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.
Way back in February of this year, writer Stephanie Zubiri and I were commissioned by Discovery, Cathay Pacific’s inflight magazine, to document the popularity of surfing in Siargao and how it has influenced the small Philippine island community. When everything around the world changed a few short weeks later, and travel came to a screeching halt, this feature was understandably shelved — that is, until this week, when the editorial team published the (lightly edited) article online; below is Stephanie’s story in its entirety.
“Surfing. It’s special. It’s what teaches me to relax in life,” shares Wilmar Melindo with a peaceful sigh. The 43-year-old Siargao local, champion surfer and coach, president of the Siargao Island Surfing Association and co-founder of the Philippine Surfing Championship Tour, is THE man about town. Born and raised on the island, he grew up harvesting coconut and planting paddy, spending most of his days carefree, living off the land and sea. Through the influence of early American and Australian surfer expats, he began riding the waves in his early teens and, 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, it’s a beautiful wave but dangerous. To this day, I have immense respect for this wave. When it’s not there, I’m not happy. When I can’t surf, I’m moody. 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 their constant whoosh permeating the soundscape, they also regulate the comings and goings of the inhabitants.
Depending on the season, the weather and the time of day, the crowd moves harmoniously from beach to beach following the best conditions for surfing. Sunbleached hair, golden tans, boardshorts and bikinis, locals and visitors alike, everyone is barefoot and high on post-surf endorphins. For those who don’t surf, the chill vibe is palpable and immediately adopted. This undoubtedly brings an overall sense of cool to this seaside town.
“When I started surfing, there were no vehicles, not even tricycles. We would have to carry our boards and walk quite far from inland to catch the waves,” reminisces Melindo about what was once a hidden gem that only those passionate about the sport knew about. “It used to be so difficult to get here,” shares his good friend, fellow surfer and local, 28-year old Jolan Saavedra. “Which in a way was nice, because only people truly passionate about surfing would come and stay. Since the opening of the airport, things are a lot busier now.”
The main surf town of General Luna is currently bustling with seaside resorts, cute cafés and laidback bars. “It’s wonderful that the locals have work and business opportunities, but it’s not without consequence.” Saavedra, who now sits as a Councilor for Barangay Catangnan, decided to run for local office to help protect the interests of the local population and integrity of the environment.
There are serious concerns about the impact of rapid development and increased population on the ecology, particularly in the area of waste management and marine conservation. “We are not quite at the level of Boracay yet,” says Marja Abad, co-founder of Siargao Environmental Awareness Movement, referring to the famed party island of the Philippines which was shut down for six months in 2018 for a cleanup and overhaul. “There is still a chance to dodge from that direction and that’s why we’re here, to try to make sure that all the stakeholders are working together because ultimately it’s lawful to preserve Siargao.” The island is not just another vacation escape but an official protected natural site by Presidential Proclamation called SIPLAS or Siargao Island Protected Landscape and Seascape. The concern about the environment is deeply rooted in the love of surfing. “It makes me sad to see plastic bottles in the water or bleached corals,” shares Saavedra. “The waves are our playground, we have so much respect for the ocean and want to keep things as clean and pure as possible.”
This sentiment also translated into local entrepreneurs’ push for solidarity in good business practices. 39 year-old Ian Sermonia, owner of Harana Surf Resort and president of the Siargao Tourism Operators Association is hopeful. “When I first opened Harana, I knew that it would attract more people to the island, so I wanted to be responsible about it, bearing in mind the environment and the integration of the local community. Many new businesses come to us now before setting up to ask for our advice.” The commitment to sustainable development and keeping the chill, surf vibe of Siargao is so powerful that through persistent lobbying, certain establishments with questionable practices and morals were shut down.
“Siargao is not a free-for-all party island,” states Saavedra. “It’s a piece of heaven that should be a home for everyone.” The past two years have seen the energy shift back to the heart of surf culture. Curfews have been implemented, but without complaint, as the locals recognize the hazards of zipping around inebriated on motorcycles – the local’s favorite mode of transportation – late at night. It has come back to its true nature, embracing the sea and the sport, and preferring to enjoy life in a more relaxed manner. “We still have fun in our own way,” explains Marja. “We start earlier, have communal boodle dinners, some karaoke and sunset drinks. We also really connect with people. Then we’re up first thing in the morning to surf.”
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. As you look on, many of the surfers aren’t even catching waves but sitting on their boards, peacefully going with the flow of things, laughing and chatting with each other.
It is important to note that there is so much more beyond the confines of General Luna and Cloud 9: picturesque rice paddies, crystalline waters, small uninhabited islets with blinding white sand, glassy rock pools, lush mangroves. The entire landscape is stunning and can be enjoyed whether or not you can hang ten.
However, the ultimate appeal of Siargao is its unpretentiousness. People are genuine and warm, bonding over the same shared passion for the tides and island living. “Since I moved from Manila, living here has changed me,” shares Sermonia. “The locals are incredibly welcoming and you’re very in tune with nature. I’m always looking at the wind, the tides, the currents and the moon. When you’re surfing, it’s like meditation, waiting for the wave. It’s in fact a spiritual experience.”
What & Where when visiting Siargao?
Shaka Cafe — Colorful smoothie bowls generously served in halved coconut husks topped with fresh fruit and homemade granola. The perfect breakfast overlooking the Cloud 9 break. @shaka_cafes
Bravo — Tapas style, Mediterranean driven with a global twist, this popular beachfront joint is perfect for all day eating and drinking. Come mid-afternoon and stay for sundowners. www.bravosiargao.com
Kermit — Wood fire oven pizzas with that sought-after bubbled and charred crust. If you’re looking for a pasta fix, they’ve got some great options as well. www.kermitsiargao.com
Zicatela — Mexican made local with fresh ingredients like line caught tuna for their zingy ceviches. Festive and fun with Latin beats that get your hips swaying. Doubles up as a lively bar at night. @zicatela_siargao
Greenhouse Café — Starving after a catching some morning waves? Hearty egg dishes piled with bacon and cheese, freshly baked bread and excellent coffee. Need we say more? www.greenhousesiargao.com
Loose Keys — Motorcycles, surf, icy cold beer and live music, this is undoubtedly the heart of nightlife in Siargao. No dress code, but a rock-and-roll attitude is de rigueur. www.loosekeysmoto.com
Harana Surf Resort — This rustic resort has spacious rooms, warm service and a really great vibe. The fave hangout of local surfers, the compound has an excellent craft coffee joint, artisanal ice cream and the lounge serves great Filipino fare. www.haranasurf.com
Kalinaw — Run by two French friends who decided to sell everything and move to Siargao almost a decade ago, the newly renovated resort has only 5 villas, each with its own private pool and terrace. It’s a bit of island luxury in the heart of the action, walking distance from all the restaurants and bars and just a few minutes away from Cloud 9. www.kalinawresort.com
Nay Palad — Secluded further south from bustling General Luna is the epitome of luxury on the island. The 5-star all inclusive resort allows you to immerse yourself in the beautiful nature with the calm waters, white sand, golden sunsets and mysterious mangroves accompanied by gourmet meals and free flowing wine and cocktails. www.naypalad.com