Every surfer’s ideal wave is different. “A bunch of factors come into play when you’re looking for great surf,” says Pat O’Connell, pro surfer and star of The Endless Summer II. “It depends on who you’re with, your ability, and your state of mind.” For some, remote, powerful, long barrels like those you can find at Skeleton Bay in Namibia are a must; for others, it’s all about surfing the more social or mellow waves at Malibu or Waikiki. Then there are the hard-charging surfers who chase storms to find big breaks in the middle of the ocean.
To help compile this list, we worked closely with some of the best surfers including O’Connell; contributing editor Laird Hamilton; former world champion Shaun Tomson; big wave surfer Rusty Long; World Championship Tour competitors Fred Patacchia, Jeremy Flores, and Tiago Pires; and other pros, local crews, and national and regional surfing associations. They gave us recommendations that we held up against established resources—like Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing—and popular books and movies. The resulting list is filled with surf spots that we wouldn’t hesitate hopping on a plane to explore for a week or more.
The Spot: Aileen’s, located at the base of Ireland’s Cliffs of Moor
Why It Matters: Aileen’s large, thick-lipped barrel put big wave surfing in Ireland on the map. “Aileen’s is definitely one of the most surreal and dramatic settings I’ve ever surfed,” says Rusty Long, “and the wave itself is big and mean and perfect.”
Anchor Point: Taghazout, Morocco
The Spot: Anchor Point, or “Anka Point,” a long, warm-water point break that sits just north of the fishing village-turned-surf town of Taghazout in Morocco
Why It Matters: J-Bay is too far away. Iceland is too cold. But you want a right point break, and you want it now. The answer is Morocco, and specifically, downtown Taghazout. The area around Taghazout is at its best in the winter, but you can leave the gloves and booties at home: The water temperatures can hit close to 70 degrees even during the winter months. It works best on a long-period northwest swell and the wave turns into a hollow spiraling machine on the low tide.
One important detail: There is no alcohol for sale in Taghazout, though there is no rule against bringing your own. If you want a post-surf beer, you’ll have to make a quick jaunt south to Agadir to stock up. The beach break at Taghazout, meanwhile, is a more relaxing alternative to the pyrotechnics at Anchor Point and the perfect place for a sunset session.
Banzai Pipeline: Oahu, Hawaii
The Spot: Banzai Pipeline, one of the most famous waves in the world that all other waves have been compared to for over 50 years, located at Oahu’s North Shore
Why It Matters: “It’s hands-down the fucking best wave in the world,” says Fred Pattachia. “A challenging big barrel in the heart of the North Shore’s proving ground that goes both ways [that] has so many different faces and moods and always offers the chance to get the best wave of your life.” One of the most photographed waves in the world, Banzai Pipeline is a proving ground for surfing’s elite. During the winter, storms hurtle down from the North Pacific, bombarding the North Shore with energy. When that energy hits the reefs at Enukai Beach Park, it is transformed into a beautiful and dangerous wave. As is typical of most reef breaks, the take-off area at Pipeline is very small and on the best days, it’s crowded with local heavies and top-level pro surfers. Though surfers come from all over the world to try their luck at Pipeline, it remains highly localized. North Shore locals regulate the peak and woe to anyone who crosses them. Acceptance is hard-earned on the North Shore and many never achieve it.
Pipeline has three sections: First Reef is closest to shore, and depending on the swell, it’s rideable as both a left and a right. The right is known as “Backdoor.” The waves at First Reef break in 3-5 feet of water, and to add to the danger, the reef is riddled with spires and caverns. First Reef is the classic, cylindrical wave that has made Pipeline famous.
As the swell increases, the take-off spot moves out to Second Reef, which holds its round, barreling shape up to 18 feet. The biggest sets will start to feather on Third Reef, which sits about 100 yards offshore. When it breaks on the biggest swells, Pipeline becomes a casino. Rideable waves are few and far between as the swell swamps out the reefs and the wave loses its classic shape.
Pipeline is at its most dangerous in the early season when sand on the reef makes the wave’s shape less predictable. The first big swells of the year sweep the reef clean, and Pipeline regains its iconic shape.
Movie producer Bruce Brown is credited with naming Pipeline in December 1961. Driving the Kamehaha Highway, Brown stopped to film Phil Edwards and Mike Diffenderfer surfing the reef in front of what was then called “Banzai Beach.” A roadworks project lay unfinished across the highway, and a pipeline sat exposed. Diffenderfer suggested calling the surf spot Pipeline, and after Brown used it in his film Surfing Hollow Days, the name stuck.
