Cheap flights from around the world bring over 6 million tourists to the little Indonesian island every year. Yet despite those numbers, and several of the more renowned spots bulging at the seams with greenhorn surfers who surf like Kelly Slater in their minds and Kelly Clarkson in reality, Bali has more than enough waves to go around.
Added to a coastline abundant in breaking waves, the Indonesian archipelago unfurls from Bali’s shores like an untapped surfer’s playground, Lombok, Java, Sumatra and the Mentawais all easily accessible by boat or plane.
Since the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Bali has become globally-renowned for its perfect, year-round waves, and the economy has grown to support the travelling surfer’s dreams. Surf shops are never far away, roadside ding repair shops scatter the shorelines of most breaks and rental scooters come with board racks pre-fitted.
In almost every way, Bali has become a primo surf destination, catering to your needs often far better than at home, and at a quarter (or less) of the price.
The roughly diamond-shaped island collects most swell along its south-western side, and sand-filled reef breaks make for ample opportunity. The southernmost tip homes Bali’s most renowned, perhaps most notorious break: Uluwatu. And from this iconic outpost, swell tends to peter out the further east you explore.
That said, Kuta can prove to be a hidden gem at the right time of year. An easy walk from many hotels, a short paddle out and beginner-friendly waves, Kuta can also hold a reasonable swell and give you plenty of oceanic entertainment only a stones’ throw from the bustling metropolis.
For Bali first-timers, Canggu is the spot of choice, or for those wanting a little more chilled, family-style experience, Canggu’s upcoming little sister, Berawa. Though getting busier with every passing season, there is still a lot of small-town charm to be found in these neighbouring towns. Local warungs hold ground between hipster cafes, vegan restaurants and surf and fashion stores. Bars, live music and clubs take entertainment into the pre-dawn twilight, but Canggu retains a quaintness somewhat lost from the chaotic streets of Seminyak and Kuta. Beach clubs, waterparks and more provide family entertainment, so it works well if you have your entourage in tow.
Between Canggu’s main break of Echo Beach and the more mellow beach breaks of Berawa, with the long rollers of Batu Bolong in the middle, there is a wave for everyone, from shortboard frothers, to bearded, hipster loggers.
Canggu is also a great base. An hour or two in either direction will find you at Balian to the northwest and Padang Padang, Uluwatu and Keramas to the southeast. You can leave the family splashing in playful ripples, score a day of pumping left-hand point waves and still be back in plenty of time to scrub up for dinner.
Balian marks one of the more western destinations with good waves, consistent swell and a very comfortable level of infrastructure. Though a bit of a trek from the airport at Denpasar, Balian is a small step back in time, less commercial and oversaturated than those locations within easier reach upon landing. The journey – up to about four hours by taxi in peak season – is small payoff though, with cleaner water, less crowds and a small, welcoming expat community, plus plenty of accommodation and dining options.
Few outstanding breaks lie between Balian and Canggu; Pererenan, on Canggu’s outskirts, is well worth a look, and Kudungu is a more gentle wave that suits longboards and beginners. Legian is a good break, and Seminyak can offer up some surprises – including out front of Kudeta, with fun beach breaks at Padma at Double Six – often overlooked by even the most knowledgeable visiting surfers.
Spending at least a long weekend on the Bukit Peninsula is essential, even if just to witness behemoth swells and local hellmen of Uluwatu from the safe perch of the clifftop bars.
The area is well-established for surfers and tourists alike but retains a quaint country vibe.
Best on southeast swells, there is a tight collection of waves – beach breaks and points – within a very short distance. Bingin, Dreamlands, Padang Padang and Uluwatu itself are all within fifteen minutes’ reach and offer a good collection of setups on slightly different angles, so when one may be messy, another can be much cleaner and bigger.
To the east, Keramas is one of the final destinations or Bali’s surf coast. Komune Resort is the perfect setup for the break of Keramas, two point breaks within walking distance of the beachfront bar-restaurant and hotel. Several homestays and cheaper hotels surround the resort, which is still accessible by visitors and non-guests, and though only a short distance from the Bukit and Denpasar, Keramas makes you feel like you are privy to an exclusive and still almost unknown break.
A sneaky, 45-minute boat trip will get you to the Nusas – Penida and Lembongan. Both have waves and, being less convenient, are usually much quieter. Breaks tend to be offshore, so you’ll need a boat to take you out, but cleaner water, better waves and smaller crowds make these two islands absolutely unmissable, for a short weekend hop or for your entire trip.
Infrastructure is a considerably more rustic, though both islands have some nice hotels, but don’t expect all the creature comforts of the main island.
Scooters are cheap and easy, but many tourists come unstuck every year, and passing through Denpasar airport without seeing a bandaged limb or week-old graze is a rarity. It’s worthwhile getting online and securing an international driver’s license before you go. Cheap and not requiring any exams or qualifications, an international license will save you a 1 million-rupiah fine on the rare times you do get stopped by local police. Don’t be an idiot – wear a helmet, always.
Bluebird taxis are reliable, though quite expensive, and copycat taxis have been known to be less than trustworthy. Your best option is to find a freelance driver through referral – from friends or your hotel – and stick with them. Prices are competitive and you are usually guaranteed a more reliable and enjoyable service than any other option.
Allow plenty of time. A journey can triple in duration depending on the time of day or day of the week. Sundays are quieter, but it’s best to leave early and return late to avoid as much daytime traffic as possible.
All the major labels are well-represented in Bali, and you’ll rarely be too far away from a reliable surf shop for all your needs. If you’re in need of a new board, take a drive out to Denpasar and Jimbaran, where a lot of warehouse stores will sell top brands for discount prices.
For ding repairs, talk to the locals. Expats will have found the most reliable ones and the Balinese locals will often have a mate who will do it for cheap. You may not get perfect resin-tint colour matches, but the vast majority will do a professional job quickly and cheaply.
Bali’s food scene is out of control. You’ll be able to find everything you want and much more. Local warungs provide delicious, local cuisine and a huge range of cafes and restaurants give you more choice than you could imagine.
Handy tip: many will also deliver to your door, either directly or with the Grab delivery app, which you can download and use on any phone. Find your restaurant of choice, check the Grab app to see if they’re a member, order your meal and pay on delivery – couldn’t be easier.
Don’t drink the water. It’s the golden rule in any developing country. Don’t brush your teeth with it, don’t drink your shower water and don’t sink a glass straight out of the tap, no matter how thirsty you get.
Many hotels provide filtered water and it is sold everywhere. Do your best to refill your water bottles to help reduce Bali’s plastic problem.
Ear plugs are a good idea, especially in rainy season. Some places are much better than others, but the seawater isn’t exactly sanitary. Most people will surf all year round with no problem at all, but ear plugs are a cheap and recommended caution.
Avoid rainy season – or don’t! Rainy season (October to April) is much quieter, but it’s called rainy season for a reason. At its peak, you will see rain every day. This could only be a 30-minute shower or a day-long deluge. If you’re just there to surf, it is a lot less crowded, though the rain brings garbage from inland to the ocean, so you may find yourself surfing in plastic soup at some locations. To some, it is well worth it, and you could find yourself scoring enough empty waves to make you dizzy.
‘Winter’, if you can call it that, is June to August. Days are still warm, but nights a mild, and the water temperature does drop, so bring a light spring suit or 2mm jacket for this time of year.
Give respect to get respect.
We can’t stress this one enough. Bad stories do come out of Bali, but often you find that those stories have two sides. Whether to expats and locals in the water or the Balinese staff and locals in hotels, shops and on the street, show respect, learn a few simple words of Indonesian and you will truly feel the warmth of Balinese hospitality.