A remote surf retreat in the Solomon Islands
The things that count are dry board shorts for the morning, tropical-strength wax on your board and a stripe of zinc cream across your nose.
I’m on an island with no hot water, where a python is coiled in roof rafters over the bed in one of the huts, and where hermit crabs scurry from underfoot at the outdoor shower.
There’s no internet. To hear news of the outside world, it takes an expensive satellite telephone call.
When the sun sets, the solar lighting is a bit dim.
But so good is this idiosyncratic destination in the Solomon Islands that most guests vow to return.
The Papatura Island Retreat – once featured on the cover of America’s respected Surfer magazine – is in the north of the Solomon Islands where the island nation almost nudges Papua New Guinea’s Bougainville.
This isn’t as big as travelling to Tahiti’s Teahupoo or Fiji’s Cloudbreak. But here, in the turquoise Pacific Ocean, surfers take off on empty reef breaks every day.
They fall into a simple lifestyle where time doesn’t matter. “I encourage them to take off their watches,” says the retreat’s patriarch Peter Blanche. “All they need to know is that the gong goes at 1pm for lunch and 7pm for dinner.”
Other things that count are dry board shorts for the morning, tropical-strength wax on your board and a stripe of zinc cream across your nose.
It’s so warm, there’s no need for hot water for bathing.
To get to Papatura is a pilgrimage. First, make your way to Honiara, the capital of the Solomons; second, squeeze into a Twin Otter for a 60-minute flight to the grass landing strip on Santa Isabel Island; and, third, take a speedboat to Papatura Faa Island.
The retreat sleeps 32 in traditional-style huts made of timber and bush materials such as sago palm, which is used for the thatched roofing. Several of the huts are under the shade of coconut trees on the beach, where the ebb and flow of the turquoise water rolls shells, and fallen coconuts, back and forth.
My hut has a loft with a double bed under a mosquito net, and a freestanding floor fan to blow air around during the hot nights.
There are three single beds downstairs, a verandah with deckchairs, and a bathroom with a hand basin and toilet. The python is in the rafters next door.
There are more huts tucked into the rainforest, but still close to the water. They are all connected by raised boardwalks to the open-sided bar and restaurant, where the dress code is bare feet.
Nightly, icy cold SolBrew lagers precede the catch of the day. At the communal dining tables, you’re likely to have mud crabs, reef fish in coconut sauce, or crayfish split longwise and flame grilled.
The surfing is controlled, with only 14 surfers allowed among the 32 guests at any one time. If you’re not surfing you can take aajungle walk to a waterfall, swim, snorkel, visit villages or fish for everything from dogtooth tuna to squid.
The surf breaks (there are about a dozen) are accessed by short boat rides of 10 to 25 minutes. They include lefts, rights and A-frame peaks, mainly over shallow water that means Papatura is best for intermediate-plus surfers. There’s one beginner break, CC’s, a long and small ‘Waikiki-style’ wave.
We surf at Anchovies, a righthander that is small during our stay, but resort manager Bobby Pajuoja says he has seen it reach “15 feet”.
There are just four in our group and we stay in the warm water for hours (no wetsuits required). Rolly, our local surf guide, provides some handy pointers on positioning. At any time we can paddle back for a breather under the canopy of the boat, which is anchored alongside the reef.
Some of the other breaks include Tarzans, an A-frame peak; PT’s, a right-hander; and Donuts, a long right-hander suited to long boards.
The retreat has two dogs – Zoli and Kumma – named after even more surf breaks.
The dogs like to smooch up, especially if there’s a prospect
of a snack. Zoli, the black one, arrived here years earlier in an empty beer carton on the Twin Otter. He was a skinny puppy rescued from the streets of Honiara.
Papatura Faa Island once had a coconut plantation that supplied Estee Lauder, the American beauty brand.
But by the time Australian couple Peter and Margie Blanche arrived from the Gold Coast, about a decade ago, to start their idyll surf retreat, the plantation had been abandoned.
Peter says Papatura met all the criteria for a retreat. Fresh water. Tick. Reliable waves. Tick. A sheltered bay. Tick. Willing villagers. Tick.
They negotiated a lease with local landowners. Initially, it was to be 75 years, the approximate life of a coconut tree here, but in the end, they settled for 50 years with an option. “We’re here for the long haul and loving it,” Peter says. Tick.
Air Niugini flies from Port Moresby to Honiara five times weekly. See airniugini.com.pg.
Touchdown ... (from left) the grass landing strip at Santa Isabel Island; outdoor shower with bamboo screen; one of Papatura's beachfront huts.
Specks in the ocean ... (from left) islands and reef in the turquoise Pacific; Papatura's owners Peter and Margie Blanche; a board ready to go.
The perfect recipe ... a boat, a reef, and uncrowded waves.