"You can go and meet some of the most interesting people in the world... but everyone’s in soggy bathing suits, sunburned and stoked." - Mark Cunningham
Mark Cunningham has been going to Tavarua for several decades, first as a lifeguard teaching basic life-saving and CPR to the boatmen back when the island was only just finding its footing as a proper resort, and more recently on Kelly Slater’s annual trip, which includes a vast array of interesting personalities, and nights that end in utter tomfoolery. Mark, as you might know, is a bodysurfer. I call him “the Duke Kahanamoku of bodysurfing”—he is the sport’s greatest ambassador, having passed along the stoke to literally thousands, myself among them. He is also a great raconteur. Get him telling stories at the Tavarua bar and you get an entire history of surfing in Hawaii. We’re both really excited about the upcoming Outerknown Fiji Pro, a WSL Championship Tour event that runs from June 4-16. I asked Mark about his trips to Fiji in general, and his stays at Tavarua in particular.
Jamie Brisick: You’ve traveled far and wide on the quest for epic surf. What is unique about Tavarua?
Mark Cunningham: There’s a great simplicity to Tavarua, and the people there are beautiful. The Fijians are stoked; anyone who’s a guest to the island is stoked. There’s not a whole lot of drama or B.S. going on. It’s a temporary slice of paradise. It’s there. It’s available. It’s been going on for years and years.
JB: It’s geographically compressed, a bit like Gilligan’s Island, but instead of Gilligan and Thurston Howell III and Mary Ann you might get Kelly Slater and G. Love and Steph Gilmore.
MC: Yeah, it’s communal. There you are in the restaurant for three meals a day, and you can go and meet some of the most interesting people in the world doing very interesting things, but everyone’s in soggy bathing suits, sunburned and stoked. You’re not dealing with parking and traffic or trying to find a restaurant reservation or yada yada yada. It’s like the surfer’s dream; it’s just totally stripped down for you.
"Tavarua does that, but it’s also the most comfortable place for a surfer to put himself. There’s time there for extended conversation." - Mark Cunningham
JB: And because it’s small you’re all squashed together and you make fast friends.
MC: Yeah, you establish relationships over this shared beauty and this shared fun. Travel is the best thing in the world, and for us to get out of our comfort zones is a good thing. Tavarua does that, but it’s also the most comfortable place for a surfer to put himself. There’s time there for extended conversation. It’s not always go, go go! You could sit at your restaurant table from the crack of dawn and close it at night, and it’s going to be just fine. You know, see who sits next to you at breakfast, see who comes in for lunch, see who comes in for a beer, have dinner with someone who maybe brought an incredible case of wine over and hear all about the business they’re starting or how much they love their grandkids. And then when it closes down at night, who knows, maybe it’s going to be a pirate party, maybe some rock star is going to bust out their guitar, maybe the Fijians are going to invite you to drink kava with them. And then you can walk home, you can walk to your bure. And then do it again the next morning.
JB: And as a bodysurfer, what about the waves?
MC: Well, I do surf. It’s not pretty. I call it my standup comic routine. And I’m a goofyfooter, so I’m in absolute heaven there. I mostly surf Restaurants. I like going fast and down the line. I bodysurf Restaurants and I bodysurf Cloudbreak, and that water, you can just swim in it all day long ‘cause it’s so warm. And there are beginners, and there are boatmen who can surf it with their eyes closed, and there are pro surfers out there tearing it apart. And everyone’s stoked, everyone wants a piece of the magic. It’s just so beautiful.
---Jamie Brisick is a writer, photographer, and director. He surfed on the ASP world tour from 1986 to 1991. He has since documented surf culture extensively. His books include Becoming Westerly: Surf Champion Peter Drouyn’s Transformation into Westerly Windina, Roman & Williams: Things We Made, We Approach Our Martinis With Such High Expectations, Have Board, Will Travel: The Definitive History of Surf, Skate, and Snow, and The Eighties at Echo Beach. His writings and photographs have appeared in The Surfer’s Journal, The New York Times, and The Guardian. He was the editor of Surfing magazine from 1998-2000, and is presently the global editor of Huck. In 2008 he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship. He lives in Los Angeles. For more of his work check out jamiebrisick.com & @jamiebrisick