The International Fight to be SUP’S Top City
Where is the best place to live and be a standup paddler? That simple, eternal question drove the latest iteration of SUP Magazine’s Paddle Town Paddle. This year, we broadened the query to its logical limit: Where do the most professional opportunities meet the best SUP lifestyle potential? Naturally, we had to expand our scope beyond North America to the top cities across the globe. Our selection criteria was simple: Urban hubs where you can maximize days on the water, and enjoy different types of paddling adventures within a day’s drive. Narrowing down a nominee list to determine winners, however, was anything but. How do you define best? How do you judge culture? How much does community count for? Passion?
So, we handed the reigns to our readers to decide. After thousands of votes cast on social media, with countless comments hurled (some profanity-laced), in the end, the following Elite Eight locales surpassed all others as the world’s best cities to live and paddle now.
While sun-drenched San Diego already sits atop America’s list of most popular tourist destinations, now it can officially claim the title as the hottest paddle town on the planet. Of course, that won’t come as a surprise to those locals fortunate enough to call San Diego home.
Whether you are into SUP surfing, touring, racing or even down-winding, “America’s Finest City,” will keep you stoked and on the water year-round, with nearly perfect weather and endless paddling options.
No matter your skill level, San Diego County is a SUP-surf fantasy land. The coastline’s dotted with countless breaks from the Mexican border to San Onofre. While many local paddlers prefer the classic Sup-friendly waves at popular spots like Cardiff and Tourmaline, those with a sense of adventure will be rewarded with remote stretches of coastline that reveal shifting sand bars, rocky reefs and un-crowded point breaks shaded by magnificent sandstone cliffs.
If touring is more your speed, San Diego has two massive bays and miles of beautiful coastline that are perfect for casual cruising. Mission Bay affords opposing views of keep-dreaming real estate to marine wildlife in wind-protected coves perfect for windy afternoons. Thirsty? Paddle right up to the dock at Barefoot Bar, a different type of waterside watering hole. Meanwhile, San Diego Bay offers sweeping views of the city’s sleek downtown skyline, mega-yachts, huge Naval ships and the Coronado Bay Bridge.
For nature immersion, La Jolla Cove is a must. Against the backdrop of magnificent cliffs, paddlers can peer down into the crystal-clear water filled with bright-orange garibaldi (California’s state fish), bat rays, leopard sharks, seals and dolphins.
Of course, it takes more than pristine paddling options to justify a ‘world-class’ label. People matter. And San Diego has welcoming and passionate paddlers in spades, with paddling groups gathering regularly throughout the county. Don’t let the surf lineups fool you; S.D.’S paddlers won’t bite. They’re happy to strike up conversations on or offff the water.
Events are the easiest way to make those connections, and the area boasts two of the biggest in the sport. The Hanohano Huki Ocean Challenge attracts hundreds of paddlers to compete in Mission Bay each January, while the biggest event in SUP, the Pacific Paddle Games, takes place each fall at Doheny State Beach, located only an hour north of downtown. The county is also home to some industry big-hitters, including Boardworks, King’s, Surftech, Tower, ISLE, the list goes on.
If you’re still feeling crowded and can’t yet see the upside of one of the largest, thriving communities of paddlers on earth, then consider its immediate proximity to the empty escape of Baja California.
Let’s address this first: It rains a lot in Portland. But what locals are less apt to admit is that summer and fall in the Rose City are ridiculously beautiful. And with at least 13 renowned places to launch within 20 miles of downtown, it’s an urban paddling paradise—and that’s not to mention the countless options for day-trips.
Portland paddling begins with the Willamette River, which runs right through the heart of town. Check out Gorge Performance for rentals, lessons, repairs and inside info, walking distance from the river (they even rent dollies so you can roll your board).
Put in at Willamette Park and take a spin around Ross Island with houseboats, personal watercraft and kayaks all taking in views of downtown. If you’re feeling feisty you can even keep going downriver and head under Portland’s famous bridges. This stretch of river is also the site of the Rose City SUP Classic in early September. Many more stellar launch sites lie upriver, where paddlers gather for the spring’s Willamette SUP Cup at George Rogers State Park. Heading slightly farther afield only yields more paddling adventures on the Columbia, Clackamas and Tualatin rivers. Downwind, whitewater, scenic touring: Take your pick.
You can’t talk Portland-regional paddling without mentioning Hood River and the Columbia River Gorge, only an hour drive from downtown. Home to one of SUP’S major national races, the Gorge Paddle Challenge, this wind funnel of a town has some of the best downwind paddling on Earth. Check out Big Winds in Hood River for rentals and beta on how to get the best bumps of your life.
Did we mention that the raw might of the Pacifific is only an hour-and-a-half from west of the city? Great surf, forests plunging to the sea and historic seaside towns stack a lifetime worth of exploration onto the case for Portland . — WT
You won’t find a more historic paddling town than Honolulu. Duke Kahanamoku, the father of modern surfing, the beach boy lifestyle and, some would say, SUP itself, called this place home. That’s some serious street cred.
