Fiji is almost certainly every surfer’s vision of Shangri-la – the height of perfection in the heart of Polynesia. Safe to say, it has become idealized as the epitome of tropical bliss by just about everyone – surfers and non-surfers alike – drawn to its promise of white-sand beaches, swaying palms and sparkling electric blue water. We surfers then add to these mental images, perfect six-foot barrels reeling down desolate stretches of empty beachfront.
Well, I’m here to tell you about the real Fiji. It’s not perfect, at least not all the time. But it’s about as close to perfect as you might ever hope to get.
I recently had the chance to visit this surreal archipelago. I won the trip in a contest sponsored by Waterways Travel on The Inertia website. Although I’ve surfed for over 30 years, traveled extensively and have had Fiji on my “bucket list” for years, I can’t honestly say I ever imagined I’d get the opportunity to realize this dream.
Have Fun, Will Travel
I’m a family man, married for twenty years with two daughters (ages 12 and 16) and I’ve always believed in sharing my travel adventures with them. When I won the trip, we had already been planning a family vacation to Nicaragua. So, we simply shifted gears and decided to bring our daughters along with us to Fiji.
Our journey was long: a five hour flight from our home in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL to LAX, followed by an 8-hour layover, then another 11 hours in the air as we traveled across the international date line and below the equator, before arriving in Nadi on Viti Levu. Despite the long journey, our flight on Fiji Airways was extremely comfortable and there were positive vibes before ever even stepping on the plane. When checking my boards, the rep noticed we were traveling with Waterways and informed us that we’d only have to pay board fees one way for the entire round trip. Score.
We had scheduled our 8-day trip on the first day of summer, which happened to coincide with the WSL’s Fiji Pro. While we’d be staying about three hours from Tavarua Island (Fiji is made up of 332 islands and over 500 islets), it was exciting just knowing that whatever energy the pros might be riding, I’d be catching, too. Even while Tavarua may be a bit drier and favorably situated for the area’s prevailing winds, the Koralevu area along Viti Levu’s southern Coral Coast where we were staying offered similar wave options without having to worry about paddle-battles against the likes of Kelly Slater, Owen Wright… or… well, anyone, really.
Waidroka Bay Resort: A Near-Perfect Setting for Adventure
Waidroka Bay Resort, set on the Pacific Ocean at the edge of a rainforest in one of Viti Levu’s lushest, most tropical areas, was the ideal base for my family. In addition to escaping the crowds of Nadi and providing a wide variety of waves, it also offered a full range of adventurous activities for thrill-seekers. Although my youngest daughter surfs, Fiji in general is not a place for the less experienced. Most waves require access by boat, are quite powerful, and break on shallow coral reefs. So, even while I was the only one who’d be surfing, our whole family would enjoy ziplining, whitewater rafting, SUPing, kayaking, snorkeling, visiting Kula Eco Park, a local village school and more. All this, in addition to enjoying the resort’s many amenities.
We stayed in an oceanfront bure that slept six and had AC, although on most days, the breezes kept things plenty comfortable. Every morning we received fresh linens, and each day we feasted on three squares of fresh local from banana pancakes in the morning to locally caught Tuna and Wahoo for lunch and dinner. One of the things I really loved was sitting down and getting to know some of the other resort guests and staff at one of the group-style tables. Although it was never crowded, we still enjoyed interacting with some great people from Australia, South Africa, Hawaii, Austria, Sweden, the UK, Israel and Fiji.
There’s No Such Thing as a “Lay Day” in Fiji
The first few days we were there, the sun was surprisingly fleeting, the clouds thick with brisk winds and intermittent rain. There was a small pulse of surf on a couple of days in the head-high range, but the predominant side-onshore winds weren’t cooperating, and by the fourth day of our trip, Fiji was not only out of sorts, it had effectively gone flat. Over on Tavarua, the pros were dealing with the same maddening conditions. Of course, as any experienced surf-traveler knows, you take what you get on a surf trip and make the most of your time. There was swell on the near horizon (new swells arrive like clockwork in Fiji, every 7-8 days, year ‘round), and we had already planned to dedicate some of our time exploring the area’s numerous other offerings.
One day, we headed into Pacific Harbor to go ziplining through the rainforest, high above the Wainadoi River Valley. We were in the air for over 2KM, and our guides were a blast. We had all zipped before, but the rules here were a little more relaxed. Soon, we were letting go of the lines completely and even zipping upside down.
Another excursion took us into the deep interior of Viti Levu on a 16KM whitewater trip into the Upper Navua River Conservation area. It was an all-new kind of adventure for my girls, who had never been rafting before, and the class II/III rapids were ideal for them. There’s no way to adequately describe how amazing the scenery was here. Pristine rainforest… pure, virgin wilderness… steep canyon gorges covered with lush ferns and vegetation and so many waterfalls of every shape and size, all along the way. It was like stepping back into the Jurassic age. Sadly, it’s a part of Fiji that so many travelers, who tend to focus almost exclusively on Fiji’s admittedly beautiful coastal areas, miss. Take it from me – if you ever venture there, do not make this same mistake. It’s must see. I’m talking Chris Burkard, Nat-Geo kind of stuff.
By mid-trip, I was jonesin’ to surf and thankfully two new swells were arriving – an initial three to five foot swell that would be reinforced by a second, larger four to six foot swell that would peak the same day as the WCT finals and Owen Wright’s 20 pt. masterpiece at Cloudbreak.
