Huntington Beach, California: Surf City, USA

Huntington Beach: Where Some of the World’s Greatest Surfers Got their Start

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

Charlos Bentley, Surf Teacher and resident of Huntington Beach, ready to hit the waves. photos by Max Hartshorne.
Charlos Bentley, Surf Teacher and resident of Huntington Beach, ready to hit the waves. photos by Max Hartshorne.

Huntington Beach California is the ultimate surfer’s paradise. The eight and a half-mile-long stretch of beach in this city of about 200,000 south of Los Angeles is lit up at night with campfires.

Small circular barbecue pits dot the beach for miles and the locals love to sit beside them, casting an eery glow on their faces as you drive by on the seaside Pacific Coast Highway.

Nowhere else in California’s long coast can you legally build a campfire and sit by the warm glow like this.

The waves are steady, and just about perfect for riding. And the surf breaks pretty far out, so when you catch a wave, you’re in for a long ride to shore.

I paid a visit to this Southern California city in February, en route to Australia, and did what many people do when they come here. I donned a wetsuit, got on a surfboard and tried to stand up.

My luck wasn’t as good as I had hoped, and the waves were tough, crashing down on me and rolling me over.

My instructor was a beefy twenty-something named Charlos Bentley. He surfs every day, and he told me that he wants to be a firefighter someday.

He’s got a leg up, since he was raised in the Dominican Republic and speaks Spanish, a new requirement for those who aspire to fight flames in California.

Charlos teaches his lessons out of the posh Hyatt Regency Resort and Spa, from their surf shop called “Toes on the Nose.” He also gives private lessons for $150 a piece.

Charlos warned me as we sat by the roiling sea that morning that I would be taking some lumps. He demonstrated on the beach where to position myself and how to stand, not too far back, and not too far up. He warned me, though, this ain’t easy… and boy was he right!

Waves of Waves

Biking with the board to the beach.
Biking with the board to the beach.

The waves come in sets of three or four, he said, so just when you think you’ve recovered from the first one, you’re hit by another. And another. The toughest part for me was trying to paddle out to where the waves are.

It’s much farther than I am used to swimming when I’ve bodysurfed, and it takes strong biceps to propel that board all the way past the leaping waves to the safe zone where we wait for the right waves.

“Paddle, paddle, come on, paddle,” exhorted Charlos, oblivious of my untoned arm muscles.

“I’ve got to get to the gym,” I kept telling myself as I huffed and puffed on the board. I watched him effortlessly glide through the choppy water. It was a tough slog, and after being pounded by the surf, and managing just one ride, I called it quits. Exhausted!

While my experience learning to surf in Surf City proved that it takes a lot more than a few hours to learn this ancient art, there is much to explore and a wonderfully laid back atmosphere here that I discovered later that day.

Surfer’s Motel

My accommodations were somewhat spartan, as I had asked my hosts to find me something that was not a chain and had some character. The Sun ‘n Sands Motel on the Pacific Coast Highway fit the bill.

Once this property was twice as big with a large pool area, but sadly, this prime real estate is now a towering ‘bowling alley’ house that sold for about $4 million. So it’s a bit smaller but still has the gorgeous oceanfront view.

Right next to this is the small Sun ‘n Sand, with simple, clean rooms, and best of all, free Wi-Fi. The bed was comfy and the sound of the waves across the street made it a pleasant place to wake up. At $89 per night, it was a great deal, and there was free cable with HBO.

Out past the break, oil derricks stood silently, and on the Pacific Coast Highway, smaller oil rigs bobbed silently up and down, sucking whatever is left of California’s oil up from the ground.

Walking down toward the center of town, I came upon a little bakery cafe that appeared to be the center of the neighborhood. It was operated by a Chinese couple, who bake their own donuts and other sweets.

Duke Kahanamoku, Surfing Legend

Girls are becoming more and more interested in learning to surf in Huntington Beach.
Girls are becoming more and more interested in learning to surf in Huntington Beach.

I walked up to the Main crossroads, the corner of Main Street and the Pacific Coast Highway, to where a bronze surfer statue gazed out to sea. It was Duke Kahanamoku, the legendary Hawaiian who is said to have invented the sport back in 1914, when he was the swimming champion of the world.

