Want to surf? California's famous beaches are the ideal spots to find your feet
Liz Connor finds epic scenery, adrenaline-soaked surf and a slice of winter wellness on America's west coast
"THE first time you try to stand up on a surf board, you will probably fail." The ominous words from my surf instructor Garrett – a chiselled beefcake with floppy salt-styled hair and a megawatt smile – aren't exactly filling me with confidence as he positions me on to the foam oblong, fires me into the path of a gnarly looking wave and hollers at me to spring on to my feet.
Unable to get past the mental fear barrier, I hold on to my board with a white-knuckle grip and shriek, "I can't!" as the wave eventually crashes over my head and I'm sent somersaulting under the whitewash, water rushing into my ears. The board slaps me back in the face as the leash yanks against my ankle; a final insult from Mother Nature.
"Wipeout!" someone calls from the shore. It's a phrase I'll get used to hearing over the next couple of days.
I'm taking my first surf lesson with Aqua Surf ($136/£105 for a 1.5 hour lesson including boards and wetsuit hire; aquasurf.com) on Surfrider Beach in Malibu. According to regulars, this celebrity hot spot has one of the most consistent wave zones in all of southern California, meaning the surf is almost always good. Here, waves peel in and break against the 113-year-old Malibu Pier, creating a long swell that's become one of the most iconic waves in the world.
California has been famous for its laid-back surf culture since the early 1900s; the origins of the water sport date back to ancient Polynesian culture, but it was first introduced to America when a Hawaiian native called George Freeth began demonstrating wave riding on Huntington Beach.
I've tried a lot of wellness retreats in my time – from gong baths to yoga – but there's something about surfing that's always intrigued me. Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton says it saved her from depression, and many more surfers have spoken about the mental benefits of being in the ocean.
Is the secret to inner Zen in learning to become a master of the waves? It's something I'm attempting to find out on a five-day road trip from LA to San Jose, taking in some of Cali's most iconic surf spots along the way.
:: Malibu to Ventura
Capitalising on the buzz of my first lesson, we jump in the car (we rented one from Hertz in Malibu, prices start from £23 per day, hertz.co.uk) and drive the 45-minute route to Ventura, taking in the epic coastal scenes of the Pacific Coast Highway.
California is home to lots of interesting characters that live and breathe the SoCal lifestyle, and one of those is Chipper Bro. Bro is a local Ventura surf school owner ($135/£105pp for a private one-on-one two-hour lesson, or $100/£78pp for small group of up to five, includes boards and wetsuit hire; surfclass.com) and a 12-time World Freestyle Frisbee Champion, so every lesson starts with him expertly flinging the plastic disc from one hand to another before challenging you catch it under one leg.
Many of the surf schools have beginners start the lesson on the sand, showing you the correct way to 'pop up' (stand) on the board, depending on whether you're 'regular' or 'goofy' footed – surf speak for the foot you lead with on the board.
Palm-lined Ventura is a great beach to build your confidence, as it offers something for everyone – it's the place for beginner surfers to catch a wave and for pros to hang ten. Its surf breaks are the stuff of legend; they were made ultra-famous by The Beach Boys' 1963 hit song Surfin' USA.
Choosing the right surfboard will completely change the experience, and most schools will start you on foam boards or 'foamies', hefty great big things that weigh heavy in the water like dragging an anvil through tar, but help you master balance while riding the waves.
Having an instructor shadow your movements is vital for finding the perfect peeler (a type of wave); reading the waves is an art and one that comes with practise and patience. It's surprising how quickly I improve in just an extra hour of tuition under Bro's team. Before I know it, I'm standing with a little more confidence and for enough time and look up at the shore and enjoy the ride.
:: Driving to Morro Bay
We continue our road trip north along the famous Highway 101, winding our way alongside farms, hidden beaches and middle-of-nowhere gas stations until we hit Morro Bay, a quaint coastal city that's overlooked by a huge volcanic mound – the 576-foot-tall Morro Rock.
It's a nesting ground for peregrine falcons – the closest you can come to Morro Rock is surfing on its north side – where the waves are fierce and beefy.
We set our alarms for 6am, so we can get a real taste of the surf lifestyle – surrendering the early hours of sleep to chase the best waves. We zip on our wetsuits, glug a much-needed takeaway coffee on the sidewalk and load up the van with our boards at dawn.
Morro Rock Surf Shop (morrobay.org) is a local spot where you can book lessons and hire equipment ($100/£77pp, including board and suit hire). Our instructor for the day is a local legend called 'Big Kahuna', who travels around the county in his van, with his wolf dog Big Mountain. He is a fantastic surfer – his name is a Hawaiian idiom that basically means 'big deal'.
"Surfing is addictive," Big Kahuna says as we drag the board into the icy ocean. "Even when it's cold and the weather is bad, you'll still find me out here in the waves."
I'm starting to see the appeal. There are so many things to think about when your surfing. The position of your feet, the speed and shape of the wave, steeling yourself against the direction of the wind. The stresses of everyday life, even the fears you might have about how silly you look as you grunt and gurn your way against the elements, are left on the shore. "It's the best medicine for shaking off a stressful day," says Kahuna.
:: Seeing the pros in action in Visalia
We round off our surfing trip by driving three hours further north to pro surfer Kelly Slater's Surf Ranch in Visalia, to watch the World Surf League championships. The ranch is home to a mind-boggling artificial pool that uses machinery to create the longest, rideable open-barrel wave in the world.
Watching the female surfers expertly slalom the board up and down the curl of the unbroken wave brings a fresh sense of appreciation for just how difficult this sport is – many of these competitors will be hoping to qualify for next year's Olympics.
I might have bruises up my legs, wind slapped cheeks and catalogue of spectacular falls committed to memory, but my Californian surf experience has taught me one important thing: no matter how old you are, it's never to late to benefit from some surf therapy.
:: Venice Beach
Stay at: Hotel Erwin – a trendy boutique hotel in the heart of a Bohemian surf neighbourhood. Doubles from $281/£218 per night, hotelerwin.com.
Eat at: The Butchers Daughter – a vegan restaurant, cafe, juice bar that's famous for it's plant-based Impossible Burgers (mains from $14/£11; thebutchersdaughter.com).
Stay at: Ventura Beach Marriott – a clean and contemporary hotel that's a three-minute walk from San Buenaventura State Beach. Doubles from from $188/£146 per night, marriott.co.uk.
:: Eat at: Fluid State Beer Garden – a Californian tap room that serves stonebaked pizzas (18'' pizzas from $22/£17; fluidstatebeer.com).
:: Morro Bay
Stay at: The Landing – a comfortable and modern hotel just a stone's throw away from the beach. Doubles from $99/£77 per night, thelandingmb.com.
Eat at: Tognazzini's Dockside – a family-run restaurant selling fresh fish tacos, raw oysters and clam chowder (mains from $13/£10; morrobaydockside.com).
:: British Airways flies from London Heathrow to Los Angeles, returning from San Jose to London Heathrow, from £304 return including taxes/fees/carrier charges. To book please visit ba.com or call 0844 493 0787.
:: Visit visitcalifornia.co.uk for more information on planning a surf road trip.