Words and imagery by John Seaton Callahan.
When surfers think about where they would like to surf if they could go anywhere in the world, most of them choose an island.
From the South China Sea to the North Atlantic Ocean, the world has thousands of islands to choose from. Not all have waves. Many are in sheltered waters, while others are blocked from long-period groundswell. Some are inhabited by millions of people, and others are empty. Some are similar to the Channel Islands of California, with good waves but restricted access.
Others are easily accessible and depend on international tourism—a precarious situation in the past two years of global pandemic, with closed borders and canceled flights affecting island economies worldwide.
Whether you are looking for a tourist haven or complete isolation, here are 10 of the best surfing islands on the planet.
Taiwan, ROC China
About 2,000 kilometres off the coast of mainland China is the large, semi-tropical island of Taiwan, called “Formosa” or “Beautiful” by the Portuguese (who were the first Europeans to lay eyes on this lush island in the Western Pacific Ocean).
Surfing has a relatively short history in Taiwan, for the simple reason that for most of the period since the Nationalists Kuomintang came to Taiwan in 1949, the coastline has been a restricted-access, high-security zone with no entry for anyone who isn’t in the military (due to fear of invasion from mainland China).
It was only in 1987, with the lifting of martial law and the improvement of relations with China PRC, that the coastline was opened for recreational activity. Surfing began to flourish on the island, with the initial surge led by expatriates (since there were few locals who could swim, who had surfboards, or who had any knowledge or experience with surfing).
There are excellent waves on both the east and the west coasts of Taiwan, and several wave and wind seasons, including large waves in typhoon season from Western Pacific storms that occasionally hit the island.
Today, the surf scene in Taiwan is one of the liveliest in Asia, with as many as 25,000 local surfers on the island. There is also a thriving surfing industry, with local and licensed imported brands, international contests, sponsored local surfers, frequent visiting surf travellers (pre-pandemic), and a healthy population of expatriate surfers working on the island and surfing as much as possible.
Where to surf: Taiwan
Thanburudhoo, North Malé Atoll, Maldives
This small and uninhabited island is quite close to the capital of Malé. Decades ago, it was used by the Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) as a firing range to train Maldivian soldiers. According to the late Maldives surfing pioneer Tony Hinde-Hussein, you could be sitting in the lineup, waiting for the next set of waves, and clearly hear the crack of rifle fire, with the odd, stray bullet that was way off target splashing into the shallows near the beach.
At some point, the use of the island as a firing range was discontinued as surfing began to grow in popularity, with thousands of foreign surfers arriving in the Maldives each year. Many of them came to surf the two high quality coral reef waves that break in front of this island, Sultan’s and Honky’s.
The reef configuration at Thanburudhoo is somewhat unique in that it sticks out into the Indian Ocean at the right angle to produce two high-quality waves (rather than just one), with both waves offshore on a northwest wind.
This location is so highly valued by local and international surfers that there was a huge protest when, in 2011, plans were announced to privatise and develop the island as an international surfing resort (including exclusive access to the waves of Thanburudhoo for resort guests only). Fortunately, the development didn’t materialise, and nothing has been built on the island.
When to go to the Maldives, HERE
Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Spain
The Canary Islands in the north Atlantic Ocean, located about 60 miles offshore from the coastline of Morocco, include several islands with vibrant communities of local surfers and a long history of hosting foreign surfers.
Lanzarote is the northernmost island in the group and is highly volcanic, with fresh black lava everywhere on the island. The island gets almost all of its waves from groundswells generated by north Atlantic storms in the winter months, from October to March. Surfers flock to the island to escape the numbing cold of winter surfing in Britain and France, with water temperatures in Lanzarote being much warmer.
Surfing in Lanzarote is done over shallow and sharp lava reefs, and most spots are for expert surfers only, although there are a couple of beginner-friendly black sand beaches, such as the popular Playa Famara. Famara is the site of numerous surf schools, with crowds of British, German, French, Swedish, and Dutch beginners on soft tops.
