Surf resorts with five-star élan

Liveaboard yachts and back-of-beyond lodges, ultra-exclusive resorts and the remotest mid-Pacific atolls – the footloose appeal of the surfing lifestyle is driving luxury travel purveyors well past thread counts and butlers into some very interesting new territory, says Maria Shollenbarger

About half an hour’s speedboat ride northeast of the Maldivian capital of Malé is a surf break known as Sultans. It rolls out off the southern tip of the island of Thanburudhoo, in warm, clear blue-green tubes over a not-too-shallow reef. For much of the northern-hemisphere summer, it draws devotees from as far away as South Africa, Brazil, Florida and Australia. It’s one of this island nation’s most storied attractions – which, if you don’t surf, you’ve likely never heard of.

On a blazing afternoon in August, I stood on the deck of a sleek 39m yacht anchored off Thanburudhoo, watching a handful of surfing champions take turns virtuosically carving up set after near-immaculate Sultans set. Among them were Rob Machado, a 44-year-old Californian with Pipe Masters and US Open titles under his belt; Taj Burrow, Australia’s youngest-ever national champion; and Maya Gabeira, a Brazilian powerhouse famous for riding the biggest wave ever surfed by a woman.

The competition for the Four Seasons Maldives Surfing Champions Trophy takes place off the island of Thanburudhoo

The competition for the Four Seasons Maldives Surfing Champions Trophy takes place off the island of Thanburudhoo

Jay-Z thumped from the sound system as photographers with foot-long zoom lenses roved back and forth on pontoons in front of us. Trays of sashimi and craft beers made the rounds. A crowd swirled about, composed of the surfers’ entourages, the event producers and a few high-rolling Maldivians in sarongs and mirrored aviator shades. It was a garrulous, fun scene, if also slightly mystifying: you needed no real familiarity with the pantheon of pro-surfing to recognise that the line-up – men and women, big-wave riders and conventional surfers together – was an eclectic one. Then again, the event they were here for is unusual: the Four Seasons Maldives Surfing Champions Trophy, an invitation-only competition for internationally renowned pro-surfers (many of them retired World Surf League champion titleholders), created by the luxury hotel company of the same name. It’s not widely publicised; I was only the second journalist from a non-surfing publication to attend in its six years of existence. But the roster of past participants reads like a hall of fame: Mark Occhilupo, Tom Curren, Mark Richards, Bethany Hamilton, the legendary Nat Young.

Four Seasons operates two resorts here – one of them, Kuda Huraa, is just a couple of kilometres from Sultans – as well as a private island and the Four Seasons Explorer, the lavish liveaboard from which we all watched the proceedings (and which the company often charters to groups of surfers to explore waves across the Maldives’s 26 atolls). Throughout the competition a tender shepherded resort guests from their sleek overwater villas at Kuda Huraa. Intrigued by the presence of a few surfing-world rock stars in their midst, they were turning out in force for the Grand Final. Around 4pm, a klaxon blast called time: Burrow had claimed the cup; Machado was the runner-up. A local bodoberu drum band played furiously as the winners danced on deck amid a halo of iPhones, the crowd hooting and spraying expensive champagne.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2015 memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, longtime New Yorker contributor and lifelong surfer William Finnegan describes the existence to which, in the idealistic, gold-light-saturated 1970s of his youth, he aspired. It was one of “solitude, purity, perfect waves far from civilization. Robinson Crusoe, Endless Summer. This was a track that led away from citizenship, in the ancient sense of the word, toward a scratched-out frontier where we would live as latter-day barbarians.”

Not much to do with the scene aboard the Explorer, then. But in the 1970s, almost no one outside the Maldives knew about Sultans. In 2017, perfect waves far from civilisation are as rare as frontiers still waiting to be scratched out. The world and its breaks are for the most part meticulously mapped. The paradigm of the surfer as seeker persists, however, as much in the collective imagination as among those who actually chase waves. Much more than a sporting pastime, it is a compelling (not to mention eminently photogenic) subculture – equal parts athletic prowess, sex appeal, philosophical detachment and, most of all, tireless pursuit of adventure.

Spectators watch from the Four Seasons Explorer, which is often chartered by groups of surfers

Spectators watch from the Four Seasons Explorer, which is often chartered by groups of surfers

It makes sense, then, that the hospitality industry continues to capitalise on its allure, as at Four Seasons – a company that had already put “five star” and “surfing” together here, and in southeast Asia and Latin America, quite a few years ago. Christina Ong’s Como Hotels and Resorts– known for chic interiors and comprehensive wellness programmes, but not synonymous with surf-tourism expertise – has commandeered a site in Canggu, on Bali, directly in front of Echo Beach, one of the island’s best-known surf destinations. The 119-room Como Echo Beach won’t open until February, but is already leveraging the wave conspicuously in its marketing materials, and promises to offer surf tuition and guiding from its Beach Club.

