Perched on the water in East Bali there’s a secluded resort with breaks that attract world-champion surfers and beginners alike. Welcome to Keramas, the best wave-riding destination you’ve never heard of.
We West Australians often consider Bali an extension of our coastline, and rattle off facts about its regions as if they were neighbouring suburbs. We know that for trendy bars and restaurants, Seminyak is your best bet; that you head to Ubud to do yoga or find a Brazilian lover (along with throngs of other Eat Pray Love devotees). And, if you want to party in fluorescent clubs or buy offensive, grammatically flawed slogan tees, there’s no better place than Kuta.
But tucked away from the bustle of the tourist hotspots is a world-class surfing beach on Bali’s east coast so secluded it hasn’t yet entered the West Aussie vernacular. Keramas. Or, as the woman next to me at the airport says, “Kera- what?”
Up until recently, Keramas was an off-road stretch with no nearby accommodation. You’d find only a smattering of intrepid surfers who – having glimpsed the beach’s barrelling right-handers and glassy waters in surfie films and magazine spreads – had trekked in from faraway hotels. But a new resort poised right on the fabled break has opened Keramas to everyone, including those of us who have only ever surfed the net.
Given my lack of experience – and basic coordination – I’m an unlikely candidate for chasing waves at Komune, a resort formed by a trio of keen surfers: property developer Tony Cannon, Fitness First founder Tony de Leede and former number-two world surfer Luke Egan, to be precise. Of course, when my editor tells me the trip involves daily cocktails and massages, I put most of my misgivings aside. (Yes, I’m noble like that.)
Still, I can’t help but wonder if a surfie novice will be like a koi out of water at Komune. As I arrive at the hotel, close to midnight, I point to a wooden easel. “What’s that?” I ask the man who shows me to my room. “A rack for surfboard,” he says, looking at me a little oddly. Oops.
I think back to the conversation I had with my taxi driver, on the hour-long ride from Denpasar to Keramas.“Some tourists go up here, they leave after few days,” he had said as he zipped past a motorbike, slicing through the spicy air that hung like smoke. “It’s not five star, places aren’t so close. But the people who go to surf, they never want to leave.”
It’s true that, in a country that trades on luxury lodging, Komune isn’t the plushest of digs. Though undeniably lovely, with simple coastal-chic suites, it’s designed for surfers, not sybarites. But when the next day breaks, I realise the luxury is all around me.
Past the moated reception, teeming with gaping goldfish, I find a tropical garden. There are giant stooping sunflowers, lotus flowers unfurling in the morning light, and an organic veggie patch where fat eggplants hang ripening.
It’s just one of the resort’s green initiatives. By installing solar-powered roofs, a beach recycling team, and a waste-efficient irrigation system, the owners have trod so lightly their ecological footprint is practically imperceptible.
Thank God. This is natural beauty you wouldn’t dare spoil. The shore could be the set of a Corona commercial, with palm trees silhouetted against the sunrise and surfers heading toward the waves, boards tucked under their arms. Nearby is Mount Agung, an imposing volcano that affects East Bali’s climate like a moody Greek god, and is responsible for the black sand that looks like stardust-strewn bitumen, sparkly and searing hot to the touch. From where you’d rather be, indeed.
The warung is a retro tiki-hut, its surfboard-shaped signs filtered through the lens of the soft, dusty sunlight.
I join some languid surfers at the warung, a locals’ surf club that preexisted Komune but now sits spruced up among the hotelscape. The retro tiki-hut, with its surfboard-shaped signs and kiosk menu scrawled in coloured chalk, is filtered through the lens of the soft, dusty sunlight – I start to feel like an extra in Gidget. And I’d happily spend the day in character, observing from the backdrop and giving centre stage to the surf stars.
There’s likely to be a few of them around, given Egan’s sizable surfer clout. “Our guests are just constantly seeing Kelly Slater or Mick Fanning or Joel Parkinson wandering through,” says Cannon. I missed Fanning, a triple world champion, by two weeks.
But today, I’m joining in on the action. I’m assigned a surf instructor, an unusually tall and buff Indonesian man called Made, and we tread down to ‘KFC’, a user-friendly stretch of sea with a powerful swell and thrilling drops. After learning some basics belly-down on the basaltic sand – my face gets smudged like war paint – we venture out to the water, paddling furiously to the break. And then we wait. I hover on the eerily still water, hushed in anticipation. Then: “Paddle, Anna, paddle!” Viscerally, I feel the wave forming, and, as Made pushes my board, I try to force my legs to spring up on the board. They disobey, and I’m dumped. Spectacularly. The force of the wave unzips my rashie, and I sputter and gasp as the salt-water floods my nose. But I rise from the water giddy from the ride, shaking my head like a happy otter. “Let’s do it again!”
