Go There: Pohnpei, Micronesia
Where: Pohnpei Island, the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia and one of the many Caroline Islands in the warm Western Pacific.
What: Micronesia’s definitive “garden isle,” Pohnpei is what some would consider to be a smaller, rainier, more remote, less consistent, but equally expensive version of Tahiti. Unwittingly thrust into the surfing limelight in 2004/05, this lush, waterfall-laced volcanic dot was previously a surf-world secret. Things have changed, though, and now it’s heavily visited and surfed despite its excessive winds, rainfall, and fickle waves.
When: Although it’s usually quite windy (onshore), winter (December–March) is the best time to visit Pohnpei. Judging from all the sheet-glass photos you’ve seen in the mags, though, you’d think it was like that all the time—in reality, the first two winters (2004 and 2005) during which the surf camp operated had highly unusual swell and wind patterns, making it look like something it’s really not, but this last winter was back to normal. Forget about summer (June–September), because south swells are rare—Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands block all but the strongest and most southeasterly of southern hemi swells. Wind-wise, the calmest months are August and September, when Pohnpei gets light and variable wind patterns and calm seas—unless tropical disturbances sweep by, which are common. Autumn (September–December) is a transitional time with occasional typhoon swells, intense rains, winds, and swell, which never arrives until after Halloween. Springtime (March–June) is a mix of decreasing winter winds with smallish summer surf, although there are North Pacific swells that still make it over.
Why: Because Pohnpei is stunningly beautiful and because Palikir Pass is hands-down one of the world’s best waves. Many pros agree that Palikir is better than Lance’s Right. Pohnpei’s other spots are also powerful and hollow reef-pass setups, and although an island map will reveal numerous passes, only a handful of them offer consistently decent surf, some of it world-class. Pohnpei is a special island to visit because if you get skunked, the natural splendor and local people are among the nicest on Earth.
How: All international flights (usually via Guam) land at Pohnpei Airport (PNI), near the harbor at Kolonia. Unless you’re flying from Australia, it can be a bit of a trek getting there. Stopovers are numerous, especially via Hawai‘i or Los Angeles, and flights are expensive (about $2,000 and up) as Continental Airlines is the only carrier with service to Pohnpei. Once you’re there, you can either do the surf-tour thing by boat or get a hotel on the island and hire a boat to get to most of the spots. The locals are generally stoked to help you out—all you have to do is ask.
Places To Stay: The Village Hotel (thevillagehotel.com) is quite nice; it’s actually not a hotel but a collection of traditional bungalows nestled high in the rain forest. One of Pohnpei’s best surf spots is visible from the restaurant. Prices are reasonable, and the owners are wonderful. Additionally, South Park Hotel is a good setup with great views of Sokehs Pass and Center Channel, both good indicators of swell and wind patterns. Cliff Rainbow Hotel is next door with a range of options, too. Same with the Ocean View Plaza. And, of course, you can also stay on a boat at sea, as well.
Places To Eat: The best post-surf grub is Sei Restaurant, near the U.S. Embassy, where there’s an epic all-you-can-eat lunch and dinner buffet for about seven dollars a pop. There are good restaurants in the hotels, especially the Village Hotel. Prices are reasonable, with a view to die for.
Babes And Bros: If it’s nightlife you’re after, Pohnpei isn’t exactly a hot spot, with essentially one decent bar/disco/pickup joint to choose from. It’s called Club Flamingo and can be pretty seedy. Many of the islanders are quite attractive, though, so you never know until you go. At the Village Hotel, you’ll find The Tattooed Irishman, a much classier place.
Crowd Factor: Since the surf camp opened in 2004, Pohnpei has suffered from an unprecedented amount of high-profile surf-media coverage. The sunny blue barrels of Palikir Pass graced the covers of every major surfing magazine in the world, accompanied by large feature articles and even a few videos and television shows. Major surf-travel companies started selling Pohnpei to the world, and what was once a lightly surfed backwater became the world’s newest “must surf” destination virtually overnight. Hence, because of the surf camp, Pohnpei—particularly Palikir Pass (or P-Pass) is now crowded with visiting surfers, many of them top-tier pros.
Stuff To Bring: Leave the fullsuit at home, but make sure you pack plenty of sunscreen, a white long-sleeved rashguard, tropical wax, boards for barrel-riding, books, a rain jacket (Pohnpei gets 30 feet of annual rain), waterproof boots, and an open mind, because the surf’s not always epic in Pohnpei.
If The Surf Is Flat: As with any Pacific paradise, the fishing, diving, and snorkeling are world-class. Since Pohnpei is quite mountainous, hiking is always a favorite pastime, especially to the numerous waterfalls and scenic vistas like the one on top of Sokehs Rock. Seeing the stone ruins of Nan Madol (c. the seventh century) is a must—it’s the Venice of the Pacific. Try some numbing sakau, the local kava.
More Information: The best guide is Moon Handbooks’ Micronesia (sixth edition); also of note is Lonely Planet’s South Pacific And Micronesia (third edition), but it’s less-detailed. If you can find a copy online of Pohnpei, An Island Argosy by Gene Ashby, you’ll be stoked. Speaking of online visit-pohnpei.com, and pohnpeiheaven.com.—Mike Kew