There is also Nihi, the hotel brand born from the success of Nihiwatu(now known as Nihi Sumba Island), the surf lodge-turned-ultra exclusive resort in Indonesia. Created almost 20 years ago by an American expat, and frequented by a haute-bohemian crowd that included French aristocrats and freewheeling fund managers, it gave its guests exclusive access to Occy’s Left, a pristine left-breaking wave named for the aforementioned champion Mark Occhilupo. It is now owned by retail magnate Chris Burch and hotelier James McBride, who, since acquiring it in 2012, have elaborated hugely on the luxury factor – thereby disenchanting some of its more dogmatic clientele, by all accounts put off as much by the surfeit of Manolos at dinner as by the nightly tariffs. (There are also those who, from the beginning, have abhorred the concept of a privatised wave – but that is another story.)

Surf tuition and guiding will be offered at Como Echo Beach in Bali when it opens in February

Surf tuition and guiding will be offered at Como Echo Beach in Bali when it opens in February

McBride is in negotiations to sign on two new sites, in Costa Rica and Fiji, both in proximity to world-class waves; he is currently reported to be weighing up two others, in Nicaragua and New Zealand. “Nihiwatu was unequivocally the preeminent surf resort when we acquired it,” says McBride. “And as we create the Nihi brand, we definitely see the surf element as part of our growth. It’s part of the whole edge-of-wildness aspect of what we offer.”

“That’s a lot of what makes the lifestyle alluring – that back-to-nature idea of just living in the moment,” says Ross Phillips, founder of luxury surf touring company TropicSurf, which helped Four Seasons create the Champions Trophy. A trim, soft-spoken Australian, Phillips was arguably the first to identify that sweet spot where the siren call of the surfing lifestyle overlapped with an emerging new paradigm of luxury travel, in which generous thread counts and £700 premier cru wines gave way to exclusivity, access and bragging rights. He works with surfers of all levels, from young semi-pros to a New York financier who took up the sport at 50 (“He’s 55 now and one of my best clients”). In doing so, he has grown TropicSurf into a multinational luxury travel operator in Mexico, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Australia, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Nicaragua and the Seychelles, as well as the Maldives. “There’s a tagline/vision statement we use: ‘Remember freedom?’ That, as much as what we actually do with our resort partners and packages, is what we’re selling.”

Four Seasons’ Kuda Huraa uses seaplanes to ferry surfers to waves

Four Seasons’ Kuda Huraa uses seaplanes to ferry surfers to waves

But some are still looking for that ultimate location, Phillips notes, and the Finnegan ethos holds for them. The high-net-worth hardcore surfers (and there is a stratum of these, predominantly based in the US and Australia: witness Third Point CEO Daniel Loeb, who famously named his hedgefund after the break in Malibu he grew up on) will spend for it. For them, Phillips offers private charters and expeditions to virtually unvisited waves in, say, Peru or West Papua, or helicopter rides from Balito Grajagan, in East Java – aka G-Land, one of the waves Finnegan and his ilk pioneered in the 1970s. Such epic itineraries have corresponding price tags in the many tens of thousands of dollars. But Phillips traffics mostly in a softer iteration of the fantasy: “a shoulder-high, comfortable wave – one where my guy’s not going to smash himself on a reef. I’d say most of my clients would rather have a B-grade surfing experience and stay at a Kuda Huraa than an A-grade surf experience with less comfort.”

Michael Ryder Thomas, the founder of Pegasus Lodges & Resorts, approaches the model from the other side. In July, I travelled to the Telo archipelago, off the west coast of Sumatra, to visit Thomas’s new project. This was no small undertaking: arriving from Singapore, only a few hundred kilometres away as the crow flies, required a commercial flight, a six-seat prop-plane charter, a speedboat ride and the better part of a day. But I touched down in an Indonesia of old. Thin smoke trails rose out of distant coco-palm thickets, tinny prayer calls carried faintly on hot breezes. The water beneath the boat was so glassy blue it seemed underlit. There were very few people; there were definitely no gleaming four‑deck power yachts. But everywhere there were waves, peeling with near-mathematical consistency across dark smudges of reef towards talc-y sand beaches. The Telos are celebrated for such quality breaks, like the better-known (and more crowded, and more daunting) Mentawais, farther south along the Sumatran coast. But it’s not a place where people talk much about thread counts. To enlist the parlance of Thomas’s target demographic, it is way, way gnarlier than the Maldives.

