Catch a wave: A visit to California's original 'Surf City'

Surf's up, always, on the 10-mile stretch of beach in Huntington Beach, Calif. The prime waves found next to the town's famed pier are so consistent that the U.S Open Surf Championship is held on its south side every July, but you don't have to be a pro to grab a board and have a go.
Surf's up, always, on the 10-mile stretch of beach in Huntington Beach, Calif. The prime waves found next to the town's famed pier are so consistent that the U.S Open Surf Championship is held on its south side every July, but you don't have to be a pro to grab a board and have a go. (JOHN SANTORO)
Posted: March 24, 2014

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. - When grad school at U.C. Berkeley pulled me from my East Coast roots, I experienced my first winter without snow - oh, yeah. Family and friends visited so often I had to devise my own little tour to make sure they were well-entertained. But as impressed as they were by the Bay Area, they often said that this was not what they had in mind when they dreamed of the West Coast.

I really didn't have a handle on what they were saying until my brother-in-law, who lives and works on France's Cote d'Azur, showed me. I was showing him websites about California when we stumbled on the movie poster for The Endless Summer - the one with the surfers silhouetted against the setting sun. He couldn't manage the English, but he did blurt out "C'est California!" I got it.

It's true. The Endless Summer and your old Beach Boys album covers have subliminally set your expectations. An escape from the winter meat locker requires a warming sun, an endless beach lined with palm trees, and, of course, surfers. That's exactly what I found on a visit to the towns south of Los Angeles that are hard by the sea and stretch from Santa Monica down past San Clemente, the center of which is "Surf City," also known officially as Huntington Beach - or just HB, as on the town's logo.

 On any day of the week you'll find wet-suited surfers with their boards trotting barefoot down the town's streets toward the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH to the locals) and across to their usual spot in the surf somewhere on the 10-mile stretch of beach that is the town's jewel.

It didn't take too many conversations with locals to realize that surfing spots are prized because the surf varies by location. The prime waves are found next to the town's pier and are so consistent that the U.S Open Surf Championship is held on the south side of the pier every July.

The surf crowd runs in small groups and many have been surfing with each other since childhood. Along the Pacific Coast Highway, you'll often see old vans parked, with entire families donning wet suits and waxing their boards. Surfers are not confined to chiseled young studs with flowing blond hair. Female surfers are legion, and I've seen them put the men to shame. There's also a surprisingly large number of gray-haired guys.

You're likely to have seen the town's famous pier during broadcasts of the U.S. Open Surf Championship and been transfixed by how those surfers navigate so close to its concrete supports. It measures 1,856 feet long, which makes it a pleasant three-quarter-mile out and back for your morning or sunset stroll.

The town takes its name from from Henry Huntington, a railroad magnate who made a substantial land purchase in what is now the town of Huntington Beach when oil drilling was the area's economic driver at the beginning of the 20th century. The final oil strike in Huntington Beach was in 1953. You can still see working wells dotting the town, and a few offshore platforms are visible from the beach.

Huntington foresaw the end of the oil boom and devised a way to draw residents and visitors to the town - surfing. For the rededication of the pier on June 20, 1914, Huntington invited Hawaiian surfer George Freeth, who was then living in Los Angeles, to come down and give a surfing demonstration, making Freeth the first surfer in Huntington Beach. June 20 will mark the 100th anniversary of surfing in the town.

Huntington Beach's surfing culture flourished due to Hawaii-born Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, who is described as the "father of modern surfing" by the International Surfing Museum. A visit to the museum, just off Main Street, is a nice break from the sun, and it will cost you only $2 to get the full story of the sport's rise in the town. Also celebrating the surf culture is the Surfers Hall of Fame, on the corner of Main and the Pacific Coast Highway, whose focal point is a statue of Kahanamoku along with Hollywood-style concrete hand and foot imprints of other famous surfers through the years.

