If you love a beach but don’t like lying on it then perhaps you should try venturing into the water. A family surf lesson is a great way to enjoy the coast, and perfect for thrill hungry teenagers. Portugal’s Algarve is packed with gorgeous beaches, has an active surf scene and is where Garret McNamara recently surfed the biggest wave in the world. So, pumped up by that, and not long into our Algarve Adventure we set off to see if we could ride the waves, with any degree of style at all…
Family Surf Lesson in Portugal’s Algarve
The sun is on my face. The salt is on my skin. The world is at my feet. I’m surfing.
OK, I’m not standing up. Granted, the instructor might have given me a bit of a shove. And yes, I’m dumped in the shallows with a mouthful of sand. But I did it! Even my seven year old is a surfer today as she clings on to her small body board, praying that the tide doesn’t draw her off to the moon.
The Algarve: a surfer’s paradise
If you fancy becoming a surfing family then Portugal’s Algarve is an ideal place to start. There are 74 blue flag beaches so if the conditions aren’t right at one, you can either sit it out at the beach bar or simply drive around the coast to another. There is a massive year round surf culture here. Just along the coast from where we are surfing, in the fishing village of Nazaré, Garret McNamara recently rode a 100 metre wave – the biggest wave in the world.
Surfing is a fairly modern activity on a coastline that has long been synonymous with golfing and package holidays. (It’s said that the package holiday began in The Algarve.) Around thirty years ago people started to come with their boards and try out the waves, but it’s only in the last two decades that surfing has become a mainstream activity here. As the Rip Curl and Quiksilver brands began to merge sport and high street fashion, surf companies started to spring up around the world’s most popular beaches and many surfers found homes in The Algarve teaching courses and one off lessons to holidaymakers.
The beaches are big enough to handle a lot of people without feeling as crowded as France or England, although apparently they can feel a little claustrophobic in peak summer. The real surfers hang out at the west coast where the biggest waves are. This is where we first spot them; looking like worker ants on a cold wet day in a pretty part of The Algarve where the National Park begins and carries on to Lisbon far in the north. Around 30 bedraggled boarders battle the rain on Praia do Beliche while we huddle out of the wind and consider paying the entrance fee to the fort of Sagres to avoid the bad weather. Family surfing is for a sunny day.
We order the weather and it duly arrives
In the cobbled town and former walled city of Lagos we wander up narrow streets lined with tiny sun washed terraced houses. We have a date with an instructor from Surf Experience, the oldest surf school in town. Its headquarters double up as a hostel for those who want to immerse themselves totally in the sport. Inside, it’s much as you expect; a giant TV playing yesterday’s top surfing moments and some very relaxed dudes hanging out having breakfast.
“You aren’t allowed to say the word Dude Mum. And neither is Dad,” says Matthew. “It’s embarrassing for me and Cameron.” Point taken.
We ‘gear up’ with wet suits and then, accompanied by instructor Matt Shears, we head down to the beach. Meia Praia in Lagos is long beach with white sands. The day before we stood on the jetty and marveled at the waves. Today we are learning how to harness them.
Ride the wave.. well that’s the plan
First we have to learn how to lie on a board. If this sounds easy, it’s not. Not when a huge wave is coming at you. Thankfully Matt is on hand to help. But it’s not just a case of lying on the board like a sunbather on a lilo. To catch a wave you have to paddle as fast as a wave. And that takes a lot of energy, and a bit of timing too.
“Portugal gets a fantastic amount of swell. The waves are as good as anywhere else in the world,” says Matt as he pushes me off.
When I wind up in the shallows Matt tells me he came to Portugal on a surfing holiday 16 years ago and stayed. He now divides his time teaching skills to enthusiasts and beginners in The Algarve and Sri Lanka. In the last six or seven years he’s seen more single women coming and more surfers bringing their families to have a go.
“Women are easier to teach,” he grins. He might change his mind when he’s finished a session with me.
First lying down, then standing up?
Despite the sun it’s a chilly day and the water is cold, so as soon as we’ve mastered catching a wave lying down, we are back on the beach learning how to do it standing on our feet. Or at least kneeling. There’s no chance I’m going to get on my feet by the end of one lesson. I can hardly manage it on a chunk of dry land.
I give it a go, get dunked and want to get better at it. We are quite a competitive family and soon it’s a race to try and get on our feet as a wave rushes us to the beach. There’s plenty of squealing, quite a lot of splashing, and a fair amount of shivering from Hannah, who has been body boarding in the shallows.
I take her back to the bus before she turns to ice, and when I return, Matthew is standing on the blue, blue sea. I am, gobsmacked until I see our instructor beneath him, holding him aloft for a photo-call.
The kids don’t want their lesson to end, but the tide has turned and it’s too dangerous to do any more.
“The quicker the wave comes in and smashes down, the quicker it wants to go out, creating the current. Surfing is actually all about patience and waiting for the right conditions,” says Matt.
Not something we have a lot of as a family. But in Portugal you might not have to wait as long as other places for the perfect wave.
Lots of surfing options around The Algarve
“Part of the joy of surfing here,” explains Matt, “is that there are so many beaches in different directions. If we drive to the to the west the waves might be 15ft. But for someone the size of Hannah that wave is going to seem like an avalanche. When learning you need the right water. What you want to do is stay in control of the board.”
For family members that can swim, surfing is a great family sport. It’s fun and active and our kids are very engaged, until they get too cold to function. The company we went with, The Surf Experience, provided wet suits, boards and most importantly lunch. But they specialise in adult holidays. For beginners like us there several different surf schools in The Algarve offering one off lessons or week long courses in a range of different languages. The Algarve Tourist Board should be able to help you with finding the right one.
Late spring is possibly the best time to give it a go. If you visit in peak summer, you’ll love the water temperature but might be bothered by the crowds and the hot sand burning your feet.If you go in winter you might find the water too cold to stay in long enough to develop much skill. Remember to take sun block and a swimming costume and a bottle of water to rehydrate after all that activity. And do take the kids. They’ll whupp you in the waves but love you for including them in the fun.
Disclosure Note: Our thanks to the Algarve Tourist Board and lowcostholidays.com for supporting our Algarve Adventure. The experience, all views and opinions expressed are as ever, entirely our own.