“So you’re going to Forta, are you? Where are you going to stay?”
“Uh, I’m not sure, a place that begins with ‘C’.”
“Or was it Corralejo?”
“Yeah, that’s it!”
“Well it’s not going to be that cheap then. You’ll need a car.”
“Will I need a car! And you’re staying in Corralejo? You’ve never, ever, been to Forta before, have you?”
“Trust me. You’ll need a car.”
“But I heard there’s waves in Corralejo. Some place called Rocky Point.”
“Rocky point is shit!”
“Yeah, but there are other waves too aren’t there?”
“Yeah, there’s Harbour Left, and Shooting Galleries isn’t far. Mechionas is quite near too, but it’s all shit.”
“Shooting Galleries! That place is meant to be sick!”
“Yeah, but it’s in Corralejo!”
“Yeah but it’s good though, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but it’s in Corralejo!”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Is Corralejo a shit-hole then?”
“You’ve never been to Forta before, have you?”
“Is Corralejo really that bad?”
“Listen Tom, there’s only one thing to do if you go to Forta: Get a car, get on the Northern Track as quickly as you can and go straight to surf the Bubble.”
“What about Shooting Galleries?”
“What part of that don’t you understand. Forta – Bubble. End of Conversation!”
“You think I’m joking don’t you! Corralejo is a fucken dive! The Bubble is the best wave in the Canaries. That’s all you need to know. Get a car. You’re absolutely going to need a car.”
A tidal surge licks its way along an inside wall of Corralejo harbour, the ocean rising just enough to touch my dangling feet for the first time. An evening clarity breaks through as the afternoon winds die down. Once again that ‘harbour’ smell of spilt boat fuel and drying fish-scales has returned.
Across the water lies the island of Lobos, and beyond that, Lanzarote. The town is buzzing with sounds of holiday; a gentle shore-break running up a soft-sand beach, a lone outboard motor somewhere in the harbour, laughter in the distance and the faint sound of a rep with a microphone held too close to his mouth, pepping up some red-tinted customers. Corralejo: Relaxation utopia or hell on earth?
It all depends, of course, on who or what you are.
Arriving in one of the town’s many nameless, faceless, and ultimately characterless restaurants, I am ushered towards a menu. It’s the same as the one next door, which is the same as the one next door to that, which isn’t the same as the one next door to that, because the one next door to that is a gift shop.
That gift shop then sells the same souvenirs as the one further up the road, which sells the same stuff as the one outside my apartment, which sells… Well, you get the picture anyway.
Mind you though, before I make the place sound bad, let me describe the clientele of this restaurant:
Smiling faces everywhere; families spending time together, hard-working dads unwinding for the kids to gain the rare opportunity to actually get to know their parents’ real personalities, happy couples, some with very young children, some beginning to rue the day they forced their seventeen-year-old son to come on holiday with his folks for one last time. The atmosphere is positively stressless (except for in the kitchens). It is a greedy boss’s nightmare: Employees having fun, in most instances on company time, one hopes.
Outside, the air is warm and there’s no work to get up for in the morning. It’s my kind of place. Well, it should be anyway, but it’s not. My friend was right. I need a car.
Corralejo does have a surf culture, but it’s the most repulsive surf culture imaginable. Every man and his dog claims to go surfing ‘up on the Northern Track’, but really most of the guys in question are ex-pat boozers who feed off the surfing image, while giving it a bad name at the same time. Bars with surfboards nailed to the roof rage until dawn. As the sun rises everyone is leglessly drunk, even the barmen.
Meanwhile, the first jeep is stealthily creeping up the Northern Track towards the Bubble. The waves are perfect, and there’s no one in – at least not for the first half-hour of daylight. Those who went to bed early are about to be rewarded. Just a few miles from the colonial bustle of Corralejo lies a feral surfing wilderness.
A post-volcanic desert hosts some of the heaviest reef-breaks in the North Atlantic. The nature of volcanic islands is that they rise sharply out of deep ocean, causing that same steep shelf effect that causes Hawaii and Tahiti’s waves to stumble so forcefully. Yes, most of the waves on the Northern Track are bona-fide board breakers alright – put simply, world class.
‘Forta on a shoestring’ is a dead-cert if you need to escape the cold back home, and surf every day without spending any money.
The stretch is well etched into European surf-lore. Like Malibu, it is one of the few places on earth that did, for me, successfully live straight up to expectation. This was probably partly due to the way a pretty clear picture already existed in my mind. How couldn’t it, given the amount of stories, media coverage and shockingly good holiday snaps presented to me throughout grommethood? I certainly got the feeling I had been there before. Ten famous surf-spots roll by, ten already familiar sights. Shooting Galleries, Box, Mechionas, The Bubble, German Point, Spew Pits…
Small fishing villages punctuate the dirt-road, some with small stalls that sell drinks, sandwiches, and back-issue surf magazines. The occasional deserted car reminds you of the obligatory damage you are meant to be doing to your own hire-car before you return it, and the dust-storms show you which way the wind is blowing – a vital piece of information when you are choosing where to surf. If the dust is blowing up the track as you enter it, then the waves will be good, if it’s blowing down the track, then turn around and go to join the Corralejo Brigade on another beer-vigil.