Spot guide: Lanzarote
Santa Catarina, Brazil
In recent years, Brazil has surpassed the traditional powers of America and Australia in producing world professional surfing champions. In addition, Brazilian Italo Ferreira won the first gold medal in surfing at the recent Tokyo Olympics.
If Brazil is producing so many top professional surfers, where are the best waves in the country? One of those locations is an island in the southern state of Santa Catarina, appropriately named Ilha de Santa Catarina. Santa Catarina is a mix of shifting sandbars and granite boulders, producing good surfing conditions on various swell and wind directions.
This area in southern Brazil has a temperate climate and the city of Florianopolis has a refreshing European feel, far from the steamy chaos, crime, and corruption of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.
The many beaches on the island facing the south Atlantic Ocean get regular groundswell from April to October, with good local conditions and tolerable water temperatures with a good wetsuit.
The famous beaches at Joaquina, Praia Mole, and Campeche have hosted international professional events and many of the best surfers in Brazil and neighboring countries like Uruguay and Argentina live and train on the island.
The sunny Caribbean island of Barbados is synonymous with cricket and rum, but it is also a favourite surfing destination for North American and British surfers. The island gets its best waves during the north Atlantic hurricane season (September to October), when a big category 5 storm can send long-period groundswell to the island and produce offshore winds on the east coast.
Barbados also gets consistent swell year-round from the northeast trade winds, the same high-pressure weather system that brought British ships across the Atlantic to the island centuries ago. Some of the spots that work well on trade swell are South Point on the far south coast and nearby Surfer’s Point, both of which can get fairly crowded with local surfers and international visitors. The west coast is much less consistent for swell than the east but has perfect offshore winds with the normal northeast trades.
Barbados has never recorded a shark incident where a human was bitten by a shark, so sharks are not a major concern.
Get a feel for the place, HERE
Long touted as the best surf resort in the world, Tavarua Island has come a long way from its humble beginnings as an uninhabited island trashed by surf campers.
By the early 1980s, the rubbish problem from campers was getting out of hand. Druku, the ethnic Fijian chief of the tribal group that had traditional ownership of the island, asked Dave Clark and Rick Isabel, two American Peace Corps teachers in Fiji and frequent Tavarua surfers, to start an accommodation business to control the trash and environmental degradation happening to the island and perhaps make a little extra money for the tribe.
The rest, as they say, is history. Since its opening in 1984, Tavarua has set the standard for quality accommodations and perfect waves in the surf resort world, so much so that even non-surfing partners and children enjoy going there for a vacation. Much of the attraction is the incredibly warm vibe of the Fijians themselves, who have been welcoming guests and their families for more than 25 years.
The other attraction, of course, is the waves. Although frequently windy, with strong southeast trade winds, both Cloudbreak and Restaurants can provide world-class lefthanders on the right swell and conditions between March and October. On a big swell, Cloudbreak provides both size and power, while the perfectly positioned and contoured Restaurants is possibly the best reef wave in the South Pacific.
The forecast is looking spicy as of the time of publication too. See HERE!
Siargao Island, Surigao del Norte Province, The Philippines
Siargao Island in the southern Philippines was an obscure place with virtually no visitors of any kind until the early 1990s, when surfers began to arrive on the island.
The autumn typhoon season in the western Pacific is the best time for surf, with the local southwest “Habagat'' winds blowing offshore on Siargao. Storms forming near the Marshall Islands intensify and move from east to west, pushing powerful groundswell towards the coral reefs on the east coast of Siargao. These northeast swells are met by the offshore winds, creating ideal conditions for perfect waves.
Since the early 1990s there have been a number of surfing spots discovered on Siargao, the most popular of which is the crowded, hollow right-hander known as Cloud 9. There has also been a great deal of development on the island, with both local and foreign-owned accommodation and dining facilities springing up seemingly overnight in the vicinity of General Luna.
Siargao was recently devastated by a direct hit from powerful category 5 super typhoon Rai on December 16, 2021, the first major storm to affect the island since 1984. Damage was widespread, with many homes and businesses destroyed and local residents left homeless and destitute.
