What makes a surfer’s paradise?

Brilliant turquoise waters, white-capped breakers, golden beaches and pretty shacks selling surf-and-turf specials

Illustration: Valentina Vinci
Words: Jade Beecroft

When you think of the world’s best-known surfing hotspots, these might be some of the things that spring to mind. Geographical features are less likely to get a look-in, yet they dictate how waves approach the coastline from deeper waters to create the best surfing conditions.

What makes good waves for surfing?

There are three main factors that affect the surf – the size of the wave, the speed of the wind and how those two elements interact. Experienced surfers tend to seek out beaches known for strong waves, also known as swells, which form far away from the beach and crest as they reach shallower water, creating a longer ride. As any keen surfer will tell you, it’s these exhilarating rides that keep them coming back for more.

Surfing feels good at any age

One of the UK’s most iconic surfing spots is Fistral Beach in Newquay, Cornwall. Fistral hosts events including Europe’s largest surf and skate festival, Boardmasters, and is a European Designated beach, meaning it complies with European water-quality standards. The beach is divided into two sections, North and South, each with differing surfing conditions depending on the tides and currents. Jenny Briant, manager of Fistral Beach Surf School, grew up surfing with her parents and Jenny wants people to know that it’s an inclusive activity. Her 69-year-old father and 74-year-old uncle still surf.

‘As an adult, it’s such a privilege to have something in my life that is so much fun,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t matter whether you’re lying on your stomach on a bodyboard to catch a wave or whether you’re able to stand up. It’s the joy you get from being outside and on the water.’ Jenny adds that surfing can be a fantastic boost to wellbeing: ‘It’s my reset time. It’s challenging and immersive – when you’re doing it you don’t think about anything else. Being at the beach gives me headspace. I know that if I go out for a surf, I’ll always feel better.’

Keeping beaches safe for surfing

The Save the Waves Coalition is an international organisation that has overseen the creation of 12 World Surfing Reserves (WSR), to recognise the importance of protecting surf ecosystems. Adjacent to Cornwall, North Devon became the latest WSR in 2023 and the first in the UK. For many people living in coastal areas, going out onto the water for a surf is imply part of the day – like going for a walk – and communities are built around the interest that surfing brings, with shops, surf schools, restaurants and accommodation catering to surfers. ‘There’s a real surfers’ vibe in coastal towns like Newquay,’ says Jenny. ‘It’s a lifestyle. Here, we have a town where businesses and jobs rely on surfing, so I do think those of us who live here feel a responsibility to look after it.’ Fistral Beach Surf School is part of a group that litter-picks on Fistral Beach every morning, and Jenny says they’re making ‘positive progress’ in encouraging people not to leave rubbish behind.

Para surfing

Australia is famous for its surfing beaches and visitors flock from around the world. Surfing Australia supports the community and oversees surf schools and boardrider clubs, as well as competitions and festivals. Emma Dieters, from Northern Beaches, Sydney, grew up surfing, but following surgery complications in 2021, she’s now an incomplete quadriplegic at C4 level, which affects the left side of her body. Emma was named Surfing Australia’s Female Para Surfer of the Year in February 2023, and says that, for her, surfing is a ‘soulful’ experience: ‘I was in hospital for four months after my surgery in February 2021. All I knew was those four walls. I’ve always been a fiercely independent person, so getting back into the water and feeling that adrenaline meant freedom.’

Emma’s surfing has taken her to Hawaii, Costa Rica and California, and she’s now at the pinnacle of her sport, winning her category at the Australian Para Surfing Titles in August 2023 and at the US Open Adaptive Surfing Championships in September 2023. In December 2022, she set a new World Record at the ISA World Para Surfing Championship in California, for the highest scoring heat by a female para surfer. And she won the Women’s Prone 1 (unassisted) category at the same event in 2023. ‘Para surfing encompasses all disabilities,’ she says. ‘For me, it’s helped me keep moving forward and it brings me back into myself.’

Surfing as therapy

Whether taking to the warm oceans of California or Australia, or the chillier seas around the UK (see below for some of the world’s top locations), surfers at all levels agree that the water is a great healer. ‘It’s ocean therapy,’ says Emma. ‘It changes your mindset. Sometimes, when I’m having a bad day, I just go out for a surf and it changes everything. When I’m riding a wave, it’s like everything slows down and I’m at one with the water. For me, it’s the closest I get to meditation.’

For more information about Fistral Beach Surf School, visit or Instagram @fistralbeachsurfschool, and for Surfing Australia, see

Four Famous Surf Spots

Malibu, California, US

In October 2010, a paddle-out ceremony involving hundreds of surfers marked the moment that Surfrider Beach became the first World Surfing Reserve. It was honoured for the quality of its waves, the role it played in the birth of modern surf culture, and the local community’s dedication to preserving and protecting the beach environment.

Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia

Also a dedicated WSR, the Gold Coast became the world’s first location to have a Surf Management Plan, endorsed by local communities and government, to protect the natural resources that create incredible surfing conditions. These include the Superbank, a man-made surf break off Coolangatta Beach, creating one of the longest wave rides in the world.

Nazaré, Oeste region, Portugal

Portugal is becoming increasingly well-known for its surfing and has recently hosted some of the biggest international surfing competitions. Nazaré, in the Oeste region, has become famous for its giant waves, sometimes up to 30 metres high. While tourists gather to spectate and make videos, surfers flock from around the world to ride Nazaré’s giant waves between October and March.

Puntarenas province, Costa Rica

Almost 17 per cent of the tourists who visit Costa Rica do so to surf, according to the country’s tourism board, with beaches like Jacó famous for their excellent swells. Mal Pais has waves that attract expert surfers, and Playa Hermosa, a WSR, is considered Costa Rica’s national surf stadium, with consistent waves all year round. The coastline, with the Pacific Ocean flanked by rainforests and cloud forests, makes for a spectacular backdrop.

Find out more about World Surfing Reserves at

You can read more articles about nature and mental wellbeing in the latest issue of Breathe magazine.