Huntington Beach, Southern California: From Hollywood to Huntington Beach, SoCal's in easy reach

 "What do you mean you've never surfed? That doesn't sound very Australian," says my new worst enemy, as I'm madly trying to channel the surfer vibe to calm my nerves before I embark on my first ever surfing lesson. Unfortunately it is too early for a drink.

Yes, I may be Australian, and yes, I can do something you can loosely define as "swim", but standing on a board on water? Among those big SoCal waves? No way. Besides which, no one looks good in a wetsuit.

The instructor pushes me into the world's tiniest wave break for what feels like the hundredth time and I'm gliding off. But things go terribly wrong when you forget to stand. I drive the front of the board downward and waves crash over my head, dumping me fairly and squarely into the water as the board springs out and takes off on an extended trip southward towards Tijuana, Mexico.

"Wanna break?" my instructor asks cheerily, sensing my derision."I can catch a few waves!" I say a silent prayer of relief and grant him his leave. He makes it look so simple.

"Do you want to catch another few waves?" he says, on his return, smile unwavering. My inner voice screams no. But my actual voice reigns supreme with a pitiful "sure". "Is that a seal?" I spew awkwardly, grateful for the distraction, spying its head bobbing happily up and down in a nearby wave, almost encouragingly.

A few more tries and I find myself able to kneel but I can't get the gumption to stand, knowing full well I'm going to fall straight off.

I'm relieved to hear, despite all appearances to the contrary, I'm not the worst surfer that ever was. Some people that come for lessons can't even swim – I'm not sure if that's down to bravery or stupidity.

"But you're having fun," he questions with an unrivalled enthusiasm. "Yeah!" I echo weakly. He hasn't noticed that this is possibly the longest 45 minutes of my entire life.

Surfing is not something you pick up in one easy lesson, although most are able to at least stand on the board by lesson's end. Alas – I was not going to be one of those people today. But it's a good thing Surf City has plenty of other attractions for landlubbers.

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In the heart of Orange County nestled between Newport and Long Beach, Surf City USA is gearing up for the coming week's volleyball championship. On either side of the city's iconic pier, surfers bob up and down on the waves; but right now, volleyball is front row centre. I lean over the pier to take a closer look at the tanned bikini-clad bodies, darting around athletically and I'm truly grateful it's not quite warm enough yet, in mid-April, to go swimming.

Although surfing is firmly embedded into the Orange County psyche, the days of Huntington Beach being a surf bum destination have long since past. Originally little more than a community of bungalows with surfboards propped up against the fences, development is now in full swing. The surfers have proper jobs in Los Angeles a mere hour away up Highway 405 and even my surfing instructor fits kitchens to the stars in Hollywood full-time.

Directly behind the Pier the huge, rebranded Kimpton Shorebreak hotel has a surfing vibe. Painted hues of blue and white, the large, breezy, light-filled rooms depict surfing motifs to get you in the mood. There's also chipper staff, "wine hour", and a slew of healthy breakfasts to get you revved in the morning. The pavement along Highway 101 – the infamous Pacific Coast Highway – has a star walk of for famous surfers with the likes of Tom Carroll to pay homage to. There's surf shops and clothes shops with a Californian, bohemian vibe, ice-cream shops, coffee shops, and eateries specialising in healthy, California-style fast food, like Hawaiian poke (North Shore Poke Co) and acai bowls (Banzai Bowls).

A few hundred metres further down the road, Pacific City – a swanky new mall – is in the early stages of opening, already home to branches of Seafolly and Sephora and new restaurants, like the loud and bright Saint Marc, which booms with retro music as you order and pay through an eTouch menu on an iPad.

A few seconds after ordering, a staff member lays a bowl of soup in front of me and says, cheerily: "It's a good thing you ordered soup, it's really good for a cold day like today." I turn and take a terrified look out the window, expecting dark clouds, palm trees bent at an angle from gale force winds and rain pelting silently at the windows. But no, I see nothing but clear cloudless blue skies, sun beaming down joyfully. Cold? Only for SoCal.

There is only one way to recover from surfing, swimming or volleyball – via a nice relaxing massage at the Hyatt's huge Mediterranean-themed Pacific Waters Spa, where you can not only enjoy a full suite of massage, but a sunny bath house beckons with a sauna, steam room, and outdoor relaxation areas. Plus, there's cake.

The Hyatt is also home to one of the region's best restaurants, Watertable, which serves modern American, top notch seafood and Spanish-style tapas, local wines and artisanal cocktails, as well as a never ending supply of homemade rolls served warm and delivered in a paper bag.

But tonight, I'm refuelling at Sealegs, a new, classic wine bar serving tapas, a Huntington favourite. The chef has got his work cut out for him as the place is packed and he's also manning the kitchen of his new restaurant a few doors down, Sea Salt, which opened two days ago.

I'm marvelling at brussels sprouts roasted in a mirin glaze that make the perfect drinking companion; a four-cheese mac and cheese that tries to remedy the calories with peas, asparagus and kale; but all hell breaks loose when I am served the warm "seazookie'' – under-baked cookie dough served in a cast iron skillet with vanilla ice-cream, chocolate sauce and sea salt. Wash this down with a frothy gin muddled with basil and strawberries or an excellent selection of Californian wine, and Sealegs brilliantly showcases what Orange County has to offer when it comes to Californian cuisine.

 

#NationalIceCreamDay 🍨

A photo posted by SeaLegs (@sealegswinebar) on

But the heart and soul of Huntington lies in its spectacular shores; and there is one other unmissable sunset tradition on its wide sandy beaches. Here you'll find the locals congregating at night toasting S'mores over bonfires. And when they are not breaking records for creating the world's biggest surfboards, or having the most people ride one, they're trying their luck at toasting the highest number of marshmallows, which are then wedged between salty graham crackers and melted chocolate to create America's favourite campside sandwich. Huntington Beach is one of the only foreshores to have concrete bonfire rings – 500 of them – and the tradition is so popular you'll have to get in early to make sure you secure your ring, your firewood, and your S'more fixings.

Huntington, you've come a long way, baby.

Trip Notes

Getting there

The closest airport is Orange County's Burbank Bob Hope Airport, but there are no direct flights from the capital cities. Unless you come from San Francisco, your best bet is to fly to LA and drive.

You can fly to Los Angeles via Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane with Air New Zealand; airnewzealand.com. Hire a car from LAX with Alamo alamo.com and drive to Huntington Beach via the 405 which usually takes around 45 minutes.

Staying there

Kimpton Shorebreak Hotel; shorebreakhotel.com

Hyatt Regency; huntingtonbeach.regency.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home

Activities

Hyatt's Pacific Waters Spa; huntingtonbeach.regency.hyatt.com/en/hotel/activities/hotel-activities/spa

Toes on the Nose offer private surfing lessons; Ph 949-335-9861, toesonthenose.com/products/copy-of-surf-lesson-private

Eating there

Sealegs wine bar; sealegswinebar.com

Watertable restaurant, watertablehb.com

Saint Marc, saintmarcusa.com

The writer travelled courtesy Visit Huntington Beach

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