Barra de la Cruz: Mexico
The Spot: Barra de la Cruz, a perfect right point break that’s located on the Oaxacan coastline in mainland Mexico
Why It Matters: For many years, the great surf at Barra de la Cruz remained a secret. Occasionally, photos would appear labeled, “Somewhere in Mexico.” Even the best-kept secrets have a way of eventually coming out, and so it was for Barra de la Cruz. In 2006, Rip Curl hosted a World Tour contest there, calling it “La Jolla,” in an effort to hide the break’s actual location. Soon after, the crowds arrived, and controversy boiled in the surf community over the surf industry’s role in blowing open the Barra de la Cruz. The wave breaks along a point stacked with mismatched boulders like a Tetris game gone wrong. The quality of the waves depends on the sandbars formed by the river at the top of the point, and as a result, Barra de la Cruz can be a fickle spot. Like many point breaks, the swell window for it is narrow, and it’s virtually flat in the winter. Though the U.S. Department of State has issued travel warnings for some regions of mainland Mexico, there were no warnings in effect for Oaxaca as of August 2014. Check the Department of State website for details.
Bay of Plenty: Durban, South Africa
The Spot: The North Bank and New Pier at the Bay of Plenty, located in Durban, South Africa
Why It Matters: Ask an old-school local, and he’ll tell you that the Bay of Plenty was ruined when the city built three piers in the bay during the 1980s. Before the piers, the bay was a Kirra- or G-Land-style barrel. Though the piers changed the sandflows, they created new surfbreaks as sandbars built up along the pier pilings. On the best south swells, North Bank and New Pier offer all-time beach break surfing.
The area picks up swell from many directions, the weather is mild, and there’s surf breaks of every flavor. Rocks, jellyfish, and white sharks are ever-present hazards. But when the waves are good, it’s easy to forget what’s lurking underneath. And on the inevitable flat days, Durban’s “Golden Mile” boasts a happening nightlife.
Black’s Beach: La Jolla, California
The Spot: Black’s Beach, a sand-bottom beach break in La Jolla, California
Why It Matters: Black’s Beach is at its best when the winter swells hurtle down from the North Pacific. A deep-water canyon formed by the Rose Canyon earthquake fault intensifies the swell energy and bends the waves into a perfect, hollow left. In the fall, warm Santa Ana winds blow offshore and transform Black’s into a perfectly groomed playground.
Unlike many beach breaks, Black’s holds its shape up to 15 feet or so. Beware of the “canyon sets” — these inconsistent, bigger sets have a sneaky habit of coming out of nowhere and catching even the most experienced locals inside. If you’re into rhino-chasing and you like to go left, Black’s is your kind of place.
Until the late 1970s, Blacks was a nude beach, and even now, the northern end of the beach is clothing-optional.
Bundoran: Donegal, Ireland
The Spot: Bundoran, located in Donegal, Ireland
Why It Matters: It looks exactly like Indonesia, except it’s colder — much colder. With its close proximity to the North Atlantic, Ireland picks up swell from just about every direction. Surf in sight of emerald pasture lands and in the shadow of brooding stone castles. This is no country for board shorts. Ireland’s surf capital is Bundoran where the coastline tilts northward and becomes a magnet for the North Atlantic’s energy. Beach breaks and reefs abound. Bundoran’s stand-out spot is a challenging reef break, The Peak, which offers up long, hollow barrels, making it worth the effort of piling on 5mm of neoprene, booties, gloves, and a hood. And one of Ireland’s first surf clubs set up shop at Rossnowlagh Beach, and it’s a perfect spot for newcomers to surfing, if risking life and limb at a cold-water reef break doesn’t sound inviting.
Cloudbreak: Tavarua, Fiji
The Spot: Cloudbreak, a deep-sea reef that produces a powerful left, located a mile offshore from Tavarua, a 29-acre island in Fiji
Why It Matters: Tavarua, which is surrounded by coral reef, offers several top-quality surf breaks, including Cloudbreak. The best barrels are at the top or “the point,” while the more rippable waves are located on the inside section, which goes by the moniker of “Shish Kabobs.” The reef can handle swell to 25 feet or more, and on the biggest swells, draws tow-surf teams from around the world. But you’ll want to surf it between April and October during the southern hemisphere winter. “It’s actually pretty scary,” says Jeremy Flores. “It feels like you’re in the middle of the ocean, and there’s a lot of water moving. And it’s deep, so if you fall, it holds you down for a really long time. But the barrels are so wide-open and perfect.”
Until 2010, the resort on Tavarua claimed exclusive rights to surf Cloudbreak, but a law passed by the Fiji government declared the surf breaks open to anyone who was willing to make the trip. The clear waters and coral reefs, which create perfectly peeling waves that only get better and more hollow as they get bigger, also make it an inviting place for snorkeling or SUPing when the surf goes flat.
