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 visitors of this period weren’t instinctively drawn to the coast. Maybe spending time traveling onboard ocean liners, gazing endlessly at the sea, people just didn’t want more of the same. But there was one visitor who was a little different… he didn’t mind an ocean view… and his name was Bob Koke.
Bob Koke was an American photographer in Hollywood during its golden era. Besides having a passion for the arts and adventure, Bob also enjoyed surfing. He’d lived in Hawaii and had plenty of opportunities to pick up the sport. In 1936 while travelling through China and Japan with partner Louise Garret, they decided to make a detour to the Island of Bali. Like other travellers of the day… they had this romantic vision of a virginal island paradise… an unspoilt place to dream – and they eventually found it on the shores of Kuta beach.
One can imagine – particularly as a surfer – how Bob must have felt when he first witnessed Kuta Beach in 1936. It would’ve been a fantasy emerging from the coconut grove and 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 this amazing discovery, Bob and Louise’s eventually ditched their remaining travel plans and took up residence in Bali. Before long, they developed the idea of building some sort of accommodation on the beach – not just for themselves, but also for other like-minded visitors. On the beach the only lodgings present were fisherman huts, scattered through the dense coconut groves. To Koke… it made perfect sense to follow the local Balinese and construct something similar.
After leasing some 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 their establishment… referring to it as just a cluster of “dirty native huts” – not a real ‘Hotel’. Regardless of criticism, Bob and Louise stuck to their vision and eventually with their welcoming demeanor… the idyllic location and the hotel’s rustic charm… they began receiving guests. The dream was a reality.
Besides setting up the first Hotel in Kuta, Bob was also one the first people to surf in Bali – a claim that’s hard to equal these days. Back then surfboards were pretty different. Usually made from hollowed out teak wood – they were very heavy and quite hard to manoeuvre. It must have been mysterious for the local 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 boys and a some hotel guests began participating… all eager to try this new sport.
It was the beginning of Bali’s surf story – chapter one.
The ‘Kuta Beach Hotel’ only lasted for about five years, ending in 1942 when Bob & Louise fled Bali to escape the looming Japanese invasion. The dream had finally come to an end. Tourist development on this beach wouldn’t see the light of day for another 25 years.
Looking at the modern circus of Kuta today… one can only imagine the pure innoccence of this beach during Bob & Louise Koke time here. For a moment this couple lived a privileged dream in the revered ‘last paradise’… and while versions of the fantasy continue on… none could surely match the innocent charm that was once the ‘Kuta Beach Hotel’.