A SLICE OF ORANGE
Whether your love is surf or turf, a stay in Huntington Beach will be fruitful
He’s all muscle, chest bulging as he struts along the sand and through the shallows, wearing only a confident grin from ear to ear and a thick chain that swings around his neck.
Chunk is an Arnold Schwarzenegger of the canine world, drawing admirers like me with ease on this section of Huntington Beach, the coastal Orange County, California, enclave so well associated with surfing that its nickname, Surf City USA, is now a registered official title.
Even the family pets are on board, riding the waves every September in the famous annual Surf City Surf Dog competition at Dog Beach. That’s where Chunk and the other canines of the OC cool off in the surf with their owners year-round and roll in 2km of sand, free of leads and time restraints.
Huntington Beach is actually five beaches, Dog Beach among them, stretching 15km along Los Angeles’ Pacific Coast Highway about an hour’s drive south of LAX and not much more than half an hour on the freeway to Disneyland, which makes it an ideal base to combine a beach and theme park holiday.
City Beach, next to Downtown, is the busiest, especially at the end of July when thousands come to watch the world’s largest surf competition, the US Open of Surfing, off the south side of one of the longest and most photographed piers in California.
Year-round, the city is home to brands including DC, Quiksilver and Roxy; the International Surfing Museum is here; and surf forecast website Surfline has its headquarters upstairs on Main St, just metres from the famous pier. But if you don’t surf – or want to but find you can’t (see below) – there are other ways to experience this slice of Orange County. Here’s what you can experience in a day or two.
Some might question the wisdom of waiting to learn to surf until middle age. But when you’re in Surf City USA, it seems wrong not to get on board (pun intended). Of all the many surf schools along the coast, and there are many, the convenient choice is the inhouse operation at my hotel, the Spanish-styled Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa.
Toes on the Nose provides wetsuits, beginner-friendly boards and sunscreen-smeared instructors who escort their wannabe boardriders barefoot through the resort, over the Pacific Coast Highway footbridge down to the water’s edge. That bit is easy. I hoped to discover an unknown innate talent, but the conditions are challenging, so much so that now I know how a cat caught in a frontloading washing machine might feel.
My recovery session is a visit to the Hyatt Regency’s Pacific Waters spa for a 50-minute pummelling of a restorative kind and a promise to try surfing again in calmer waters.
TOESONTHENOSE.COM HUNTINGTONBEACH.REGENCY.HYATT.COM Tip: Take a walk to the end of Huntington Beach Pier to watch local boys and girls showing how it’s really done. The pier stretches more than half a kilometre out to sea and is a magnificent spot to capture the classic California panorama of surfers, ocean and sand.
ALL DAY SURFERS’ BREAKFAST
The family-run Sugar Shack opened on Huntington’s Main St 50 years ago and is an old-school hangout for surfers and friends who want their burrito, pancakes or french toast and other American favourites for breakfast or lunch.
One local you could find yourself sitting next to there is the first World Surfing Champion Peter “PT” Townend. As much a Huntington Beach institution as the Sugar Shack, PT is actually a Gold Coast-born Aussie who moved to California 40 years ago. He’s become a great ambassador for his adopted home, which he describes as “beach culture HQ”. “Nowhere else in California has 10 miles (about 16km) of pristine beach,” says PT, whose latest endeavour in a diverse surfing career as a competitor, writer and promoter is coaching the Chinese team to the 2020 Olympics. “You never have to look for a spot.”
He’s a regular at the Sugar Shack, where he loves having a chat about home with any Aussie visitors he meets. But he also recommends Dukes (named for Hawaiian surf champion Duke Kahanamoku who surfed at the pier in the 1920s), for a classic Huntington beachside experience, 25 Degrees for a gourmet burger, and Perqs where oil workers used to drink.
HBSUGARSHACK.COM Tip: For breakfast or brunch with direct views of the sea, slip up onto the patio at Tanners, at two-year-old oceanside Pasea Hotel and Spa. It’s a sleek, morning-through-to-night operation, and the first meals of the day are best enjoyed with a side serve of the Pacific. Huevos rancheros – tortillas layered with carnitas (pulled pork) topped with egg – were mammoth. You have been warned.
BIKE PATH BLISS
A surfboard isn’t the only ride in town. A 16km coastal pathway separating the beach from the Pacific Coast Highway is an invitation to hire a bike and see the scenery from the saddle. Wanting maximum enjoyment for minimum effort, we head to Pedego Electric Bikes in the centre of Huntington Beach to pick up a couple of their beach cruiser cycles, retro styled and comfortable enough for a 30km round trip. The path is relatively flat, but a battery on the back ensures that a power boost is available at the touch of a throttle.
Our destination is Bolsa Chica State Beach, where two years ago entrepreneurial Huntington Beach restaurateur Alicia Whitney tendered and won a project to revitalise four
INSTRUCTORS ESCORT THEIR WANNABE BOARDRIDERS BAREFOOT THROUGH THE RESORT
run-down concrete concessions. We cycle past three of them – one a provisions outlet for an RV park – en route to the fourth, SeaLegs at the Beach, an outpost of Whitney’s Huntington Beach SeaLegs Wine Bar. Fish and chicken tacos and a mug of SeaLegs’ signature frozen rosé – “frose” – are fuel for the return ride. SeaLegs at the Beach is a weekend playground with Sunday live reggae.
SEALEGSATTHEBEACH.COM PEDEGOELECTRICBIKES.COM/DEALERS/ HUNTINGTON-BEACH/
Tip: Across the highway from the beach is Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, 500ha of wetlands where about 200 bird species have been identified.
LET’S GO SHOPPING
You can buy any and every piece of surf and beachwear possible in Huntington Beach. Start with the big guns, Jacks Surfboards and Huntington Surf and Sport, which occupy prime spots on each corner of Main St and the Pacific Coast Highway, checking out the footpath for the Surfers’ Hall of Fame markers. Nearby Pacific City, a two-year-old indoor/outdoor mall, has labels such as Sephora and Free People, Hurley and Urban Outfitters, along with its Lot 579 food hall.
Tip: Pacific City has a plethora of dining options, including Bluegold, where the menu crosses pizza, steak from the charcoal grill, seafood and vegie dishes, including the best brussels sprouts I’ve ever eaten. It could have been the addition of walnuts, fontina and vincotto vin but most likely because they were flash fried. Australians, with our prevalence of Vietnamese restaurants, might be interested to see how a Vietnamese-American chef, Tim Vuong, does it at Bluegold’s adjoining sister space, LSXO. Dishes here are served to a soundtrack of oldschool hip-hop.
THE WRITER WAS A GUEST OF VISIT HUNTINGTON BEACH
Huntington Beach stretches 15km along Los Angeles’ Pacific Coast Highway and includes the Pier, a long coastal pathway, prime surfwear shops and a much-loved dog beach.