Cortes Bank: San Diego, California
The Spot: Cortes Bank, a barely submerged island approximately 100 miles offshore from San Diego, California
Why It Matters: “Cortes takes the idea of surfing in the middle of the ocean to a whole new level,” says Rusty Long. While the waves can be perfect, the distance from shore makes Cortes, which is also a popular diving site, extremely dangerous. Part of the Channel Island chain, it sits in mile-deep seas southwest of San Clemente Island. The wave at Cortes Bank breaks on the shallow Bishop Rock, which is between three and six feet from the surface, depending on the tides. Cortes Bank can break across an area up to a mile wide, and the wave can run as far as a half-mile. Because it is located so far from mainland California, it is difficult to get good conditions at Cortes Bank. It requires the combination of a big, long period swell out of the North Pacific and a high pressure parked over Southern California. In January 2001, a confluence of swell and weather created near-perfect conditions, and Mike Parsons towed into a 66-foot monster to claim the biggest wave surfed at Cortes Bank to that date. (Footage appears in Dana Brown’s film Step into the Liquid.)
Cojo Bay: California
The Spot: Cojo, a long point break that sits in the southern arc of California’s Point Conception.
Why It Matters: Cojo is surrounded by the privately owned Bixby Ranch where access is tightly controlled. All the same, the locked gates haven’t kept surfers from Cojo’s long, sweeping rights. And on a good swell, it’s common to see a flotilla of boats anchored offshore. Cojo is a surfer’s dream, but the wind around Point Conception has a way of turning a sure thing into an exercise in frustration. In the 1978 surf film Big Wednesday, Cojo served as a stand-in for Malibu, which even then was far too crowded to shut down for a movie shoot. With his cameras encased in cumbersome plastic, photographer Dan Merkel shot some of the first video footage of surfing from the water. In a strange coincidence, some of California’s biggest swells since then have happened on Wednesdays.
Desert Point: Indonesia
The Spot: Desert Point, a long and challenging left-hand tube with multiple sections that grows as it runs down the reef in Indonesia
Why It Matters: Surf at Desert Point and you’ll find a goofy footer’s dream wave. “I’m a goofy footer who loves getting barreled,” says Fred Pattachia. “I always wanted to go to Desert Point. When I did, it lived up to all of my expectations. I thought I got it unbelievably good, and when I came in, the local guys said that was only a six out of ten … so I can only imagine what the place is like when it’s a ten.”
Dungeons: Cape Town, South Africa
The Spot: Dungeons, a high-risk big wave spot at the mouth of the Hout Bay that’s only accessible by boat, in Cape Town, South Africa
Why It Matters: Steep mountains surround the bay and drop into the sea. Dungeons breaks in deep water in front of dramatic cliffs, and the reefs pick up powerful swells from the south and west to create a massive right.
The most commonly surfed peak is known as “2.5,” which references the depth in meters of the reef’s break. But on smaller days, there’s a slab section with a near-perfect barrel. Dungeons is notorious for its hold-downs, thanks to the deep water and the wave’s sheer power. The peak is shifty, and the reefs cover an area nearly 100 yards wide. Bigger sets can appear out of nowhere, swinging wide and pummeling everything in their path.
If the surf itself weren’t dangerous enough, Dungeons sits in some of the world’s most shark-infested waters. Cape Town is home to the tiny granite island, Seal Island, which serves as a breeding ground for Cape Fur Seals. Where seals congregate, Great Whites follow.
Duranbah (D-Bah): Gold Coast, Australia
The Spot: Duranbah, a consistent east-facing beach break near Coolangatta
Why It Matters: Around the corner from Snapper Rocks and Kirra, Duranbah sits just north of the mouth of the Tweed River. Sandbars along the jetty that marks the entrance to the Tweed River turned Duranbah into a romping playground. The water is clear, blue, warm, and inviting. The wave works best during the southern hemisphere winter when the south swells come rolling in. On the biggest days, the waves feather on the Tweed Bar, which has traditionally been a magnet for shipwrecks. The punchy right is an aerialist’s dream, and “D-Bah” serves as a proving ground for hungry contest surfers. It’s the home break of world champions Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson.
Fort Point: San Francisco, California
The Spot: Fort Point, located on the south side of the San Francisco Bay
Why It Matters: Fort Point breaks directly under the Golden Gate bridge. It’s largely sheltered from the onshore winds that dominate the coast around San Francisco, and on a good day, a hollow left swings wide under the watchful gaze of Fort Point and crashes into the rocks that armor the shoreline. While it’s beautiful and unique, it’s also cold, rocky, and crowded. Traditionally, a tight crew of locals have ruled the line-up, and when the waves are on, Fort Point is not an especially welcoming spot for newcomers. San Francisco Bay is also a favorite hang-out for Great Whites, who thrive in the Bay’s deep, cold waters. Meanwhile, the narrow Golden Gate Strait intensifies the pull of the outgoing tide and can send the unwary surfer out to sea.