Duke’s namesake is a big bar on the ocean that opened in 1998. It has a Hawaiian beach house sort of ambiance, with surf memorabilia lining the walls showing Duke in his glory days, on the longboard and setting the surfing records that made him famous.

Another famous Huntington Beach figure is Dean Torrance, 67, who in the early 1960s rode to fame with the hit song “Surf City,” with his partner, Jan Berry.

Dean Torrance, of Jan and Dean, who is a booster of the cities. Photo by Max Hartshorne.
Dean Torrance, of Jan and Dean, who is a booster of the cities. Photo by Max Hartshorne.

The two were the world-famous Jan & Dean, and hung around with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys and sold more than 20 million records during their heydey between 1960-1967. While Berry is gone, Dean still cranks up his fuzz box and surf guitar and plays gigs.

He met me at Sharkeez Baja style bar, where we sat outside on the patio and enjoyed fish burritos and lobster tacos. Ferraris and Lamborghinis cruised slowly by, their owners proudly chatting on cellphones knowing all eyes were upon them.

I learned a bit about Dean’s life in the fast lane, playing to sold-out arenas, making hit records and writing songs with Wilson and Mike Love of the Beach Boys. Nowadays, Torrance spends a lot of time watching his athletic daughter play soccer, and is involved with big development projects.

The lyrics with Torrance's changes to the biggest hit, Surf City USA, at the Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach CA. Photo by Max Hartshorne.
The lyrics with Torrance’s changes to the biggest hit, Surf City USA, at the Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach CA. Photo by Max Hartshorne.

His real avocation is graphic designer, he created the early Beach Boys logo and is passionate about the importance of design in products, branding and even how the city markets itself.

I asked him about the ugly power plant that dominates Southwest Huntington beach a mile or so from where we sat. Such an eyesore, I said.

“Don’t get me going on that!” he said, referencing the memos and ideas he’s pestered the city fathers with about different ways they could screen, or at least do something pretty to change the look of the plant’s massive smokestacks and pipes.

The Surfing Museum

Dean is proud of his role in another tourist attraction in Huntington Beach — the Surfing Museum, tucked back on Olive Avenue just off the main drag. Here he has curated an exhibit of memorabilia from the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean, with artifacts that would thrill any surf music fan.

One that I liked was a blow-up of the lyrics from the hit song “Surf City,” showing how he had changed Brian Wilson’s lyrics to make them make more sense and illustrating their long collaboration that made them both superstars in their day.

Biking on the path next to the beach. Photo courtesy of Surf City USA.
Biking on the path next to the beach. Photo courtesy of Surf City USA.

Biking by the Beach

The best way to see this sprawling city by the sea is either by bike, blade or four-wheel pedal bike. I rented a nice beach cruiser at Zack’s Beach Resorts, right near the city pier, where they charged me $10 for one hour. You can keep the bike for an entire day for $30.

On Saturday mornings you can join an organized “Fun Roll,” for a 16-mile round trip skate from Huntington Beach Pier to Newport Beach. It’s at a nice and easy pace for all ages and bicyclists are welcome to join the wheeled throng. The group meets afterward for lunch at Huntington Beach.

I pedaled up north, battling the headwinds, past the power plant and by a largely undeveloped area right on the ocean. Today this parcel is a giant new hotel complex.

The city is undergoing a resurgence in 2008, with a long strip of new building taking place along a wide stretch of undeveloped land between Main Street. and the Hyatt. Many new shops, restaurants and the vaunted ‘high end retail’ will be completed here on the Pacific Coast Highway overlooking the ocean.

This Pacific City development will include a W Hotel. Another new hotel is being added to the city’s line-up, a smaller property called the Shorebreak, with 156 rooms. Like three other of the city’s hotels, this will be a dog-friendly property, where well-behaved canines can join their owners in the hotel rooms.

It’s a Dog’s City

Huntington Beach is well known for its dog-friendliness and was recently voted one of the most pet-friendly cities around the world by Fido Friendly Magazine. There is even a special doggie bus that offers bus service every weekend for any dog owner to Huntington Dog Beach.

There is a park called ‘Best Friend Dog Park’ where dogs can roam off the leash. They even have separate areas for small and large dogs. To seal the city’s doggie reputation, there is an outdoor restaurant called Park Bench Cafe where you can order from a canine cuisine menu while owners enjoy breakfast on outdoor tables.

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