"There are so many waves round here that no-one's ever surfed," Yasawa Island Resort & Spa owner James McCann tells me. "Surf out front in the morning and you'll be the only surfer within 50 miles. Actually … you'll be the ninth surfer who ever surfed here."
Five hundred kilometres east of here – on the tiny northern Fijian island of Qamea – surf guide Jonathan Free tells me to sleep in tomorrow. We're in the bar at his resort, finishing off sundowners; he's telling me we'll have waves for ourselves all day. "The skipper [of our speedboat] has church in the morning," he says. "But don't worry, there won't be any surfers at Maqai [a surf break on a reef pass 15 minutes by boat from the resort]."
Any surfer who ever shared their local break with the suburb who lives beside it, and the blow-ins who travel there by car, by train, by bus, and by bike, in the hope of nabbing a wave of their own, knows why I'm still getting up before first light.
McCann tells me he's the only surfer on the island; Free tells me there's not even another surfer in-house at Qamea Resort & Spa. But as a surfer living on Australia's over-crowded eastern seaboard, I've spent a lifetime manoeuvring myself inside the surfers beside me. As the sport got more and more accessible, the search for waves became more desperate.
I paddle out in the dark of pre-dawn these days to find 30 surfers have beaten me to the waves.
McCann and Free can tell me there'll be nobody surfing in the morning, but I still want to beat nobody out.
The crowds don't let up even in the world's most remote surfing destinations. Surfers tussle for inside positioning all across the Indonesian archipelago, and throughout the South Pacific.
Even here in Fiji at the world-renowned southern reef passes of the Mamanuca Islands, the search for waves can turn nasty. At surf spots with household names – like Cloudbreak – wave-crazed surfers paddle inside me with an aggression that unnerves me. Even when I'm on my own wave, someone's always lurking on the shoulder, hoping I'll fall.
But McCann's right, there's no-one else in front of his resort this morning. I borrow his daughter's longboard from the activities hut and paddle over shallow coral to the place I'm guessing the wave peaks. A hip-high wave comes from out of the deep, and I ride it across the bay till it fades out below the sheer black limestone cliffs which flank the bay.
At Qamea, Free's just as true to his word, we don't arrive at Maqai till 9am, and it's breaking with the sort of perfect regularity you can only find at reef breaks. Wave after wave – one-metre-and-a-half high – break evenly across a reef pass … and I wish I could ride every single one of them.
There are waves like this all across the 333 islands of Fiji, at breaks that have never been named … and sometimes, never surfed. To those who thought the spirit of adventure induced by 1966 surf epic The Endless Summer was long dead; reconsider.
Most of the world's iconic breaks have been colonised by entrepreneurs financing a life far from home running surf camps and resorts. And these, invariably, are dominated by groups of male surfers in their teens and 20s.
The allure of consistent surf tends to turn surfers into sheep. It pays to remember the stars of The Endless Summer didn't always find perfect waves. For those willing to chance no waves, there are rewards all across the Fijian archipelago. Those requiring a wave guarantee should wait their turn at Cloudbreak.
Google tells me there aren't any waves at Yasawa Island. The answers I get back on Trip Advisor mean I didn't bring a surfboard (Question: "I'm going to the Yasawas; am tossing up whether to take my surfboard?" Answer: "Just returned from the Yasawas. Leave the surfboard."). There's only one way in to Yasawa Island Resort & Spa; I arrive by Cessna, landing on a grass runway cut from forest. My luxury bure – like the other 17 here – is set on a long, white sandy bay. Thigh-high waves break just off-shore; in the last light of my first day, I ride them till they break on the beach on a Stand-Up Paddleboard.
Long-time ex-pats in Fiji tell me there are waves in the Yasawas, but that they break further south from here (Yasawa Island is the northern-most island of the group). Land-based tourism only began in the Yasawas 32 years ago – travelling here still requires effort. But the culture of the island group remains almost entirely intact, mostly because chiefs still rule the lives of locals. There are a handful of resorts spread across the islands, but Yasawa Island Resort is the only one on this island.
