Snotty saltwater streaming out of my nose, I blink back the tears; my natural reaction to fear. Behind me, my instructor’s hand is on my board, guiding me through water that can’t be more than chest-deep. Around us, families frolic in waves that gently crest and crash towards the shore.
It’s an idyllic day in Waipū Cove, and yet, I’m terrified. What if I hit a kid? Worse, what if I hit myself?
This is my first time on a surfboard in more than a decade. The last time (and let’s be honest, the only time) ended disastrously. During a group lesson in Byron Bay, I was all but defeated by what I’d argue is a totally rational fear of sporting equipment. (I’m one of those people that if a ball is being thrown within a 500m vicinity of my face, it somehow manages to make direct contact.) So, the idea of tethering myself to a giant board capable of knocking me out? Yeah, no thanks.
It wasn’t until I moved to New Zealand two years ago that I started to feel like I was missing out. With a long history of catching waves, surf culture is embedded into many of the country’s coastal communities.
With countless surf schools at my disposal, I decided it was time to test the waters on a road trip across the North Island. At Waipū Cove, I surprised myself by standing on my first try. By the time I made it to Gisborne, I had graduated to a smaller board, my fear all but melting away.
But it wasn’t until Raglan that I realised I’d figured out the secret to surfing success — choosing breaks, boards and instructors that cater specifically to beginners.
From the tip of Southland to the hidden beaches of Northland, here are just 10 of them.
1. Waipū Cove, Northland
A small settlement with Scottish roots, Waipū Cove is about two hours north of Auckland. It’s close enough to the city that it can be done in a day, but far enough that the crowds start to thin out. That’s not to say this destination is a secret; if you show up on a weekend, expect to wait in line at the popular beachside Cove Cafe.
Waipū is also where you’ll find Learn 2 Surf’s kiosk set-up daily during the summer months. Owners Grae and Ellen Snelling have more than 15 years of experience teaching lessons. The couple specialises in working with youth and kids, which means they have a teaching style that translates to nervous adults as well. With discounts for multiple sessions, a 90-minute group class costs $70 for adults and $50 for kids. Private lessons start at $100.
2. Raglan, Waikato
Raglan’s reputation as one of the best breaks in the world was cemented by its appearance in the 1966 surf classic The Endless Summer. With cute seaside cafes (notably Volcom Lane’s Raglan Roast), boutiques, and bohemian surf camps (like Solscape, where you can stay in old railway cabooses), it’s New Zealand’s answer to Byron Bay.
Intermediate and advanced surfers flock to Raglan for its world-class left-hand points, long rides and consistent waves. But beginners love it for Ngarunui Beach, a long stretch of sand patrolled by lifeguards, and access to more surf schools than you can throw a surfboard at.
Raglan Surfing School is one of the most well-established. As a bonus, its oceanside trailer means you don’t have to carry equipment up or down the steep walkway to the beach. Two-hour group lessons cost $79 for adults, while private family lessons are priced at $99 per person.
3. Piha, Auckland
Chances are you already know about Piha, on the western edges of Waitākere Ranges Regional Park. Since 1956, when two Californian lifeguards introduced Malibu board riding here, it’s been known as a reliable go-to for weekend waves. You also likely already know that it’s an easy drive from Auckland, with a handful of schools including Piha Surf Academy and Elements Surf. But did you know this is also where disabled surfers can give it a go?
Every summer, the Disabled Surfers Association hosts free events where people with any type of disability can try the sport. Visit disabledsurfers.co.nz for notifications about its upcoming 2021 summer events.
Raglan might be the country’s surf epicentre and Piha might be where modern surfing in NZ started. But ask anyone from Gisborne, and they’ll argue that they’re responsible for making sure the sport stayed, thanks to the Australian ex-pats who settled in Wainui Beach in the ’60s and ’70s.
There’s no doubt it’s a surfer’s paradise, with 250 surfable days per year and half a dozen different breaks for a range of skill levels. It’s also one of the only places that you can learn to build your own surfboard with Red Leaf Surfboards.
Midway Beach is where’ll find the famous Gizzy Pipe, but if you’re a beginner head to Waikanae (Roberts Rd). Shallow and safe, it has small waves that are good for learners, especially kids.
