Three powerful waves hit me long before I’d even reached the water. First, a cold wave that had most of the United States frozen, then came the wave of tiredness that meant I badly needed some vacation, and finally wave three – the urge to do something I’d wanted to do for years – learn to surf.
Hearing that Bali was the place to go, especially with more tourists getting value for their dollar in Southeast Asia, I booked a trip and started planning. Upping my laps in the swimming pool for weeks, I readied myself for paddling out to catch the waves. I even practiced balancing on swim boards a bit and studied some online videos, but being in the water is the only way to learn, and I’m not into skateboarding (which can help immensely), so I waited for Bali’s currents and breezes to teach me.
I met two fun guys on the plane, Israeli Udi and Italian Giulio; both were new to surfing and eager to learn, like me, so we were a good combo. Since prices for tours and lessons can drop 10-20 percent if booking as a group, we agreed to work as a team. Prices also vary greatly depending on the amenities provided, but you’ll likely spend at least $60-80 USD per day, depending on the number of days you use the guide.
We wanted several days of instruction, minimum, so we opted for the four-day tour, to get shown the most popular shore breaks around the island. This also allowed for some speedboat trips to offshore spots…if we got that confident…the waves are bigger there. The per-person cost was $240 USD, as our group approach knocked off 10 percent. I soon learned that Giulio was a natural haggler for prices, which helped for some things, though rates are set for established surfing tour companies. Udi was a charmer and finessed us into the best spots in restaurants. His smile and charm found ways to get us special attention, which can be lacking in the more popular tourist spots.
Bali has has so many places to surf, it’s amazing. That’s why even surfers who have hit the big curls of Hawaii and other well known places around the world still like to head to the Island of the Gods there long after its discovery (early surfing dates back centuries.) Still, it’s best to choose the areas you go to wisely, or do as we did, to tust your tour operator to do so. Since Kuta Beach (like Dreamland) is known to offer many breaks based on the undersea terrain, including sea bottom material and reef levels, it’s easier for beginners so we started there.
First, we learned how to stand up on the board – not in the water, but on the beach. The movement from prone position to standing (the “pop-up” as it’s known) is not as easy as it looks, but we all got there eventually. You might learn, as I did, that my “out front” or dominant foot is not the one you thought it was. It was the opposite from my from water-skiing days. A good was to check this is to lose your eyes and have someone nudge you from behind; the foot that steps out to steady you is your leading foot. Proceeding into the water, we learned by default, or falling, to keep a low profile once up.
Frankly, constantly getting on and off the board can be a bit tiring, but the fun is intense. We were also instructed on “surfing etiquette,” which is mostly about safety. Not following another surfer too closely, yielding to the surfer furthest out or standing up first, and being respectful to the beach. Then, we learned how to start paddling to get going on a wave, then how to achieve the best angle on a wave, starting with 2-3 footers, and working up. None of us ever got up to the largest waves, but we watched others do it.
Select a company that employs instructors who are trained lifesavers, so they can handle any emergencies; drownings are rare, but surfers injured by another surfers’ board or hitting bottom can cause injuries that need attention. Ensure the company is ISA (International Surfing Association) certified, so that they can push your limits with knowledge and safety. The best companies will pick you up at your hotel, drop you off, and more importantly, paddle out with you to explain each surf break (there are many), the best take off spots, particular channels, and variances due to daily tide changes.
Bali has numerous surf camps, places solely dedicated to housing, feeding, teaching and gathering surfers from all levels. Merely doing an online search will yield many such operations. You should buy travel insurance ahead of time; many camps require it and once you arrive surfing can literally be done 365 days a year, although winds and currents vary all the time. This means that each break changes daily, and the locals, especially tour guides, will tell you if waves are “left-handed” (breaking left to right, as seen from the beach) or the opposite, where the riskiest bottom terrain exists, and other things – listen well to all the instructions and tips.
Bali’s water is warm enough all year to not require a wet suit, but a long-sleeved “rasher” shirt and long shorts, and loads of sunscreen will guard against sunburn. The best time of day to surf is early, before all the crowds hit the beach, so many tour groups pick you up 6-7 am. They’ll typically provide a snack and some refreshments to get the blood flowing, but ask ahead, so you know what full meal options are nearby; most of the beaches have places providing food, except the hidden spots that some surfers go to avoid human obstacles. It’s hungry work, so make sure you take snacks along if needed.
Using a speedboat to reach the best and highest number of sites avoids cross-island travelling, which can be a bit hot and time-consuming. It’s also best to use either a tour company or a roadside outlet to rent a surfboard and any accessories (like the “leash” that holds you to the board to keep you from getting separated, or the board from hitting other surfers). Renting on-beach will cost a lot more, you’ll also have less selection and the boards have seen more wear.
Popular Surf Locations on Bali
Best Season: March to November
Kuta: Best learning area; many schools here, beach break (i.e., no rocks to hit, though waves can get bigger); rent equipment at Jalan Legian or Poppies 1 or Poppies 2.
Canggu: Not as many surfers as Kuta as the difficulty is higher, 30 minutes West of Kuta. Famed spots include Uluwatu, Impossible, Bingin, Padang Padang, Dreamland. Mostly experienced surfers here, except for Dreamland. Can be dangerous, with coral reefs close to surface. There are usually off-shore breezes.
Medewi: Two hours West of Kuta; the rocky beach makes entry more difficult, so not an ideal resting place for non-surfers, but you can rent surfboards.
Nusa Dua / Serangan: Nusa Dua offers more offshore surfing, not the best for beginners but with higher peak waves. Serangan is less challenging but a bit more remote with fewer restaurants. You need to motorbike in (you can rent motorbikes with racks for boards but be very careful, any accident is generally “the foreigner’s fault”).