“Good morning, sir. Small waves today.”
It's my first day at the Istana, a cliff-top villa overlooking Bali's legendary Uluwatu surf break, and the butler, dressed in a batik sarong the color of grape juice, greets me with a polite bow and the surf report. Although I've been in Indonesia for less than 24 hours, I'm already beginning to suspect that “small” often means something different here—something along the lines of “large.” During a walk around the villa's garden a few minutes earlier, when I spotted a jumbo iguana diving into the pristine swimming pool, one of the staffers explained that it was just one of the “little geckos” that inhabit the property. So when I meander across the lawn and look over the 200-foot cliffs to check out the waves below, I'm only mildly surprised to see a surfer drop into a long, perfect barrel that's cresting three feet above his head.
In Southern California, where I recently picked up surfing after moving there from New York, any wave taller than a full-grown human being is considered pretty sizable. But Indonesia is the Eastern Hemisphere's premier surf mecca, where at any given time a powerful ocean swell is feeding endless rows of giant, perfectly formed waves to hundreds of the archipelago's 17,000-plus islands. I'll be paddling into the ocean in an hour or so, and fortunately, the Istana's chef is making it easy to carb-load, with a lunch of fresh snapper, star fruits and papayas, served at the cliff's edge under the thatched dining pavilion.
My mission: to explore the growing niche oxymoronically known as “luxury surf travel,” by sampling Indonesia's five-star lodgings and five-star waves. Not long ago, a bona fide surfing safari required sharing a bunk on a cramped charter boat, or bedding down in a mosquito-plagued camp where you were just as likely to catch malaria as the perfect wave. Part of the reason had to do with the sport's mythology: The archetypal wave rider was (and still is) a broke, stoned, carefree nomad who would gladly sacrifice a soft pillow for the chance to become one with the ocean in a remote, secret spot. And part of the reason was necessity: Outside of well-trod places like Hawaii and California, where upscale chain resorts routinely offer group lessons on the beach, luxury hotels were never eager to attract surfers. But that's changing now that surf megabrands like Quiksilver are raking in more than $2 billion a year, and movie stars from Jake Gyllenhaal to Cameron Diaz are paddling out with their own private surf coaches.
“If you have some money and you want great waves and perfect surroundings, there are all these beautiful new options,” says Quiksilver cofounder and CEO Bob McKnight, himself a former surf bum who now travels by private jet to Tavarua, a Fijian surf resort, every Thanksgiving. Roughing it in Indonesia during the Seventies, he recalls, “was the greatest time of my life. But now I'm 52, and I don't want to be cooking my own food in a dirty hut.”