Three of the best towns to be a surfer.
Imagine three beautiful sisters; sun bleached blondes, tans and taste like caramel. They’re not just gorgeous they’re exciting; they have a taste for alcohol and topless tanning. As babies the girls were travelling between the Mystic Islands when great waves swept the sisters overboard and ocean currents pulled them apart. Eventually these blessed babes washed up on shores in different corners of the globe. They grew up where they landed and became a part of their new surroundings. A special type of people were drawn to them, they made pilgrimages to settle near where each sister landed. While accepting all who came at heart the sisters connection to each other never wavered.
I dream of these sisters, I dream of one at a time and all of them together. Named Tofino, Raglan and Byron these are the sirens that draw me not toward the rocks but to the waves that break. The surf towns that sprung up around these sisters are vastly different in climate and are separated by great distances but the spirit is the same; they are connected by the holiness given to waves.
Having ridden Australia’s Byron Bay, New Zealand’s Raglan and Canada’s Tofino I was struck with the a deep, similar rhythm. These towns are siblings, and though they are far flung and separate, their beat is in time.
These three sisters came to mainstream conscious through admiration of silky curves and loving character. Byron Bay was introduced to the world through Nat Young’s surfing in Alby Falzon and David Elfick’s Morning of the Earth; a film that continues to inspire generations. Raglan’s moment came when Mike Hynson and Robert August caught half-day waves in Bruce Brown’s Endless Summer. Tofino’s beauty was more of a secret until her cold water slabs were revealed in Jeremy Koreski’s aptly titled Shrink featuring Pete Devries, Raph and Sep Bruhwiler.
Tofino is a snow-white blonde whose tan lines stop at the neck, wrists and ankles. She comes across as an ice-queen carving ice sculptures in the waves. Her youthful and stoic face belies the wisdom she’s learned from her old growth forest friends. Canada is an ancient place, mountains pierce the landscape and Tofino nestles protected in their shadow. She is connected to her land more than her sisters, unafraid of the freezing temperature. When first introduced she seems cold but once you’ve tickled her fancy and shown a like mind she melts like a hot spring bursting through ice.
Of the three sisters Tofino is the wildest, her waves are as fickle as her moods. She’ll swing from sunshine to pelting rain in seconds, yet if you catch her in the right moment you’re guaranteed fun rides. Soft-walled beach breaks are within minutes bike ride of town. To find the heaving rock slabs seen in Koreski’s “Shrink” you’ll need a boat or seaplane. Tofino’s wild heart extends to the wildlife; expect to see a cougar, wolf or bear on the path to the waves. Canada is a young surf destination where you’ll find people to share a Caesar (better version of a Bloody Mary) and excitedly talk waves.
In the summer months, when the coast isn’t battered by storms, the community’s desire to ride doesn’t slip. The skate scene feels more cemented than the surf scene; there are backyard mini ramps, a bowl at the microbrewery and even bedroom quarter pipes that compliment the public park. This DIY skate attitude is the sure sign that locals are frothing harder than a Sydney barista working the AM shift on George St.
Tofino and Raglan washed up at the end of the road. To meet Raglan, you deviate from the highway and cruise until there is no more road ahead. I drove through the mountain pass for the first time and snaking the hills above town I saw the heart of activity below. Thin veins of road slipped around headlands and headed for the waves. It resonated Tofino; I felt like I’d arrived to a familiar place.
Raglan is lithe; catwalk model limbs, but awkward on land like an octopus slipping between rock pools, but when in the water her grace is supreme. She’s a single mother, independent and set in her way. She needs no man and takes care of her adopted children with plentiful waves, warm water and boatloads of fish. She had relationships with Rasta and Ozzie Wrong at different times so you know she’s got the calm and the crazy in her. From the peak of Mt Kairioi she surveys her land and sea like Mufasa atop pride rock watching the swell roll in.
The waves are long and left. They wrap around headlands when it gets big and like Mike Hynson and Robert August you’ll happily walk a few K’s to get back to the point you started from. When low tide reveals the bottom you’ll be dodging rocks and also the local Maoris collecting sea life. The Maoris have a strong connection to Raglan and take care of their land and ocean by only harvesting enough to feed their families.
Like all the species and coral neighbourhoods within a single shoal of the Great Barrier Reef, NZ’s Raglan is a town that interacts to sustain life. The shaper you bought your board from this morning is eating a lunch of locally caught fish. After that, he’ll start the repair job of a ding you sustained while paddling out that morning. You’ll wait, drinking drink Raglan Roast coffee and deciding against spending $20 for a night at the holistic sustainable hostel and instead kick it with the Maoris for $5 a night (karma not included).
If Raglan has forged her own path, Byron has preened in her perfection. She is Miranda Kerr. Everyone has heaped praise on her. She’ll be setting up for the barrel, see her reflection in the crystal surface and stop to admire. But if Byron speaks everyone quietens. She is a princess but I love her anyway. I choose not to see the wealthy community where the hippies used to live and the stylised surf scene where the culture was created.
Still holding the beating heart of eternal youth, the Byron of fuzzy film is here if you can peel back layers of makeup and Insta filters. Escape the centre of town to find it. Set up a tent on a back beach, wake and surf the dawn, catch some fish and feel the past is present. This is the simplicity and beauty that drew the originals here and, though they are hard to find, have kept them in place as the businesses and tourists multiply. While Byron bathes in her fame, the pulse of her grounded sisters can still be felt in the waves.
Byron has a core group of talented surfers that grew up here and dominate the waves. These guys are in permanent open-relationship status and covetously guard the virtue of their baby. It’s a hard job with the consistent cast of beginners making use of the numerous surf schools and easy beach access to waves. So while there are sponsored riders stacking clips it’s more common to see them paddling around, dropping in and board ditching that makes a fun surf challenging. An upside though is if you hoot loud enough you’ll startle the delicate nerves of a soft-topper and they’ll be back paddling quick smart.
The stories of Byron, Raglan and Tofino are simple and they attract people with a passion for the ocean. These folk are happy with the simple things: to live as harmlessly as possible with their natural surroundings and to thrive outdoors. The life created here is not fuelled by money, materials, and 'getting ahead'. Most people would rather work 20 hours a week, just get by, and enjoy what they consider to be a high quality of life.
These hippy-commune-surf-sisters were birthed in exploration and blossomed in communities where value was found living an adventurous life. The beauty is everywhere but now these towns are catering to the growing number of wealthy holidaymakers that don’t care for simplicity.
They’ve grown in different ways; occasionally been exploited and yet, they still thrive. Oceans and seas separate them but salt water keeps this family tied together and if you’re lucky there’ll be three notches on your bedpost named Byron, Tofino and Raglan.