Pro surfing loves, needs, celebrates the ocean with its contests. But the ocean doesn't care. There's no guaranteed 1 p.m. kickoff. No timeouts. No penalties. No do-overs. A guy's career might be hanging by a thread, needing a great heat to stay alive, and all the Pacific or Atlantic or Indian can come up with is some ankle-slapping slop.
That's the allure and the frustration of watching "The Dream Tour." The ocean can roar and thrash. Or it can act like a lake. Waves can be too small — or sometimes too big. Covered in rain or blown out by winds.
But then there are those magic days. Waves rolling from the horizon like endless folds in a slick blue fabric, breaking perfectly under cloudless skies.
It's for those days that I've flown to Australia and Europe, Hawaii and California (OK, I drive in California). Wait through all the bad days because a great day is a memory I'll never forget. Banzai Pipeline at "triple overhead" — 15 feet. The price is usually right: gas money and the cost of a sandwich from a roadside vendor. Seats? Grab some sand and enjoy yourself.
The best of the best compete each year in the Association of Surfing Professionals World Tour, also called "the Dream Tour." It's a true "Endless Summer" that starts in the Southern Hemisphere in March, moves north for our summer and then ends up with the final showdown in Hawaii. Whether you are making a pilgrimage to see Kelly Slater or just lucky enough to happen upon a contest on your vacation, enjoy athleticism and artistry at their best.
March: Gold Coast, Australia
Just south of the aptly named city of "Surfers Paradise" is the traditional first stop of pro surfing's top tour. The booming east coast of Australia has filled up with apartment buildings in recent decades, but it's still home to some of the best surf beaches on the bottom side of the world. In the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed, March is late summer. On the sands south of Brisbane, it's "slip-slap-slop" time: slip on a shirt, slap on a hat and slop on some sunscreen. The opening event of the world tour has been held in a variety of Gold Coast spots, from Kirra to Coolangatta. But when the rest of the coast is flat, the surfers head down to Snapper Rocks, where a bend in the beach and a jetty form a perfect wave-making machine when they're a foot higher than anywhere else for miles around. Along with surfing, summer brings the famous Australian lifesaving games, with long-distance swimming and the crazy crashing of dory boats making their way through the waves. The area is a popular summer vacation spot, with many high-rise condos for rent, along with a slew of hotels, motels and cheap seafood spots.
Nearest big city: Brisbane
Contest: The Quiksilver Pro, won this year by Taj Burrow. Dates for 2011 will be announced later this year at aspworldtour.com
Ease of viewing: Excellent. Within walking distance of many hotels and rental apartments in a popular vacation enclave.
Attraction nearby: The David Fleay Wildlife Park in West Burleigh is the place to go to see kangaroos, wallabies, dingoes, wombats, platypuses and other Australian species. Skip the American knock-off theme parks nearby and take in a little bit of true Australian wildlife.
More information: verygoldcoast.com
March: Bells Beach, Australia
Take the Great Ocean Road about 70 miles west out of Melbourne and you'll hit Torquay. A road to the south eventually cuts across what used to be Mrs. Bell's farm. From parking spots above a bluff, a staircase leads down to a cove-shaped stretch of sand that is Bells Beach, the most legendary surf spot on the continent. It's celebrated as the birthplace of professional surfing, at least in Australia. Bells claims to have the world's oldest continuous pro surfing contest, going back to 1961. Part of the appeal, and the challenge, of Bells is that it's the flip side of the Gold Coast. Getting there and staying there is a chore. But it's one that feels more special than the Gold Coast (for Southern Californians, it's like the difference between Huntington Beach and Trestles). The down side is that you can make the trip all the way out to Bells and hit a day when the surf isn't up to par and the contest is off. It's a long way back to the city. I checked it out on a drive along the Great Ocean Road, one of the world's best scenic drives — Australia's version of Highway 1, except with kangaroos.
Nearest big city: Melbourne
Contest: The Rip Curl Pro, won this year by Kelly Slater. Dates for 2011 will be announced later this year at aspworldtour.com
Ease of viewing: Medium. Torquay is a small town with limited lodging and restaurant choices. It's fun and quaint when the contests aren't on, overcrowded and a hassle when they are.
Attraction nearby: Anglesea Golf Club. One of the oddest and most enjoyable golf courses you can play, it's home to dozens of kangaroos who hop around the fairways. Under club rules, a ball that hits a kangaroo is in play.
More information: visitvictoria.com
April: Santa Catarina, Brazil
Brazil has been seen a surfing boom, with a crop of young boardriders like Adriano de Souza and Neco Padaratz. National pride received a big boost this year when Jadson Andre, 20, won the Santa Catarina Pro. The Atlantic Coast along this stretch of the southernmost part of Brazil is prized for hundreds of pristine beaches, mostly free of the pollution that has damaged the health and reputation of the famous urban beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema in Rio. Along with sultry Salvador da Bahia to the far north, Santa Catarina has become a hot destination for those who have tired of Punta del Este in Uruguay and are looking for a more authentic (and less expensive) experience. It's actually an island set close to the mainland, with everything from rain forests to sand dunes to pine trees.