‘Forta on a shoestring’ is a dead-cert if you need to escape the cold back home, and surf every day without spending any money. Six of you in a car, staying in a tent, eating baked beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner, drinking one warm beer before bed to cure the insomnia, and most importantly, surfing till you can surf no more. Forta.
I can use the example of Forta to talk about one of the most important, but bizarre idiosyncrasies of surf-travel: Surf travel is real travel, they say. It’s not holidaymaking, even if you do go to one of Britain’s favourite holiday destinations, on a My Travel airline, for seven nights only. Oh no, surfers travel while others holidaymake.
It sounds bigoted and above all, sad, but that’s the way it seems to work. The trouble is that surfing has always wanted to be an anti-establishment, minority activity. If you’re a surfer you have surely deviated from the norm. (Well done!) So that’s why the simple act of going on a ten-day surfing holiday, although no different from going on a skiing holiday, is treated as a completely different kettle-o-fish. Skiing holiday; surf trip. ‘Holiday’ implies, well, holiday really – somewhere like Ibiza or Magalluf for example. ‘Trip’ on the other hand…
Besides the obvious connotations of psychedelia (which really is bringing the rustiest of all stereotypes back out for an MOT), the word suggests the presence of a slightly higher purpose. Surfers can’t holiday, because they are permanently on holiday, right?
So because of this, surfers abhor the sight of 2.4-children-two-weeks-in-whatever-costa-is-cheapest tourists in what they consider to be a ‘surf-zone’. “How dare they be somewhere I have gone to pursue such a perennially cool activity,” goes the voice of opinion.
“Is Corralejo a shit-hole then?”
“You’ve never been to Forta before have you?”
“Is Corralejo really that bad?” Remember that conversation? It rings true to millions of surfers, world-wide. Those exchanges could sum up a large aspect of the travelling surfer’s condition.
As for me, I’ve tried to stay impartial throughout this explanation. I stayed in Corralejo; ate in the touristy restaurants and bought my grandmother a postcard from the gift shop outside my apartment; I went out for a drink with guys who ‘surfed’, and found the experience entirely fulfilling.
I am however, very, very, very glad that I took my friend’s advice, and hired a car. I was taken by the urge to get as far away from Corralejo as I could, several times. I know what bothered me about it. It was the fact that the place is so British.
Not that I don’t like the British. I am one, and will continue to live in Wales, which is my third favourite surfing landscape on earth (Indonesia is my favourite, France the runner-up) for many years to come. I just have one problem, that’s all…
Brits, in general, don’t fit in to foreign cultures that well. Sadly, it appears to be in our nature. Maybe we feel that having once ruled most of the world, and speaking what is now, supposedly, the world’s most cosmopolitan language, we shouldn’t have to. I don’t know. The jury’s out. What I do know though, is that Brits like to go abroad, but only for the weather, it seems. Most want British food, British telly and British accents, but in a foreign climate. Sometimes it can be a bit embarrassing. Have you ever noticed how Brits abroad still speak English to everyone?
An example: a woman walks up to the counter in a small shop and says: “I wont twenee-four Lamburt and Butlur ciggies please, mate.” The Spanish-speaking person obliges, but I’m sure they are thinking, how dare you automatically assume I’m English-speaking, you rude bastardo! I know I was. Before going anywhere, try learning one phrase in the native tongue: “I’m sorry, I don’t speak [insert language here]. Do you speak English?” What a result that gets you! It’s not hard, but it goes a million miles when a check-out assistant is planning to short-change the next git who calls him ‘Diego’ or ‘Abdul’ in an attempt to be familiar.
What would you do if you were a barman in the UK (London excluded) and someone walked up to you and croaked, “Dos cervezas, por favor Senor?” Answer: blank amazement, but Spanish people in tourist spots face that fifty times a day.
At the Bubble, however, there is no need for language. Smiles and hoots are often ample forms of communication. Here the Spanish, British, Germans (some of whom are starting to surf surprisingly well), French and anyone else are all united – by surfing. Pidgin forms of most languages are shared like the spliffs that go around the campfires by night. It’s a world away, although only a ten-minute drive. That seems like value for mileage. You’ll need it too, as Canary Island surf trips are fleeting wave safaris. I once heard a guy defend himself against accusations of being too greedy for waves, saying, “I’m here for a good time, not for a long time.”
He’s right, because however hard you might fight it, surf-trips are, on paper, one thing (I’m going to offend some surfers now)…
It’s what you do and see on your ‘holiday’ that determines whether or not there is a ‘higher purpose’ at play.
Today, surfing has become a thriving sport with a huge number of enthusiasts around the world. Some surf professionally, some competitively, while for others it's a way to let loose and have fun. Despite surfing’s free-spirited vibe, it has a richer and deeper history...