Tanned and toned, the wahini paddles furiously as a turquoise swell lifts her board and shoots her into fast-forward. She crouches steadily, then hops to her feet in pounce position. White foam churns around her ankles as her back-and-forth boogie works the board into the face of the wave. You can almost hear Dick Dale shredding in the background.
True, board-shorted Baby Boomer Rita Quinlan doesn’t carve the swells with the same banzai intensity as the young guns jockeying beside her in the warm waters off Eleuthera, Bahamas. But then again, she’s old enough to be their mother.
Picking up the longboard two years ago scratched an itch this Long Islander had had since she was 18. “I’m a total beginner,” says Quinlan, “and probably always will be, but to me surfing is a challenge -- and it keeps me young and fit.” She’s not alone among the middle-aged set seeking out tasty waves; where once the breaks were mainly the domain of teenagers, today, one in three surfers is older than 34.
Quinlan and her husband have a vacation house on Pine Cay in the Turks and Caicos. They’ve been going there since 1990, but it was only recently that she learned about the swells that hit the Turks in winter. “It’s kind of a secret among big-wave riders,” she confides.
It’s not the only one. While the Caribbean is often overlooked as a surfing destination, the region is scattered with breaks fit for aficionados, first-timers and everyone in between. The Quiksilver Crossing, a wave-hunting mission by pro athletes sponsored by the surf gear manufacturer, documented dozens of virgin rides between 2003 and 2005.
“Surfers like to get away from the crowds, and the Caribbean is a great place to do it,” says Crossing crewman and board designer Matt Kechele. “Consistency can be an issue, but when it’s on [surfing season here runs from November through March], the shallow reefs make the waves more hollow, more radical.”
And, in some cases, more dangerous. Newbies are counseled to stay away from the rocks and coral and only ride over a sandy bottom. For those looking to give it a try, Dez Bartelt, owner of Rincón Surf School in Rincón, Puerto Rico, says it takes a minimum of six hours of instruction to get a handle on essential skills like paddling, surf entry and exit techniques, wave selection and catching and riding waves. “Within a week, we can get them out on their own,” she says.
Even if you’d rather watch than risk wipe-out, the Caribbean’s colorful collection of surf beaches serves up a great time. Surfing is more than a sport; it’s a way of life with a cool culture that spills onto the shores. Here are some of the region’s most righteous scenes.
A choice pick of star surfer Kelly Slater, the east coast of Barbados turns out trade-wind-powered heavies that have hosted international competitions. The cream of the crop is Bathsheba’s Soup Bowl, a beach break that normally crests at five feet but can surge up to 15 and higher. For novices, Freights Bay and Surfer’s Point to the south turn out more forgiving waves, averaging three to five feet in easy-paddling water.
Surf Digs: Fifty yards from Soup Bowl, comfortable Surfing Cottages at Bathsheba start at $272 per week, year-round. surfing-barbados.com; 246-256-3906; surfing-barbados.com
The Upgrade: The Crane resort enchants guests with historic charm and a half-mile of beachfront (from $165 in low season, $241 high). 246-423-6220; thecrane.com
Cabarete, Dominican Republic
Famous for its world-class windsurfing and kiteboarding, Cabarete is gaining a reputation as an unspoiled surfing gem. Encuentro is a reliable wave with a left break over a shallow reef and a right over a sandbar, with an easy takeoff and escalating down-the-line speed.
Lessons: No Work Team offers a single lesson for $35 (three hours) and two three-hour sessions plus three additional days’ board rental for $89. 011-809-571-0820; noworkteamcabarete.com
Surf Digs: Ali’s Surf Camphas tent sites, cozy cottages (from $20 per person year-round) and rental apartments (from $55). alissurfcamp.com; 011-809-571-0733
The Upgrade: Velero Beach Resort offers four-star luxury in 22 two-bedroom apartments and seven penthouses (from $65 in low season, $100 high). 011-809-571-9727; velerobeach.com
This nautical nirvana is blessed with baby-blue waves and sugar-white shores, and it’s often blissfully empty. Surfers Beach rims the north end of the island, with a wave that stretches long on the left -- a nice run for learners -- with some steep sections on the right. With a boat you can tackle remote breaks like Rights on neighboring Elbow Cay; Capt. Z Fishing and Dive Charters (302-227-6202; surfeleuthera.com) can make it happen with half- and full-day tours.
Lessons: Bahamas Out-Island Adventures launches a pair of one-week Surf Schools here in June ($849, not including airfare). They also offer surfaris up to four days long. 242-551-9635; bahamasadventures.com
Surf Digs: Surfers Beach Manor has 11 newly renovated rooms (from $79 in low season, $89 high), plus a restaurant and lounge. 242-335-5300; thebahamaian.com/surfersbeachmanor
The Upgrade: Located in Gregory Town, The Cove offers 26 rooms and suites recently remodeled to blend urban chic and island charm (from $195 year-round). 800-552-5960; thecoveeleuthera.com
Rincón, Puerto Rico
With no fewer than 10 big-wave breaks, Rincón is the Caribbean’s answer to Hawaii’s famed Banzai Pipeline. Maria’s generates solid tuck-in tubes that hold shape for 100 feet. (It’s right in front of HotWavz Surf Shop.) Tres Palmas, a little south, is Puerto Rico’s largest wave, cresting at 15 to 20 feet. North of the point, Sandy Beach has a clean wave and a soft bottom, good conditions for beginners.
Surf Digs: Rincón Surf and Board is a Caribbean-style guesthouse overlooking the beach (from $50 in low season, $60 high). 787-823-0610; surfandboard.com
The Upgrade: Just minutes from primo surfing, Rincón Beach Resort is a quiet Spanish-style boutique resort (from $185 in low season, $230 high). 866-589-0009; rinconbeach.com
Tortola, British Virgin Islands
Surfistas know the BVI as the best-kept secret in the Caribbean. On the north shore of Tortola, Apple Bay serves up a tasty mid-level ride. At Cane Garden Bay kamikazes can dive-bomb 10-footers when conditions are right. Josiah’s Bay rolls out a relaxed classic, averaging three feet and landing at the foot of Naomi’s Grapetree Beach Bar. There are also north-coast monsters reachable only by boat, but those are best left to the pros.
Lessons: In March, North Carolina-based Surf Camp takes beginners and intermediates on weeklong trips to Tortola ($2,195, not including airfare); they also arrange private excursions. wbsurfcamp.com. 866-844-7873; wbsurfcamp.com
Surf Digs: Sebastian’s on the Beach rents 26 rooms on Little Apple Bay (from $75 in low season, $125 high). 800-336-4870l
The Upgrade: Sugar Mill is a secluded luxury hotel tucked amid lush surroundings on Little Apple’s northern shore (from $225 in low season, $310 high). 800-462-8834; sugarmillhotel.com
is the magazine for anyone in search of the perfect tropical getaway. Each issue presents expert insider’s advice on where to find the Caribbean’s best beaches and attractions, its finest resorts and spas, liveliest beach bars and activities, and its friendliest people.