From the south China Sea to the stormy north Atlantic ocean, the world has thousands of islands to choose from. Not all have waves, many are in sheltered waters. Others are blocked from long-period groundswell. Some are inhabited with millions of people, others are empty. Some are similar to the Channel Islands of California, which have good waves but access is highly restricted to protect wildlife.
Others are easily accessible and depend on the vicissitudes of the international visitor trade for their economic prosperity, a precarious situation in the past two years of global pandemic with closed borders and canceled flights worldwide.
Here are the ten best surfing islands, worldwide.
10) Taiwan, ROC China
About 2 000 kilometers off the coast of mainland China is the large semi-tropical island of Taiwan, called “Formosa” or “Beautiful” by the Portuguese, 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 high security zone with no entry for anyone not 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 including swimming, fishing and surfing. Surfing began to flourish on the island, with the initial surge led by expatriates and with good reason - there were few locals who could swim, had surfboards or who had any knowledge or experience with surfing.
There are excellent waves on both the east and the west coast of Taiwan, with several wave and wind seasons including large waves in typhoon season from western Pacific typhoons that make occasional direct hits on the island.
Today, the scene in Taiwan is one of the liveliest in Asia, with as many as 25 000 local surfers on the island, a thriving surfing industry with local and licensed imported brands, international contests, sponsored local surfers, frequent visiting surf travelers (in pre-pandemic days) and a healthy population of expatriate surfers working on the island and surfing as much as possible.
9) Thanburudhoo, North Malé Atoll, Maldives
This small and uninhabited island is quite close to the capital of Malé and decades ago, was used by the Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) as a firing range to train Maldivian soldiers how to use their rifles. According to Maldives surfing pioneer the late Tony Hinde-Hussien, 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 Maldives each year. Many of them came to Maldives 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, not 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 privatize and develop the island as an international surfing resort, including exclusive access to the waves of Thanburudhoo for resort guests only. Fortunately, the plans did not materialise and nothing has been built on the still empty island.
8) Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Spain
In the Canary Islands of Spain in the north Atlantic ocean, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) offshore from the coastline of Morocco in North Africa, there are several islands with a long history of hosting foreign surfers and vibrant communities of local surfers.
Lanzarote is the northernmost island in the Canaries group and highly volcanic, with fresh black lava everywhere on the island. Lanzarote gets almost all of its waves from groundswells generated by north Atlantic storms in the winter months of October to March. Surfers flock to the island at this time 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 for expert surfers only in many locations like the La Santa area and at the easier for beginners black sand beaches like the popular Playa Famara. Famara is the site of numerous surf schools with legions of British, German, French, Swedish and Dutch beginners on soft boards, learning the basics about waves, tides, and currents from patient and multilingual surfing instructors.
7) Santa Catarina, Brazil
In recent years, Brazil has surpassed the traditional powers of America and Australia in producing world professional surfing champions and 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 county? One of those locations is an island in the southern part of Brazil in the state of Santa Catarina, also named the 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 southern area of Brazil has a temperate climate and the city of Florianopolis on the island 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 and is also a favorite surfing destination for North American and British surfers. The island gets its best waves in the September to October north Atlantic hurricane season, when a big Category 5 storm can send long-period groundswell to the island and produce an offshore wind on the east coast.
Barbados 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 tradewind windswell are South Point on the far south coast and nearby Surfer’s Point, both 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.
As Barbados has never recorded a shark incident where a human was bitten by a shark, sharks are not something anyone surfing in Barbados from expert level tuberider to the beginner taking their first lesson, has to be concerned about.
5) Tavarua, Fiji
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 1980’s the rubbish problem from campers was getting out of hand, so 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, to make a little extra money for the tribe.
The rest is history as they say, as 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 wives and children like going there for a vacation. Much of the attraction for everyone is the incredibly warm and welcoming attitude of the Fijians themselves, who have been welcoming many guests and their families year after year for more than 25 years. The other attraction 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 wind between March and October. On a big swell, Cloudbreak is known as “Pipeline Point” for both the size and power of the waves and the perfectly positioned and contoured Restaurants reef is perhaps the best reef wave in the south Pacific ocean.
4) Siargao Island, Surigao del Norte Province, The Philippines
Siargao Island in Surigao del Norte province in the southern Philippines was an obscure place with virtually no visitors of any kind until the early 1990’s, when surfers began to arrive on the island.
