Surfers have been answering the call for nearly 100 years, writes Shandelle Battersby.

The never-ending quest for the perfect wave extends long after you've finished riding them, according to local folklore in the Southern California seaside town of Huntington Beach.

The relaxed community is reportedly haunted by the ghosts of wave-riders past including the one belonging to Duke Kahanamoku, the so-called father of modern surfing. Brett Barnes, owner of Duke's Restaurant, swears he saw the Duke body surfing in Huntington's pounding waves in September 1998 — long after the heroic Hawaiian's death.

Kahanamoku introduced surfing to Huntington Beach, aka Surf City USA, sometime around 1920 (after he brought it to New Zealand and Australia) and its popularity soon spread up and down the California coastline. The beach was chosen as the venue for the country's first surfing champs in 1959 and nearly 60 years later the US Open of Surfing — the largest surfing competition in the world — is held at Huntington over nine days in late July/early August.

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I had a chance to tackle those famous waves myself during an hour-long surf lesson (US$99, NZ$146) with Dawson from Toes on the Nose Adventures, which you'll find at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa across the road from the beach.

The laid-back instructor met me at the store and we walked over the vast stretch of golden sand to the water as he explained the appeal of the area (Huntington Beach has the most consistent surf year-round of anywhere in the US) and a few tips for rookies such as the importance of having a landmark so you can gauge how strong the current is.

Things were going to be a little challenging today he warned, pointing to the 8ft (2.4m) waves, because of a tropical storm sitting off the coast, but as long as we kept an eye on our landmark, lifeguard tower 15, we'd know where we were and if we were drifting.

After a quick demonstration on the sand we were soon making our way through the messy waves breaking on the shoreline with my reassuringly cumbersome grommet board. Despite the region having some of the consistently best weather in the country, the Pacific Ocean is surprisingly cold and you need to wear a full wetsuit.

After a quick spin-around, with Dawson guiding the board in the right direction and me paddling with my arms as he'd shown me on the beach, he shouted "Up!" and I was surfing, albeit a little wobbly.

I managed to ride the waves into the beach a total of three times out of about six attempts and I was stoked — and absolutely exhausted.

Surfing dog at Huntington Beach. Photo / Daren Fentiman
Surfing dog at Huntington Beach. Photo / Daren Fentiman

Later I watched from the end of the famous pier as the best of the locals danced on the massive waves below, often being thrown near the 565km-long structure's massive struts, and marvelled at how fit they must be.

Surfing is, as you'd expect, all-pervasive here. On the Huntington Beach Ocean Strand — 16km of paved boardwalk — a constant stream of surfers pass you on beach cruisers or on foot in packs with boards under one arm. The streets, shops and cafes are full of like-minded souls all in Surf City for the same reason ("Dude, have you seen the waves today? They're siiiiiiiiick", etc).

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On central Main St you'll find a statue of Duke Kahanamoku as well as the Surfing Hall of Fame (hand and footprints belonging to the likes of Kelly Slater and Laird Hamilton immortalised in concrete slabs) and the Surfing Walk of Fame (like the Hollywood version) and around the corner, mounted on the wall outside the International Surfing Museum, is the largest surfboard in the world at 42ft (12.8m). In 2015, 66 people rode the board for 12 seconds, breaking two Guinness World Records for the largest surfboard and for the most people riding a surfboard at once.

The non-profit International Surfing Museum could be a cash cow for the area but remains low-key and community-focused — and affordable at just US$3 entry. Inside you'll find a treasure trove of historic surfing memorabilia and, on the day I visited, a Surf 2 Skate exhibition featuring a fascinating display of ancient wooden roller skates, scooters and skateboards.

The museum is dedicated to our friend Duke, and the first thing you see when you walk through the door is a shrine in his honour.

Ghostly wave-rider or not, there's no denying the presence of the legendary surfer in this surf-mad town and even less chance of his legacy ever being forgotten.

P for Pawsome

It's not just humans who love hanging 10, the enormous local dog community is well represented on the waves of Huntington — or Hunting Dog — Beach. Dogs love to surf! There are a number of pooch-friendly events held each year in the region including the Surf City Surf Dog competition in late September, which this year celebrates its 10th birthday.

Must Do

Southern California loves a bonfire on the beach and Huntington Beach is home to 500 public fire pits available on a first-come, first-served basis. In addition, hotels such as the Hyatt offer their own beach bonfire service complete with a butler to sort out the fire in a portable brazier, chairs, tiki torches, blankets, hot chocolate and the fixings for s'mores (marshmallows and chocolate squished between two crackers). They'll also clean up for you at the end of the night. It does not get much more SoCal than this.

Where to Eat

Head along to the Pacific City shopping centre to LSXO (Little Sister Extraordinary), a hidden restaurant with ocean views and an X-rated rap soundtrack located inside Bluegold restaurant that seats just 28 people. Inspired by traditional Vietnamese home cooking, the food — and cocktails — here are to die for.

Huntington Beach's Surf Museum. Photo / Shandelle Battersby
Huntington Beach's Surf Museum. Photo / Shandelle Battersby

FACT BOX

GETTING THERE

Hawaiian Airlines flies from Auckland to three destinations in Southern California – Los Angeles, San Diego and Long Beach – with connections via Honolulu. Fares start from $829 one-way via

hawaiianairlines.co.nz

.


GETTING AROUND
New Zealand rental car company Jucy operates out of California and delivers cars—or campers—to any destination within an 80km radius of Jucy branches at Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco or Vancouver.

STAYING THERE
The oceanfront Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa is a lovely Spanish-style resort with direct beach access and multiple facilities onsite, including several excellent eateries.

DETAILS
SurfCityUSA.com