Tourism Nova Scotia
Credit: Tourism Nova Scotia

"You can go to California, Hawaii, Australia — any of the surf epicentres of the world — and if you talk to any surfer worth their salt, they’ll tell you Nova Scotia has great point break,” says Nico Manos as he unloads a half-dozen longboards from the back of his pickup truck.

Manos knows well of what he speaks. As Nova Scotia’s only pro surfer, he’s ridden waves the world-round and been featured in the pages of North America’s surf pulp for years. He is also the owner of East Coast Surf School, operating near Lawrencetown Beach on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. Today, he’s teaching our five-person group some tips I should have learned 10 years ago, then sending us out to experience Lawrencetown’s legendary waves first-hand.

“People used to think you were crazy if you said you surfed in Nova Scotia… But people know Lawrencetown Beach now,” continues Manos. 

Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore gets hit with a perfect southwest swell and its abundance of bays creates the point break Manos fawns over. Of the three types of surf break — the others are shore and reef — point break provides the longest rides. Manos boasts that a good day on Lawrencetown’s points means rides more than a minute long. However, such breaks require bigger waves than we have on this early summer day. For advanced surfers in search of the best waves, it’s September all the way — when hurricane-season swells roll in head-high.

“Fall is incredible. But it’s nice that you’ve got this smaller surf in the summer, and it’s warm and accommodating for people who are learning. If they’re really into it, and they take a lesson in June or July, they can build up the skills over the summer for some better surf in the fall,” explains Manos. “Fall is just the best of both worlds. You’ve got warm water and good waves.” 

Lawrencetown is a picturesque Eastern Shore beach: scenic, rural and cooled by a constant sea breeze; greenery transitions to cobblestones, which becomes reddish-beige sand at the water’s edge. As we walk into the whitewash, we discover we are the only surfers here — no doubt due to today’s small, though consistent, knee-high beach break. When the waves get head-high, breaks at the points of Lawrencetown’s gentle crescent will bring out more members of the area’s 200-plus-strong surf scene. Now, though, it feels like private property — we are 30 minutes from the Maritimes’ largest city, on a blue-sky afternoon, and the beach is all-but deserted.

 “This is about as small as it gets,” laments Manos, eyeballing the metre-high waves. For us, though, it will prove enough.

After a quick wave assessment, fellow ECSS instructor and Vancouver Island transplant Tom Terrell follows us into the water and directs us toward the peak of today’s break. The waves are coming in well-spaced sets. For a few minutes, the water has barely more than a gentle roll, then a set of three-foot peaks suddenly appears. 

Terrell points out a cresting wave. I have surfed on-and-off for a decade — averaging one trip every couple of years — but have never before taken a lesson. Hence why I never improved much. With the wave cresting behind me, I begin my paddle, keeping in mind Manos’s pro-tips: I’m centred on the board. The nose is one to two inches out of the water. When I feel the wave grab me, I push into an upward-facing dog, hands directly below my shoulders. I slide my front foot forward, bracing the board with my hands, and stand! I’m up for a few seconds before the world turns into a spin-cycle of freezing foam. But those few seconds are enough to remind me why I love to surf. 

For the novice, surfing is possibly the most frustrating, exhausting and sporadically rewarding sport in existence. An entire day on the water may culminate in less than a minute standing upright. But that sweet minute is worth the struggle. 

“About 99 per cent of our customers are first-timers… The demographic has changed considerably from when we opened nine or 10 years ago. It’s gone from an extreme fringe sport, with a demographic between 18 and 30, to a more accepted family activity,” Manos explains. “If someone was really dedicated to the sport, they could graduate from a shore break to a point break within a few months.”

Subtle improvement comes much quicker. By the third wave, I’m officially surfing once again — riding with some measure of control right to the sand. At times, I even dismount with something that resembles style. What is initially confounding about surfing is also part of its draw: an endless learning curve. When technique is perfected, or close to it, wave selection — how to choose a wave based on height, power and direction — and understanding of fluid dynamics has likely just begun. Feel and instinct, two more vital factors, are constantly evolving. As Terrell explains, “You never stop learning.” 

I soon learn Lawrencetown is not only the area’s most popular beach for beginners, but it is also home-base for the surf-scene at-large. It’s a swell-magnet — everyone shows up here on big-wave days to suss out the local situation. Manos had explained that Lawrencetown tends to lose shape if the waves are higher than “overhead.” Nearby Conrad’s Beach can be a better choice on those days — not that it’ll be relevant to me anytime soon. Located a little further northeast, Martinique is a nice surf beach too. Lawrencetown and Martinique both have a welcoming atmosphere as well; however, some “localism” exists at the footpath-access breaks in between. As Manos had explained, though, with rips, rocks and two-metre waves, some degree of local standoffishness can keep novices from getting themselves into trouble.

A few hours pass quickly, and the setting sun begins to shine on ever-more-sparse wave sets. I miss one nice wave, then another; a sure sign of paddling exhaustion. Ritually, I need to end the day on a quality ride. As I wait for the next set, I take time to simply enjoy the act of floating offshore, warm in my wetsuit, smelling the salt air and thankful for my time here. A few sunset lovers have roamed onto Lawrencetown’s shores, but we are still the only surfers on-site. A better break will bring in a bigger crowd. Midsummer swells may see dozens of people in the water at a time. Yes, the word might be out on Nova Scotia’s surf scene, but today Lawrencetown Beach feels like our secret stash; a private surf-spot just a hop from Halifax. 

Local Activities

Nico Manos has owned and operated East Coast Surf School for almost a decade. Lessons and rentals are available right on Lawrencetown Beach throughout the summer and on-demand in the early or late season. Prices: $75 for a one-hour lesson plus a board and wetsuit for the day; $40 a board and wetsuit for the day. Private lessons and group rates are available.

For the past 17 years, Hope Swinimer has run her regionally famous Hope For Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in nearby Seaforth. Staff and volunteers provide medical care and temporary or permanent housing for injured animals on-site; tours are free, donations are welcome. Swinimer’s passion for wildlife is infectious — learn about the centre’s good work while visiting Buttercup the chubby woodchuck and Oliver the one-eyed owl.

If you’re looking to get out in a kayak, you’ll be in good hands with Scott Cunningham, co-owner and head guide at Coastal Adventures in Tangier. Book a half-day, full-day or multi-day paddling trip along the Eastern Shore and explore islets with sandy beaches, view birdlife and marine mammals and learn about this diverse area from one of Nova Scotia’s most experienced paddlers.

Getting There

Lawrencetown Beach Provincial Park is located on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore, 27 km northeast of Halifax, on Highway 207. Access via Halifax Stanfield International Airport (YHZ).

This article originally appeared in our Fall 2014 issue.