Bali’s original secret spot
When I think of Kuta… I think of mass development – an insane tourist hub where chaos reigns supreme. But before this beach was overrun by a billion package deals, there was an earlier more subtle chapter in it’s history; one that tells of an American couple who shared a beautiful little dream.
During the 1930’s most tourists generally stayed in Denpasar with some finding lodgings in Ubud and Sanur. Unlike today, most tourists of this period weren’t instinctively drawn to the coast. Perhaps after months gazing at the ocean onboard cruise ships, visitors just didn’t want more of the same.
But there was this one visitor who was a bit different… he didn’t mind an sea view… and his name was Bob Koke.
Bob Koke was an American photographer in Hollywood during it’s golden era. Besides having a passion for adventure and the arts, Bob also enjoyed surfing. He’d lived in Hawaii and had many opportunities to pick up and enjoy the sport. In 1936 while traveling through China and Japan (with his partner Louise Garret) he decided to take a detour to the Island of Bali. Like other travelers of the day, this couple held a romantic vision of discovering the ‘last Paradise’ and they eventually found it upon the shores of Kuta beach.
One can only imagine – particularly as a surfer – how Bob must have felt when first seeing Kuta Beach back in 1936. It would’ve been a fantasy emerging from the coconut grove and suddenly gazing across this pristine beach with perfect waves rolling in. In ‘Surfing Indonesia’, Nigel Simmonds interview with Bob recounts his reaction: “The minute I saw the beach I saw breakers…I knew immediately then that they were better that I had had in Hawaii. In Waikiki, you had to go way out in order to get to the breakers”..
Overwhelmed by their amazing discovery, Bob and Louise eventually ditched their remaining travel plans and took up residence in Bali. Before long they developed the idea of building some accommodation on the beach, not just for themselves, but also for other like-minded visitors. On the beach the only available lodgings were local huts scattered through the coconut groves. To Bob it made perfect sense to adopt the local Balinese methods and construction and build something similar. After leasing land from the local village (just beside where the Hard Rock Hotel is today), Bob and Louise got busy erecting some bungalows; and before long the Kuta’s first Hotel was open for business.
Dutch travel agents at the time frowned upon this establishment, referring to their hotel as just a cluster of “dirty native huts”. But regardless of criticism, Bob and Louise stuck to their vision and eventually with the idyllic location, their welcoming demeanor and the hotel’s pure rustic charm, they began receiving guests. The dream had become a reality.
Besides setting up the first Hotel in Kuta, Bob was the first person to surf in Bali – a claim that’s hard to equal these days. Back then surfboards were pretty different. Usually made from solid teak or balsa wood – they were heavy and pretty hard to maneuver. It must have been mysterious for the local Kuta fisherman observing this lanky American balancing on a piece of wood, riding it all the way into shore. Bob’s surfing soon became a regular spectacle at Kuta, generating plenty of interest from the locals. Eventually the Bali beach boys and hotel guests began participating; all eager to try this curious new sport. This was the birth of Bali’s surfing story – chapter 1.
The Kuta Beach Hotel only lasted about five years, ending in 1942 when Bob & Louise fled the looming Japanese invasion of Indonesia. The dream had suddenly come to an end. Tourist development on this beach would not see the light of day for almost another 25 years.
Looking at the modern circus of Kuta today, one can only imagine the pure innoccence of Kuta beach during Bob & Louise Koke time here. For a brief moment, this couple lived a privileged dream in the revered ‘last paradise’; and while versions of the fantasy still exist today, few would match the innocent charm that was once the ‘Kuta Beach Hotel’.