As I hiked down the winding, mile-long jungle trail on the island of Bali, I found it hard to believe I was nearing a village. The remote location and dense undergrowth made this seem unlikely. Then I passed a few stream-side huts with tiny rice fields and gardens.
Cows, goats and chickens began meandering across the path. As I approached a glistening waterfall, I was thunderstruck by the sight before me: a group of naked Balinese girls bathing in a pool, as innocent and beautiful as any painting I had ever seen of island natives.
I was still mesmerized when I reached the ocean. There I found myself atop a huge cliff, 300 feet high. I still had to rock-climb 200 feet down a steep switchback trail -- no small feat while toting a surfboard. Only then did I finally reach what surf and scuba bums from around the world regard as heaven on earth -- the cliff-side surf village at Uluwatu.
It's no wonder that Uluwatu has become the hot spot destination for young "endless summer" adventurers.
Every year, thousands of Gen-X surf bums flock to the tropical climes of Indonesia's 18,000 islands. Many "discover" their "own" island, where they surf, dive and live for months on available fruit and seafood.
These "wild beaches" provide great adventure, but their romance soon fades with a growing desire for civilized amenities -- such as cold beer and beach-side bars filled with surf bunnies. Divers, of course, also need to replenish their tanks. Hence, most Indo-surf adventurers invariably wind up on Bali.
Bali's beach scene has long been centered in the village of Kuta, which offers a vast beach, good waves, cheap lodging ($5 to $50 per night) and wild nightlife. The crowd at Kuta is mostly young wanderers traveling on the cheap -- youths from Europe, America and, foremost, Australia.
Aussie culture predominates, particularly at night, as clubs cater to the hard-drinking mates from Down Under with huge, cheap concoctions dosed with Arak, an indigenous high-octane grain alcohol made from rice. Some bars feature American movies on big-screen TVs -- a major attraction, as there are no movie theaters.
Kuta also teems with shops offering bargains on tourist trinkets and T-shirts. It's a commercial beach-burg -- lots of fun, but not exactly the "wild" beach one hopes to find while adventuring in the islands.
Those seeking the best of both worlds, wild and commercial, have created it at Uluwatu. Uluwatu's beach is wild and remote, the waves are awesome, and there's just enough of the right kind of civilization to make it perfection on earth.
Just getting to Uluwatu is an adventure. It's a two-hour drive from the airport at Denpasar, or from Kuta, or anywhere on Bali, for that matter, as Uluwatu lies at the end of the island's remote southern peninsula. But not to worry; you can hire a taxi to take you there for $5. Where the road ends, teen-age Balinese boys, some with motorbikes, wait to ride or guide you down a foot path to the beach. This will cost another $5, but it is necessary, at least on your first trip. Uluwatu is a wild beach, without roads or parking lots, hidden by huge cliffs and coves; you can't find it on your own.
After hiking through the jungle to the cliff and making your way down the switchback trail, you reach a plateau that is still 100 feet above the waves. There, built into the cliff-side, are a dozen large, open-sided huts on cement foundations.
These cafe-crash pads, run by the Balinese, each have a restaurant/bar with a spectacular ocean view and an area filled with foot-high elevated mats -- like beds without mattresses.
Surfers and divers are allowed to crash there for free, providing they buy meals and drinks, which are pretty cheap. You can get burgers or Balinese fare, like spicy duck or chicken satay -- and beer. Some live there for as little as 10,000 rupiah ($5) a day.
When I arrived, I found about a hundred dudes and dudettes hanging out in this little surfer village. Most were Australian, but there also were Europeans and Americans.
They all seemed to enjoy the hospitality of the Balinese who worked in the cafes. These happy, beautiful girls, dressed in native batiks, are something to behold as they make frequent daily trips to cliff-side Hindu shrines with offerings of fruit perched atop their heads.
Despite tourism and modernization, the Balinese have not abandoned their island culture. Elaborate religious parades and festivals, a daily occurrence everywhere on the island, evoke a sense of antiquity. To beachcombers of every stripe, this is what makes Bali special.
From the cliff-side village, you have to climb down another 100-foot cliff, and then you're still not on the beach. You end up insid a cave where the surf comes crashing in and out. You must swim into the cove, past a few clusters of towering rocks, then out into the warm, crystalline blue water.
Finally, after swimming to the left 50 yards, you gaze upon a beach of dreams -- surrounded in back and on both sides by towering cliffs. And looking out to sea, you are greeted by what many believe are the best waves in the Pacific -- a dependable, steady flow of eight-to-10-footers that often grow twice as large. This is what brings surfers from around the world to Uluwatu.
After an afternoon in the surf, I befriended a group of five surf bums (Australian, American and South African) at one of the cafes. They were all in their early 20s and had been surfing Indonesia and Australia for the past six months. The American of the group worked summers as a lifeguard in Huntington Beach, Calif. The rest of the year he dove and surfed. They told me tales of the wild beaches they had discovered and jungle islands they had explored.
I thought I had met the ultimate surf bums -- until I met Nick.
Nick, an Australian in his mid-30s, was handsome and so tanned he looked like a native. He had been living at Uluwatu for 12 years. He wouldn't tell me his last name, implying that he'd rather keep his whereabouts unknown to certain people back in Oz. (The authorities?)
Nick told me he often went months without putting on shoes or a shirt. Whenever the surf wasn't good, he went scuba diving on one of the many wrecks or reefs that surround the island, or he went fishing, which was the only way he earned any money. I wondered how he could survive this way. Later, I found out. Nick was married to a beautiful Balinese woman. Her family ran one of the cafes. He lived with her and an extended family of 12 in a small hut not far from the ocean.
Now, that, I concluded, was the ultimate endless summer.
Round-trip economy air fares to Bali, via Singapore, are available for about $1,000. Singapore Airlines, (800) 742-3333, flies there both east from New York and west from Los Angeles and San Francisco.