I'm aching to surf, so I book an all-day boat tour on my first full day here. McCann tells me the waves he's discovered across these islands break predominately between November and March. Five minutes out from the resort, a pod of 50 dolphins swim towards us, and surf our bow waves. I stretch down from the front of the boat till I can almost touch them.
The beaches of the Yasawas are some of the most pristine in the South Pacific. We round bay after bay of horseshoe-shaped beaches, separated between towering cliffs and forest. Their names are innocently cheesy: Honeymoon Beach, Paradise Beach … they have the obligatory number of coconut trees and guests can be dropped at any one they want for the day.
There are offshore reef passes here where the skipper says waves break in the right swell conditions, but today there's barely a ripple at any of them. I'm content stopping at tiny offshore islets, connected to Yasawa Island by beaches that flood with the incoming tide.
When I've ruled out finding waves altogether, I find a waist-high right-hand wave breaking across a shallow coral bombora. There are no overhead barrels to be photographed in here by mates; instead I chance the shallowness of a dropping tide on waves the skipper thinks might never have been surfed before … on a board belonging to a 12-year-old. When I return to the resort, I ride even smaller waves to shore in front of the bar: remembering the first time I realised the potential of the sea to take me with it.
On Qamea Island, the odds of riding the perfect wave are higher. Between November and April, incoming southerly swells can produce some of the best waves in Fiji.
Qamea Resort & Spa partnered with luxury surf pioneer TropicSurf to provide a surf program with a guide and surfboards, at waves easily accessed from the resort. Where most surf resorts which operate over coral reefs cater for intermediate to advanced surfers only, Qamea Resort can also cater for beginners.
I get there by flying to the Garden Isle, Taveuni, then I'm driven to a tiny bay on the island's north-eastern coast, where a speedboat takes me for 10 minutes to the resort. This sort of entrance is how Hollywood might depict arriving into the South Seas. I land at a beach flanked by forest and high rock cliffs where staff gather to sing to me.
While it's five-star here, guests are recommended to go barefoot. American honeymooners have been a key market, though Australian surfers are showing up in increasing numbers, but never in big enough numbers to crowd any break.
Just like Yasawa Island, I discover I can ride tiny waves on a SUP in front of the resort; soon my evening ritual includes a paddle to the breakers to watch the sun set against the huge basalt rock cliffs above the resort. Every morning I take the boat with my surf guide to the consistent waves of Maqai.
One afternoon the wind rises to a gale. Free tells me he's heard of a wave which breaks along Taveuni's protected north-eastern coastline. And so we motor to it, stumbling upon the perfect setting for any surf explorer: a tiny bay enclosed by forest where waves break perfectly over coral covered by a metre-or-so of ocean. Above us on a hill overlooking the waves, workers at a tiny bar yell out as we ride each wave, and children in school buses wave as they pass by on the road.
It doesn't seem to matter that the waves are at best waist-high. They break with a perfection few surfers used to Australia's sand bottom surf breaks could comprehend. The water's warm, even now as the sun sinks low near the horizon; and in these moments this could still be 1966, and I might be discovering my very own Endless Summer.
Jetstar, Virgin Australia and Fiji Airways fly to Fiji from Sydney and Melbourne from $500 return, see jetstar.com.au, virginaustralia.com.au, fijiairways.com. Fly to Taveuni (Qamea Resort & Spa) with Fiji Airways and the resort will organise the rest. Chartered flights to Yasawa Island Resort & Spa are done at time of booking.
Yasawa Island Resort & Spa is located 30 minutes flying time from Nadi Airport and offers diving, a day spa, 10 private beaches and beach dining starting at $A1385 per bure per night for two (including taxes, all day gourmet dining, non-alcoholic beverages, scheduled tours and most activities and water sports). See yasawa.com. Qamea Resort & Spa offers surf packages, diving, cultural tours, fishing and a day spa starting at $A270 pre person, per night. See qamea.com
Craig Tansley travelled courtesy of Fiji Tourism, Qamea Resort & Spa and Yasawa Island Resort & Spa