The autumn typhoon season in the western Pacific is the best time for waves and local offshore southwest “habagat'' winds on Siargao. Storms forming near the Marshall Islands group intensify and move from east to west, pushing powerful groundswell waves towards the coral reefs on the east coast of Siargao. These northeast swells are met by offshore southwest winds, creating ideal conditions for perfect surfing waves.
Since the early 1990’s there have been more surfing spots discovered on Siargao and there has been a great deal of development on the island, with both Filipino and foreign-funded accommodation and dining locations springing up seemingly overnight in the vicinity of the small town of General Luna on the east coast. Siargao was recently devastated by a direct hit from powerful category 5 Supertyphoon 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.
3) North Island, New Zealand
While New Zealand is far from tropical, the North Island can be considered one of the best surfing islands in the world for its sheer variety of quality waves and surfing locations, from the long points of the far north to numerous peninsulas to the spectacular scenery of areas like Taranaki, Mount Maunganui and the Coromandel coastline. New Zealand has long been a favorite with surfers worldwide, 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 local and visiting surfers, there are hundreds of other surfing locations on the North Island, with surfable waves somewhere under almost any swell or wind direction.
Many surfers and other visitors to the North Island choose to hire a self-drive caravan for transportation, giving them the mobility they need to be in the right place at the right time. There are dozens of caravan parks in the country, with many of them conveniently situated on the coast and not expensive.
One can do a lot of driving in New Zealand, from coast to coast, south to north, following the constantly changing wind and swell patterns to find the best waves.
2) Oahu, Hawaii, USA
When it comes to surfing islands with a large variety of waves and conditions, few locations can equal the island of Oahu, part of the Hawaiian Islands chain in the vast and empty seas of the north Pacific ocean. 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 surfing wave imaginable.
Along with the incredible variety of waves, Oahu has a lot of surfers. With nearly everyone on the island of more than 1 million people and 112 miles of coastline (180 kilometers) having some interest or involvement with surfing, uncrowded days at the major spots are very rare. Those dedicated surfers who do their homework by studying the conditions and monitoring the forecast can get uncrowded days at lesser-known spots, it just takes a little effort.
Some of the most famous surfing locations on earth are on Oahu, with the Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore and Kuhio Beach in Waikiki being the most famous. Modern surf heroes with a dozen sponsors charge massive barrels during the winter North Shore surf season at Pipeline, in competition and in freesurf sessions, with the best waves and surfers photographed and videoed by pro shooters and receiving huge publicity on social media and surfing special interest websites and magazines.
Kuhio Beach in Waikiki on the south shore has another kind of surfing fame, with the long, rolling waves at the base of Diamond Head the home spot of the great Duke Kahanamoku. Duke, along with his five brothers, three sisters, his beachboy friends and wealthy visitors, popularized the Polynesian spot of He’e Nalu (surfing) to the world in the 1920’s after Duke won gold medals in swimming in the 1912 and 1920 Olympic Games.
1) Bali, Indonesia
The single best island in the world for surfing is Bali, in Indonesia. Bali literally has it all, with year-round groundswell from the southern Indian Ocean affecting two sides of a tropical and easily accessible island that have opposite wind directions depending on the season, which ensures that one coastline or the other will have great waves on any day of the year.
Surfers have flocked to Bali since the early 1970’s, when several Australian travelers brought back word that the Bukit Peninsula in the vicinity of the famous cliff temple of Pura Luhur Uluwatu was loaded with surf and there was no one surfing. 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” which is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary and 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 favorite holiday island and the surfing development of Bali accelerated. New waves were explored on the Bukit Peninsula like the world-class tubes of Padang-Padang and further west to the rivermouth 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 of October to March, with prevailing northwest winds blowing offshore. Surfers shift to the opposite west coast in the dry season of April to September, with consistent southeast tradewinds blowing offshore at all the favorite waves on the Bukit Peninsula and Kuta Beach.
With a multitude of accommodation choices 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 also has another attribute that cannot be found in any other location worldwide: the charming Balinese people and their incredibly complex and developed Hindu culture that has fascinated visitors for decades and produced so many masterpieces of art, architecture, literature and sculpture.
All text and images © John Seaton Callahan