Around a few more corners, you’ll come to County Line Beach, the northernmost Malibu surf spot, and a great spot for soaking up some California surf culture.
You know you’re nearing Malibu when a motorcycle veers by with a surfboard strapped to its side. Tucked at the far western edge of Los Angeles County, where the rolling hills meet the Pacific Ocean, Malibu is the epicentre of California surf culture. This picturesque stretch of coastline has long sported some of the best surf in the continental United States, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s that Malibu gained international fame. With the release of the 1959 film Gidget starring Sandra Dee, the world came to know Malibu as an idyllic beach town where hard-bodied surfers and wholesome, suntanned beach babes frolicked in the sand and rode the waves. In the years since then, Malibu has become a luxury destination for Hollywood celebrities and visitors from around the world. At the same time, the region remains home to some of the original surfers who made it famous, and continues to draw surfers from near and far, each hoping to secure a pocket of the Pacific for themselves.
Those looking to join the throngs will need a set of wheels – preferably four, if you’ve got a board in tow. If you’re approaching Malibu from the north, you’ll head along Highway 1, which meanders through inland valleys before popping out at Point Mugu. It’s worth a quick stop at the side of the road to savour the ocean breeze, and admire the way the rocky land spills into turquoise waters, but keep heading south – Malibu awaits. The road follows the wavering line of the coast, and though it’s tempting to gaze out to sea, you’ll want to keep your eyes on the road. The next thirty miles are dotted with popular beaches and hiking trails leading up into the coastal canyons. It’s not hard to spot the favourites – the highway will be lined with parked cars. You’ll know you’re getting close to the centre of it all when you pass a giant sand dune across from the ocean that rises hundreds of feet above the road, dwarfing the children who clamber up its flank. Around a few more corners, you’ll come to County Line Beach, the northernmost Malibu surf spot, and a great spot for soaking up some California surf culture. Directly across from the beach is Neptune’s Net, a roadside seafood eatery and market that serves as a pit stop for the biker crowd. The busy parking lot sports everything from cherry red Ferraris to rusted out VW buses with surf racks, as well as a small army of motorcycles, from souped-up sports bikes to classic cruisers. This is the place to pause for a pitcher of beer and a basket of fries; brave souls seeking classic American cuisine may want to try “The Knucklehead:” Neptune’s double bacon cheeseburger.
Across the road, the dusty bluffs that line County Line Beach are home to a varied cast of characters. Slip past the ranks of parked cars and you’ll find them. Aging, leather-faced surfers stand looking down at the break, emitting the occasional holler at a good set, while extended families gather nearby to chat and drink. Dripping wetsuits line the guardrail, and seagulls hover overhead, surfing the air currents and looking for scraps of food. Though veteran surfers tend to prefer other beaches, the length of the break at County Line accommodates a good-sized crowd. When I visit on a Saturday afternoon in July, I could spot nearly a hundred surfers in the water. At the east end of the beach, a female lifeguard stands watch at the base of her tower. Her name is Savannah, and she’s happy to chat. “I want people to come down and enjoy a day at the beach,” she chirps. Surfers are notoriously territorial, and can be intolerant of beginners. I ask her whether that’s a problem at this beach. “This break is nicknamed kooky line,” she admits, adding, “There are a lot of kooks out there who don’t know what they’re doing.” Yet she often spends her breaks out on her board, and says she can always find a spot to herself. Certainly, the crowds lining the sand in their beach chairs, coolers by their sides, are unfazed by whatever drama might be unfolding on the water. I decide to join them, and sink my toes into the warm sand. A flock of pelicans glides past, their long beaks and giant wingspan lending them prehistoric grace. Part of the joy of surfing is that it’s a spectator sport – the best surfers on this break are like dancers, swinging and dipping across the face of the waves. Even on land, they’re objects of curiosity; I watch a surfer with dreadlocks hanging down to his knees lope across the wet sand, slowly heading for the less populated point at the west end of the beach.
As you head south from County Line, you’ll come across a series of beaches; North and South Beaches at Leo Carillo, El Pescador, La Piedra, and El Matador. You’ll have to pay a modest fee to park at these spots, and you’ll get slightly nicer facilities than the port-a-potties at County Line. Other popular Malibu surf breaks include those at Nicholas Canyon, Latigo Canyon, and Zuma beaches. The beach party films of the 1960s may have built Malibu’s reputation, but before Beach Blanket Bingo ever hit the big screen, surfers like Butch Linden were riding the waves. In 1961, Linden and a group of his buddies formed the Malibu Surfing Association, a group that continues to host surf contests and champion the golden days of Malibu surfing. I caught Linden on the phone to chat about Malibu’s surf heyday; “Back then, there were a lot of spots to choose from, and not a lot of surfers,” he reminisces. “Everybody kind of knew each other, and when you arrived at a surf spot you’d say hello.” That’s not quite the scene in 2013, though the happy memories Linden describes sound much like the exploits of today’s young surfers: getting up at 3am for dawn patrol surf sessions, and showing up at school with matted hair and salty eyebrows. Whether you’re a veteran surfer like Linden, a newcomer to the sport, an avid spectator, or an out-of-town visitor looking to soak up some Southern California surf culture, Malibu remains a sacred spot. It’s a place where many cultures meet over their shared love of the ocean. All you need is a set of wheels to get you there, a surfboard if you’re so inclined, and maybe a beach blanket.