The Pura Ulu Danau--with its great beds of tiger lilies and towering shrines stacked with multiple thatch roofs--is one of Bali's most beautiful temples. Built in the 1600's on the edge of Lake Bratan, a magnificent volcanic crater, it is dedicated to the goddess of waters, who keeps this Indonesian island lush year-round. A divine sense of peace prevails as I stroll its holy grounds wearing a sarong (the politically correct temple-touring attire) around my shorts. This is the serene, timeless Bali that I had hoped to find.
As I leave the temple, however, my serenity is shattered by the arrival of a bus packed with day-tripping Australians from one of the crowded beach resorts in the southern part of the island. They all wear T-shirts advertising their tour packager, and many of them bypass the temple grounds for a spot where they can pose for photos with a python dangling around their necks. Whooping and cackling, they take turns holding the giant snake. This is the Bali I had dreaded.
So I feel quite lucky when I walk past their bus, undo the sarong, hop on my mountain bike, and pedal up the garden-edged road to return to my own private Bali. I've been touring the island for five days on an adventure trip organized by Backroads, a biking and hiking company based in Berkeley, California. One of the great travel clichés is that Bali is ruined, but I hoped to prove it wrong. If there was any way to find the unspoiled side of the island, I figured, it would be on a bike, exploring untraveled roads, staying in small, charming hotels, and returning home in better shape than I was in before I left.
My adventure begins the moment i get off the plane in Denpasar, Bali's capital. I'm practically catatonic after almost 20 hours in the air, but the scenes flashing by the taxi window rouse me: palms, pagodas, carved gates, and roadside stands displaying baskets, monstrous statues, and heaps of pottery. The place is a complete, but exotic, mess. Then the countryside begins-rice paddies, mountains, villages that appear to be one extended temple complex with red brick walls and towers . . . and now Bali starts to look like, well, Bali.
The taxi is headed toward Ubud, Bali's so-called cultural capital and the starting point for my trip. The hotel turns out to be 20 minutes from town. At first I'm disappointed to be so far from the action, but once I lay eyes on the Chedi, my spirits rise. Less than a year old, the hotel sits on a great green hill high above the sacred Ayung River. Dramatic cobbled paths and stairs link the high-ceilinged pavilions that house the lobby, restaurants, and bars. My room has teak built-ins and a rock-walled bathroom that opens to a shower in a secluded garden. The staff greets me with smiles and bows, whether they're making up my room or placing food and floral offerings around the hotel to honor the island's many gods. The pièce de résistance is the long, narrow, stunning slate swimming pool that seems to float magically above the palm groves and rice paddies. As I recuperate from the flight under an umbrella by this perfect pool, I wonder, Do I really want to bother with biking?I could easily spend the next 10 days right here.
But by mid-afternoon I have hooked up with Betsy Silzer and Linda Cassell, the energetic and enthusiastic Backroads guides. They outfit me with a blue 21-speed mountain bike-number 8084-plus front and rear zipper bags, two water bottles, a helmet, and a gel-filled seat cover, which, along with my new padded bike shorts, I hope will protect my tush from saddle sores.
And now I must come clean: I am not a biker. The most cycling I've done since high school, when I abandoned my one-speed Schwinn in favor of my mother's Corvair, has been an occasional 18 minutes on the Lifecycle. I am in pretty good shape, however, and when I signed up for this trip I thought I'd have no problem keeping up with an itinerary that the Backroads catalogue described as intermediate to advanced. But now, confronted with all this gear, not to mention all these gears, I wonder if I've made a terrible mistake. The worst is when I put my helmet on backward-in front of other group members, some of them big-time cyclists. Happily, Betsy and Linda are both understanding and give me a quick riding lesson in the hotel driveway.
The real test comes the next morning, when we set out on a 25-mile loop from the hotel to Ubud and back. The drill, which soon becomes routine, starts with a breakfast pep talk. Betsy and Linda go over the kilometer-by-kilometer printout of our day's route, preparing us for the wonders (temples, bathing pools, awesome scenery) and the horrors (traffic, tough turns, busy intersections, hills).
Then we reassemble at the hotel garage to get our bikes and stock up on trail mix, granola bars, cookies, peanut butter sandwiches, tiny bananas, oranges, water, and Gatorade. We also meet the Indonesian contingent of the Backroads team, Pak Bandi, Madé, and Ketut, patient men who drive the two Toyota Land Cruisers that will shuttle our gear and, when necessary, us. Our group of 13 is almost evenly divided between couples and solo travelers ranging in age from late twenties to early fifties, with home bases in New York, California, Colorado, Canada, and Australia. All in all, Linda tells me, it's a standard motley bike-trip crew.
I had assumed we'd travel in a pack, so I'm surprised to see everyone taking off at different times. Suffering from first-day jitters, I forget my map, then my biking gloves, then my sunscreen, and wind up leaving dead last. But since a Backroads guide always picks up the rear, I luck out with Linda as my riding partner.
At first it's all wonderfully easy as the two of us glide past poison-green rice paddies in the morning sun. Just when I think I have this biking thing licked, Linda indicates a right turn and the road becomes a series of short steep hills. My heart is pounding by the time I reach the top of the first, and I wonder why I bothered with all those aerobics classes back home. Angry at my poor performance, I storm the second hill and make it up. But things bottom out partway up the third when I miss the ultra-low granny gear and am forced to dismount and walk my bike to the top. Linda tries to soothe my damaged type-A ego by diplomatically pointing out that it's okay to stop from time to time. Ultimately, she says, biking is about pacing.
Eventually the hills flatten out and I can concentrate on Bali rushing by rather than on the blood rushing through my body. The scenery is much the same as yesterday's, but taking it all in by bicycle rather than from a taxi turns sightseeing into an exhilarating video game, as we encounter traffic and rice paddies, mountains and potholes, and clusters of crazed kids who greet us as if we were rock stars.
The town of Ubud is a bit of a letdown: wall-to-wall travel agencies, money changers, and shops. Still, it's not without its charms, particularly the Lotus Café, an oasis of pavilions set around an enormous pond full of pink lotuses. I catch up with some of the group for lunch: spring rolls, curries, fried rice and noodle dishes, and best of all, big bottles of Indonesian Bintang beer.
After one of these brews, I decide to pass up the six-mile bike ride back to the Chedi in favor of poking around town and getting a lift in our support vehicle. I guess I'm taking to heart Linda's advice about pacing, but I'm also happy for a chance to bond with some of the group: Christina and Jane, who've come on this trip because they're the only Australians they know who haven't been to Bali, and Suzie, a New York social worker, who figured Bali was the best place on earth for escaping the pressures of the inner city.