Nearest big city: Sco Paulo
Contest: Santa Catarina Pro. The 2011 dates will be announced at aspworldtour.com
Ease of viewing: Good. It takes awhile to get to Santa Catarina, but once there, the place is set up to serve surfers and vacationers. With 127 beaches, the area is one of the most popular sun-and-fun spots in Brazil.
Attraction nearby: Florianopolis. A city on an island, it's the capital of Santa Catarina state and a major summer party spot filled with dance clubs and up-all-night bars and cafes. Its location draws Brazilians from Sco Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and Argentines who come up from Buenos Aires.
More information: embrateur.br
July: Jeffreys Bay, South Africa
The long, rolling, right-breaking tubes of the east coast of South Africa were a highlight of the original "Endless Summer" movie. It was St. Francis Bay that first brought international surfers to this watery promised land, only to find a better, faster tube nearby at Jeffreys Bay, known as J-Bay. It was a popular spot during the apartheid era for local surfers and those from around the world willing to look the other way at the human conditions around them to chase a wave. But for many surfers, and surf companies that sponsor events, it was strictly off-limits. With the end of apartheid in 1992, it's been a regular stop on the international circuit. This is one of the most consistent surfing spots in the world, where the waves seem perpetually near-perfect shape. The most renowned break is called Supertubes. When conditions are perfect, rides of more than a half mile are not unheard of — if the surfer's knees and balance can hold up. Popularity has a price, with a building boom in the 1990s that has led to erosion of some of the dunes and increased litter being fought by the "Save Supertubes Foundation." It's about an hour south of Port Elizabeth.
Nearest big city: Cape Town
Contest: Billabong Pro, through July 25
Ease of viewing: Very good. Getting to the beach can be a chore in South Africa, where roads, rails and flights can be unpredictable. But once at the area, there are plenty of beachside accommodations and easy access to the breaks. The town of St. Francis Bay has a Mediterranean feel. The action is close enough to the shore that the casual observer can enjoy it without the aid of binoculars, though you should bring them anyway to get a closer view. There's a surf museum in the Quiksilver shop in town.
Attraction nearby: South Africa's game parks. It's a bit of a haul up to the Kruger National Park, but if you have come all this way to see surfing, do yourself a favor and add a day to visit the lions, leopards, elephants, water buffalo, giraffes and other wildlife.
More information: southafrica.net
August: Teahupoo, Tahiti
The heaviest wave on the tour is in one of the most remote locales in the surfing world. Teahupoo (pronounced "CHO-poo") is the most difficult contest for the surf fan to see. It's also the most rewarding if you can hit it on the right day at the right location. After flying across the Pacific to Tahiti, it's a long drive south to the smaller part of the island, called Tahiti Iti. Once there, you have to find a boat to get you out to the reef break to see the action. There are bigger waves — Jaws, Cortes Bank, Waimea Bay. But no wave is heavier than Teahupoo. It's an unbelievably fat curl of crushing water. "Teahupoo can kill you two ways," former Orange County Register surfing writer Shawn Price once told me. "It can hold you under until you drown or cut you to pieces on the reef."
Nearest big city: Papeete
Contest: Billabong Pro Teahupoo, Aug. 23-Sept. 3
Ease of viewing: Difficult. Long flight to Papeete. Long drive to Teahupoo. Haggling to get out on a boat from one of the local guesthouses (no boat and you might as well not have come). If it all comes together, magic. But sometimes it seems like it requires magic to make it come together. Why bother? Go see the IMAX film "The Ultimate Wave Tahiti" and try to resist.
Attraction nearby: Gauguin Museum. There's no significant Gauguin art to speak of, and even the prints of his works are worse for wear. The point of coming here is to see where the French artist and friend of Van Gogh found his inspiration in the tropics. It's at marker PK 51 near Taravao.
More information: tahiti-tourisme.com/
September: Trestles, San Clemente, Calif.
The crowds come to Huntington Beach, but in the surfing world, the classic surf beach in all of Southern California is Trestles. Located next to a trestle of the railroad tracks running alongside the beach, it's on Orange County's border with San Diego County. Unlike Huntington, there is no collection of surf shops or fish taco stands across the street. Because of its proximity to the Camp Pendleton Marine base, there is little of the development that has turned nearby areas into exclusive beach towns or tract housing, Trestles has the feel of old California. That's part of the allure for surfers and fans alike. The break is divided into upper and lower portions, with pros preferring what they call "Lowers."
Nearest big city: San Clemente
Contest: Hurley Pro, Sept. 12-18
Ease of viewing: Very good. The freeway takes you to a short distance from Trestles. There's limited parking and a bit of a walk, but it's negotiable if you give yourself time on contest days.
Attraction nearby: Mission San Juan Capistrano. One of the most famous of the string of church settlements created by Junipero Serra on the El Camino Real that stretched from Mexico to the San Francisco Bay Area. It's about 15 minutes up Interstate 5 from Trestles.
