Tactical escapes from the city are the key to thriving in it. When the pressures of modern London living build up, stress release is essential. Some people can get by with city breaks, yoga and regular massages, but others would be bored stiff by all that lounging around and need something stronger to take the edge off.
Mountain-biking, marathon-running and Tough Mudders have all enjoyed their time as alpha leisure pursuits. But the tides have changed, and high-risk, high-reward and high-risk-of-injury activities are starting to lose their appeal. After all, who can afford to be out of the office with a shattered clavicle?
Surfing is gaining popularity around the globe as a form of escape, exercise and mental refresh. And is it any wonder? There’s no greater adrenaline rush than riding a perfect wave, and there’s no deeper serenity than floating in the sea, waiting to catch one. While surfers have always treated their sport with almost religious reverence, science has caught up – California State University has linked regular surfing to reduced stress and risk for depression.
While France, Spain and Portugal may spring to mind first, the UK is quietly home to some of the best surf is Europe. Our own shores might not have the sunshine and blue skies of our continental neighbours, but our seas are no less thrilling. Those looking for extreme surfing have no shortage of options, but often have to travel great lengths – and then ‘enjoy’ the bare-bones accommodation surf bums have traditionally had to rely on.
Thurso East, in Caithness, northern Scotland, regularly churns out picturesque barrel swells anywhere from 2 to 15ft high. Those who brave the cold waters are rewarded not only with the strongest waves on these isles, but breathtaking views of Scottish hills and the remains of its eponymous castle.
And then there’s Porth Neigwl, in Wales, which is affectionately known by locals as Hell’s Mouth. This desolate, slim stretch of sand and stones is exposed to all the power and fury the Atlantic has to muster – making it the ideal haunt for those looking to ride our wildest waves. However, with no amenities and no lifeguards present, only the most experienced surfers should brave these rough and unpredictable waves. We’re trying to restore our balance, not prove our mettle.
If you fancy being in the surf at the crack of dawn and a hot tub by sunset, then head to Watergate Bay in north Cornwall. Consistently named one of the UK’s top surf destinations, the bay is a two-mile stretch of sandy beach providing breathtaking vistas of the open Atlantic on one side and England’s ancient rocky cliffs on the other. The water is suitable for absolute beginners and experienced surfers alike.
A quick jaunt from the bay is one of Cornwall’s finest boutique hotels, The Scarlet. The hotel boasts breathtaking sea views and absolutely no mobile reception. But don’t let that put you off – it’s part of the draw. (As is the strictly adults-only policy, making it the ideal surf-break hideaway for couples.) A fully eco operation, the Scarlet offers a pampered back-to-nature experience. There’s a seawater hot tub (infused with seaweed), a rhassoul and a hammam – as well as calming activities ranging from garden yoga to guided mediation classes on offer. The Ayurvedic spa eschews menus and prefers to craft three- to four-hour intensive relaxation sessions – the perfect comedown from an early-morning surf.
But if you want to be right on the water, head for the Watergate Bay Hotel, which has served as a surfers’ safe haven for nearly 50 years. While having undergone a splendid renovation, the hotel has maintained its reputation as a ‘ski resort on the beach.’ It’s the sort of place where it’s totally acceptable to pad around barefoot, wetsuit under arm, but it’s by no means rough and ready. There’s a very good brasserie, serving refined classics with an emphasis on Cornish ingredients. Rooms are comfortable and spacious, the best of which have roll-top baths affording breathtaking sea views. The Living Space is a communal, all-day hang-out bar and restaurant where surfers, walkers, families, and dogs of all ages come together for something to eat, a quick coffee or cocktail.
But the finest dining lays just a one-minute walk away, where Jamie Oliver’s flagship Fifteen Cornwall restaurant can be found. A social enterprise that employs and trains young people from the local area, all profits go to the charitable Cornwall Food Foundation. With floor-to-ceiling windows looking over the bay and a choice of two superb tasting menus, there’s no better way to gear up for a day in the surf.
The Extreme Academy is a top-notch surf school operating from a hut right on the beach. The team offers lessons for beginners and experienced surfers alike, with one-to-one or group classes. They’ll provide you with all the necessary kit, which means you can fly into Newquay airport Friday evening with nothing but hand luggage and be in the water 12 hours later. If you’ve been worn ragged by the waves, unwind in the outdoor hot tub, book a massage, or take some gentle lengths in the 25m infinity pool that – you may have guessed – overlooks that spectacular shore. The pro tip? Watergate Bay truly shines off-season, with almost sole access to the best surf Cornwall has to offer.