Where Big City And Big Surf Meet
By Stefan Marti
Where: Northern California, two-thirds up the Golden State’s rugged coastline. The city rests at the tip of a long peninsula surrounded by the Pacific Ocean on one side and the San Francisco Bay on the other.
What: Cold, open, exposed. Ocean Beach flanks the west side of the city with rolling dunes that drop to the surging Pacific. Thundering A-frames, strong currents, and a guaranteed 30-duck-dive paddle-out greet you half the year. In other words, not an ideal place to learn. From VFWs to Sloat Boulevard, there are numerous peaks and beachbreaks, and when the winds are offshore, the waves can be incredible. For an altogether different experience, on an incoming tide and the right swell, you can surf under the Golden Gate Bridge at Fort Point, though the paddle-out requires jumping off rocks into moving water. For the more cautious and faint-hearted, there is Cronkhite in Marin, just north of the bridge, or Pacifica to the south. Usually, the ocean is more forgiving there.
When: Autumn is usually the best. Calm offshore winds often blow from September through November, although there can be occasional great days in winter, too. Aleutian-born north swells frequently damage the lineup in winter and spring, and San Francisco doesn’t pick up much in the summer. With the thick fog in July and the ocean still at a nippy 59 degrees, you’re better off heading south to San Diego or Mexico.
Why: Nowhere else in the U.S. has such a compact combination of a beautiful city, a diverse urban culture, and solid surf. The beaches may not be the most inviting in the world, but if you like big waves, you’ll be much happier than in Southern California. Everything is close by in the city, and you can get around with public transportation, a bike, or even a skateboard.
How: It’s easy enough to get to the city. By plane you can fly to either SFO or Oakland airport, and from there you can jump onto BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to get into the city. If you’re driving, it’s six hours from Los Angeles.
Places Close By: Only fifteen minutes from the city, go explore the Marin Headlands. If Cronk isn’t breaking, you can head for a long hike through the green hills and coastal brush. Hawks, deer, coyotes, seals, and bobcats all make their home there. You’ll also have spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the S.F. skyline. If there’s a huge swell, drive south 40 minutes to Half Moon Bay and check out Maverick’s.
Places To Stay: There are tons of hotels in San Francisco, ranging from 100 to 400 dollars a night, depending on how plush you want to make your stay. For those on a tighter budget, there’s a youth hostel at Fort Mason in the city and another in the Marin Headlands. You’ll need a car for the latter.
Places To Eat And Drink: San Francisco is known for its incredible food: Asian, Italian, Mexican, fusion, and beyond-it’s got it all. You’ll find great restaurants in every neighborhood, but for starters get pasta in North Beach and grab a big burrito at a Taqueria Cancun or Farolito in the Mission. Afterwards, head to SOMA (South of Market) for a cocktail and a good band or dance floor.
Babes And Dudes: Again, San Francisco has it all: straight, gay, lesbian, bi, trans-something for everyone. Well, actually, there’s not really a SoCal babe beach scene, so you’re better off putting on your favorite threads and kicks and trying your luck at a hipster bar, trendy lounge, or dance club.
Crowd Factor: Generally, crowds aren’t too bad. Ocean Beach is a few miles long, spreading out the local surfers. But when the waves are great and the sun is out, be ready to fight for that perfect peak rolling in.
Stuff To Bring: A full suit, preferably a 4/3, all year long. Booties are recommended, and if you get cold easily, wear a hood in the winter. From September to May, bring your shortboard plus something than can handle powerful, overhead waves. And if you’ve got the cajones for the really huge days, bring a seven-foot plus gun. During the summer, you may be better off with a longboard. The air temperature can change quickly, and it can be colder in July than January, so it’s a good idea to bring multiple layers of clothes regardless of when you come. A wool hat is always nice, as well as a good pair of walking shoes, a rain jacket in the winter, and some shades, because even though it’s cold and windy, it’s often sunny.
If Surf Is Flat: There’s plenty to do in the city of hills and cable cars. Wander through the many neighborhoods and check out the Victorian architecture. Cruise Haight Street and do some thrift or funky-shoe shopping. Continue on through the tall trees of Golden Gate Park and visit the new DeYoung museum or the Arboretum. Then take a stroll over the Golden Gate Bridge or down to Crissy Field, and saunter through Fisherman’s Wharf and into North Beach. If you get tired of walking, jump on a cable car or take a boat out to Alcatraz, Angel Island, or Sausalito. At night, you can go see a play, a band, a Giants game, or just chill out on one of the many hills like Jack Kerouac and Jimi Hendrix once did and view the beautiful city. For a listing of current and upcoming events, check out the entertainment section at www.sfgate.com.