Watersports

Chasing Waves in Siargao, the Surfing Capital of the Philippines

On the Philippine island of Siargao, surfing isn’t just an attraction. As Stephanie Zubiri finds out, it’s also a way of life

‘Surfing is special. It teaches me to relax in life,’ says Wilmar Melindo, a champion surfer and coach, president of the Siargao Island Surfing Association and co-founder of the Philippine Surfing Championship. The 43-year-old native of Siargao —  the surfing capital of the Philippines — is the man about town. Born and raised on this teardrop-shaped island, Melindo grew up harvesting coconut and planting the paddy fields. Through the influence of incoming American and Australian surfers in the 1980s and ’90s, he began riding the waves in his early teens. Since then, he’s lived in symbiosis with the ocean.

‘You need to study the energy of nature and feel it. Look at Cloud 9,’ says Melindo, referring to the island’s best-known surf break. ‘It’s a beautiful wave but dangerous. I have immense respect for this wave. It gives me life.’

The waves rule the island. Not only are they omnipresent along the fringes of the coconut grove-lined main road with a constant whoosh that has become part of Siargao’s soundtrack; they also regulate the comings and goings of the inhabitants. Depending on the season, weather and time of day, the crowd moves from beach to beach chasing the best waves, and everyone is constantly high on post-surf endorphins. Even for those who don’t surf, the chill vibe is palpable.

Surfing in Siargao
Credit: Scott A Woodward

Many like Melindo still remember a time when the island had no vehicles, and surfers had to shoulder their boards and trek to the coast to catch the waves. But nowadays, the main surf town of General Luna is full of seaside resorts, cute cafes and laidback bars.

‘It used to be very difficult to get to the island, which was nice in a way because only people who are truly passionate about surfing would come,’ says Melindo’s friend and fellow surfer Jolan Saavedra. ‘But since the opening of the airport [in 2017], things have gotten a lot busier. It’s wonderful that we have more work and business opportunities, but it’s not without consequence.’

Mamon Island in Siargao, Philippines
Credit: Scott Woodward

This drive to protect the interests of the local community and the island’s natural habitat led the 28-year-old Siargao native to run for office. Now, as a Councilor for Barangay Catangnan, Saavedra works to address concerns about the impact of the island’s rapid development, particularly in the area of waste management and marine conservation, alongside environmental groups like the Siargao Environmental Awareness Movement (SEA Movement).

As an official protected natural site known as Siargao Island Protected Landscape and Seascape (SIPLAS), the concern about the environment stems from its residents’ love of surfing. ‘The waves are our playground, we have so much respect for the ocean and want to keep it as clean and pure as possible,’ adds Saavedra.

‘We are not quite at the level of Boracay yet,’ says SEA Movement co-founder Marja Abad, referring to the party island which was closed for six months in 2018 for rehabilitation due to the effects of overtourism. ‘That’s why we’re here, to try to make sure that all the stakeholders are working together to preserve Siargao.’

Surfers Jolan Saavedra, Marja Abad, Wilmar Melindo, Ian Sermoniaon the beach in Siargao, Philippines
Pictured from left: Jolan Saavedra, Marja Abad, Wilmar Melindo, Ian Sermonia. Credit: Scott A Woodward

This sentiment has also driven local entrepreneurs to push for better business practice. As Ian Sermonia, owner of Harana Surf Resort and president of the Siargao Tourism Operators Association, says: ‘When I first opened Harana, I knew that it would attract more people to the island. I wanted to be responsible about it, bearing in mind the environment and the integration of the local community.’ As such, the resort prides itself in the use of eco-friendly detergents and adopting an anti-single-use plastics policy, as well as its partnerships with various Siargao-based non-profit groups.

The commitment to sustainable development is so strong that through persistent lobbying, certain establishments with questionable practices and ethics were shut down. A ban on driving motorcycles at night has also been implemented, as people recognise the hazards of zipping around the island inebriated after dark. And over the past two years, the focus has shifted back to Siargao’s surf culture, embracing the sea and the sport and enjoying life in a more relaxed manner.

‘We still have fun in our own way,’ SEA Movement’s Abad says of a typical night out here on the island. ‘We start the evening earlier, enjoy a communal dinner, some karaoke and sunset drinks. Then we’re always up first thing in the morning to surf.’

The pier at Cloud 9 beach in Siargao, Philippines
Credit: Scott Woodward

Walking on the long pier down to the tower that leads to the rolling waves of Cloud 9, it’s hard not to want to get on a board and join in the fun. But if you look closer, many of the surfers aren’t actually surfing. Instead, they are sitting on their boards, laughing and chatting with their friends. Beyond General Luna and Cloud 9, Siargao’s rice paddies, uninhabited islets with blinding white sand, glassy rock pools and lush mangroves are all there to be explored – whether or not you can hang ten. Perhaps, the ultimate appeal of Siargao is its unpretentiousness.

‘Moving to Siargao has changed me,’ says Harana Surf Resort’s Sermonia, a former Manila resident. ‘You become very in tune with nature. I’m always looking at the wind, the tides and the currents. Surfing is like a form of meditation. It’s a spiritual experience.’

Where to Refuel and Relax in Siargao

Eat

Eat at Siargao
Credit: Scott A Woodward

Shaka

This seaside café overlooking the Cloud 9 break serves up colourful smoothie bowls generously topped with fresh fruit and homemade vegan granola.

 

Bravo

Serving tapas and Mediterranean-style cuisine with a global twist, Bravo is a popular beachfront joint that is perfect for all day eating and drinking.

Eat at Siargao
Credit: Scott Woodward

Kermit

This Italian restaurant’s signature wood-fired oven pizzas and pasta dishes will satiate any post-surf carb cravings.

Drink

Drink at Siargao
Credit: Scott A Woodward

Loose Keys

A bar with motorcycles, surfing and live music as its themes, Loose Keys is undoubtedly the heart of nightlife in Siargao. No dress code, but a rock-and-roll attitude is de rigueur.

Stay

Harana Surf Resort

This rustic resort offers spacious rooms, warm service and a really fun vibe. The compound has an excellent craft coffee joint, artisanal ice cream and the lounge serves great Filipino fare.

Credit: Scott A Woodward

Kalinaw

Run by two French friends who moved to Siargao almost a decade ago, Kalinaw features five villas, each with its own private pool and terrace. It’s within walking distance from Cloud 9 and the island’s most popular restaurants and bars.

 

Nay Palad Hideaway

Further south from General Luna, Nay Palad Hideaway is an all-inclusive luxury resort. White sands and calm water set the scene for indulging in freshly caught seafood and free-flowing wine and cocktails.

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