Courtney Adamo and her family check into Surfers Lodge Peniche, Portugal, for some expert tuition in the ocean
We planned a ‘family gap year’ before we knew the term even existed. After 12 years of living and working in London, we came to the point where we just wanted to pause everyday life and spend a year enjoying our family. We had talked about it for years, but with our eldest turning 10 and life racing by, we decided the time had come. So we planned our escape – a year-long, around-the-world adventure in search of a simpler, slower pace of life.
For several months we did lots of planning. We planned our route and our budget. We sold our home, our car and many of our possessions. We told the kids’ school, told our friends and told our colleagues at work. It was simultaneously thrilling and frightening.
We began our journey last September with a road trip through California. This was familiar territory for us and proved a nice way to ease into our new pace of life and homeschooling routine. Our first ‘exotic’ stop after that was Trancoso, Brazil. It was during our three weeks in this magical fishing village that all of our plans started to change. A friend suggested the kids might like a surf lesson with the local instructor, Romualdo. The area itself was not known for surfing, but there were waves and warm water, so we figured, why not? Our three older children, then aged 10, eight and six, wanted to give it a try, as did my husband, Michael. That first lesson became three, followed by a perpetual hire of foam surfboards from Romualdo. Our kids were hooked and so was Michael.
Conveniently, our next stop was Uruguay, a small country with lots of coastline. Here there was a surf culture, plenty of surf beaches and more than enough surf shops. Though we had spent weeks whittling our luggage down to one suitcase per family member before we set off, suddenly we were the proud owners of four wetsuits, a new surfboard and straps to tote it around atop our car. We went to the beach every day of our month in Uruguay. Michael and the kids surfed up and down the coast and while their skills improved slowly, their passion for the sport grew exponentially. So smitten were they, that Michael began researching where we could surf in Argentina, the next stop in our plan. Despite its huge coast, we soon learned that Argentina wasn’t known for surfing. Well then, it would have to be Chile, El Capital del Surf.
We set off for Pichilemu, a modest Chilean town with a world famous surf break, Punta de Lobos. It was here that we took more lessons and that Easton’s surfing, especially, took off. It was also here that I realised our vision of a family gap year had completely transformed. We had found a theme and
I could see we were powerless to stop it.
In the ensuing months we surfed the world. Our two-month stay in New Zealand, most of it in a camper van, became a pursuit of waves. We traversed both islands, North and South, passing by better-known and more beautiful beaches in favour of those with surf. Even I got a wetsuit and soon we acquired two more boards, board bags and all the other accoutrements. We made our way to Australia next, where we spent two more months acquainting ourselves with surf culture in a country that is just as crazy about the sport as we were. We narrowly passed up surfing in Japan, but swapped our planned visit to Thailand for Sri Lanka, a wonderful country with amazing food and world-class beaches.
In June we made our way back to the UK to kick off what was originally planned to be a road trip through continental Europe. Though we tried our hands at surfing the frigid waters of Cornwall, we told the kids our days on the waves were on hold indefinitely. That was, until we were invited to the Surfers Lodge Peniche, in Portugal.
Peniche sits on a peninsula about an hour north of Lisbon. What the city lacks in character, it makes up for in ‘surfiness’. This is an area blessed with exposure to the Atlantic on nearly every side. No matter what the conditions, there is surf to be had almost every day. John Malmqvist, the Swedish founder of the Lodge, recognised the area’s unrivalled number of surf beaches and saw an opportunity to offer visitors something better. The result is a laidback, bohemian-style surf lodge with a high-quality surf school that accommodates families as well as individuals.
On our first morning, we left our cosy family dorm and were met by our affable instructor, Gonçalo. After a healthy breakfast from the buffet, we were briefed on the day’s surf activities and everyone joined in except Marlow (grudgingly) and me. The kids were then suited up and equipped with one of the dozens of learner boards, and we were all driven down to the nearest break, barely two minutes away in the Lodge’s van. There we found gentle breaks on each side of a little island and an area with almost no waves that was perfect for swimming. Gonçalo took everyone through a warm-up and safety briefing, then led them onto the waves. After more than six weeks off a board, this was a day for everyone to shake off the rust and relearn the fundamentals from an expert coach.
Our lesson the following day was even better. Though Ivy opted out early, Quin and Easton surfed wave after wave, with Gonçalo at their side, picking out the best ones and keeping them safe from the bigger sets. Quin made huge progress that day and we could see his confidence burgeoning that evening.
Our third day was all about ‘post surf analysis’ in the cinema room of the Lodge. Gonçalo reviewed about 50 clips, talking through each one and analysing everyone’s take-offs, stance and turning on the waves. There were plenty of fails and flops amid the footage and we all agreed that it should be promptly destroyed after viewing. Even still, we learned more in this session than the previous two combined. With Gonçalo’s expert advice firmly to mind, we hit the waves again that afternoon and progressed even further.
Our five-night stay in the family dorm room included surf lessons and breakfasts. The Lodge has a particularly good restaurant serving up locally sourced food and wines for lunch and dinner. Though we looked around for other options, we found ourselves coming back to the Lodge restaurant time and time again. It also benefits from incredibly friendly staff, all well-versed in English, and a great vibe. When we weren’t surfing, the Lodge’s games room, yoga lessons and roof-top terrace with pool kept everyone happy (it also has a massage room). On a couple of afternoons we ventured out to nearby towns, including Óbidos, a beautifully preserved example of a medieval village replete with fortified walls and castle. The breathtaking scenery and beaches of the Sintra region are within an hour’s drive too.
We never planned to surf away our family gap year but we are so happy to have stumbled upon this new passion. There are not many sports you can enjoy simultaneously with your children – even if you are of differing abilities – that take place almost invariably in beautiful settings. Easton and Michael have spent hours this year hanging out in the world’s oceans together, chatting away as they await their next waves. Now Quin is out with them, opting for the smaller waves but enjoying the companionship just as much. Surfing is a legacy of our family gap year that looks set to live on for years to come.