Go There: Caithness, Scotland

The Reefs Of Scotland’s North Shore
Words: Craig Ritchie

Where: The county of Caithness lies on the northeast coast of Scotland. At about 59 degrees north, it’s pretty much on the same latitude as Norway, Alaska, and the southern tip of Greenland. The town of Thurso is the surfing hub of the area.

What: The northernmost point of mainland Britain is exposed to tons of Atlantic swell, which lights up the numerous reef and point setups. Thurso East, probably the most publicized wave in Scotland, is a barreling, world-class right-hander. It’s definitely an incredible break, but if you have some time, don’t limit your Scotland experience only to this spot-there’s plenty more good surf to be had in this area. Brims Ness, just east of Thurso, picks up a lot of swell and offers a choice of different breaks, including a sucky, bowling reef that has been likened to spots in Western Australia. This area is ripe for exploration, so get in your car, pick a random farm road heading toward the coast, and see what you find.

When: Scotland’s waters range from the low 40s in the winter to as high as 60 degrees in the summer, with autumn and spring bringing the best combination of decent swell and manageable water temperatures. The Northern Lights are sometimes visible during the summer months, but it’s not the best time of year for surf.

Why: Part of the beauty of any trip is just getting to the waves-Caithness as much as anywhere. If you head off to the beaches without taking in the surrounding countryside, you’re really doing yourself an injustice. Craggy hills, sheer-drop cliff drive-bys, and snow-capped mountains all greet the eye along the winding coastal roads, with castles and other ancient buildings dotting the landscape. A trip here will end up being about more than just the waves-it’s an eye-opening experience. Plus, there are few to no crowds.

How: Travel is made easy by local bus and train routes, but to really get the most out of any Scotland trip (as exploration is essential) consider flying in from London on one of the cheap airlines and renting a car. Bmibaby.com, easyjet.com, and ryanair.com all offer great fares. Local outfit Scot Airways can also have some good prices. Flying in to Inverness is your best choice, as it is just a little over two hours’ drive from Thurso, and there are numerous options for rental cars right there at the airport.

Places To Stay: The Waterside B&B (www.watersidehouse.info) has well-priced rooms and welcomes surfers. There are also hostels and backpacker options, plus a range of quality hotels for those with a bigger budget.

Places To Eat: Top Joe’s has a great selection of food with very reasonable prices and is a locals’ favorite. Pub food is generally decent as well, plus you can swing round the Royal Hotel if you feel like splashing out on a big buffet dinner. Instead of just burgers and fries, try some oddly named Scottish favorites such as forfar bridies, cock-a-leekie soup, stovied tatties, and of course, the crown jewel of Scottish cuisine, haggis. And if you survive all that, try some rhubarb rock for a local sweet.

Exchange Rate: It’s the same as the rest of the U.K. At press time, it’s $1.86 to the pound-not the cheapest of trips, but well manageable if you budget.

Nightlife: As with any British town, there are a number of pubs and bars to choose from. Be sure to visit the infamous Skinandis nightclub at least once, if just for the cultural experience alone.

Crowd Factor: Close to zero. Thurso has its established local crew, but with so many waves to offer in the area, plus the extreme cold generally keeping the crowds away, you shouldn’t have any trouble.

Stuff To Bring: Neoprene, and lots of it. Hoods, gloves, booties, and a good five-mil wetsuit are essentials, although in the summer months you can get away with just a 4/3. Pack a lot of warm clothing, as the winds can really howl out of the frozen nortth. And definitely bring your camera. If you have even the slightest penchant toward photography, you’ll be burning film and filling up memory sticks like a madman.

If The Surf Is Flat: There’re loads on offer to entertain you during the downtime. Take a walk around John O’Groats and the Duncansby Stacks (strange rocky columns that look like giant witches’ hats jutting out of the ocean), or hop on a ferry over to Orkney to check out the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae, dating back to around 3,200 BC and believed to be older than the pyramids of Egypt. This World Heritage Site also hosts the nearby Ring Of Brodgar and the prehistoric burial chamber of Maeshowe. You could head off to a whiskey distillery or visit some of the ancient buildings that stand testament to a time when marauding Vikings dominated the area. And if golf is your flat-day-fun preference, well, this is Scotland, birthplace of the sport and home of the oldest playing course in the world. In fact, if you’re a surfer/golfer, there are not many places in the world better suited to satisfy both.

Helpful Web Sites: Globalsurfers.com: Follow the links to another good introduction to surfing in northern Scotland. Travelscotland.co.uk: Great site for Scottish travel and tourism guides, as well as accommodation options and other non-surfing-specific information. Undiscoveredscotland.co.uk: Similar to the above, this has detailed info on every area in Scotland. With so much on offer in this country, flat days should not be wasted with simply mourning the lack of surf.