I’m only half kidding when I tell my husband, T.J. that we need to move to Huntington Beach in Orange County, California. My decision came after we spent four nights here on a romantic getaway. Our son, who is almost 2-years-old, stayed back in Colorado with family, which meant we could travel the way we used to: with any adventure at the tip of our fingertips. Don’t get me wrong, I love our family-friendly vacations, but to be focused on sports like surfing this time around was a welcome change. And it was so fun for us to experience something active and challenging together and to be able to cheer each other on, and also laugh (or should I say encourage) when a wave got the best of us.
Huntington Beach, also dubbed Surf City USA, is consistently named one of the top surf spots in the nation. So it should come as no surprise that this is where the U.S Open of surfing has been held since 1959. Whether you are here visiting, or live here, it’s impossible to not get sucked into the surf culture that is at the very core of the town’s DNA.
With miles of unspoiled coastline, you won’t be hard-pressed to find a place to paddle out and ride a wave, but most people congregate at Huntington Pier, where you find some of the most reliable beach breaks year around.
T.J. and I signed up for a one-hour surf lesson over at Toes on the Nose (the school is located inside the Hyatt Regency) in hopes we would be able to catch a Pacific wave before we jetted back to the mountains. Our instructor, Johnny, who is nicknamed “Surf Jesus” because of his long hair, outfitted us with wetsuits and boards before we headed to the beach to practice our pops up on the sand. He was able to explain and critique in a short amount of time, which meant we could get to the fun part of surfing in the ocean.
In the water, Johnny spotted for a tame wave, told me to start paddling, and no sooner than I did I heard him say: “pop up!” With my eyes on the shore, I landed my feet in the center of the board and rode the wave in.
That adrenaline rush of catching a wave quickly drained, however, when for the next handful of attempts I was a barney (slang for a surfer that is not cool, untalented, rookie). I was starting to feel a little disappointed in myself as time after time I wiped out and the one-hour lesson we had booked was quickly running down. I was definitely feeling the pressure to get one good shot on our GoPro as a keepsake. So I paddled out and listened intensely to Johnny’s next five words: “Commit to the pop up.”
On his command, I landed my feet on the board and could tell that while still a barney, I caught the wave, kept my balance and rode all the way into the shore. I threw my hands up in the air, jumped up and down and shouted out in pure joy. Yes, a total novice, but I was filled with absolute exhilaration. This is what surfing does to your spirit.
Later on, we were walking down the Huntington Pier and I couldn’t help but feel drawn to the sport. T.J. and I grabbed a vanilla ice cream from Ruby’s (a diner at the end of the pier) and watched surfers of all ability levels ride waves.
The best surf watch party was yet to come, however. We found it the next day when checking out a competition at the pier. Me watching football? Channel surfing. Me watching a surf competition? Completely in my zone and focused. It was amazing to watch some incredible athletes out there cutting through the waves and even shooting the pier, at which point I could tell my mouth fell open.
Since we were so clearly hooked on surf, we loved checking out the International Surfing Museum. Outside you will find the world’s largest surfboard at 42 feet long and weighing in at 1300 pounds. In 2015, 66 riders caught a wave on the board for 12 seconds. On the inside, you will find boards and bios of some of the world’s best surfers.
What to Do Beyond Surfing:
As much as Huntington Beach is about surfing, there are plenty of other things we would recommend doing on a romantic getaway. Without our little guy, we took advantage of staying out past 7 p.m. and doing things like spending an hour with Sunset Gondola. There are only 21 real and authentic Venetian gondolas in the country, and ours was one of them, complete with a shiny red finish, bronze statue and authentic carvings. We booked a 1-hour ride that took us through the canals of the Huntington Harbours passing along yachts and million dollar homes that are fun to gawk at. TJ and I snuggled under a blanket as our gondolier, Tim Reinhard, who goes by his Venetian name ‘Bepi’ sang classic Venetian songs.
Where to Stay:
We stayed at the Hilton’s Waterfront Beach Resort because of the location (across the street from the beach) and amenities at the hotel, which included a spa and pool. Our spacious and comfortable room was the perfect spot to wake up and watch the sunrise from the balcony.
After, we meandered down to the Boardwalk Restaurant (open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner) where you can sit outside for a pool and ocean view or the atmospheric inside with floor to ceiling windows that let the California sun pour through. The restaurant serves up all the breakfast classics but the California omelet was our go to and comes with a generous amount of fresh avocado on the side.
During the days, we took advantage of the pool and of course the waterslides, even if we were virtually the only adults on them (hey, it made for a good Instagram story). Our highlight of staying here though was the couple’s massage at the Drift Waterfront Spa. It was another excellent way to re-connect and bond as a couple when you’re away from the kiddo for a few nights. Afterward, I told TJ that is even more affirmation of why we need to move to Huntington Beach — so I can sign up for a membership at the spa. He was so relaxed after his treatment, I am pretty sure he agreed.
In the evenings, we loved winding down at the hotel’s Offshore 9 Rooftop Lounge, which is the ultimate place to watch an open-air sunset from the ninth floor rooftop. We grabbed one of the few remaining seats and felt lucky to have snagged a table with a fire pit. For a drink, I ordered how I felt: on “Cloud 9.” It is a gin-based cocktail made with sparkling wine and lemon.
Another romantic must-do is the hotel’s beach bonfire package. It is set up on the beach almost directly across from the hotel and we had our own personal fire pit that was lit when we sat down and tended to for us throughout the evening. S’mores are also included. TJ roasted his mallow to a perfect golden brown while I, as usual, blew out a small fire on mine. We grabbed the graham and chocolate bars, sat back in our Adirondack chairs and enjoyed each other’s company 1:1 with the sound of the waves crashing in one ear and a fire crackling in the other.
Returning to Denver after four days on our own we were super excited to see our son, and also feeling really re-energized about our relationship. Budgeting for some alone travel time with your partner when you have a young child really is a blessing if you’re lucky enough to have grandparents who can watch your little one while you adventure with your husband for a few days.
See also: Best Places to Eat in Huntington Beach