Surf's up

 

Now’s the best time to catch some waves at home, writes SANDRA O’CONNELL

IF YOU THOUGHT surfing was a fair weather game, think again. It’s only now that summer has gone that the real sport begins. “To be honest, serious surfers are bored in the summer because there’s only the odd decent wave. Winter is when you get the really good conditions,” says Cathal ‘Ben’ Bennett whose surf school, Ben’s Surf Clinic ( benssurfclinic.com) in Lahinch, Co Clare, runs year round and is as busy at weekends in January as it is in July.

The school has recently upgraded all its kit to meet growing demand for winter surfing. “The coldest aspect of it is getting changed into your wetsuit,” he says.

Lahinch is one of the country’s top surf destinations and, by his reckoning, the friendliest. “There’s a really nice atmosphere here, with a great buzz throughout the winter weekends because of the five surf schools operating on the beach. The fact that the instructors in each are all trained lifeguards means you have, unofficially, five lifeguards on duty too, so there’s a strong safety element to surfing here,” he says.

Anyone interested in booking a weekend’s surfing with Ben’s Surf Clinic should check out The West Coast Lodge ( lahinchaccommodation.com ) which is offering special surf packages including a two-night stay and two surf lessons for €110 per person sharing a double room.

Indeed, so mild is our winter climate that Ireland is a favoured destination for overseas surfers, for whom the water at home is too cold. “We get a lot of surfers over from north-east America where the temperatures fall much lower than ours,” says Richie Fitzgerald of Surfworld Bundoran ( surfworld.ie ).

The Co Donegal seaside town is another major surfing destination, and one that also operates year round. “In many cases, you’ll find the water temperatures are warmer than the air temperatures. In any case, wetsuit technology has developed so much that nowadays you can stay in the water for four hours and come out with steam coming off you. Cold is simply not a problem, which means you can take advantage of the fact that the waves are so much bigger in winter,” says Fitzgerald.

“We’re particularly lucky in Bundoran in that we have one of the biggest waves in Europe, the Peak, right here in front of us, while Rossnowlagh and Tullan Strand nearby are perfect for beginners.” Surfworld has weekend deals running with the Atlantic Aparthotel ( atlanticaparthotel.ie ) in the town, from €97 per adult sharing for a two-night self-catering stay, including one surf lesson, and €60 per child.

About now, the waves should be starting to get a bit bigger over on the east coast too. Even if they aren’t, there’s always the alternative of stand-up paddle (SUP) boarding, the latest craze to hit Irish waters. “SUP is a relatively new activity which has become very popular among surfers, celebrities and fitness fanatics,” says Scott Morton of East Coast Surf School ( eastcoastsurfschool.ie) in Brittas Bay, Co Wicklow.

“The cool thing about it is that you can do it without waves and it’s a great way to work on balance and fitness for the days when the surf is firing. Anyone can SUP: it takes only 10 minutes to learn the basics.”

Lessons (€30 for two hours) take place in Wicklow harbour and tour up the coast to Broad Lough, which makes the newly redeveloped Bridge Tavern ( bridgetavern.ie) overlooking it a great option for an overnight stay – doubles from €80 a night.

SUP has also taken off as a winter surf option at Elesha Hickey’s Perfect Day Surf School ( perfectdaysurfing.ie) at Strandhill in Co Sligo. “I recently spent six months in California where it is the latest celebrity fitness craze, with celebrities including Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz pictured on the front of glossy magazines doing it,” said Hickey.

“We introduced it two years ago to the northwest and it has taken off here too. It’s perfect for winter because you spend less time in the water.” Perfect Day’s SUP classes take place at the mouth of the Garavogue River in Sligo town and participants paddle up river to Lough Gill.

“The scenery is absolutely stunning. There is no traffic and no sound, only birds and wildlife. It’s fantastic,” says Hickey, who charges €35 for a two-hour SUP session. “It’s a great workout too, but you don’t even notice it because the scenery is so great.” A surf break including two nights’ accommodation and a SUP or surf lesson costs from €119 per person sharing at Strandhill Lodge and Suites ( strandhilllodgeandsuites.com).