Frigate: Surf Whale Country

Falling for Fiji's open-ocean breaks

Aug 16, 2006
Outside Magazine

TRUE BLUE: Surf or sand; it's your choice in Fiji    Photo: Corel

Access & Resources

Getting There: Air New Zealand (800-262-1234, flies from LAX to Nadi starting at $806 round-trip. Air Pacific (800-227-4446, flies from LAX to Nadi starting at $900. Where to Stay: Batiluva Beach Resort (011-679-345-0384, runs $89 per person, including meals and surf transfers. Transfers from the Nadi airport are also available.

MY GIRLFRIEND, SIAN, watches me fall in love with another, and she smiles. She knew this would happen, which is why, as I leap from the boat into the South Pacific and start paddling toward one of Fiji's best breaks, she says, "Have fun." It's not a big day out at Frigate Pass—the waves are head high—but 50-yard lefts reel across the reef, the water is an inviting 78 degrees, and with only four other surfers out, the lineup might as well be empty. I paddle for a wave, pop up, and glide down the face. In a postcard paradise of brilliant sunshine and white-sand beaches, some beauty defies a postage stamp.

The open ocean is an unlikely place for a surf break. Frigate sits 14 miles south of Fiji's main island, Viti Levu, and seven miles southeast of the closest inhabited island, Yanuca. But thanks to a reef system that plummets 3,300 feet in just over two miles (a drop comparable to that from the Grand Canyon's South Rim to the Colorado River), Frigate rumbles across a stretch of wild sea locals call "whale country." It's not a beginners' break—the wave can unleash 20-foot faces and just as quickly send you to the hospital as offer the ride of your life—but it's worth the challenge for experienced surfers. In an archipelago of more than 300 islands, with world-class breaks like Restaurants, Namotu Lefts, and Cloudbreak, Frigate is one of Fiji's best.

For the next five hours I gorge myself. Small, playful waves that have traveled thousands of miles from the Southern Ocean offer themselves up in their waning moments. The Salty Dog, a 35-foot boat from the Batiluva Beach Resort (my home for ten days), bobs patiently, anchored in the channel. A single 40-horsepower engine propels the craft with all the strength of a sedated sea turtle; still, she's a star—built for the Hollywood movie Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid, she was cinematically destroyed by a giant snake and resuscitated into our present-day surf charter. As she chugs the 75 minutes back to Batiluva, on Yanuca Island, we catch a yellowfin tuna; a few hours later, chef and co-owner Sharen Todd, 49, serves it as a sashimi appetizer with a sweet soy-ginger sauce. Grilled Spanish mackerel follows. Life is simple at Batiluva. "Eat, sleep, surf," says Dan Thorn, Todd's 57-year-old business partner, "and have a beer in between."

The two Americans opened Batiluva, which sits on six and a half beachfront acres, in August 2003. Besides the guests at another small resort in a neighboring bay, the only people on the 800-acre island are the roughly 300 locals. Batiluva is a simple camp that sleeps 14 in two multi-room bungalows, with shared bathrooms and rain-fed showers. We eat fantastic buffet dinners at a long communal table, perfect for reliving the day's war stories; coconuts fall regularly, and banana trees droop with 50-pound bunches. The staff won't just take you spearfishing; they'll cook your catch, too. If you time your stay at Batiluva right, you'll find Thorn grilling lobster tail for dinner. "This is what Fiji should look like," he says as he regales us with a story of a 30-pound grouper he once speared. As I swing in a hammock, watching the sunset pour red over the Pacific, it's hard to argue.

Even when we don't surf, our days start early, as soon as the 7 a.m. sunlight sneaks through the gaps of our wooden-planked walls. Sian and I lounge on the sand, kayak around the island, or snorkel the reef just off the beach. Some days we head back out to Frigate to snorkel and freedive, while others explore with scuba gear. On two separate occasions I snorkel next to a pair of three-foot whitetip reef sharks—mellow and curious, they're the Labrador retrievers of the sea. Eventually I swim over more than a hundred coral species and see huge groupers, a hawksbill turtle, and dolphins. Paddy Ryan, author of Fiji's Natural Heritage, calls diving around Frigate "a real buzz. There's a feeling of space and movement and depth," he says, "that gives you that extra little bit of excitement, a feeling that something big can come in."

And not just underwater. A perfect day at Frigate is big and hollow—12-foot faces throwing barrels wide enough to drive a Volkswagen through—and elusive. Though I never see it in top form, I realize that what's special about the break is how fun it is, even in poor conditions. One morning, with a small swell and the wrong wind, I paddle out anyway, and 30 minutes later I'm on a shoulder-high wave, zooming over a turquoise blur of coral a few feet below. I brush my hand along the face of the wave as it throws over me, and I find myself standing in the middle of the barrel, in the middle of the ocean, in the middle of a love affair.

Filed To: Surfing, Fiji

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