Aug 27, 2019
With a prolific population of creative, locally-minded cool kids, the place to be in Bali right now is surf town Canggu. Jeninne Lee-St. John visits this healthy hamlet next to Seminyak before the big boys move in. Photographs by Stephan Kotas.
Coming into Canggu on a weekday afternoon, our driver thought he was lost so he pulled down a long, bamboo-shaded pathway to ask directions at a beach club. In the front yard, a couple of perma-tanned dads with long hair and high–thread count towels slung over their shoulders tossed their giggling towheaded kids in the air. There was a pool encircled by a whitewashed wooden structure, half–pirate ship, half-treehouse, with buoys and fishing nets and rope ladders hanging above, surfboards propped up against a wall, and swimsuit sporting good-looking patrons sipping drinks in beanbags and on couches oriented to the beach beyond.
So, we weren’t lost at all. Geographically, because the hotel we were headed to, COMO Uma Canggu (comohotels.com; doubles from US$188), turned out to be just across the road. And, mentally, because this place, La Brisa (labrisabali.com), was the Canggu I had been promised, in all its surfer-chic, boho-luxe, sustainability-minded, digital nomad–populated glory. When a friend moved here a few years ago, I had never heard of it. Now, it’s so overflowing with on-trend locavore and social-enterprise restaurants and businesses that I can’t stop hearing about it. With beautiful people eating superfoods everywhere, it’s like the high-income, eco-aware Wonderfruit music festival-goers jumped into a smoothie bowl blending the Zen of Ubud, the surfer chill of Uluwatu, and the cool of classic Seminyak.
That last—cool—of course, is ephemeral. By the time I was planning this trip to Canggu a few months ago, I was worried I was already late to a party that I hadn’t been sure had even started yet. The debut of the first international five-star hotel here was my hook, but the town has had the pulse of the island since 2009, when Aussie custom motorcycle and -surfboard shop, skatepark, café and bar Deus Ex Machina(deuscustoms.com) opened and quickly became an icon. Canggu still has fewer visitors and a lower population density than neighboring Seminyak, thanks in part to the remaining ample paddy fields— though on this trip there was a new speakeasy planted in the middle of one, and it was heaving. A French friend told me that expats like him were already moving to the towns up the coast like Tabanan, but Canggu is still the nerve center. This edge-of-the-radar vibe is what makes the area feel so liveable, even, maybe especially, to a city girl like me.
WHEN I ASKED for recommendations in Canggu, every, single person said The Slow (theslow.id; doubles from Rp2,458,838). They didn’t just say it, actually. They urgently stressed it, in a stage-whisper, as if it were the venerated leader of their cult. When I popped in, the reverence washed over me. The Slow is very, very cool. You don’t want to look like a gawking tourist here. You want to be casually in the in-crowd of creative aesthetes who use this well-lit boutique hotel and nose-to-fishtail eatery as home base, embodying why Canggu is different from elsewhere in Bali.
The Slow is the tropical-brutalism baby of husband and wife George and Cisco Gorrow, who had procured a plot of land for a beach house, and returned two years later to find the area swarming. To be fair, the place sits on main drag Batu Bolong, 300 meters from Old Man’s (oldmans.net), the original Canggu surf-bum sandy hangout overlooking the break of the same name. It was just a matter of time. The Slow is awash in art from the couple’s private collection, plays bespoke soundtracks by L.A.–based Revolution Radio, and last year launched a music, art and film fest.
It was almost a relief to me that COMO was the first international hotel brand to open here. Their boutique mindset, wellness focus and subtle luxury are a perfect match for this town. This new property courts flashpackers with a section of simple rooms meant for those on the go; up front are residences and penthouses, all with kitchens, commodious social spaces and balconies, and some with direct access to the hotel’s 115-meter pool or their own private ones, evoking that other favored Canggu accommodation, the rental villa.
The 12 penthouse suites are party boats in their own right. The first level has a state-of-the-art open kitchen and a living area spilling out onto the terrace. The bigger bedroom here would be anyone’s ideal master suite… until they went upstairs to the captain’s quarters, where the bed faces floor-to-ceiling windows and a pool deck overhung by a literal moon roof: a massive crescent cutaway that takes in sea and sky. I felt like I was standing on a vacation version of the Star Trek Enterprise bridge. At any minute, a hottie Captain Kirk was going to stroll up in Vilebrequin swim trunks and Oliver Peoples sunglasses and hand me a gin-soda.
