There's nothing like it? I'm about to find out ...
There's nothing like it.
To me, there are few sentences more enticing. Maybe it's the skeptical journalist in me or the adventure-seeking kid who is camped out inside my brain (I like to think it's the latter), but hearing someone use that phrase sets off my curiosity. Hearing someone whose opinions I trust use that phrase usually sends me to an airport. Those words led me to the first "Harry Potter" book and the first "Matrix" movie, and drew me to more than a few off-the-beaten-path cities, sporting events and magazine subjects. More often than not, the "it" in question lives up to the billing. Those words, to my ears, are like a dare.
And they were some of the first out of the mouth of open-water swimming badass Alex Kostich when I spoke to him earlier this month about an event he has won the past two years, the Bora Bora Liquid Festival in Tahiti. A weeklong celebration of Tahitian culture culminating in a series of stand-up paddleboarding, open-water swimming, outrigger canoe (va'a hoe) and surf-ski endurance races, the event has been billed as the "ultimate test of strength" and the "world's toughest endurance challenge."
It takes place in Bora Bora, an island I, like many non-Tahitians, believed to be reserved for honeymooners only. Instead, I learn, Bora is an action sports mecca and quite possibly the perfect destination for watersports enthusiasts. And as grueling as the races are, Kostich tells me, the festival is not about fierce, machismo competition. It is not about beating the guy or girl in the lane next to you. It's about being better each day than you were the day before. It's about testing yourself and pushing beyond what you thought were your limits.
And it is open to pros like Kostich, weekend warriors like most of you reading this story and adventurous vacationers who have never picked up a paddle. Everyone competes against everyone until the final day of competition, when the amateurs take to the beach to cheer on the elite-level athletes in the final IronMana race. ("Mana" is a concept prevalent in Polynesian cultures that a spirit or life force resides in all people, animals and inanimate objects.) In that event, endurance athletes from Europe to New Zealand to the United States test their skills against the Polynesians, who are some of the most skilled paddlers and swimmers in the world.
"It's like going to a soccer festival in Italy and getting to test your skills against the Italians," said Eric Hiss, founder of the global travel blog wandermelon.com and the 2012 promoter of the Liquid Festival. But the spirit of the event pervades even this race. "Everybody cheers as loud for the person who comes in last as they do for the first person to cross the finish line," he said.
When I tell him this sounds like the perfect setting for a friends trip to Tahiti and a nice change of pace from an ohm-filled yoga retreat, he said he couldn't agree more. In fact, that's exactly how Kostich is treating this year's festival. Sure, he wants to win; but he also wants to share the experience with a few friends, so he's been spreading the word around the open-water swimming community and even invited a few non-swimmer friends from Los Angeles.
"This event is not just about competition. The entire week is spiritual and exotic and humbling and energizing," he said. "I've traveled all over the word, competed in hundreds of races and been to a lot of beautiful, tropical places, but this is the most unique event I've been a part of. It's hard to explain. You have to live it and feel it. You really have to experience it for yourself."
Trust me. For years, I've been trying to experience Tahiti. As a journalist who covers surfing, I've spent a lot of time watching webcasts of folks much luckier than me surfing on the main island of Tahiti, home to one of the most famous surf breaks, and surf contests, in the world. At the beginning of each year, I'd circle the dates of the Billabong Pro at Teahupoo on my calendar, and every year something would come between us.
But earlier this year -- and on vacation, no less! -- I visited Tahiti for the first time and returned home with both a tan and a better understanding of how deeply Tahitians revere the sea. Surfing, outrigger canoeing, stand-up paddling, surf-skiing, swimming -- they're not simply sports, but a way of life, a means of survival, a mode of transportation between the main islands and their many "motu," or small, outer islands. I've spent a lot of time in Hawaii, and Tahiti felt like a window into what Hawaii must have been like decades ago. It felt like stepping back into time. And it was only a seven-and-a-half-hour flight from L.A. (Hawaii is six.)
On the trip, I visited two islands, Tahiti and Moorea, which left roughly 116 for future visits. But the one island I left wondering most about was Bora Bora. Like most non-Tahitians, on Bora, I believed I'd be likelier to bump into Brad and Angelina than to break a sweat. It sounded like paradise, but it wasn't for me. At least not right now.
And then I heard about this festival, which seemed to fly in the face of all of my preconceived notions. At first, I thought it would make for a good opening to a story about an emerging action sports destination. Then it seemed better suited for a piece about a unique group trip for adventurous athletes looking to step outside of their comfort zones. Those stories could be written from my home office in Santa Monica. But then Kostich spoke those words.
"There's nothing like it," he said. "You really have to experience it for yourself."
So, in less than a week, that's exactly what I'm going to do. Space is still available if any of you would like to join me. I could use a training partner.
Alyssa will be checking in each day from the 2012 IronMana Bora Bora Liquid Festival. Check out espnW.com for her updates, starting Monday, Dec. 3.