Best Places To Surf In The Caribbean

Rincón Surf School
Rincón, Puerto Rico

"There was a manatee in the lineup; it was one of the best sessions of my life!" says a surfer girl hanging out at the Lazy Parrot's pool bar in Rincón, Puerto Rico. I've come here to become one with the waves, to become a surfer girl, to talk about my "sessions." I've got two days of lessons to make it happen.

Thanks to consistent waves and a laid-back vibe, Rincón's known as the Caribbean's North Shore, and easy access from the United States has made it a mecca for folks who want to devote themselves to surfing full-time. One of them is 36-year surf veteran Garret Bartelt, who came to town in 1999 with his wife, Dez, to open Rincón Surf School, where experts attempt to turn those with wave envy into bona fide board riders. Beginners like me get longboards, difficult to maneuver but eminently buoyant. And really, though I'd like to leave as a surfer, mostly I just want to stand up on the board and ride it in toward shore.

My quest begins with a lesson on the caramel sand, where we practice "popping up" into a standing position, one foot in front of the other and arms out for balance. I'm not half bad on the stable surface, which our instructor, Collin, attributes to my "low center of gravity." Thus schooled, we jump in the water, freshly waxed boards leashed to our ankles, and begin to paddle. And paddle. If I learn nothing else, it's how to clutch a giant raft of foam as wave after wave attempts to smash in my face.

Once we clear the breakers, we angle ourselves onto the shoulder of a wave, a quiet spot perfect for beginners, and one by one we're told to go for it. My turn comes: I lie flat on the board, facing shore as the wave swells behind me; Collin yells "Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!" and I do, like crazy. The wave picks me up, and – I get as far as a push-up, with one knee on the board, before I'm pitched into the churning surf. And so goes day one: I paddle back out through the waves, attempt to stand and am mercilessly tossed into the frothy breaking water. After three hours, my arms are like overcooked spaghetti and it's high time for a cerveza. There's a reggae band at a nearby bar, and after a strangely compelling cover of Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" and a big dinner, I'm ready to collapse into bed at Casa Isleña Inn, my petite beachfront hotel. I dread lifting an arm to brush my teeth.

Day two begins, and though my spaghetti arms protest, my pride won't let me give up. A new group of five begins with another beach lesson – Garret, today's instructor, draws a representation of the shore and waves in the sand and explains where the waves come from (the northeast United States) and how they break (to the right). An offshore breeze, which smooths the water out like glass, is ideal, and that's what we've got today. I am hopeful.

I paddle out to the breakers – I've got this part down – and wait, straddling my board as the rest of my group struggles through the surf. It's quiet now, and I watch the waves, coming in sets of three, and visualize when I'd begin to paddle. I'm feeling calm as a wave swells behind me, and I begin to paddle on my own just as Bartelt yells for me to begin. The wave lifts me up, and I ride it for a second on my stomach and then pop effortlessly to my feet as the wave unfolds beneath me. I'm surfing! I ride nearly to shore before the wave peters out and I tip off the board sideways. I can hardly wait to paddle out again. Three more hours pass, and I stand up on the board nearly every time, sometimes only for a second but often almost all the way to shore. As we're carrying the boards back to the car for lunch, Bartelt says, "You know, if you did this for a few weeks at home, you'd be pretty good." Flattery maybe, but I'm hooked. My arms may disagree.

Rincón Surf School offers a full day of surfing for $95, and a Surf Discovery Class, including two full days of instruction, for $180. 787-823-0610; Casa Isleña Inn's nine rooms start at $125 in low season ($165 high). 787-823-1525;

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