I finally went out into the Fijian surf at a break called Pipes. Pipes is a fast, powerful wave that the locals refer to as Mini-Chopes, as it rises from extremely deep water and breaks onto a shallow reef in a way that gives it the appearance of breaking down into a sub-sea level pit. The winds were still stiff and side-onshore, and the weather was overcast. But it was clear there was now a solid swell in the water. Upon getting out, I quickly caught a small one, negotiating the impressive speed of the wave and gaining a little bit of early confidence. I then paddled for a larger set wave, about head high or a little over. But this time, the wave was traveling and rising so quickly beneath me that I stalled at the top, mesmerized at the sensation and the sight of the shallow reef racing below. All while being lifted and ultimately ejected onto that beautiful reef. As added insult, the ocean managed to hold me down longer than I had braced myself for. After surfacing from that first wipeout (and bouncing off the reef), I had a much clearer idea of what I was dealing with.
I was surfing Pipes with two others: Dan, the surf guide from Waidroka, and Jared, a surfer from Hawaii. I told Dan what had happened on the last wave and he noted that you couldn’t linger at the top of these waves before dropping down. You had to get down to the bottom immediately, then start enjoying your ride. A few more large sets came through and raced below me, and I thought for a moment that I might need more board than my 6’ Whisnant. But then Jared offered some additional advice. “You can’t just pop into these waves like you’re probably used to at home,” he told me. “Try taking a few more strokes down the face than you feel you need.” I did, and it proved to be the key. Although the onshores seemed to be inhibiting escapable tubes, I was just blown away by the speed and force of the waves. It was exhilarating.
Wash, Rinse, Repeat
For the next two days, we’d check other spots, but always ventured back to Pipes, which seemed to handle the trades the best. On the day before we left, I was praying for the sun to come out and winds to lie down, but woke to even heavier winds and rain (some locals told us they thought this unusual weather was the result of this year’s continuing El Nino weather pattern). I had one final day, as our plane was pushing out the next afternoon. The swell was forecasted to peak that day, with moderate SE trades lingering in the morning. This would be the day of the Fiji Pro final. Cloudbreak was forecasted to be double-overhead with some larger sets up to 15 feet in the morning. As a general rule, Cloudbreak and the outer reefs in Fiji break about a third bigger than the interior reefs where I was surfing. For me, this translated into overhead waves with sets in the eight to ten foot range.
Fiji Turns On
By the next morning, the clouds and wind had disappeared. This was the Fiji of the magazines, with its iridescent azure water and big ol’ lines of whitewater fringing on the reefs about a half-mile from shore. We sped out to check a spot called Serua Rights. Although I knew Pipes would be phenomenal in these conditions, I was anxious to try some new spots. Upon pulling up at Serua, we looked across the channel and saw even bigger, better waves coming in on the opposite side of the channel at a break called 420’s.
As I would learn, 420’s is a spot that doesn’t work that often. It only does so on large swells that tend to overwhelm Serua, but when it’s on, it’s really on. Beautiful, steep lefts were breaking at around seven feet with an ample number often foot foot faces on larger sets. I was still riding my 6’ board and remembering to take those extra strokes down the faces. On one particularly big set, it felt as if my board got nearly vertical on the drop. I couldn’t do anything but just try to stick with it. It felt as if my toes were just barely clinging to the last inches of my tailpad in freefall. Somehow, at the bottom I reconnected, wobbling precariously before setting a rail enjoying a good ride, escaping near-certain obliteration.
As the tide backed out, we moved back over to Serua. It was a fun, long unusual wave, more forgiving than Pipes or 420s. It was like riding in a skate park. You’d begin with a medium-sized line on the outside reef, which would then move into deeper water, tapering down into a small foamy section that might normally be your cue to cut out. But if you just stuck with it for just a couple of seconds, the wave would suddenly hit the inside reef and start jacking up… and up… into a big ol’ peak that supposedly, on smaller days, would provide a backdoor barrel to shoot. As it was, there was too much swell for this barrel to materialize, but the huge bowls that were left were just outright fun!
On my final wave at Serua, I made a critical mistake. I had managed to largely avoid the reef for nearly the entire trip, but things were about to change. Our boat was positioned at the back of the reef and it was a long paddle back. I had just caught a nice ride and had covered a great deal of yardage back to the boat, albeit still with another 100 yards or so to go. There was whitewater everywhere, and I couldn’t see any exposed reef. So, rather than turning for the channel, I just continued riding in. Almost instantly, the water depth drained from about two-and-a-half feet, to six inches, to Oh shit! And right behind me was another surge of whitewater, propelling me up onto the reef. Ultimately, I negotiated my way back over into the channel and climbed, bloody, back into the boat, sporting a few new tattoos from the Fijian coral. Still, you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
I returned to the resort with about an hour get packed up and ready to head back home. My wife and daughters were just returning from their visit to a local village school just down the road from Waidroka. We felt so blessed to have won this trip and really wanted to return some of the karma while there. We had brought along some Waves for Water filters, school supplies and other fun stuff (punching balloons) for the local kids, and I would be leaving behind my 6’ Whisnant and 6’ 6” Joe Johnson Quiet Flight for the “Surfboards for Fiji” project – a joint effort co-sponsored by Waidroka Bay, Wai Tui’s and the Fiji Surf Association.
While waiting for our ride, I checked my phone and saw the epic conditions that the pros had scored at Cloudbreak. On the south side of Fiji, there’s another world-class outer reef called Frigates Passage that, by almost every account, rivals Cloudbreak. The only differences are that rather than being two miles from shore, it’s about 14 miles from Waidroka. As a result, it’s much less crowded. Although I was keenly interested in trying Frigates, conditions were such that a good opportunity didn’t present itself until my last day, and then there wasn’t enough time. Frankly, as powerful as the waves were where I was surfing, I’m not sure that wasn’t a complete blessing.
Of course, the flipside to my angst: it gives me the perfect excuse to try and get back to Fiji. Close to perfect, anyway.