These days it's especially easy to avoid that fate in Bali, where even the poshest hotels and villas have surf instructors on call. The five-bedroom Istana was described to me as a “surfer's wet dream” due to its prime location, luxe decor and staff of 22. (Tourism in Bali is gradually making a comeback after last October's terrorist bombings, and security forces are ubiquitous on the island.)
After lunch, I meet up with a local surf guide named Rocky and a couple of other experienced surfers, including W's photographer, Stewart Ferebee. Rocky checks the tide charts and determines that the waves will be best at a nearby break called Bingin, at the end of a potholed dirt road. As we pull into the parking lot, we're swarmed by a group of local women—two apparently in their 70s, their teeth permanently stained red from chewing on betel nut—who insistently grab our boards, balance them atop their heads and carry them through the woods and down the steep cliff-side path, in exchange for 1,000 rupiah ($1) each. We pass a cluster of cows stretching their necks upward to graze, giraffelike, on the leaves of low-hanging branches, and we finally stop in a thatched hut overlooking the water. Here, as at Uluwatu, the waves look ready-made for a surf video and completely different from the ones I'm used to: Hollow and tubular, they break steep and fast over a sharp coral reef.
“No problem,” says Rocky, sensing my uneasiness as I notice the powerful current. “Just paddle out there, and it will be fine.” But the Indian Ocean is in no mood to go easy on me just because I'm paying top dollar back at the villa, and my reef-break debut is predictably humbling: I get tossed around for two grueling hours. “Like washing machine!” says one local kid, smiling, after seeing me take a particularly nasty tumble. I was comforted by the knowledge that Rocky was watching over us from shore, but when I head in I see him sprawled out on a straw mat, asleep.
Over the next few days, I explore a half dozen of the island's famed beaches, ditching the indifferent Rocky to meet up with Tipi Jabrik and Ismael Dully, two brothers in their 20s who are members of Bali's surf royalty. Dully, an artist and ex-pro with brown hair that's as long and lustrous as Jennifer Aniston's, takes us to Dreamland, an idyllic hangout for international surfing hotshots and their topless girlfriends. Tipi, a pro surfer who also works as a guide, wants to show us Legian Beach, an intermediate-friendly spot where the waves break more gradually, over sandbars instead of coral. (It's a great alternative to better-known Kuta Beach, which is Bali's low-rent answer to Waikiki.) At Legian, we stay in the water until the sun sets, and I ride what has to be the longest wave of my life, before paddling back out and catching an even longer one.