In remote areas, visitors can have the unique experience of being the only surfer on the water. // © 2014 Thinkstock
One drawback to traveling halfway around the world to surf on foreign waves is that sometimes you don’t know you’re in a bad spot until it’s too late.
I found myself in that predicament during my first visit to a reef break about a half-mile off the southern coast of Upolu, a large volcanic island in the Samoan archipelago, where Manoa Tours owner Neil Lumsden helped me squeeze a surf session into the final few hours of a busy trip.
Following him over the side of a little outboard-powered boat we’d anchored moments earlier, I paddled out toward what I don’t mind admitting was a fairly intimidating wave — one that rose up regularly about head-high before crashing down again with impressive force onto a relatively shallow coral reef.
It didn’t take Lumsden long to get up and riding, sliding down the face of a shoulder-high wave before turning and racing back up the face again to snap a sharp turn at the lip. A far better surfer than me, he made it look easy, taking off not far from where the reef was pretty shallow but heading down the line in a hurry toward much deeper water.
Primed now with a solid example of how to ride the break, I paddled my board into what seemed like a good position and didn’t need to wait long for a promising bump to surge up behind me. Really paddling now, digging my arms deep into the ocean with every reach to catch up with my first Samoan wave, I looked quickly to my right to see how far I was from that worrisome shallow section of reef and realized I was way too close.
A nearly vertical wall of water was forming just beyond my right arm, and suddenly I was looking down at a great deal of nothing but air between me and the now-sickeningly distant surface of the Pacific. Scrambling to paddle backwards and out of the wave’s building momentum, I somersaulted a couple times down the wave’s face, splashing down finally in as good a position as I could manage before getting pummeled by the same crushing ocean crest I’d just fallen from.
After spending a little time in the washing machine — an expression surfers often use to describe the uncontrollable underwater spinning you do beneath a wave — I surfaced without so much as a reef scratch and headed straight back out to try again.
Surfers love to share stories about those standout waves etched forever in their riding memory, but like fishermen, it’s not uncommon to also hear us talk about waves that got away — those we should have ridden but just didn’t. I think about the hour or so I spent off the coast of Upolu often, and I’m sure I would put up a better show if I got another crack at it. I would also like to think Lumsden might give me a good repeat-client rate if I could just find a cheap flight back down there.
Selling Surf Dreams
Sean Murphy is president of Waterways, a prominent international surf vacation company that specializes in helping travelers remedy lingering surf fixations like my Samoa reverie. Murphy rode his first waves around age 12 in California’s Santa Monica Bay. He started Waterways in 1994.
“The last three years have been our best ever,” he said, crediting the steadily increasing surfing population for the upswing in bookings. “Demand is definitely increasing.”
And that demand is offering enterprising travel agents a growing opportunity to profit on surf vacation packages.
Shane Paquette, owner of En Route Travel in Pacific Palisades, Calif., said he has seen his agency’s surf vacation business improve in recent years.
“With the rise in popularity of surfing in general, it’s definitely becoming more and more a part of what people want to do while they’re traveling,” Paquette said.
Even in Samoa, which doesn’t seem to be at the top of many surfers’ must-visit lists, surf activities are attracting more customers and, according to Lumsden, many more people are riding their first waves on Upolu.
“One thing that’s really taken off is our learn-to-surf program,” he said, noting that the company takes first-time surfers to a more forgiving break than the one he showed me. “We definitely have a beginner spot. The ride’s not going to be quite as long as what you get in Waikiki, but these little whitewash peelers are a lot of fun.”
Although Murphy said that Waterways’ business has been better than ever in recent months, he specified that almost all of the surf vacations his company sells are booked directly with the consumer. So far, Waterways has only worked with travel agents on occasion, although the company pays agents commissions on all but its cheapest options.
