San Juan in North Luzon Philippines is one of these places where surfing just recently took off. And the development is rapid. Almost every second week a new hip restaurant, cafe or hotel throws its opening party. But not only foreign tourists are attracted by it. Most visitors are from Manila, who come for a weekend to the beach and like to learn how to surf. Just like Lea. Lea Apolonio left her city life behind to surf more in San Juan. Knowing that surfers are not just hungry for waves but also for good food, she saw a business opportunity. She is an outstanding example of how surfing can lead to entrepreneurship. We talked to Lea how surfing changed her life.
What brought you to San Juan?
It was in late December 2013 that I visited San Juan for the first time. I was curious about surfing. All my Yoga teachers were surfers, so I just wanted to give it a try. Then one day my sister’s friend took me to San Juan to surf. I started taking surf lessons and really enjoyed it. Soon I came here almost every second weekend. First I would always go with an instructor of Elyu Classics, the local surf school. But after a while the guys encouraged me to go by my own.
How would you describe the surfing here in San Juan?
In general I would say, that San Juan is a very popular place for beginners to start with surfing. The waves are very mellow and the people are very friendly and lax. It can get quite crowded on the main beach but there are plenty of spots further up and down the coast. Apart of surfing, San Juan doesn’t have a lack of restaurants – in the recent years it has developed itself into a real surfer town. Many of the young locals are somehow involved in the surfing (business). They live this cool and hip lifestyle and I think that also attracts many young people from Manila. The development has just begun and every now and then there is an opening of a cool new restaurant or bar.
Can you give us a rough idea about the surf spots?
On the main beach there is one spot called “the point” – a reef break that has two peaks to surf. The most people go there or to the beach break next to it. Just a short walk south is another reef break with a right hander wave called “knee rad”. It is less crowded as it is very shallow. My favorite spot is Car-rille or Jesus Point (because of a huge statue of Jesus overlooking the point). It is working best with a big swell, when the other spots are not rideable anymore. Because it sits in a protected bay, the waves come very good and long there. There are plenty of spots along the coast – I haven’t been to all of them yet.
What is striking when looking at the line up are the many longboarders here.
Yeah. I think this is because the wave is quite mellow – especially if it is only 1 or 2 ft. And also there are many beginners here, which start with a longboard. I`m also longboarding, because it is easier to learn, more relaxed and you have more time. I tried a shortboard once in Balear and it was fun. But I think I will stick to my longboard a bit longer.
You are not just surfing all day but take also part in the development of San Juan by running your own restaurant Tagpuan?
Yes that’s right. In March 2015, together with my partners Errole and Christiana I opened Tagpuan, which means MeetingPoint. We are all three from Manila and met in San Juan via surfing. The idea of Tagpuan is basically “food for drunken people”. You know how it is: after partying everybody gets hungry and wants a quick bite. But there was no such thing in San Juan – we always needed to go to the next town. So we thought we are just going to open it ourselves. I was already cooking for all my friends so I am now cooking for some more. With the opening of Tagpuan we also hoped to provide jobs for the people here in a field other than surfing.
How is it to run a business in such a surfer town?
Oh it is great fun, you get to surf a lot! (smiles) Honestly, it is a very interesting time at the moment as everything is developing so quickly and more people visit. . When I started to come here we only had a few shacks at the beach to crash and we would all sleep crammed in one apartment. From a business perspective this boom is good but for surfing there can be way too many people at the main sport. They are even thinking about crowd control there. Other spots are less crowded, the best you can do is take a motorbike and explore. My boyfriend Adi runs Kuyas Bikes. He’s the only one that rents out bikes with surf racks.
You’re quite busy and Tagpuan is not your only business, your cooking talent also opens other job perspectives….?
Yeah, well since I have a Swiss boyfriend and you guys came to visit, there is always high demand for good bread. Another business niche in San Juan nobody has occupied yet. So I started with baking. First with some fine burger buns, because most of the restaurants use those cheap ones which are chewy and have no taste. The business – Masa by the Barefoot Bakers – is picking up and many restaurants are asking for our bread. Sometimes we are baking the entire day in our little home kitchen – then my longboard needs to serve as a table. Yeah, baking is going to keep me busy in the future.
Talking about surfing again: What was your most scary experience?
One day I was paddling out for a wave at a spot, where I didn’t know anybody. I was still a very beginner at that time and went all by my own. First the waves were small then suddenly it got bigger. I think it took me six turtle rolls to get out into the line up. But the people there were not really nice, nobody would say ‘hi’ or smile so I felt quite uncomfortable. I was trying to ride a wave but wiped out pretty bad. I was totally destroyed when I resurfaced to catch my breath. The worst thing actually was, that I didn’t know anybody, I thought nobody will help me if I drown. So I got really scared and my legs were shaking when I finally made it back to the beach.
What are your plans for the future?
I would like to open a bakery around here. I am planning on experimenting more with making good bread. I am constantly looking up new recipes and I also like to do some pastries and sweets. My friends are urging me to open another restaurant because they constantly see what I am posting on Facebook and Instagram an ask me where they can eat that. But we will see what the future will bring.
Thank you Lea for sharing your story with us and for having us at your place. And most of all thank you for the delicious bread.