First populated by canoe-sailing Polynesians, surfing and paddling has long been part of Honolulu’s lifeblood. Centuries later, there’s good reason it’s still present today: There’s something for every paddler. It helps that the city is literally on the beach. Travelers from around the world mingle with locals, renting boards for a fifirst surf session or SUP paddle, getting sunburnt or just splashing around. But, offshore is where the real goods are: miles of reefs create some of the most iconic surf in the world. There are soft waves and steep waves, fun waves and serious waves, local waves and tourist waves.
If you’re not into the surf, you can find sanctuary with SUP enthusiasts of all stripes enjoying the divided water lanes at Ala Moana Beach Park: first-timers, interval-training pros and everything in between.
When the trades kick in, a world-famous downwind run starts in Hawaii Kai and shoots 7.5-miles to Kaimana Beach on the leeward side of Diamond Head. Hawaii Kai is also where the most famous open-ocean race in the world, Molokai 2 Oahu, ends.
And that’s just the stuffff around town. The North Shore of Oahu, only an hour away from the heart of Honolulu, is the most famous stretch of surf in the world. The west side is rugged, dry and beautiful. The east, windward side of the island is lush, beautiful and home to fantastic beaches for boating, snorkeling, fishing and, of course, paddling.
Honolulu is standup paddling’s mecca: Every paddler needs to visit at least once.
Known for sports teams that can’t clinch championships, Toronto might want to rebrand itself as an underdog SUP paradise. The continent’s fourth largest city boasts an 85-mile Lake Ontario shoreline that’s almost all public park. Launch anywhere for downwinders or tours of the Scarborough Bluffs’ nine miles of wild shoreline cliffs. Explore Tommy Thompson Park—a three-mile spit jutting into the lake that’s home to more cormorants and coyotes than humans. From the Harbourfront Canoe & Kayak Centre, which serves 12,000 paddlers a year smack at the base of the city’s landmark CN Tower, it’s short strokes to the Toronto Islands, an 800-acre archipelago where you can skinny-dip at Hanlan’s Point Beach (officially clothing optional), tuck into placid lagoons or paddle the outside to lose sight of the city’s stunning downtown skyline. At KewBalmy Beach, sign up for SUP yoga, a surf class or sunrise paddle with the SUP Girlz—toronto’s oldest SUP school.
Did we mention surf? The rapid 10-year growth of Mike Sandusky’s recommended Surf Ontario shop, from suburban garage into its burgeoning industrial space, highlights the unlikely Toronto transformation into an avid surf town. “All along the lakeshore there are shelves that kick up pretty good shorebreak when the conditions are right. It’s not uncommon to surf clean, waist- to head-high waves,” says Larry Cain, Olympic sprint-canoe champion turned world-class SUP racer and coach who trains out of nearby Oakville—and who often lines up for the city’s marquee race events like the annual Mammoth Marathon around the Toronto Islands, as well as the Niagara2toronto, a 32-miler across Lake Ontario inspired by Molokai 2 Oahu. When Canadian winter winds push denser air to stoke ocean-like conditions, that doesn’t stop the hardcore locals. “Some of the best paddling of the year happens when there’s snow on the ground,” says Cain. “I can’t think of a better place to paddle in the northeast.”
While the government grinds inside Washington, D.C., work life comes secondary to what flows within and just outside the Beltway: countless standup paddling options that don’t jibe with simple associations about “the swamp.”
The U.S. capital is nestled between two major rivers— the Potomac and Anacostia—in addition to an array of smaller lakes, rivers and bay tributaries. Put in at the Capitol Riverfront to paddle northeast along the Anacostia River, a scenic route that takes you past the historic Navy Yard, Kingman Island and through the national arboretum.
The Potomac provides paddlers a chance to either escape the head-turning news cycle with miles of lush shoreline, or just play tourist apart from the crowds—most notably by ducking into Tidal Basin for a different perspective of the world-famous cherry blossoms, Jefferson Memorial and National Mall. North of the Mall, Angler’s Inn River Access offers an easy launch for the C&O Canal, which runs parallel to the Potomac and offers a narrower, more scenic paddling experience. For more advanced paddlers, the Potomac also offers whitewater and surfing opportunities below Great Falls. “There’s a wave there that’s off the charts, as well as a pretty strong river SUP scene,” says longtime local SUP surfer and photographer Skip Brown. “You can stay on it for hours.”
For those with the race bug, early June’s Bay Bridge Paddle in Annapolis hosts close to 400 participants. “Next to the Carolina Cup, it’s the biggest SUP race on the East Coast,” says Chris Norman of Capital SUP, a shop that’s grown into D.C.’S go-to for SUP gear, lessons and tours, serving over 8,000 paddlers a season (check out more on Capital SUP on p. 43). — JH
Blessed with countless beachfronts to launch a board, Tampa’s estuaries, slow-moving rivers, lakes and more—including 165 parks and beaches covering 2,286 acres within city limits, and 42 more in surrounding suburbs covering 70,000 acres—make this Gulf city a haven for standup paddleboards. Those SUP fanatics wanting a picturesque flatwater experience will be hard-pressed to find a better place to dig their paddle.