After managing to stand up for a heart-palpitating millisecond (“I guess I’m kind of
a natural athlete,” I smirk), we head to the Beach Club for lunch. The restaurant sits smack on the shore, overlooking a turquoise pool flanked by beach umbrellas and, further, the hazy horizon. I’m so taken by the view I can barely pay attention to the menu – a mesh of Western and Indonesian dishes, plus surfie staples like banana pancakes – but still manage to order two lunches: fish goujons and tangy lime tartare, which I scoop up greedily, and a delicate sesame-crusted tofu salad with ginger chilli dressing.
In the afternoon I go to the top of the warung for a Vinyasa yoga class, a bid from the Tonys to give Komune a more inclusive sporty vibe. “We started as a surfing-type place but we don’t want to get pegged in that box,” says de Leede. “We want to become an active resort.” Lisa, a sprightly woman with an enviable yoga bod, leads us through the poses, exclaiming, “Isn’t this yummy!” (The man behind me grunts in pain as he contorts into the particularly challenging position). The sound of the ocean is like a ready-made meditation trance, and when we breathe and unwind at the end, I feel myself nodding off. After, I feel peaceful and peppy at the same time.
They also have a spa with treatments and massages “for the ladies and girlfriends” (there’s admittedly a bit of a Puberty Blues vibe going on, where the guys surf and their dutiful girlfriends watch from the sidelines. I keep waiting for someone to yell, “Rack off, ya moll!”). Still, I can’t complain about my massage, which is toe-cracking bliss.
Night surfing at Keramas is a distinct attraction for visitors.
After dark, we experience one of Komune’s special drawcards – night surfing. Perched atop a cliff, we watch Cannon navigate the waves, illuminated by MCG-level bright lights. It’s an arresting sight, so I’m not surprised when he later tells me a Keramas night surfing video, uploaded by Oakley for the World Championship Tour last year, got 150,000 hits in the first fifteen minutes.
On the last day, we journey to Virgin Beach (formerly White Sand), a forty-or-so-minute drive from Komune. As our car veers down a steep, crooked road, we jerk and jiggle like bobblehead dolls on a dashboard until the girl next to me looks grey. But it’s worth it when we reach the beach, which has the sort of exquisite beauty that could dislocate your jaw. From under the shade of our umbrellas, we gawk at an improbably green mountain that towers above the breakers.
Hidden behind the beach is a tiny commune-style village, where squawking hens and children run under caving wire fences. It’s a glimpse of traditional Balinese living, but still shows signs of commercialisation, like the plastic wrappers refusing to decompose in the compost heap. I think back to my taxi ride here and the conversation with my driver. “Now, East Bali is good,” he had said. “In ten, twenty years, I think it might be like Kuta…” He had looked worried.
The Tonys tell me about their regular meetings with the villagers, where they sit cross-legged, drinking strong Balinese coffee that “keeps you up for days”. They mull over issues from whether cutting down a palm tree will affect the villagers’ crops, to the iron-clad ‘no sex in the rice paddies’ rule (a case of eat, pray, don’t make love, I guess). There’s also the matter of appeasing the two main families of East Bali who, “like in Romeo and Juliet,” sometimes feud at sword-point. “You’ve just got to blend in with it as much as you can and be respectful about village customs,” says Cannon.
For now, as East Bali dances lightly between ancient tradition and modern creature comforts, the pieces of plastic serve as a powerful warning – and Cannon senses it. “We’re trying not to repeat the mistakes they made on the other side of the island.”
On my last night, eating dinner at the Beach Club while watching a lone figure ride the night’s waves, something strikes me. Even though I want to rush home and tell everyone I’ve ever met about this untouched surfer’s paradise – and my, ahem, natural skills – there’s a danger I’ll somehow spoil things by doing so.
Deep inside, part of me quite likes the idea of keeping the whole thing an insider’s secret: ‘Kera-what?’ I kind of hope it stays that way.
The resort’s grounds extend right to the beach.
Virgin Australia, Indonesia AirAsia, Garuda Indonesia and Jetstar all run daily flights from Perth to Denpasar. Komune can arrange transport from the airport to the hotel, which takes about forty-five minutes to an hour, depending on the traffic and the recklessness of your driver.
What to do
Surf, obviously! The best time to surf is in the rainy season – October to April – because the wind flows from the west to the east, creating powerful barrelling right-handers. The waves are best surfed at mid- to high-tide, ideally in early morning when the winds are light, or in the evening.
Need to know
There is a US$25 ($27) entry fee when you arrive in Indonesia, and a Rp150,000 ($14) exit fee. Bring a wetsuit or a long-sleeved rashie to avoid scaly board rash (if you do get one, run cold water on your skin to reduce the itch), and avoid drinking tap water at all costs – that includes open-mouthed showers!