It’s 8am and I’m bruised, battered and dripping wet. I’ve swallowed a bucket-load of salt water, knocked myself in the forehead with a fin, had super-strength suncream in my eyes and mouth and smacked my knees into the sand – repeatedly. It’s not the way I had envisioned my Bali holiday beginning. But I’ve enlisted to do it all again tomorrow, nonetheless, and I’m strangely looking forward to it.
This early morning ocean assault is part of the daily ritual at Surf Goddess, a pioneering, women-only retreat established by Australian life coach Chelsea Huntley, a long-time surfer who grew up in Bali.
Recently celebrating 10 years on the Indonesian island, the retreat’s concept has never been stronger. It’s a simple premise, really: take a tropical island, surfing instruction and healthy meals, add an afternoon dose of yoga, and relax in seriously luxe accommodations – naturally, they attract some of the world’s most interesting and inspiring women.
Taking Time Out
When I visit the property, tucked down a quiet bamboo-lined driveway in Seminyak, there are eight others joining me: young and old; Australian, Canadian and American; ending a job, ending a relationship; introverted and outgoing. There are fashion designers, journalists, barristers and students. The only thing we seem to have in common is that we are all burned out and craving space and quiet and pampering – with a side of surf. Our hosts – villa manager Michelle Varga and surf mentor Melinda – were also attracted to Bali, looking for a moment of peace. “It’s very bonding to surf together,” says Varga. “By day three, you’ll see.”
While lunch is being prepared, I chat to 30-something Gabrielle over iced lemongrass tea. “I wanted to be able to swim and shop and eat and do nothing,” she tells me about why she decided to check in to Surf Goddess. “And I wanted some time away from my husband. It’s healthy to have ‘me’ time, I think.”
Indeed, women-only holidays are big business – a recent survey by lastminute.com found that almost 50 per cent of women had travelled alone at some point, with most people surveyed saying they found the prospect of leaving their other half to be “adventurous and rewarding”. And an increasing number of tours and travel specialists like Surf Goddess are catering to the growing demand.
“My trip wasn’t planned,” says Gabrielle. “I woke up one day a month ago, searched for surf holidays online, and booked this the next day.”
Whether planned or unplanned, any trip to Bali guarantees moments of bliss. The resorts are among the best in the world, and Villa Serena – where Goddess is based – doesn’t disappoint. I share a two-bedroom villa with a fellow Australian: we have a private pool, ringed by palms and frangipani, and platters of mangosteen and salak (snake fruit) are delivered daily.
We could have our scalp massages, manicures and facials in the intimate spa pavilion beside the main building, but when you can opt for the therapists to come to you, it’s hard to justify moving. As tough as it is to leave my four-poster bed, there are plenty of other reasons to join fellow goddesses, and our hosts, at the main villa.
Here, healthy meals are served beside yet another pool. The day might begin with green juice and baked eggs, with organic salads and fresh quiche for lunch. Dinner could be a traditional gado gado or chicken satay with sweet potato wedges.
Around the long hardwood table, we discuss the day’s activities – a cycling trip through the island’s central rice fields, perhaps, or a tour to Ubud, Bali’s cultural heart – before sliding into the thatch-roofed yoga pavilion for an hour of Hatha or Ashtanga yoga.
While the goal of the retreat is to encourage bonding over yoga and surf lessons, there is plenty of downtime to explore the island. The retreat’s “bliss day” sees us split up and heading out to far-flung corners of Bali, while other afternoons are spent perusing boutiques, stand-up paddleboarding and enjoying sunset bars.
And every morning after a shot of kale-and-celery juice, we trundle down to Legian Beach, nursing our bruises like trophies.
It’s not the prettiest stretch of sand in the world. But the waves are excellent for those stepping out on a surfboard for the first time: gentle enough to encourage me to jump up onto my board; strong enough to push me to the shore.
Our instructors are from the Rip Curl School, and their attention and advice sees me standing and even turning my board – if only for a couple of seconds.
There are times when I’m close to tears, but Ketut and his team encourage me to ignore my aching arms and brave the next break. It’s a good thing I do – in many ways, learning to surf is as much a mental challenge as it is physical. And when I find myself on that board, riding a wave all the way to shore, I feel like I could be former pro surfer Layne Beachley – the whooping and clapping from my fellow goddesses on shore just reinforces my confidence.
“I’m not very coordinated,” laughs Aime from Vancouver as we’re dragging our boards back to Rip Curl HQ. “I fell off more than I stood up out there, but who cares?” Later, Aime confides that she’s just come out of a 15-year relationship. “I wanted to do something to take me out of my comfort zone,” she says. “To make me remember that I am strong and can take on new challenges on my own.”
The beach beatings are followed by fresh juice and more yoga, which proves to be the perfect complement to a morning of wave riding.
Throughout the week, our yoga sessions change, depending on how we are feeling: On day one, the classes are active and we work up a sweat; by day five, they’re focused on stretching, to relieve our surf-weary limbs. Lying in the pavilion, focusing on breathing and birdsong, the achievements of the morning seem even more special.
As memorable as the surfing and yoga is, what remains with me when I return home is the women I met. We all came to Bali with goals and issues, and we all left with new resolve and perspective.
“This is why I stay in Bali,” says Varga. “Every day I’m inspired by the people I come in contact with and every day I see personal growth and change. That’s what life’s all about, after all.”
Bali has its fair share of sunset hangouts, but Rock Bar at Ayana Resort & Spa stands out for its cliffside perch overlooking the Indian Ocean. It’s best to arrive early to avoid long queues.
Closer to Villa Serena in Seminyak is Ku De Ta. Bali’s beautiful people flock here for creative cocktails as the sun slips into the surf – pull up a sunlounger on the grass and listen to DJs spin chill-out tunes while the light fades.
Nearby, Potato Head Beach Club draws crowds with a beachside buzz, inspired drinks and plenty of live entertainment.