Surfing Museum
See that record-breaking surfboard as well as artefacts from the town’s rich surf heritage, then take a stroll down the Surfing Walk of Fame.
Get tips Cali-style from Surf Jesus & co. located at the Hyatt Regency Resort. toesonthenose.com
Hire a bike
Hire one for a couple of hours and enjoy a glorious 9km oceanside ride to Newport beach; waterfrontresort.com
Sunset Harbour Cruise
See how the town’s well-heeled residents live from the comfort of this family-run boat. princechartersllc.com