Surf City here we come, say Liam Dann and family, who catch a break at the iconic California beach locale.

It doesn't get much more Californian than watching a surfer gracefully negotiate the Huntington Beach pier, silhouetted against one of those famous burnt orange west coast sunsets.

Welcome to Surf City.

After a lifelong relationship with Californian beach culture built on the music of the Beach Boys, years of surfing, skateboarding and generally embracing the tie-dyed, sun-baked philosophy of "going with the flow" this feels more like a homecoming than a new destination.

There are historic places in the US that feel like faded imitations of their 20th century selves. I've been to once-thriving jazz districts and rock and roll landmarks that exist only for the memories.

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Huntington is not one of those places. It is still a hot spot of contemporary surf and beach culture.

The beach community also makes for an easy day trip for families staying in Anaheim, where my family of five has been based for a week. It makes for an easy, refreshing break from the intensity of the theme park crowds. Our Uber ride from central Anaheim was just $25.

"Looks like it's pumping out there bro," are the first words I hear as I step out of the car on to the surf shop-lined main street and past two locals making small talk.

Huntington Beach.
Huntington Beach.

It is mid-week in September but the sun is blazing and as we approach the pier my senses are overwhelmed with the sights, sounds and smells of an epic beach day. There are cyclists and skaters everywhere, people carrying surfboards, hippie buskers and even cheerleaders practising on the beach.

I can't help looking wistfully at the hairy middle-aged guy cruising up the boardwalk on his low-rider bike. He looks, for all the world, like "The Dude" of The Big Lebowski fame and prompts a brief pang of lifestyle envy.

There's a bittersweet thrill to visiting places as idyllic and liveable as this.

Huntington Beach is literally the Surf City of Jan and Dean's 1963 hit song. It was officially trademarked in 2004 with the duo's blessing. It was also one of the first Californian beaches to adopt the surfing craze.

Hawaiian legend Duke Kahanamoku visited and surfed there in 1925 on a tour widely credited with popularising the sport in the US. His statue now graces the sidewalk, opposite the pier.

The surf is indeed pumping on the day of our visit — a solid four or five foot out the back — and a quick bodysurf is enough to confirm it packs a similar heavyweight punch to waves on New Zealand's West Coast. We watch the kids closely as they play in the shore dump. The water here warrants the same kind of respect you need to show in places like Piha.

Despite our vigilance we still get a friendly warning and chat with one of the local lifeguards who hops down from his tower to point out the rips and current.

For lunch we are booked at Sandy's, a restaurant right on the beach beside the iconic pier with a deck that reaches out onto the sand.

It's memorable for great views and enormous s'mores - chocolate ice cream and biscuit coated in marshmallow and toasted. The restaurant is relatively quiet but we're told its views of the surf make it a prime spot when big surfing competitions are on.

The biggest event on the calendar is the US Open which has been held at Huntington since 1959 and now attracts more than half a million visitors to the town.

Liam Dann on Huntington Beach.
Liam Dann on Huntington Beach.

To work off lunch we wander along the beach to the other side of the pier and rent bikes and a tandem from the beachfront cycle and skate shop. Like many of California's beachfronts, Huntington has a smooth concrete pathway heading off in both directions along the coast — perfect for skaters, roller bladers and cyclists.

We ride a couple of kilometres to the area's famous "Dog Beach", host of the World Dog Surfing Champs, stopping for a swim along the way.

Later, back at the pier my wife and daughter check out the boutique shopping at Pacific City mall, while the boys and I wander up the pier to get a better look at the surf. Nearly 600 metres long, the pier takes you right out the back of the large waves providing an incredible view for spectators.

There are a few people fishing and strolling but aside from a few folksy gifts shops it is mercifully free of amusement rides and crowds. In the water, surfers are lined up to the left of the pier and most are catching the waves in that direction.

The trouble is the cleanest break is really going the other way — right through the monolithic wooden piles beneath the boardwalk.

On this day there's just one guy out there bold enough to be surfing right through — or shooting the pier, as it is known.

It's an impressive sight to look directly down on him as he drops into the big waves and disappears though the pier before roaring out the other side through to the shore.

We stroll back to the beach and loll in the sand dunes as the sun dips towards the horizon and drenches everything in its magic orange glow. The kids cartwheel and dance about in silhouette and we all take turns posing for "cool surfer dude" photos until the light is gone.

Back on main street there is a lively bar and restaurant culture kicking into gear.

There are a few homeless people and beggars — most looking like surfers and hippies who lived the good life too hard — but the vibe is still friendly and relaxed, particularly compared to some of the other after-dark spots around the great Los Angeles coast.

We don't have too much trouble finding a bustling Mexican restaurant happy to serve kids and settle in for some quesadillas, burritos and cold Coronas.

Then as if to fill in the missing lyric from our "surf music" kind of day there's some kind of hot rod club having a meet-up and we're treated to a parade of muscle cars to finish up the day.

There's probably a Little Deuce Coupe in there somewhere but we're looking for a Toyota Prius and its Uber driver Cesar to take us home — sun baked and satisfied — to our Anaheim hotel.

Huntington Beach pier.
Huntington Beach pier.

CHECKLIST

Getting there:

Air New Zealand

flies from Auckland to LA.

Further information: See visittheusa.com.