Lots to do to help, HERE
North Island, New Zealand
While New Zealand is far from the typical tropical setting that many surfers dream of, North Island is one of the best surfing islands in the world for its sheer variety of quality waves and surf spots, from the long points of the far north to numerous peninsulas and the spectacular scenery of areas like Taranaki, Mount Maunganui, and the Coromandel coastline.
New Zealand has long been a favourite with surfers, ever since the left points of the Raglan area on the Tasman Sea were featured in Bruce Brown’s 1965 release The Endless Summer. While Raglan remains popular with both local and visiting surfers, there are hundreds of other surf spots on the North Island. No matter what the surf and wind conditions are doing, there’s almost always somewhere firing.
Many surfers and other visitors to the North Island choose to rent a caravan, giving them the mobility they need to be in the right place at the right time. There are dozens of affordable caravan parks in the country, with many of them conveniently situated on the coast. The best way to score in New Zealand is to do a lot of driving, from east coast to west coast, north to south, following the constantly changing wind and swell patterns to find the best waves.
Live cam: Raglan
When it comes to islands with a huge variety of waves and conditions, few locations can equal Oahu, part of the Hawaiian Islands located in the vast north Pacific. From some of the largest rideable waves on the planet on the north-facing shores to easy and fun waves for beginners on the south-facing shores, this island has every type of wave imaginable.
Along with the incredible variety of waves, Oahu has a lot of surfers. The island is home to nearly 1 million people and only 112 miles of coastline, and virtually everyone there has some interest or involvement with the ocean, so uncrowded days at the major spots are very rare. Those dedicated surfers who do their homework, study the conditions, and monitor the forecasts can get uncrowded days at lesser-known spots, but it takes a bit of effort.
Some of the most famous surf spots on the planet are located on Oahu, with the Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore and Kuhio Beach in Waikiki being the most famous. Modern surf heroes charge massive barrels during the winter season at Pipeline, with the best waves and surfers being photographed and videoed and receiving huge publicity on social media and surf media platforms.
Kuhio Beach in Waikiki on the south shore has another kind of surfing fame. The long, rolling waves at the base of Diamond Head were the home break of the great Duke Kahanamoku. Duke, along with his five brothers, three sisters, beachboy friends, and wealthy visitors, popularised the Polynesian sport of he’e nalu (surfing) to the world in the 1920s after Duke won gold medals in swimming in the 1912 and 1920 Olympic Games.
The single best island in the world for surfing is arguably Bali in Indonesia. Bali literally has it all, with year-round groundswell from the southern Indian Ocean impacting two sides of this tropical and easily accessible island, where opposite wind patterns groom the respective coasts, depending on the season. With this combination of swell and local conditions, there is quality surf available on Bali virtually every day of the year.
Surfers have flocked to Bali since the early 1970s, when several Australian travellers brought word that the Bukit Peninsula (and the area around the famous cliff temple of Pura Luhur Uluwatu, in particular) was loaded with good surf and no surfers. Australian filmmaker Alby Falzon traveled to Bali to film the waves and culture in 1971, as seen in the classic surf film Morning of the Earth. After that, the rush was on.
Bali built an international airport that was capable of receiving larger planes by 1972, and once direct flights between Bali and Australia commenced, Bali became Australia’s favourite holiday island. The development of surfing on the island quickly accelerated. New waves were pioneered on the Bukit Peninsula (which enjoys offshore southeast trade winds during the dry season of April through September), such as the world-class tubes of Padang-Padang, while spots further west included the river mouth waves of Balian, Canngu, and Medewi.
On the other side of the island, breaks like Nusa Dua, Sanur, and Keramas were ridden during the wet season from October to March, with prevailing northwest winds blowing offshore.
With a multitude of accommodation choices available ranging from basic losmen to five-star international luxury hotels, surfers and visitors are spoiled for choice in Bali. Traffic and other problems like sewage and water shortages aside, the island is a veritable paradise, made even better by the charming Balinese people and their incredibly complex and colourful Hindu culture, which has fascinated visitors for decades and produced many masterpieces of art, architecture, and literature.
Ultimate surf travel guide: Bali