“As a general rule, the more expensive the trip, the more commission we’re going to be able to offer,” Murphy said. “There are very few packages on which we do not offer a commission, and in places like the Tavarua Island Resort [in Fiji], or places in the Maldives and Indonesia, we will pay a more standard 10 percent commission. There are some places, like Chicama Boutique Hotel & Spa in Peru, where we’ll do 20 percent.”
For Amber Ringler, a travel agent working with Paquette at En Route Travel, selling high-end surf trips has been lucrative even though she isn’t a surfer herself.
Ringler said she regularly books trips for surfers, typically in small groups of friends or family members, and she recently arranged a honeymoon to Fiji for a surfing couple. The most common destination choices for Ringler’s clients are Indonesia, Australia and Hawaii. In Hawaii, Oahu’s big wave season — which generally runs from late October through mid-March — and the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing competitions, which includes three major pro events held each fall, are particularly popular with clients.
“People definitely want to go out for the Vans Triple Crown,” Ringler said. “I send probably 10 to 20 people to Turtle Bay [a resort on Oahu’s North Shore] for that every year.”
As surfing’s popularity continues to grow, more and more people find that their local surf spots are increasingly crowded. For those who can afford an international getaway, the allure of riding distant waves by themselves, or maybe with just a few friends and family, can be tough to ignore.
“Everybody wants to go some place where there’s not going to be anyone else,” Murphy said.
He added that, with more surfers traveling these days, solitary breaks everywhere are tougher to come by.
One destination that actually limits the number of surfers who can ride its terrific waves is the Nihiwatu resort on Sumba Island in Indonesia. I first heard about this island property during a conversation with Mark Healey, the renowned professional big wave surfer and all-around waterman.
“There’s no other place in the world I know of that still has such wild ocean, such a wild environment on land and an intact culture,” Healey said. “There’s also an amazing world-class wave out front, and we keep it to just 10 surf slots at a time, so it’s never going to get crowded.”
Healey recently launched his new company, Healey Water Ops (HWO), at the Nihiwatu property. HWO offers guests a very wide range of ocean activities, including private surf coaching, stand-up paddleboarding tours, snorkeling and free diving outings and lessons, scuba sessions, all sorts of fishing options, including spear-fishing tours, and even shark dives.
For really advanced surfers, Healey’s company provides a service you won’t find offered in many other locations.
“If someone is really interested in surfing bigger waves, and a larger swell shows itself, we can teach them how to tow surf and rescue with one-on-one coaching,” he said.
Indonesia is also a favorite for Keala Kennelly, a Kauai professional surfer who was featured in the popular film “Blue Crush.”
“If I am going surfing for fun, Indo [Indonesia] is always at the top of my list,” Kennelly said. “There are so many different waves, and I love boat trips in the Mentawai Islands. There is something so fun about surfing all day at one break and then sailing through the night and waking up at a completely different break.”
Agents can book luxury Mentawai Islands surf sailing trips with Waterways — or they can arrange a totally different, cold-water surfing experience with the company along the Peruvian coast.
“The Chicama resort in Peru has the longest left [breaking wave] in the world,” Murphy said. “And it’s set up sort of like a ski lodge, where they have saunas, steam rooms and locker rooms where you put your wet suit on inside in the warmth and take it off inside after you are done. And they offer tow-back service with a zodiac because the wave is so long.”
Traveling surfers should also keep Samoa in mind. The waves may be a little inconsistent at times, but there’s a ton of first-rate snorkeling, kayaking and hiking to enjoy on down days, and those looking for truly crowd-free breaks are likely to find them off the coast of Upolu.
“The main draw for this place is the frontier feel — like when we were out there all alone,” Lumsden told me as we sipped milk from fresh coconuts in his car right after our Upolu session. “It’s rare in this day and age to go surfing and be the only ones in the water,” he said. “And surfing here is not just about riding waves. You’re looking back at the mountains from crystal-clear water, seeing fish swimming under you. A lot of times I get people who don’t even care if they’re catching a wave.”