Travel

Drop Into the Perfect Wave, No Ocean Necessary

The recent rise of high-tech surf parks has made the benefits of catching a wave more accessible than ever.

Photo by Dakota Mullins / Courtesy Palm Springs Surf Club
Photo by Dakota Mullins / Courtesy Palm Springs Surf Club
Photo by Dakota Mullins / Courtesy Palm Springs Surf Club

In 2024, revenge travel is out. Finding peace, and your new passion, is in. This year is an opportunity to pump the brakes-to look up, turn in, get lost, ride along. We’ve collected 12 stories, each of which highlights a pursuit or experience that embodies this mindset. We hope they act as inspiration for the year to come-the beginnings of your very own 2024 mood board. From the air, Palm Springs has always appeared like a surreal mirage-an endless expanse of mountainous beige, specked with skinny green foliage, scattered with cool blue rectangles. Those rectangles are lifelines. Temperatures in the summer can climb as high as 120 degrees; having a swimming pool is practically a requisite.

Now, as you descend, one particular pop of turquoise may steal your attention from the others. Squint and you may even witness magic-its glassy lifeless mass rising into full, undulating waves. This is Palm Springs Surf Club, a new state-of-the-art wave pool that’s bringing surfers to where they never thought to hang ten before: the middle of the desert.

Locals may know it as the old Wet ‘n’ Wild family-friendly aquapark, repurposed for the serious wave-catching set. When I was there in mid-December, the hype machine was already in overdrive. Though not officially open, pro surfers like Blair Conklin and Jamie O’Brien have already sung its praises. On a cloudless 80-degree day, I watched a private session booked by a surfing group from Laguna Beach, who’d driven two hours inland for the promise of bliss. Out in the ocean, you never know what’s coming. Here, every wave is a sure thing.

Across 21 acres, Palm Springs Surf Club will feature two winding waterslides-left over from the Wet ‘n’ Wild-a wading pool, splash pad, lazy river, two restaurants, three bars, and an amphitheater. And it will soon have some company. It is one of a handful of next-generation surf parks opening over the next few years, poised to bring a whole new community of landlocked surfers into the fold. Three will be in the Coachella Valley alone.

Up in a poolside operations tower is one of the designers, professional surfer Cheyne Magnusson, who tinkers with settings to create infinite variations of swells two to seven feet high via a pneumatic technology churned out from three massive engine rooms. Eventually waves for each session will be programmed ahead of time, according to the skill set of those who book hour-long sessions for $100 (beginner), $150 (intermediate), and $200 (advanced). “It literally looks like a Spotify playlist,” says marketing manager Gabriela Rezende. Pair it with a music soundtrack, video backdrop, and zealous surfers, and it’s the splashiest pool party in Southern California.

Courtesy Praia da Grama/Wavegarden
Courtesy Praia da Grama/Wavegarden
Courtesy Praia da Grama/Wavegarden

It was 2015 when the first perfect artificial waves stunned the surfing community, thanks to pro surfer Kelly Slater’s Lemoore, California–based Surf Ranch. Certified and now owned by the World Surf League, the facility’s waves crested as high as six feet in the air and offered rides up to a minute long. But a steep price tag of $5,000 to $7,000 per day meant the ranch primarily attracted professionals looking to up their off-season game. Just knowing the technology existed, however, allowed enthusiasts of all levels to daydream. Maybe one day, there could be a wave pool in every city, they thought.

We’re not quite there, but thanks to the proven financial viability of those early wave pools, we are at an inflection point. There are currently 17 surf parks open globally-from Melbourne, Australia, to Tenerife, Spain, to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. And according to Jess Ponting of UC San Diego’s Center for Surf Research, there are an additional 120 to 150 more projects in the pipeline.

Some assuredly will, ahem, make a splash. A new Kelly Slater Wave Pool is set to debut in Abu Dhabi in 2024. Arizona’s upcoming Revel Surf Park is planned for Cannon Beach, a 37-acre mixed-use development featuring a four-story hotel, office buildings, and a co-working space. One of the latest technologies, the highly anticipated Endless Surf by Whitewater, will be the centerpiece of blockbuster properties in Munich as well as in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s new 145-acre Qiddiya giga-project. Featuring heart-shaped pools with 360-degree access and six surf zones, from boogie board level to advanced, Endless Surf, like the SurfLoch technology used at Palm Springs Surf Club, relies on a customizable pneumatic system to create waves as the crowd demands.

When Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch debuted, there were a little more than 2 million surfers in the world. Today, some 25 to 35 million people claim to surf regularly; in the US, participation in the sport has risen 94% over the past seven years. Some, like Palm Springs Surf Club developer Colin O’Byrne, got into it during the pandemic. Others were inspired by the addition of the sport to the Olympics in 2020. But they’ve all discovered the open secret: Equal parts zen and full-throttle adrenaline, a day chasing waves is akin to natural medication.

Courtesy Praia da Grama/Wavegarden
Courtesy Praia da Grama/Wavegarden
Courtesy Praia da Grama/Wavegarden

It’s impossible to list all the benefits of catching a wave. There are well-documented physical and mental rewards, most recently captured by Ralph Buckley in Ocean Sustainability magazine. “His back-of-the-napkin estimation was somewhere in the realm of a trillion dollars saved [in medication and therapy] globally from people who surf,” says Ponting. “They’re healthier, happier, and more productive.” It just so happens that using the body’s brute force to focus on nothing except gliding through time and space can do wonders for one’s state of being.

Surf parks also lend themselves nicely to adaptive surfing, where people with disabilities are able to ride waves in a controlled environment. Groups like the High Fives Foundation, a sports nonprofit dedicated to supporting veterans and injured athletes, practice at Waco Surf in Waco, Texas. Ponting tells me of a friend afflicted with myalgic encephalomyelitis, a.k.a. chronic fatigue syndrome, who now uses a wheelchair and turned to adaptive surfing in surf parks as a form of therapy. For her, using a surf park means not only are there people around to help her, but a concrete deck means she can wheel herself right up to the edge and take a rest between waves. “Everyone who surfs understands how powerful this is for well-being,” he says.

According to a study by Surf Park Central, which runs a Surf Park Summit overseen by UCSD’s Ponting, 92% of the surf community says they plan to go far and wide in search of perfect waves. If a surf park is nearby, they won’t have to, potentially saving the ozone some travel-related depletions. Parks are targeting efficiency at the ground level, too. DSRT | Surf-another park slated for the Coachella Valley-will be built on a preexisting golf course. By removing unnecessary turfing, the park promises to be net water positive. (“A two- or three-acre park uses about the same amount of water as one hole on a golf course over a year,” notes Ponting.) Hawaii’s LineUp at Wai Kai is offsetting its carbon footprint through a tree-planting project on Maui, and the first carbon-positive surf park in the UK is bringing solar-powered surfing to Bristol. Ponting suspects these models will become the status quo.

To further this, Ponting and his team have developed a sustainable-certification checklist for adventure travel and outdoor recreation industries, called STOKE (Sustainable Tourism and Outdoors Kit for Evaluation). “It goes well beyond employment practices and localizing supply chains and using local agriculture,” he says, explaining that the certification also encourages parks to give back by incorporating surfing’s Indigenous heritage, ocean conservation, and philanthropy into the guest experience.

Courtesy Waco Surf Club
Courtesy Waco Surf Club
Courtesy Waco Surf Club

Perhaps the closest current analog of the Palm Springs Surf Club entertainment complex is the aforementioned Waco Surf, 200 miles from the ocean. Currently one of the most renowned surf parks in the world, complete with a hotel, the location has a very Texas beginning: In 2012, Stuart Parsons, a roofer and barefoot-ski enthusiast (for the uninitiated, that’s water skiing… barefoot) bought land near some grazing longhorns and opened the Barefoot Ski Ranch cable park, or water park. In 2018, he installed technology by American Wave Machine, kicking off a trajectory that eventually drew in 70% of park-goers from out of state, riding high while local cowboys zip down slides and float atop a gargantuan lazy river, the biggest in Texas (they say).

In 2021, the park was acquired by a few swell seekers from San Diego who changed the name and began developing world-class surf halfway between Austin and Dallas. The team is focused on the beginner surfing space while also showcasing waves that they, as seasoned ocean surfers, would keenly ride.

All of this development is right on time, as adventure enthusiasts are increasingly looking for new ways to connect with the outdoors-and themselves. Having a wave pool within close proximity, for a fraction of the cost, ensures that more people can access its benefits. And even for seasoned surfers, the promise of catching the perfect wave, every time, is enough to lure them away from the coastline.

“You can spend a lot of money to go to a famous surf destination and you’re at the whim of Mother Nature,” says Waco Surf co-owner Michael Schwaab. “There might be no swell when you get there. In the surf park space, you know that you’re going to score.”Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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