A summary of surf in Solomon Islands:
(This was first published in Pacific Island Living Magazine, issue 8.)
On the western edge of the Pacific lie scattered 992 islands, wonderfully remote, fringed by reefs, and exposed to ocean swells year round. For the adventurous surfer, Solomon Islands is matchless in the South Pacific.
Tourism is at a delightfully nascent phase. While island life does an impressive job at evoking Club Med’s famous slogan, The Antidote to Civilisation, one can safely assume that the luxury resort is a long way from being built. Beyond the principle island of Guadalcanal and its capital Honiara, canoes replace cars, air con is a rare treat, and traditional life subsists by wits, not state services. Without hoards of tourists, one may in fact find the antidote to surfing crowded waves.
With this in mind, it’s fair to say the search for waves suits an exploratory spirit. Yet as tourism develops it does so with surfers in mind. While the truly intrepid may drift through the nooks and crannies of the vast archipelago, holidaymakers a little less daring will discover picturesque, if not luxurious, accommodation a stone’s throw from world-class waves.
Take a leap to Santa Isabel Island
Luckily for surfers the Pacific is a great misnomer. From October to April storms in the North Pacific generate long period swells which track down and catch on the island’s north facing reefs. This is the cyclone season and it is the best time of year for powerful surf. Waves range from two to six feet.
Isabel’s 260km-long north-northeast facing coastline is ideally situated to capture these swells. It is one of the largest in the nation’s double chain of islands, and one of the least populated. Known surfing areas are located in the north of the island where conveniently there is a strip of grass (hopefully mown) called Suavanao airport.
An hour or two by banana boat north of Suavanao is the province’s most secluded lodge on Vakao Island, Vavaghio Guest House. Under the jungle’s dappled shade and set back from a mangrove beach are a cluster of newly built bungalows. They’re traditionally yet comfortably designed with fans and solar power to accommodate a maximum of eight guests plus Vavaghio’s hosts, a local Habotu family and Gary, a Kiwi conservationist. The Habotu’s embody the kindness and gentleness Isabelan’s are known for in the Solomons – a pleasant respite from Honiara’s betel nut stained grimaces!
Straight out the front is a reef pass with a perfect left mirroring a perfect right. They’re both long, sometimes hollow, and breaking into a deep channel. There are a number of other reef set-ups to suit different swell directions and breezes, all within a few minutes by boat. Here, a surfer is happily spoilt for choice. Naming rights are up for grabs. Even in the swell season though, there are flat spells: if the conditions aren’t in your favour, look beneath the waves.
Solomon Islands form part of the Coral Triangle encompassing PNG, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, an area considered to be the global epicentre of marine biodiversity. If the sea is flat, head to the Arnavon Islands. From Vavaghio the islands are an hour’s boat trip north, in the Manning Strait between Isabel and Choiseul Province. The area is one of the more successful conservation stories in the Solomons and home to the largest hawksbill turtle rookery in the South Pacific. Even if the surf is pumping at Vavaghio it’s worth dragging yourself away to see not only the turtles, but an underwater lightshow of colour and variety, the result of almost two decades of conservation.
Isabel also features two other well-known places for surfers to stay and access different reef systems and cultural experiences. Kagata Village Stay is as grass roots as a surfer will find in the Solomons. Perhaps a little too rustic for some people’s comfort, but for those who wish to completely eschew modernity and claim an authentic experience, this is the spot.
Papatura Island Retreat is set on a beautiful crescent shaped beach on its own 274-hectare island. It is also traditionally styled, but managed by two expat Gold Coasters. The lodge is prepped for more people and offers a few more mod cons including a well-stocked bar. It boasts a standout selection of waves for different conditions and abilities, and caters to the keen fisherman.
If you wish to eat…Book in advance. Whether it’s a humble village stay or an exclusive eco-lodge, your hosts will need time to prepare provisions. It may involve harvesting the family’s garden plot, a trip to the market, trading with neighbours, or a day’s fishing.
The beautiful West
World famous diving has placed the Western Province on the map and insofar as tourism it is the most developed region. It is also one of the prettiest parts of Solomons, comprising a galaxy of islands with volcanic peaks, turquoise water, extensive reefs and tiny islets. It pays tribute to the South Pacific’s legendary beauty
Regular flights arrive from Honiara to Gizo, where a number of lodgings accommodate surfers, ranging from rural village stays to exclusive eco-lodges. While waves have recognised names, surfers are still few and far between.
A few minutes by bus or taxi from Gizo is Pailongge, a long right that’s well exposed to swell. It works best on bigger swells, when the wave’s sections join up and it can get hollow. It breaks in front of a village where a couple of local surfers reside and have helped set up a quaint and convenient home stay; ask for Sammy. A little further south is Titiana, which surfers can also paddle out to.
Across the water from Gizo on an idyllic beach lies Sanbis Resort, an eco-lodge perfect for those seeking a touch of luxury. Private villas, hot water, ensuites, a gourmet kitchen and WiFi: Sanbis marries isolation with comfort. While it accommodates 20 guests, a maximum of 8 surfers fit on one boat to reach the waves.
Venturing further afield and with access to more isolated breaks is Zipolo Habu Resort, on remote and utterly scenic Lola Island. Nearby, Skull Island has reputedly the Solomons longest rights, but is notoriously fickle. Desperates, a punchy and hollow right, is also here.
Isabel and the West are by no means all there is to surfing in the Solomons, yet they are an easy day’s journey from Honiara and have accommodation for surfers. A map of the Solomons presents miles of potential island reefs, bays and crevices for swell to wrap around: look to north Malaita, the northwest tip of Guadalcanal, Central, and Makira’s Star Harbour.
Exploration vs. exploitation: Among surfers there is a deep-seated fear around exposing such splendid isolation – what if it gets crowded? In the Solomons forestry and fishing have ravaged landscapes in and out of the water as well as unsettled village life. A surfer’s fear should be measured against a country desperate for a sustainable economy. There is a nationwide push for eco-tourism; it is regarded as a catalyst for rural development. In any case, given the nation’s limited infrastructure, the logistical challenges of reaching these reefs, and the unreliability of almost everything, well, anyone willing to take on the adventure deserves the rewards.