Photograph by Chris Bickford, National Geographic Travel

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Surfing students take to the waves in Cocoa Beach.

Photograph by Chris Bickford, National Geographic Travel

Florida by Water: Learn to Surf

Florida's surf is relatively gentle, so if you've ever wanted to try surfing, this is the place to learn.

The Atlantic coast is Florida's surf capital thanks to jetty, pier, and reef breaks at places like Sebastian Inlet, Ponce Inlet, and Juno Pier. When narrow inlets pull in ocean swells they intensify, creating pretty consistent wave action. Florida's surf is relatively gentle, however, so if you've ever wanted to try catching a wave, this is the place to learn.

School of Surf, Cocoa Beach

Native son and 11-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater learned to surf in Cocoa Beach, which has reigned as the East Coast's unofficial surf city since the 1960s. "Cocoa Beach is an ideal place to learn to surf, with sandy bottom beaches, warm water, and great waves all year round," says Lauren Holland, owner/operator of the family-run School of Surf. Holland and her instructors emphasize water safety and customize private and group lessons to fit each surfer's—or surfing newbie's—ability level.

Jax Beach Surf Shop, Jacksonville Beach

"Jax Beach is like a slice of southern California in Florida: a surf and skateboard culture with a Southern hospitality twist," says Tony Hall, owner of Jax Beach Surf Shop. Along with his team of instructors, Hall—an avid surfer who has conquered monster waves from Baja to Bali—offers private and group lessons year-round. Rates include two hours of post-lesson surf time, giving rookie wave riders the opportunity to practice their skills and get inside tips from local surfers. "Learning to surf at Jax Beach is fun due to the miles of uncrowded beach breaks and the laid-back vibe of our Southern surfers," says Hall.

Ron Jon Surf School, Cocoa Beach

Thanks in part to the ubiquitous Ron Jon Surf Shop billboards on I-75, I-95, I-4, and Florida's Turnpike, the name "Ron Jon" is synonymous with Florida surf culture. The 52,000-square-foot Cocoa Beach store—billed as the "world's largest surf shop"—has everything you need to surf, except lessons. No fear. Just blocks north of the shop is the Ron Jon Surf School, founded in 1993 as Cocoa Beach Surfing School by former pro surfer Craig Carroll. The school specializes in teaching beginners of all ages, says chief operating officer Corey Carroll, who's also a lifelong surfer and Craig's son. And although the Ron Jon name and the fact that this is one of Florida's largest and oldest surf schools may give the impression that lessons here are impersonal group sessions, the school specializes in private and semiprivate instruction. "You're never too old to learn how to surf, especially here in Cocoa Beach, where the small waves are ideal for beginners," adds Carroll. "The oldest person we've taught to surf was 87. It's a low-impact, high-yield workout that is completely natural. There's nothing motorized and nothing propelling you except your body and the waves. To me, surfing is the best way to experience Florida in a natural way."


When to Go: Winter (November-March) produces the most consistent waves.

What to Wear: Sunscreen, Lycra surf shirts, and board shorts or a surfing wetsuit

Fun Fact: Legendary barefoot water-skier "Banana George" Blair (1915 -2013), who is listed in Guinness World Records as the only person to water-ski barefoot on every continent, learned how to surf at age 83 at the Cocoa Beach Surfing School.