On the Crest of a Wave
'HATI-HATI!' I hear the Bahasa Indonesian call of caution flutter in the wind as I attempt the 'jump up' take-off that constitutes lesson number one at Surf Goddess Retreats on Bali's Seminyak beach. It's early morning and I'd rather be asleep, but the urge to merge with these seemingly gentle waves has motivated my bikini-clad body out of the comfortable bed back at the retreat's private villas a short walk inland. Unaccustomed to carrying anything heavier than a towel through the sand, I struggle with the flower-stenciled turquoise surfboard, or longboard, that's mine for this week-long women-only surf school, the first of its kind in Asia.
The retreat's founder, Chelsea Rostill-Huntley, says 'absolute beginners' - who constitute the majority of her guests - find Seminyak's calm waters the ideal training ground 'to learn about your board, connect with the waves and master the basics of surf etiquette'.
Belly on board as I skim along like a fish out of water, I put my trust in the sun-kissed instructors at Bali's Rip Curl School of Surf, who lead me and five other dog-paddlers around on these oversized boards, also known as Malibu boards. Chelsea says the increased stability of these two-and-a-half-metre boards is like 'instant gratification because it's so much easier to catch waves and have fun while improving your skills without worrying about tipping over'. Why worry, I ask myself. Instead, I simply wonder if I will ever stand up. By the week's end, I do indeed graduate from the prone paddle to something like the cool surf stance I dreamt of achieving, if only for a few moments at a time. I am bruised and exhausted but also relaxed and enlightened thanks to the yoga, massage and Indonesian cooking classes available back at the Retreat.
The 1960s surf scene conjures images of hardcore enthusiasts living out of psychedelic painted Volkswagen buses, but these days there is considerably more luxury available between wave breaks. Stressed out executives who want to 'hang 10' without sacrificing their creature comforts head to the Maldives, where they can 'catch the curl' five minutes by speedboat from Four Seasons Kuda Huraa. Fast becoming known as one of the world's most indulgent surfing destinations, the high-performance waves of North Male Atoll serve up year-round water temperatures of 27-30 degrees Celsius, while the resort's attentive staff pamper guests during off-board hours. Tropicsurf, an Australian company specialising in surfing holidays, operates certified courses for beginners and surf clinics for all levels in the surrounding turquoise lagoon.
One-time surf novice Lucinda Ansell took up the sport here only last winter before returning this spring to board Four Seasons' 128-foot catamaran Explorer for what she calls the 'ultimate wave-ride vacation'. She says: 'We cruised between the Indian Ocean's most insane surf spots in unsurpassable luxury, popped on a board from crest to crest, then got welcomed back on board by smiling staff who wrapped us in bathrobes that felt like cloud fluff.'
Ross Phillips, chief executive of Tropicsurf, says the remote locations accessible on the Explorer 'are breaks off coral reefs on the corners of islands, secluded locations no other surfers know about. The Explorer allows guests to live out their surfing fantasies - [to find] the perfect wave off tropical islands, like in the movies.'
The three-deck catamaran takes up to 22 guests. On-board packages include unlimited surf-time with guides plus technique improvement through video analysis back on the boat. Meanwhile, those who prefer to spend their time underwater can dive or snorkel with a marine biologist. Other activities include kayaking, windsurfing, fishing, island tours, massages on the beach or simply relaxing in the boat's hot tub.
While surfing has become a US$10 billion global industry, Oahu's North Shore, known as the birthplace of surfing, remains a classic destination. Be warned, though - nearly everyone in Hawaii surfs so expect to share the swells. In surf capital Haleiwa, the experts at North Shore Boardriders Club recommend surfers head to Waimea Bay for the most consistent waves, though Sunset, Banzai and Ehukai beaches have their wetsuited loyalists as well. Check into a beach cottage at Turtle Bay Resort on 8km of surf-worthy beach. After dark, the Euro-Asian menu at its 21? North restaurant replenishes, but those seeking local flavour should try the boiled shrimp and rice at Giovanni's Shrimp Truck, tucked off the highway between Sunset Beach and Turtle Bay. Complete the indigenous experience at Aoki's with shave ice , towering snow cones soaked in a kaleidoscope of coloured syrup that are as much a North Shore speciality as the waves themselves.
Some destinations never fade from glory, others become known as the next big break. Todos Santos, a desert oasis on the west coast of Mexico, attracts California surfers cruising down the Baja Peninsula, turning this former retirement destination into the region's chill-spot of choice. Beaches such as Playa San Pedrito and Playa Los Cerritos boast clear waters and challenging waves, but seriously experienced surfers should test their skills on the big breaks off Isla Todos Santos 19km offshore, the largest of which is affectionately known as 'Killer' and has been known to surpass 18 metres.
Rest up in style at Todos Santos Inn, a 19th-century sugar baron's hacienda that is steps from Miguel's, which serves Todos Santos' sweetest margaritas.
Bear in mind the most serious wave-riders get up early. The best time to catch tips on riding these global swells is just past sunrise while most holidaymakers are still nursing those margarita hangovers. When seeking out the next big kahuna, just follow the tanned bodies as they paddle out to sea and cruise towards sandy shores. Those born to board are always in the know.
Bali: Legian. From US$400 a room a night. Call 62 361 730 622, or visit www.ghmhotels.com.
The Ritz-Carlton, Bali Resort & Spa. From US$205 a room a night. Call 62 361 702 222, or visit www.ritzcarlton.com.
Surf Goddess Retreats. Seven-night packages from US$1,995 a person, sharing a twin room. Prices include bed and board, six personal surf lessons, six yoga sessions, a spa treatment and a cookery class. Call 65 6491 5097, or visit www.surfgoddessretreats.com.
Hawaii: Diamond Head, W Honolulu. From US$255 a room a night. Call 1 808 922 1700, or visit www.whotels.com.
Halekulani. From US$405 a room a night. Call 1 808 923 2311, or visit www.halekulani.com.
Turtle Bay Resort. From US$450 a room a night. Call 1 808 203 3650, or visit www.turtlebayresort.com.
Maldives: Four Seasons Kuda Huraa and Four Seasons Explorer. Rooms from US$680 a night; seven-night surf cruise from US$1,532 per person a night. The cruise includes bed and board, unlimited surfing, coaching and equipment. Call 960 664 4800, or visit www.fourseasons.com.
Huvafen Fushi. From US$800 a room a night. Call 960 664 4222, or visit www.huvafenfushi.com.
Naladhu. From US$2,000 a room a night. Call 960 664 1888, or visit www.naladhu.com.
Mexico: Hotel California. From US$125 a room a night. Call 52 612 145 0525, or visit www.hotelcaliforniabaja.com.
Todos Santos Inn. From US$125 a room a night. Call 52 612 145 0040, or visit www.todossantosinn.com.
Prices are subject to change without notice.