I can hear the water rushing toward me as I lie flat on a nine-foot longboard in the shallows of Short Sands Beach. As the sound crescendos, I feel the powerful surge of the waves beneath me, and I hear a voice in my ear. “Paddle, paddle, paddle! Pop up!” That’s Lauren Ahlgren, owner of Oregon Surf Adventures. She’s one part instructor, two parts cheerleader, which is what I really need at this point.
I struggle to my knees on the accelerating board — exactly what Ahlgren told me not to do — and fall sideways into the tumbling water. I regain my feet, water streaming down my face, and I look out at Ahlgren, who says, “What was that?” With a belly laugh, she motions me back out into the water to try again.
When I proposed a girls’ getaway to the Coast, I knew that a surfing lesson would challenge me. For one thing, I’m not exactly at home in the water. As an example, I sometimes wish for my lifejacket when I’m at the pool. But I wanted to get out of town and try something different, some combination of physical and relaxing. A weekend in the sweet little town of Manzanita with some of my favorite women seemed like just the thing.
On the evening before our lesson, Ahlgren got us outfitted with wet suits, booties, gloves and hoods to keep us toasty warm in water. The next morning, we met up in the parking lot of Oswald West State Park, loaded up our backpacks with water bottles, sunscreen, towels and snacks, picked up our boards and made our way down the serpentine path. It wound through old-growth forest for about a quarter of a mile to the beach, sunlight filtering through the towering trees. A rushing stream followed on our right and spilled out onto the sand at the edge of the woods.
Our destination, Short Sands Beach, is a sheltered cove protected from the wind by high cliffs and a southwesterly orientation. On this day, the driftwood-strewn beach was sunny, and a morning mist hung in the trees. The beach was empty of people except for us.
Sitting in the warm sand, Ahlgren introduced us to our boards — soft-top longboards that were stable, forgiving and easy for beginners to stand up on. She walked us through Wave 101: a lesson in ocean awareness, wave sets, wave rates, rip currents, surfing etiquette and cove geography.
We practiced the sequence of moves we would need to re-create out on the water. Lie flat, push up with arms and step forward with the right foot, then left, then stand — all smoothly, swiftly and quietly. This yoga-like sequence was pretty easy to duplicate on land. When we’d convinced Ahlgren we could do it, we donned wet suits and waded into the water with our boards.
Ahlgren learned to surf at 17 with a friend’s brother. She says she jumped into it the first day with no instruction (not recommended!) and took to it immediately. “I had no idea what I was doing, but I loved it!” she said. She’s been teaching for six years and now offers group, semi-private and private instruction, as well as surf camps for women, men and kids. Luckily for people like me, her enthusiasm spills over into instruction. As we waded out into the surf, she was practically leaping with enthusiasm. “Are you guys ready? This is going to be awesome!”
Though I was reluctant to believe her following my first wipeout, I steadily improved until I was riding all the way into the beach from the takeoff point to the shore. I knew this was a baby step toward real surfing, but I loved the feel of precarious balance and acceleration toward the sandy beach, the simultaneous sense of suspension and motion. And the sound of my friends’ woo-hooing didn’t hurt.
Our getaway weekend was not just about the physical challenge of the ocean. We also had a great little town to explore with plenty of gastronomic and retail flavor to savor.
With 785 souls, Manzanita is, in a word, small. Laneda Avenue, the main drag, dead ends fittingly at Ocean Road and the beach itself. Sand spills onto the sidewalk and the street, blurring the lines between the natural and human-made world. Neahkahnie Mountain rises to the north, its tree-covered shoulders wreathed in morning fog.
We started the day at Bread and Ocean, where the scent of warm bread filled the air and steam condensed on the windows of the small café. The hiss of the espresso machine and the clatter from the kitchen was a soothing soundtrack to morning coffee. Breakfast enchiladas, polenta and roasted-vegetable scramble were equally savory, and I couldn’t resist tucking a cardamom cinnamon roll and a loaf of freshly baked bread in my bag for later. You can buy wine, cheese, olives, salami and nuts, too, if you want a picnic.
The day of our surfing lesson, we’d sampled the lunch menu, as Oregon Surf Adventures had delicious picnic lunches delivered to the beach. Turkey with cilantro pesto, jack cheese, chipotle mayo and avocado was a hit, as was the nicoise-style albacore tuna. Freshly baked cookies didn’t hurt our surfing performance.
The art of small
Some women have the shopping gene. I’d rather do something outside, and my friends are generally of the same ilk. This is not to say that we don’t love cute stuff. We just don’t like big malls. So for us, Manzanita was a gold mine of small boutiques.
How can four people spend an hour in a 400-square-foot shop? By looking at every single thing. Moxie held our attention with its sweet collection of fair-trade, handmade clothing, gifts and jewelry. Unfurl was another cache of great clothes, shoes, bags and hats — for men, women and kids, and we loved the offerings at Syzygy next door. At Salt & Paper, we found beautiful stationery, cards and gifts. Four Paws on the Beach had all things canine and feline. I got lost in the shelves at Ekahni Books, and I was equally delighted by Cloud & Leaf Bookstore and the fact that such a small town supports two bookstores.
Dinner found us at San Dune Pub (established in 1935), a great spot for an after-surfing cold beer, burger and French fries. We loved the fish tacos with lime-cilantro dressing, as well as the Cobb salad and seafood bisque.
Following a post-dinner stroll on the beach, we found respite at the Inn at Manzanita, a charming cluster of cedar-shake buildings under the shelter of pine trees. The main building has beautiful ocean-view rooms. We took over the Cottage Building, a bright, tranquil two-story house. With a kitchen, two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a pull-out sofa, it was a great option for our group. The location in the heart of town and proximity to the beach was perfect for our trip, and the friendly staff made us very welcome.
In the days that followed our trip, I found myself daydreaming about the water. I could see the blue-and-white-flowered board between my forearms, framed by foaming green water and bright-blue sky.
I thought about our post-lesson yoga session with Christen Allsop from Cannon Beach Yoga Arts. Allsop led us through a series of restorative poses that my body would thank me for later. And as I lay in corpse pose at the end of the session, I drank in the sound of the surf, felt the wind blow across my skin, and soaked in the warmth of the sun with my friends next to me. I got exactly what I came for.