Pinnacles’ villas are strung along a white-sand beach

Pinnacles’ villas are strung along a white-sand beach

And yet here is Pinnacles on Telo, a private resort Thomas has built on the tiny island of Sibolo, which aims to shift the paradigm again. If TropicSurf intended to bring some measure of the purists’ surfer experience to conventional luxury travel, Pinnacles reconciles surf tourism with more luxurious standards. “Maybe you’re not the best surfer in the world, but you want to challenge yourself out of your comfort zone; or you’re hardcore, and you now happen to have a bit of money to throw around, and want to bring your wife and kids,” says Thomas. “I’m seeing traction from both markets. Them sort of pretending they’re beach bums for a week doesn’t make the experience less authentic.”

Thomas grew up surfing on Hawaii’s Big Island. He spent several years working in investment banking in New York, before leaving to settle in Manhattan Beach in California. “I was miserable on Wall Street, but had gone far enough that I had some disposable income and time on my hands. In 2009, some friends chartered a liveaboard in the Maldives and I went along. I’d let my surfing slide for years while I was back east; to get back to it like that was amazing – just three or four guys on a wave, if that. The sense of connectedness was so intense, I felt like I did when I was 14.” A few more such trips, and the lightbulb switched on for him. “No one, besides [TropicSurf’s] Ross, was really doing international surf tourism, and no one at all was doing it with real institutional investment.”

In 2012 he founded Pegasus Lodges, with an equity partner – Alex Cook, CEO of the Fortress Partners Fund – and a few minor investors. Pegasus comprises a handful of simple resorts in Indonesia and Samoa, as well as Ratu Motu, a 39m liveaboard that can be chartered in West Papua or West Sumatra. But Pinnacles represents a new category: scaled down in size and considerably up in design and indulgences. There are just eight villas: four are strung along a close-to-perfect beach; another four are hidden on a hill at the island’s centre. What they eschew in ornament they compensate for in quality materials, space and natural light, with walls of glass doors, huge daybeds and wide sea-facing terraces. A rambling L-shaped complex houses an alfresco dining room, an open cook’s kitchen and a groovy bar. There’s a very pretty infinity pool and various decks with alcoves for sunbathing, reading and afternoon snoozing. Twice daily – more, if things are really pumping – guests head out in a custom-designed powerboat to one or two of the dozen-odd waves within a 15-minute ride of the resort.

While Pinnacles is no Ritz – amiable “house” dogs wander about and the bar is help-yourself outside sundowner hours – there’s a tangible measure of real luxury in its DNA, starting with the privacy an exclusive-island setting confers. “When I thought about a set of brand values, it fell between two extremes: at one end were the Amans and also Nihiwatu, back when it was still really about the surf. At the other end there were the places here in Sumatra, like Telo Island Lodge [which Thomas acquired as part of Pegasus in 2013] – much more the essence of proper surf tourism, with the scrappy Aussie crew.” My fellow guests during my days at Pinnacles were, indeed, largely Australian, and all devoted surfers – but scrappy was hardly the word for them. Affluent professionals in their late 40s to mid-50s, all but one of them was travelling with family. A woman on an (Australian) half-term surf extravaganza with her 12-year-old son befriended me at mealtimes; a high-powered lawyer from Perth, she could easily have done Nihiwatu or any five-star Maldivian island, but seemed relieved that level of indulgence wasn’t being emulated here. “The surf’s the thing,” she said, with perfect Western Australian pithiness.

Thomas is meanwhile onto a far more daunting challenge: rehabilitating and building a similarly haute-lodge offering in Kiribati, 1,700km south of Hawaii – ie, well and truly the middle of nowhere, and requiring a journey that will make the one from Singapore to Pinnacles look like a bus ride. “But if you talk to anyone who’s crossed the Pacific with a surfboard or a fishing pole, and ask them where the real magic is, Fanning Island comes up a lot,” he says excitedly, when I broach the subject of getting there. “It’s just magic. That’s what justifies the brand and the expenditure.

“I know it’s a bit of a cliché in surfing and travel, but the commodity we traffic in is a scarce natural resource,” continues Thomas, the one-time banker and improbable latter-day barbarian. “It’s great waves, but also incredible places that most people will never see in their lives.”

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