Learning to Surf in Laidback Raglan, New Zealand

If all cities were likened to pieces of furniture, we could quickly get a feel for their overall character. For example, New York City would be an insanely high-tech office chair, while Charleston, S.C., would undoubtedly be a rocking chair, fit for a front porch. And Raglan, the small beach town on the western side of New Zealand’s North Island, would be a hammock. Fittingly, the morning I arrived at my hostel in Raglan (aptly named Raglan Backpackers) the first thing I saw were six hammocks hanging from the rafters of the private courtyard, next to a hot tub and a rack of surfboards available for rental.

My two companions and I had traveled to Raglan without much knowledge of the city. We had been tipped off by a stellar review from a friend while we were on a road trip to the nearby tourist trap of Rotorua, which reeked of sulfur due to geothermal activity. Underwhelmed by the tacky gift shops and pricey packaged tours of Rotorua, Raglan was literally a breath of fresh air. Its close proximity to the ocean ensures that a virulent sea breeze is consistently blowing. But it’s not the wind that brings travelers to Raglan, nor is it the sulfur-free air: The waves are the main draw.

Raglan is a surf town through and through. It has a short central street with a few mediocre restaurants, but a rather evolved live music scene. One venue, YOT Club, draws herds of backpackers and frequently hosts reggae and techno bands. Bike paths are plentiful. There are few cars. But both expert and novice surfers make the pilgrimage to Raglan to surf at Manu Bay (made famous in the 1966 surf film, Endless Summer) and Ngarunui Beach, a seemingly endless stretch of sand, flanked by green, scraggly cliffs. Quite simply, the beaches in Raglan are beautiful.

Being a novice surfer, I checked out the scene at Ngarunui Beach. Not surprisingly, the hostel employs expatriate surfers who are willing to give a brief tutorial in the parking lot, which we opted for rather than a formal surfing lesson costing considerably more. The lithe blond surfer-dude receptionist had us on our stomachs, encouraging us to paddle furiously on our rented surfboards for 10 minutes, looking quite ridiculous.

Shortly after, we were in the water, equipped with rudimentary surf knowledge and unflattering wetsuits, sputtering seawater and flopping over boards. The first day of surfing, expect exasperation, frustration and fatigue. While experienced surfers make the sport seem effortlessly cool, you will appear lumbering and ungraceful as you flounder in the frothy foam of the wave that has crashed on top of you.

As I was sputtering, exceptional surfers caught my eye, such as the tan New Zealander, with muscular arms who propelled himself up onto his board like he weighed nothing. He seemed to float with each wave, riding it almost onto the beach. It’s not until the end of the day, on the wave you decide will be your last, that you stand up and surf (actually surf!) for a few glorious seconds. For a moment, you comprehend how people live for this sport, how they feel unsatisfied if even one day passes without surfing.

Raglan not only supports this lifestyle but also fosters it. And like a hammock describes the town, Raglan seems to epitomize New Zealand as a whole: laidback, but having the power to incite a sense of caprice and splendor within its visitors. Although the spell of Raglan can be broken upon departure, the brief feeling gleaned from surfing, the one of wild optimism, lingers far into the future.

Traveler’s Notebook

Best guidebook: Lonely Planet’s New Zealand

Comprehensive, no-fluff descriptions of restaurants, accommodations and activities.

Where to stay: Raglan Backpackers

Located five minutes from the beach.

Free bike and kayak use, low-cost surfboard and wetsuits rentals. Friendly staff.

Surf lessons: Raglan Surfing School

Three-hour beginner lessons offered with no minimum group number.

Beach houses available for longer stay in nearby Whale Bay, NZ.

Where to have breakfast: Tongue and Groove Lounge, 19 Bow St., Raglan.

Try a flat white, New Zealand’s version of the latte.

After-hours hangout: Vinnies World of Eats, 7 Wainui Road, Raglan.

Laid back, live music almost every night. Decent thin-crust pizza.

Jenna Blumenfeld hails from the wee state of Connecticut. Although her childhood dream of becoming a bug doctor – with a specialization in ladybugs – has gone unfulfilled, she is content writing about travel, cuisine and culture. A vegetarian, she currently resides in the food hub of Boulder, Colo. You can see examples of her fine cookery at OvenZest.com.

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