Gisborne is also less crowded than some of the more touristy locales on this list, which also means there are fewer surf schools, but there are a few options. Surfing with Sarah, for example, offers small group lessons (max of four students to one coach) that cost just $65, with discounts for multiple lessons.
5. Mount Maunganui, Bay of Plenty
Another North Island location with a long history of surfing, the Mount was where the first national surfing championships were held back in 1963. During the surf season of October to May, prevailing offshore winds create slow-moving and easy-to-ride waves, while the water temperature hovers around 18C to 22C. This all transpires to ideal conditions for learners.
The award-winning Hibiscus Surf School specialises in beginner-level classes for all ages, with group lessons held twice daily for $79.
6. Whangamatā, Coromandel
There’s surfing all over the Coromandel, but beginners are best served by the beach at Whangamatā, which is widely regarded as one of the country’s best surfing destinations. There, beyond the pristine white sand dunes, you’ll find plenty of small waves suited to beginners. It’s also just really darn pretty; in fact, the beach was voted by NZ Herald readers as the country’s best in 2018.
You’ll also have your pick of surf schools in this classic Kiwi beach town. Two of the most highly-rated are the family-owned Surfsup (group lessons $80; private lessons $110) andWhangamatā Surf School (group lessons $70; private lessons $90).
If you’re looking for more than just a one-off lesson, Surf n Stay is a surf and yoga retreat with multi-day learn-to-surf packages. Including accommodation and breakfast, they start from just $245.
7. Westport, West Coast
If you, like me, are terrified of nailing another person with your board, the most popular (read: crowded) destinations may not be your best bet.
Enter Westport. Fewer people isn’t the only selling feature of this West Coast destination — with year-round conditions, the city has three surf beaches within five minutes from town and 15 within 20 minutes. You can even try to catch a fresh-water wave coming off the Buller River.
The best beach for beginners is Carters along the coast west of the Buller River. It has both right and left-hand waves, as well as one of the best coaches in the country. Former Team NZ coach and national titleholder Mark Perana has been offering lessons for the last two decades at Westcoast Surf. His two-hour group lessons are $90 per person.
8. Waikuku Beach, Canterbury
Christchurch has its fair share of surf beaches, amongst them New Brighton, Sumner and Taylor’s Mistake. But given Sumner’s weekend crowds and Taylor’s bigger waves, it pays to head slightly out of the city for a lesson.
Just 30 minutes north of the city is Waikuku Beach, a wide berth of sand along Pegasus Bay that seems to stretch all the way to Kaikōura. Its sheer size means it’s unlikely you’re going to be competing with swimmers for space, which is part of the reason locals Matt and Tammi Martin decided to open Surfwise here two years ago. The couple offer weekend group lessons for ages 9 to 80 ($75) as well as private lessons ($120). Session times vary based on the best conditions for the day.
9. Dunedin, Otago
Dunedin bills itself as a “cold-water Bali,” a comparison that feels like a bit of a stretch until you see its shores. Although there are plenty in the region to choose from — including those along the Otago Peninsula — St. Kilda and St. Clair are the centre of the action, offering standard barrel beach breaks.
For family, group and private lessons, contact the family-owned Esplanade Surf School. Ninety-minute group lessons are hosted twice daily (at 10am and 1pm) for $60 for adults and $45 for kids. Want to ask questions before you get wet? The school also has its own coffee kiosk at Warrington, about 25 minutes north of the city.
10. Curio Bay, Southland
What typically attracts visitors to Curio Bay is its unique ecology, including a colony of yellow-eyed penguins and a petrified forest of fossilised trees that lived around 170 million years ago. It’s also home to a pod of Hector’s dolphins, which you might be lucky enough to surf alongside if you take a lesson here.
That’s not the only differentiating feature of Caitlins Surf’s classes. Instead of teaching students in white water (what most surf schools do), instructor Nick Smart prefers to teach in small green unbroken waves. It’s a method that many think is easier; green waves are less turbulent, meaning that once you master the take-off, you’ll progress faster in skills. It’s also one of the most affordable places to learn to surf in NZ; a two-hour lesson with only costs $60.
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com
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