Freight Trains: Ma’alaea Harbor, Maui, Hawaii
The Spot: Freight Trains, a novelty wave created by the combination of a jetty and a shallow reef at Ma’aleaa Harbor in Maui
Why It Matters: Freight Trains rarely breaks and several years can pass with no sign of the elusive barreling beast. In fact, if you get it good, head directly to Vegas, because it’s clearly your lucky day. Freight Trains breaks in shallow water over a sharp reef. It’s widely considered one of the fastest breaking waves in the world. Rarely does a surfer make it out of a Freight Trains barrel, so it’s a few minutes of glory followed by a solid pounding. Don’t plan your vacation around it, but if you happen to be in Ma’alaea during hurricane season, you just might see this fickle wave come to life.
G-Land (Grajagan Bay): East Java, Indonesia
The Spot: Grajagan Bay, or G-Land, is a surf break that runs down a 2-kilometer point on the eastern edge of Grajagan Bay on the island of Java
Why It Matters: The old fishing village of Grajagan sits on the opposite side of the bay that spans several miles. Indonesia is a young island chain born of volcanic energy and the islands drop steeply into deep water. Just a few miles off the coast of Java, the ocean depth drops to 10,000 feet or more. “I love G-Land,” says Jeremy Flores. “It’s a long barreling left, not as hollow as Teahupoo, but easier to surf with lots of different sections, so you can get barreled three or four times on one wave.” There are multiple take-off spots at G-Land, depending on the tide and swell. On the inside section called “Speed Reef,” the wave flies across the reef in a fast-breaking barrel. It’s thick and almost perfectly round and makes for a high-stakes thrill ride. The shallow water barely covers a sharp, urchin-covered reef, heightening the consequences of error. G-Land is at its best between May and October when the southeast trade winds blow, and the storms spin up from the south. The surfing community discovered G-Land in 1972 when Bob Laverty and Bill Boyum set off from Bali by motorcycle. The two Americans made it to Grajagan, and after a boat ride across the bay, they camped on the beach and surfed G-Land’s perfect lefts undisturbed. Several camps have grown up around G-Land since then to serve the surfers making the pilgrimage to the break.
Gnarloo: Western Australia
The Spot: Gnarloo in Western Australia
Why It Matters: Its grinding left-hand reef is famous for deep tubes, big sharks, and heavy localism.
Haleiwa: North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii
The Spot: Haleiwa, located on Oahu’s North Shore with a racey, bowl-shaped right break
Why It Matters: Oahu’s North Shore is known as the Seven Mile Miracle, because some of the world’s best surf breaks line up one after another along the Kamehaha Highway. Haleiwa and the break nearest to town shares its name. A reef creates the magic at Haleiwa. The inside section is poetically named “Toilet Bowls.” On smaller days, there is also a left at Haleiwa, but it’s best known for the right. The coral reefs of the North Shore are cut through with deep channels formed by fresh water run-off. During the bigger swells, the channels create strong rip tides as the water rushes through the narrow passageways in the reefs. These currents are both a blessing and a curse: They serve as a handy conveyer belt into the line-up, but they can also put a surfer directly in the line of fire. On Haleiwa’s bigger days, the rip leads directly to the impact zone, which is the spot where the wave delivers the sharpest smackdown. Like the rest of the North Shore, Haleiwa is best in the winter, and it shines on a clean west swell.
Hanalei Bay: North Shore, Kauai, Hawaii
The Spot: A jewel in the crown of Kaui’s North Shore, Hanalei Bay is a wide arc of white-sand beach surrounded by steep mountains.
Why It Matters: The outer reefs at Hanalei are challenging monsters, who shine in the winter. Above the Hanalei rivermouth, a powerful right rifles across the reef. This is the wave Bruce and Andy Irons made famous, and it draws elite surfers from around the world. Farther inside the Bay is a sandbottom beach break known as “Pine Trees.” On a big swell, it’s a challenging wave, but generally, Pine Trees is smaller than the outer reefs. Hanalei offers the usual hazards of a powerful winter break. The local wildlife adds another — Hanalei is a favorite hang-out for tiger and hammerhead sharks. And during the summer, it’s mostly flat and a scenic spot for a swim or SUP session.
Himalayas: Oahu, Hawaii
The Spot: Himalayas, located in Oahu, Hawaii
Why It Matters: As the king of the North Shore’s outer reefs, “some of the biggest waves ever paddled into in the last decade have been ridden here,” says Rusty Long. “Himalayas is the epitome of big wave, heavy water surfing a long way from shore.”