Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new series, Surf History 101, where we look at innovations in the world of surfing and beyond that changed the pursuit forever. In this edition, Sam George looks at the Tavarua Resort and how it started the surf resort phenomenon.
What is it?
Founded in 1984, Tavarua Island Resort, located in Fiji’s Mamanuca Island Group, was the first-of-its-kind, all-inclusive, all-exclusive surf resort. Unheard of at the time, the Tavarua concept, which afforded a limited number of well-funded “guests” exclusive access to several of the world’s premier reef breaks, effectively commoditized the previously free-spirited (emphasis on “free”) surf travel experience.
Who developed it?
Hawaiian legend chronicles what is most probably the sport’s very first surf trip, weaving the tale of Kauai’s Prince Kahikilani, who in the late 17th century sailed his outrigger across the Ke’ie’ie’ Waho Channel, bent on challenging the fearsome waves of Paumalu, known today as Sunset Beach. On this seminal surfari, the good prince unwittingly set the tone of surf travel for centuries to come, forsaking all the comforts of home, making an arduous journey and eventually holing up in a cave (granted, with an enchanting sea witch) merely to experience a new surf spot.
Generations of surfers to follow in his wake asked for little more. The first mainland surfers traveling to Hawaii specifically to surf in the 1940s thought nothing of stowing aboard Matson ocean liners, crowding into stuffy rooms at the Waikiki Tavern, or sleeping two-to-a-bunk in musty Makaha Quonset huts, fueled on white rice and gravy (and anything they could poke with a Hawaiian three-prong) just for the opportunity to ride those fabled island “bluebirds.”
During the 1960s and seventies, two decades that saw the first concerted thrust beyond surfing’s known maps, intrepid wave wanderers took pride in an ascetic ethic that eschewed amenities in return for the perceived reward of perfect, empty waves — empty, most specifically, of other travelers like themselves. And while throughout the decades there have been widely scattered outposts of civility where road-weary surfers might gather for a hot meal and a flushing toilet — The Steak House in Biarritz and Bob Rotherham’s Restaurante Punta Roca in El Salvador being two prime examples and by the late 1970s even a rough tree house “camp” at Java’s Grajagan – international surf exploration up until the early 1980s was still a decidedly “have winger-pin, will travel” affair. Then came the 1984 December issue of SURFER Magazine, featuring on its cover a shot by uber-dirtbag surf traveler/photographer Craig Peterson, which evocatively framed his longtime surfari partner Kevin Naughton jumping over the gunwale of a panga skiff, a perfect left peeling in the background, the cover blurb claiming “Fantastic Fiji.”
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Fantastic was right, especially when the associated editorial feature served to introduce an entirely new sort of surf travel experience: The Tavarua Island Resort, located on a tiny, heart-shaped islet off the coast of Fiji’s main island Viti Levu, where for an unthinkably exorbitant price a maximum number of 24 clients would be granted access to what would eventually be revealed to be two of the greatest waves on earth — with dry beds, a wet bar and three meals a day included.
Founded by American surfers Dave and Jeanie Clark, along with partner Scott Funk, Tavarua was as unique in concept as it was in location. Teaching in American Samoa with his wife Jeanie at the time, Clark, by 1982 already a relentless South Pacific explorer, came across the fabulous waves in and around Tavarua and was immediately transfixed. Sure, surfers had ridden here before: Indo-based surfer/sailor/charter captain Gary Burns has on the wall of his wheelhouse snapshots of the wave now known as “Restaurants” that he took in 1974, and in William Finnegan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir the author describes surf camping on Tavarua in 1978. But Clark’s vision of what to do with Tavarua’s epic waves was something completely different.
Negotiating a cooperative agreement with tribal elders in the nearby village of Nabila, Clark was granted exclusive rights to ancestral fishing grounds that included Tavarua Island (Restaurants) and Nokuru Kuru Malagi, or “Thundercloud Reef” (Cloudbreak). This, for the first time, meant no “backpack and board bag” interlopers (read: non-paying surfers) allowed. With this “paying customers only” edict officially sanctioned by indigenous authorities, Clark then constructed a half-dozen thatched-roof bures, each equipped with hanging solar showers, added an open-air kitchen and bar, imported a couple pangas with 60-horse power outboards and hung out the “vacancy” sign. The price tag for this collective fantasy: $100 U.S. per day, cash or credit card. A fee that shocked surfing sensibilities at the time — even outraged — until the realization began to dawn on an increasing number of surfers with jobs that the price for completely catered Fijian perfection was only about $31 more a night than, say, the Motel 6 in Santa Barbara. Within only a couple of good Fijian surf seasons (and plenty of full-color coverage in the surf mags) the Tavarua “Gold Card Rush” was on – and has never stopped.
What it’s meant to surfing
The Tavarua Island Resort, long since upgraded to five-star status, has been more than just a sweet trip, but has, in fact, had a profound effect on international surfing and surf culture. With its introduction of the fully-catered surf trip, Tavarua virtually invented the surf charter business, whose various entities now offer pre-paid, pre-planned, two-week surf “adventures” to just about every coastline on Earth, providing a much wider, more gainfully-employed demographic a homogenized taste of what an earlier generation of surf traveler once sacrificed home, hearth and girlfriends for. Subsequently, much more so than earlier “lone wolf” surf explorers, this increased tourist traffic has fostered flourishing indigenous surfing cultures, whose younger populations over the years have literally grown up working around, and eventually surfing next to, visiting foreigners. Hard to believe this all started under a hanging solar shower, and though by Fijian government decree in 2010 Tavarua relinquished its exclusive surfing rights, losing a measure of its glamour, the heart-shaped island of Dave Clark’s dream is still the standard against which all chartered surfing experiences are measured.
Why it’s not going away
Two words: Cloudbreak and Restaurants. And if you even need to ask…go snowboarding.