Ed Leahy fulfils a longstanding ambition.
Some of the best surfing conditions in Europe can be found off the west coast of Ireland.
As winter approaches, the swells and waves get bigger, but for anyone looking to learn the art of surfing, the freezing waters off the coast of Clare, Sligo or Donegal could be enough to turn even the most enthusiastic of souls away from the water forever.
So heading south to the winter sunshine of Fuerteventura, I set off to fulfil my longstanding desire to attempt to learn how to surf. Worst case scenario, I pondered, was a pre-Christmas sunshine break by the ocean.
The jeep was waiting outside the apartment complex. Surfboards strapped to the roof, the barefooted, boardshort-wearing Richie greeted his latest group.
A quick introduction and we're leaving the comforts of Corralejo and heading west towards the coastal town of Cotillo for our first taste of Fuerteventura's Atlantic waters.
I was expecting a gentle introduction to the sport.
Many a day I strolled the beaches of Australia, watching as surf lessons took place. The students never seemed to leave the strand and spent hours surfing imaginary waves and pulling poses that were last seen in nightclubs to the strains of the Beach Boys' Surfin' USA.
So it came as something of a surprise as we were sent out into the raging ocean only minutes after donning the wetsuit and getting the basics of what was required.
Richie had guaranteed that we would all be catching waves within the first hour and looking around, and within, at the shapes and sizes of the assembled crew, I have to admit I had my doubts.
As the week progressed I would learn the difference between catching a wave and surfing a wave – and it's a big one – but it soon became obvious that a certain education was needed before you could attempt to learn this aesthetic art that was once a central part of ancient Polynesian culture.
Standing no more than waist high, we watched, and waited, and jumped, and fell, and swallowed, and fell again. Bumped, battered, pulled, pushed - it was all part of the learning process.
The sets rolled in. The swells varied. The waves broke in different places and on top of us. Some merged, others disappeared.
But, sure enough, the sets would repeat and the regular rotation allowed you to recognise your wave. The next stage was to catch it.
Pushing yourself onto the board as the wave started to break, off you went. The surge arrived beneath your board, throwing you forward effortlessly. There's a childlike thrill as you whizz towards the shore with the breaking white water taking you into the safety of the shallow waters.
And so it continued. Richie has a step-by-step teaching style and on the next wave you would try to complete step one and two, before attempting three and four. Pushing up. Leaning forward. Head up. Finding the sweet spot. Keeping the board straight. Embracing that 'second of sanity'.
The progress was slow but steady and while no one came close on that first session to resemble anything that could ever be considered surfing, the three hours passed in no time and most of that was spent with a huge smile on my face.
Wetsuits peeled off. Surfboards back atop the jeep. Orange segments shared. Water consumed. The sea salt crystalising on my sun-kissed face. The body already starting to ache but the smile remained a constant as we bounced along the rocky road out of Playa de Cotillo and inland to the surf village of Lajares.
The location of a surf town miles from the coast did confuse but it was explained that it was the ideal base for the island as surf conditions varied, so every coast was easily accessible from Lajares.
The body aches were replaced by pangs of hunger and the Canela Café proved the perfect place for a remedy as we exchanged 'surfing' stories over a homemade baguette and a well-deserved beer.
Several lively bars and quality restaurants are dotted throughout Lajares' spread-out settlement. Seasoned surfers live in the village, which boasts an enviable community feel where all aspects of surf-life are catered for, while artists work in their studios and artisan markets add to the character.
The body craved a lie-in but the tides dictated an early morning start and sure enough Richie was waiting outside for our 8:30am pick-up.
Playa Blanca was located on the east coast of the island and we had the beach to ourselves as we sauntered down to the surf to check out the conditions.
Mother nature is the main player in surfing and you really don't know what is in store every day, so after a quick warm-up to loosen the aching muscles, Richie encouraged us to spend the first 20 minutes or so reading the waves and checking for currents.
Conditions were perfect. The wind was blowing no more than a gentle breeze. The November sunshine was already pushing temperatures up into the mid-twenties and the sets of waves arrived like clockwork.
Paddling into waves was the next stage of the process and once the balance issues were addressed, the next level was achieved and deeper waters were navigated as I bobbed over the incoming waves waiting for my ride.