More information: visittheoc.com
September: Southwestern France
The Cotes des Basques at the elbow where southern France meets northern Spain is the birthplace of European surfing and still one of the top locations. Hossegor on the French side of the border and Mundaka in Spain have hosted top-tier surfing contests. Hossegor is the place this year for the premier surf event in France. The area has been a famed beach resort since the early 19th century, when aristocrats flocked to the strand to get away from the summer heat in Paris, Lyon and Marseille. For a picturesque view, nothing beats nearby Biarritz. It was here, in the 1950s, that the French embraced a sport invented in Hawaii and popularized in California. One story has it that screenwriter Peter Viertel ("The African Queen"), who learned surfing in Santa Monica, wowed the Biarritz crowd with his surfing while visiting with his wife, actress Debra Kerr. Biarritz offers a regal stage for surfers, who compete against the backdrop of sunbathers arrayed on the Grande Plage (Great Beach) around the dowager queen of beach resorts, the Hotel du Palais, where Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenia summered.
Nearest big city: Biarritz
Contest: Quiksilver Pro France, Sept. 25-Oct. 5
Ease of viewing: Very good. This has been tourist territory for more than 150 years, so there's little for the visitor to want, from transportation to hotels to gourmet restaurants (or just a cheap great sandwich on a warm, fresh French baguette).
Attraction nearby: Bordeaux wine country. It's a short drive inland to some of the best, bold red wines in the world.
More information: biarritz.fr
October: Peniche, Portugal
The name of the break, Supertubos, says it all. France and Spain have been southwest Europe's key surfing spots, but Portugal has moved up in events and surfers. Tiago Pieres of Portugal made the World Tour this year, and Peniche was the surprise choice of last year's Rip Curl Search (which is going to Puerto Rico in 2010). Peniche dubs itself Capital da Onda, which means "capital of surf" in Portuguese. The event went so well that Rip Curl decided to return with a regular event this year. The ocean surge comes in directly to the west-facing beaches, creating waves of up to 15 feet when conditions are right. The wave is known to dramatically tube in a way that looks something like the Banzai Pipeline, leading Rip Curl to nickname it "The European Pipe." The event was popular with locals — crowds of up to 20,000 a day came out to watch the unusually large and undulating swells body-slam surfers, snap surfboards and puncture the eardrum of Australian Owen Wright.
Nearest big city: Lisbon
Contest: Rip Curl Pro, Oct. 7-18
Ease of viewing: Medium. Portugal is less developed than Spain or France, and getting around can be a hassle. Local officials have promised to upgrade facilities for this year's event.
Attraction nearby: Batalha Abbey, a 14th-century Gothic treasure that's a World Heritage Site. On the same side trip, tour the vast caves at Mira de Aire.
More information: golisbon.com and clip on "Peniche."
November: Puerto Rico
Fun for the surfers. Not so fun for those trying to follow them. In recent years, the World Tour has had a "wild card" mobile event whose location isn't announced until well into the season. This year it's somewhere in Puerto Rico. Earlier events were surfed in Reunion Island, Mexico, Chile, Bali and Portugal. The exact location is still under wraps, so fans will have to keep up with the Rip Curl website to find out when and where they need to go. Rip Curl is playing up the choice as a water sports wonderland in its announcement: "The Caribbean has always been a dream holiday destination for me and now it's clear they've got incredible waves there," said Steph Gilmore of Australia, reigning three-time world women's champion. "Clear water, sunshine, bikinis, palm trees, beautiful beaches." OK, great. But exactly where is this wonderland?
Nearest big city: San Juan
Contest: Rip Curl Pro Search, Oct. 30-Nov. 10
Ease of viewing: Who knows? Though Puerto Rico is fairly easy to get to from anywhere in the U.S. and most beaches are within easy reach.
Attraction nearby: Old San Juan. A Spanish colonial-era city in a territory of the United States.
More information: gotopuertorico.com
December: Banzai Pipeline, Oahu
The world's most famous wave is the subject of songs and movies. Pipeline is unique for unfurling perfect liquid tubes just a few yards off the coast. It all looks so smooth when a surfer seemingly gets covered up and then blasts out of the tube at the end. But others never emerge standing from the aqua avalanche, while the unluckiest are rolled up the side of the wave, flipped in the air and pummeled into its shallows. Surfers talk of the beautiful "green room" of standing in the tube when the waves are big enough that they don't need to crouch. To find it, take the Kamehameha Highway east out of Haleiwa until you get to Ehukai Beach Park. Park nearby, then walk from the lifeguard station about 100 yards to the left. You are in the surfing equivalent of baseball's Wrigley Field or football's Lambeau Field.
Nearest big city: Honolulu
Ease of viewing: Excellent. It's about an hour's drive from Honolulu and parking can be a headache, but once you get to the beach, there's plenty of room, and the surf break is among the closest of any event.
Attraction nearby: Pu'u o Mahuka Heiau, a temple on the hills overlooking the North Shore surf spots. Priests once performed human sacrifices on the altar. More information: visit-oahu.com