Warmth in the winter is a gift even for someone from just 500 miles north of southern California. The typical high for a Bay Area winter day is in the mid-50s to low 60s, and you can wake up to the high 30s for your power walk in the morning. Not bad by East Coast/Midwest standards, but not exactly tropical. Huntington Beach is usually 10 to 15 degrees warmer, and a two-week stretch in mid-January this year saw the thermometer climb well into the 80s.

My first Saturday in Huntington Beach started with my daily jog, on the paths between the beach and the Pacific Coast Highway. I was joined on the nicely maintained route by joggers and bikers, and by the surfers darting across the path on their way from parking spots on the town's streets to the waves. The paths are lined with palm trees and the early morning sun throws wonderful shadows across your route and makes the ocean waves sparkle.

With my jog completed and workout guilt eliminated, I headed down to the water's edge on the north side of the pier. I parked myself on a towel, watching hot amateur surfers who had been at it since sunrise. They were loose and taking chances with every ride they caught. They patiently waited for the perfect wave, and seemed oblivious to the menace of the nearby pier. Milking every last turn out of a wave is their goal, and the gymnastic moves required to do it were everywhere. It's an amazing scene, and while I was being mesmerized by the show, the sun was rising and intensifying: winter was far away.

Time for breakfast in one of the row of eateries that line Main Street. I decided to look for a taste of local lore and found it when I ducked into the Sugar Shack. Opened in 1967, the place has '70s surf culture embedded in its walls. It's still run by the original owner and its original counter service is where the locals can be found. In the back there is tent-covered seating, and the tables on the front sidewalk are usable most mornings. They serve up a big, fresh American breakfast sans the iHop assembly-line feeling. I was feeling plump on my walk back to the beach.

After a couple of hours of heat and surf-watching, it was inevitable that I'd think about giving surfing a try. Board and wet-suit rentals are a short walk away. I elected to go without a lesson. All I can say is that it's more difficult than it looks, but when you finally do stand on the board the thrill is such that thoughts of moving to Huntington Beach are inevitable.

A surf session is draining in the most glorious sense. When you finally stand on firm sand after an hour of being pummeled by the ocean, you are proud and exhilarated. You are also about as hungry as you've ever been. This is when you discover why Mexican food is the surfer's go-to cuisine, and you won't have any problem finding what you need.

I asked a couple of guys in wet suits on their way out of the water where I could catch a bite, and they both pointed at Sancho's Tacos, right on the Pacific Coast Highway two blocks up from Main Street. The tacos at Sancho's have distinct flavors that elevate them way above the ordinary. No old tomato-and-onion salsa on these tacos, just the right amount of a complex sauce on the tri-tip version and cabbage and a light white sauce on the fried flounder beauty. I was so taken with the sauces that I had to ask how they were made. The response: "Dude, sorry, it's a secret."

Now that I was off the beach, a little hanging out on Main Street was in order. People-watching is one of my favorite pastimes so I ducked into Maggiano's for a gelato (best I've had - truly) and ate it slowly at the busy intersection of Main and Walnut.

Early on a weekend afternoon, it was obvious that the sidewalk crowd didn't realize it was winter, as evidenced by the bikini-clad youngsters. There were surfers carrying boards, twentysomethings looking to be looked at, couples in their 40s and 50s, and young couples pushing baby carriages. It was an inspiring parade to watch after looking at parka-bundled crowds for months.

After the people-watching, my difficult choice was to return to the beach or install myself at a bar table looking out on the beach and the coming sunset. I went for the drinks, and the high-energy option of Fred's Mexican Café and Cantina. It's on the corner of Main and the Pacific Coast Highway above the Surfer's Hall of Fame and offers a view of the beach and pier through a perfect set of palm trees adorning the main corner. Margarita in hand, you can watch the sun melt into the horizon.

I ended my stay in Huntington Beach the next morning with a walk on the pier.  I leaned over the rail for a last look at the ocean - the sun was fighting a light fog, and it laid a shimmer on the water's surface. The surfers were out in force, and the fishermen were taking a few smaller fish. The only sound was the surf. A winter day in Huntington Beach is a warm day by any standard. Visions of the coming summer and how warm it is going to be darted though my head.

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