The whole resort is that kind of cool: tastefully moneyed, locavore foodie, yogi and kind of arty. There’s a Shambhala spa on-site, and I was thrilled to see the two pilates studios and the aerial yoga room. You’ll be hard-pressed to venture out of the playful COMO Beach Club, on whose swinging daybeds you’ll just want to watch the world walk by—and at sunset, watch the fireball extinguish stage left, preferably with a matching bottle of pink champagne. Mornings, you must order the zucchini waffles with smoked salmon and crème fraîche. Though, if you think that sounds super-Canggu, wait til you scan the delish and delightfully posh culinary contradictions across town on the breakfast menu at Parachute (parachutebali.com): hello, pork belly, egg and veggie cream cheese on a homemade English muffin.
Thank goodness I was burning calories with COMO’s in-house surf school. Blond and ambiguously accented, my teacher CJ gave me zinc for my nose, grabbed both our boards and set off for the seven-minute walk to Old Man’s Beach. COMO is on Echo Beach (original moniker: Pura Batu Mejan, for the Hindu temple on the road), on a serene, solitary, black-lava stretch neighbored by a years-in-the-making, who-knows-when-it-will-open hotel. Old Man’s, meanwhile, is lined with the rental umbrellas and loungers and Bintang bars typical of more touristy haunts. Echo Beach in front of COMO has good waves, but lots of rocks—not ideal for those of us still learning to control our turns. Especially when CJ said the take-off point for the waves can be tight.
Old Man’s is also a reef break, but has fat waves that are less aggressive and last longer. You could ride one all the way to the shore. There were always lots of people on the water, but because of the span of the wave, the break never felt crowded. CJ taught me to do turtle rolls under too-high waves, instantly washing away any residual hangover. The second time we went out, we worked on turning left. Like skiing, it’s all about shifting your weight and line of sight. I was doing pretty well until, at 5:30 p.m. when nearly the entire ocean had cleared, I realized I was barreling in on the one person left in a 50-meter radius and I couldn’t stop looking at her. Meaning I couldn’t stop from crashing into her. I wailed, “Sorry!” just before we both jumped off our boards in opposite directions. I was mortified but, thankfully, my victim laughed, and I redeemed myself to CJ with one last golden-hour lefty.
LET’S SAY I TOLD YOU to seek out a certain convenience store, go to the back and open a fake freezer door that is the gateway to a dimly lit, hip hop– and house-pumping bar brimming with cool kids. This style speakeasy may be standard in Manila or Bangkok but, in Bali, Black Cat Mini Mart (Jl. Subak Canggu) feels fresh—and all the more furtive for being ensconsed in rice paddies. My girlfriends and I went there after dinner at rooftop Ji (jirestaurantbali.com), which has a view over Old Man’s, a Zuma-type-Japanese menu and Asian-fusion-temple decor. It is on the walkable trove that is Batu Bolong; another night, before hitting the Friday party at The Lawn (thelawncanggu.com) next door, we ate across the street at Fishbone Local (fishbonelocal.com), which works with Bali Sustainable Seafood to source its daily catch from local, responsible fishermen. The owners just opened Mason (masonbali.com) up the road, where the chefs nurse those other au courant kitchen obsessions: in-house pickling, butchering and cheese-making.
A friend in Brisbane saw on Instagram that I was in Bali and got in touch. He was coming to Canggu en route home. I was amazed at the coincidence, though I shouldn’t have been. Seems all the independent-minded beach bums who haven’t booked all-in resort life just beeline it to Canggu, and then sort the rest later. He picked me up on his rented motorbike to go Sunday driving. We got some surf-body-undermining buttery croissants at Monsieur Spoon (monsieurspoon.com) on the way to the relatively fancified Finns (finnsbeachclub.com) on Berawa in south Canggu. “I thought this would be more your scene than Old Man’s,” he said. It was a sweet gesture, the staff and food were surprisingly good for a jam-packed beach club, and the tangerine sunset was insane. But the Chinese tourists and the luxury-car show on the adjacent lawn were disorienting. Pondering how on earth they got all those low-rider Maseratis down the winding one-lane paddy roads we were navigating on the bike, we headed back to La Brisa for drinks in the more lax, liveable Canggu. Here’s hoping it’s sustainable.