This is why I started surfing in the first place, why I became instantly addicted to the sport's trademark mix of elation and frustration. Undeterred by my friends' blank expressions as I attempted to convey the indescribable thrill of gliding on the surface of the sea—and by the fact that surfing can take at least a decade to master—I found myself rising at 5:30 a.m. to beat the rush-hour traffic to Malibu and hanging out with a new set of surf buddies who used expressions like “gnar-gnar!” (loose translation: double-gnarly). By the time I arrived in Bali, I'd been surfing for almost two years and had developed a basic competence in small- and medium-size waves, but by Indonesian standards I was still very much a rookie.
Even first-timers can catch their share of waves at the Hotel Tugu Bali, a boutique property sandwiched between rice paddies and the ocean in Canggu, an hour's drive north of Uluwatu. Although many extravagant chain resorts have sprung up around the island in recent decades, none is as authentically indigenous as this 22-suite inn, built and decorated by Indonesian antiques collector Anhar Setjadibrata. Staying here is a bit like living in a tricked-out museum whose open-air lobby is guarded by a 20-foot carving of Garuda, the eagle of god Vishnu. There's a 300-year-old Kangxi-period temple from Java, reconstructed here after being slated for demolition, and glass cases displaying complete sets of 16th-century ceremonial gamelan instruments.
The hotel also has its own surfing beach right out back and an instructor, Pino, who takes me out one afternoon. Pino's rudimentary English limits his instruction to a few basic commands—mainly “go!” and “no!” which sound dangerously similar to me—but it's not a problem, because the waves are manageably soft and shoulder-high. Later, during a superb Balinese massage at Tugu's spa, I fall asleep while the masseuse's small hands flutter across my back like dozens of butterflies.
By now I've been completely seduced by Bali's famously gentle Hindu culture, and I'm wondering why Los Angeles can't have ancient temples on virtually every corner, with stone carvings that serve as makeshift vases for frangipani blossoms. So I'll need to steel myself for our next stop, the Indonesian island of Sumba, a Stone Age time capsule 200 miles to the east. Although it's twice the size of Bali, the entire island attracts fewer Westerners at any given time than your average Kuta coffee shop. And because of its tradition of head-hunting and fierce tribal warfare, Sumba has resisted dominance by various Muslim, Hindu and Christian invaders; the principal faith is an animist religion called Marapu. Still, right there on the island's south coast sits, of all things, Asia's most luxurious surf resort—Nihiwatu, a 438-acre swath of jungle with just 10 guest bungalows, a pristine white-sand beach and a private, world-class wave breaking right in front.