14 November, 2012

The new Surfer's Paradise

Craig Tansley rides high on Samoa's world-class reef breaks without the crowds of Indonesia or Hawaii.

Flawless 1½-metre-high waves - the kind every surfer drew on the school exercise books of their adolescence - are wrapping through a narrow reef pass with ridiculous monotony, yet my arms are so tired I can't lift them to catch another wave.

My surf guide can't understand why I refuse to go in; he's calling to me from the skiff, sensing my fatigue. But how could he understand? If I had the strength I'd explain: surfing in Australia has lost some of its magic as competition for waves on the east coast has soured the mood.

Even when we travel throughout Indonesia, Hawaii and Tahiti, surfing has been swamped by surfers desperately competing for that all-elusive perfect wave. But my guide is Samoan; how could he understand? To him, this is just another day. Surfing in Samoa still makes you feel like a pioneer. Despite a theory even many Hawaiians believe that the sport of surfing originated in Samoa more than 2000 years ago, few Samoans surf today. There's almost no surf industry at all. Just imagine, no Quiksilver, no Billabong, no Rip Curl - it's best you bring a spare surfboard with you.

Unlike French Polynesia and Hawaii, where territorial locals rule local breaks, Samoans have yet to understand why we wish to go beyond the reef. But Samoa has all the physical characteristics of a surfing icon. It's surrounded entirely by coral reef, onto which deep, far-flung ocean swells break on numerous reef passes. What's more, unlike Hawaii, which only attracts decent swell in its winter, you can surf year round in Samoa.

Samoa has two distinct seasons, but the water's warm all year. The dry season from May to October attracts huge swells up to three metres in height, and during the wet season, from November to April, the swell size tops out at 1½ metres. It's up to surfers to determine which season suits their ability. But it's worth noting that beginners should approach Samoa with extreme caution; razor-sharp reefs offer little room for error, although Samoa lacks the life-threatening breaks for which Hawaii and Tahiti are famous.

There are world-class surf breaks all over Samoa's main two islands: Upolu and Savaii.

Most surf camps and hotels are set up on Upolu's south coast, where the most consistent waves break on some of the island's best reef passes. Luxury surf resorts have been set up along this coastline, giving surfers and their families more options than the simple wall-less fales surfers stayed in when they first arrived here in the 1990s.

At resorts such as the Sinalei Reef Resort and Spa, no luxury is spared for guests, with access to lagoon-side bars and restaurants, swimming pools and day spas. For surfers who prefer to rough it, wall-less fales beside the lagoon are also available.

But for those who like to feel like intrepid explorers, the big island of Savaii beckons. Less developed than Upolu, locals still reside in traditional villages abiding by local custom. There are few visitors on Savaii and even fewer surfers. On Savaii's northern and more remote southern coastlines, there are surf breaks that have still not been named, or surfed.

Accommodation is often in simple fales, but there's also a choice of more-luxurious hotels and pensions, where surf guides will meet surfers to take them to secluded, deserted reef breaks. However, should you fall on the reef, medical services would be limited; the traditional method - cutting a lime in two to scrub the wound clean - is preferred on Savaii.

In peak season, when experienced surfers chart swells approaching from Hawaii, reef breaks in Samoa can get a little crowded, but with more than 40 known reef breaks in Samoa, solitude is only ever a short boat ride away.

The writer travelled courtesy of Samoan Tourism.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald

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