The Tampa Bay Area is rich with lazy rivers including the Little Manatee, Myakka, Withlacoochee and the easy-to-spell Chassahowitzka, or as the locals call it, the “Chaz.” Each of these water trails offffer warm water temps year-round with a high chance of marine wildlife encoun- ters—including alligators on the Myakka and a guidebook’s worth of birds on the Withlacoochee. Meanwhile, the 3,000-acre wildlife refuge Weedon Island Preserve offers a four-mile paddling trail that includes scenic mangroves and seagrass beds ( just make sure the tide is high enough to paddle the entire trail). But it’s not all mangroves and manatees, those looking for an urban paddling experience can embrace paddling past the shimmering lights of downtown Tampa.
With so many beautiful paddling locations, it’s no surprise that the area features a dedicated and tight-knit SUP community. “The SUP vibe here is amazing,” says Good Vibes SUP owner Yen Loyola. “In the past it’s been pretty scattered, but everyone is coming together more and more now. You see paddlers out all the time.”
Both the Invictus Paddling Club and Tampa Bay Paddling Club offffer locals an opportunity for group paddle outings and social gatherings while the area’s biggest gathering of paddlers takes place at the annual Shark Bite Challenge and Paddlefest, which attracts more than 500 paddlers to Honeymoon Island State Park in nearby Dunedin, Florida, each April. Meanwhile, Urban Kai and WHATSUP Paddlesports highlight the many outfitters and SUP shops popping up in the city that local newspaperman Steve Otto deemed The Big Guava.
Take one look at New Zealand’s largest city on a map and it’s no surprise that Auckland and SUP are a perfect match. Large bays and inlets sprawl through the city that is sandwiched between the Tasman Sea to the east and the Hauraki Gulf to the west. For paddlers that like to mix it up, Auckland provides the opportunities to get on the water in countless ways.
For flatwater fans, no spot is more iconic or popular than Takapuna Beach. It faces the beautiful volcanic island of Rangitoto, which doubles as a blockade from South Pacific swells. Beginner paddlers can go easy in the sheltered and shallow waters of Point Chevalier, while both Mission Bay to the south and Castor Bay to the north are both popular among the paddling faithful.
Paddlers looking for a little more excitement only need to wait for the wind to rise, which it often does. That’s why Auckland will be hosting the America’s Cup sailing competition for the third time in 2021. Downwind paddling has exploded in New Zealand and depending on the wind direction, the Hauraki Gulf offers several difffferent runs frequented by paddlers, most of which end in the Mission Bay area. Mainland runs include a trek south from Murray’s Bay, a run north from Beachlands and a run back to the mainland from Waiheke Island’s Huruhi Bay. While New Zealand is world-famous for its waves, Auckland is protected from swell by the islands. The closest Sup-friendly wave is at Orewa, which is only a half-hour drive north from Auckland. Meanwhile, a 40-minute drive to the west coast will put you at the shifty sand bars of Muriwai, and within an hour, there are almost too many options to choose from.
With a friendly population, endless water and myriad landscapes to explore nearby, the City of Sails is enough to make any paddler swoon.
We’re not going to lie. When we ran the inaugural Paddle Town Battle in 2014, Puerto Rico surprised us. The small U.S. island territory with a population of 3.4 million banded together, voted hard and sent Rincón to the number one spot. It was a major upset, but only because of who they were up against. This year, Puerto Ricans—recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Maria in late 2017 (check out the feature on p. 54)—did it again, sending their historic capital city, San Juan, to number eight.
If you’ve been to Puerto Rico, you get it. The laid-back vibe, the swaying palm trees and the Latin flair automatically set you at ease. San Juan is the centerpiece. It’s a place where old meets new, America meets the tropics and the water meets the city. Condado Lagoon is a perfect place to start an aquatic city tour, paddling by beachfront parks, watching locals and tourists barbeque on the beach, just enjoying the sunshine.
But the real bang for your buck is when you leave the lagoon. Head out into the Atlantic and take a tour past La Perla, Old San Juan and the Felipe del Morro, the old Spanish fort that was once used to protect the mouth of San Juan Bay. Then loop around the rest of San Juan Island for an eight-mile trip (be sure to check the forecast—the weather here can change quickly).
The whole north coast of Puerto Rico is fully exposed to swell, which makes it one of the most consistent wave zones in the Atlantic. Wave-riding culture here is rich and there’s a hotbed of local talent out pushing the limits of standup paddling throughout the region.
For those that like a slower pace, head for the island’s northwest coast for excellent surf and a slice of island life. Rincón, home to the Beach Boy, Puerto Rico’s biggest SUP race, also has some excellent waves and great culture.
We could go on: La Playuela and Los Morillos Lighthouse in the southwest corner of the island make for a stunning afternoon of touring. Or you could night paddle in a bioluminescent bay at Laguna Grande, located on the very northeast tip of the island.
Whatever your flavor, whatever your speed, Puerto Rico has what you need. Don’t think, just go.