Tumbling off the front of the board, falling sideways into a wave, paddling like crazy into waves that just disappear as they pass under you, kneeling up, hands free, one foot in front, the process continues.
All of this was what I was hoping for ahead of my trip to Fuerteventura: spending time in the ocean, being at one with nature, feeling comfortable and confident with the waves and on the surf board.
The lessons continued throughout the week and around several different beaches along the Canary Island coast. Confidence and competency steadily improves, some faster than others, while the mind and body are thoroughly invigorated by week's end as you return home ready to take on the fine surf, if not so similar temperatures, of Ireland's own Atlantic coast.
And the big question of the week in Fuerteventura. Did I stand up on the surfboard?
Well, it doesn't even matter.
The north coast town of Corralejo is the most popular resort on the island. And with daytime being taken up by three-hour surf lessons, and lots of post surf lounging by the pool or enjoying a coffee by any of the many beachfront cafés, the nights allow you to explore the wide range of bars, cafés and restaurants located throughout the lively town centre.
Aside from the ever-increasing number of surfers visiting the Fuerteventura shores, the resort is very popular with couples and families. And while not nearly as lively, or tacky, as parts of its Canary Island neighbours of Gran Canaria and Tenerife, Corralejo is very well-catered for with fine food and great atmosphere available throughout the town.
Several top quality restaurants are located around the marina, which blends into the old town, where many more excellent options are available.
La Bodega Canaria is a very popular tapas restaurant located in the main square, where live music, which may or may not be to everyone's taste, is available most nights.
La Tahona, located on the other side of square is one of the best restaurants in Corralejo. The eatery is one of the town's most established venues and the food is top class and very reasonable. The flambé steaks are the house speciality as the head chef cooks in full view of the diners and even delivers some of the more spectacular dishes to your table. The garlic prawn starter, also flambéed, is highly recommended.
Café Cantante on the seafront offers a very relaxed atmosphere with good food, service and comfy seats, and it is a great place to start the night with a pre-dinner drink or a late afternoon coffee as the sun goes down over the town.
El Toro Bravo, located on the main street, is a classy steakhouse with attentive waiting staff and memorable food, while Gregario's Fish Restaurant in the old town has its own fishmongers on site and serves the freshest fish straight off the local fishermen's boats.
The surf community is by no way segregated and, in fact, is fully integrated into the town, adding a unique vibe to Corralejo. And the surfers are very well catered for with Citrus, a great place for post surf, al fresco lunch, and Buenaonda Café offering chill-out tunes and tasty snacks, while the open-air Banana Bar is located on the first floor of a beachside building with a great mix of local and tourist surfers adding to the atmosphere every night. Surf videos are projected onto an adjacent whitewashed wall, which adds a nice touch, not to mention the beer being very cheap when compared to Dublin prices.
Boardriders is without doubt one of the best restaurants in Corralejo and is located in the main shopping mall. The restaurant offers great food and drink options with excellent surfing photos on the walls, while a Hurley surf shop stays open next door and is worth a browse as you wait for your food to be cooked.
And, of course, the obligatory Irish Bar or two can be found about the town. McCarthy's offers decent live music and attracts a full house most nights, while Finnegan's is another option, located just off the main street.
Where to Stay
I stayed at the very central La Concha Bungalows Apartments, located less than a two-minute walk from the beach and five minutes from the town centre. The accommodation is basic but clean and spacious, while there are two small swimming pools, a tennis court and an on-site sports massage clinic, which can prove quite useful after a few days thrashing about the ocean.
The Surfing Fuerteventura Package
7 nights' accommodation in La Concha Bungalows in Corralejo
5 days of surf lessons (3 hours per day including all equipment)
Surf different beaches each day depending on the conditions and the experience of the surfer
Return Airport transfers
Beginners/Intermediates & Advanced surfers catered for
€490 for solo traveller in their own private bungalow
€360 per person for 2 people in their own private bungalow
€317 per person for 3 people in their own private bungalow
Book online at: www.surfholidays.com. There is still availability for New Year's Eve week. Surfholidays.com is an Irish company set up in 2005.
Getting to Fuerteventura
Aer Lingus operates twice weekly to Fuerteventura. Fares start from €99.99. For more information on great fares and schedules, visit: www.aerlingus.com.
For more information on Fuerteventura, visit: http://www.spain.info/en_IE/ven/provincias/fuerteventura.html.
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