That’s a bold claim to make.  But we believe it’s true.

As any keen touring cyclist will know, there’s stiff competition in the best coastal road category.  Over the years, we’ve had the good fortune to bike some of the most beautiful seaside routes in the world:  America’s Pacific Coast, Australia’s Great Ocean Road, both New Zealand’s North and South Islands, Taiwan’s jagged coast, some of the Thai coast, seven of Indonesia’s islands, Zanzibar, along the Mediterranean and the Aegean Seas and more than a few fine stretches of seaboard cycling in Central and South America.

My intention in ticking off all these destinations is not to turn you green with envy as you wait out the end of a dreary northern hemisphere winter.  But anyone audacious enough to claim to have found the best coastal cycling road on the planet ought to put forward some credentials.

So where is this coastal paradise?  Sulawesi.  The northern coastal road, to be exact, from Toli-Toli to the Gorontalo turn-off where our quiet stretch of road morphs into the far busier and less scenic Trans-Sulawesi Highway.

As far as we can tell, practically no cyclists have biked this road.  Google searches and several hours poking around Crazy Guy on a Bike didn’t turn up a stitch of info.

Our Reise Know-How and Nelles maps showed this route as a secondary road, with many unpaved stretches.  When we sought out local advice, opinions varied.  Some claimed the route was rough and impassable after heavy rains.  Others said the road was mostly paved and in reasonable condition.  Turns out the latter got it right.

This is pretty much how the road looks most of the way–fabulous views out over the Pacific and not a car in sight.

 

[highlight]So what makes this road so special?[/highlight]

 

The Real Thing.

First off, this is a road that hugs the coast almost a 100% of the way.  Not one of those faux coastal roads that’s actually situated 5 kilometers inland.   The road dips and dives over rocky headlands and pops out into tranquil coves and quiet fishing villages.  Around every twist and turn is another spectacular view out over the postcard-perfect Pacific.

Sunrise is a brilliant burst of pastels and sunset a fiery eruption of crimson and golden hues.  Midday, wispy clouds hang in a wide azure sky, offering little protection from the blazing equatorial sun.

 

Sunset never fails to impress in Sulawesi.

 
They built a road here???!!!
Prior to 2003, locals traveled from one village to the next by boat.  Supplies came via a monthly visit from the government Pelni ship. Just a little more than a decade ago, a narrow road was finally carved along the coast.  Those were some pretty daring( or foolhardy)engineers that traced the route.

Terrain dictates that the road is just about wide enough for two trucks to squeeze by.  On one side, the land drops abruptly into the sea and on the other it juts up into steep mountains covered in thick tropical forest.  Inland areas are completely uninhabited.

In spite of the many villages along the way, the place still feels pretty remote.

A last look back towards at Toli Toli before we hit the hills ahead.

 

This girl was really surprised to see two foreigners on bikes. When I showed her her image on the screen she broke out into a big smile and shouted Terima Kasih (thank you)!

 
Near Zero Traffic
Many coastal routes are victims of their own popularity.  You end sharing the road with hordes of holiday makers when you’d rather have paradise all to yourself.

Even worse is when your lovely seaside cycling route is also used as a major transport thoroughfare.

For the moment, traffic is light on the north Sulawesi coastal route.  Most trucks stick to the busy Trans-Sulawesi highway.  That leaves just local traffic for the northern coastal route.  Most people travel by motorcycle.  The well-off travel in fancy SUV’s.  I’ll be honest, here.  These upper-crust folks can be highly annoying.  There were times I was glad I wasn’t packing a pistol.

Drivers of SUVs firmly believe the road was created for their use, and there’s alone.  They blast along with one hand on the horn, scattering dogs, cows, goats, school kids and the odd toddler who’s wandered off from home.

Sadly, these people take a middle finger greeting as a sign of friendliness and wave back excitedly.  Some even pull over to chat.

Fortunately, these King-of-the-Road types are fairly infrequent.  Mostly it’s just you, the big blue sea and a beautiful ribbon of road.

This was was one of the rougher, tougher parts of the road. The guy on the motorbike pushed me part way up this steep climb and then insisted on going back to give Eric a hand. His kindness really made our day.

 

Undiscovered by the Masses
You won’t find any exclusive holiday resorts or even backpacker beach hostels in this part of Sulawesi.  With the road being upgraded to asphalt, that may change quickly.   But for now, this place is untouched by tourism.

You are so Fascinating

Given the fact that practically no foreigners make it this far off the beaten track, I guess it’s no surprise that the locals go absolutely wild at the simple sight of somebody with a big, pointy noise and fair hair.

The stares are unabashed.  The requests for photos non-stop.  All the attention can be draining by the end of the day, but you can’t help feeling uplifted by all the genuine friendliness.

Cute and oh, so curious.

 

Even the dog’s spinning around to have a look!

 

Fresh Fish, a Nap and a Shower

Fishermen set out to sea out at dusk and haul in their catch at dawn.  Simple roadside beach shacks offer up generous portions of grilled fish served with rice and vegetables.   The meals are delicious and cheap.  For seaside dining, you’ll pay about half the price of a Big Mac in New York or Paris.

Feel like a short snooze after a big meal?  No problem, restaurants have bamboo napping platforms and comfy couches where you can rest and rejuvenate for an hour or two.

Before hitting the road again, you can also take a refreshing mandi (Indonesian bucket bath) right at the restaurant–it’s completely normal in this part of the world.

Test your Limits

While this may be the world’s most beautiful coastal road, it’s certainly not the easiest.  The climbs rarely let up and the fierce tropical sun makes everything doubly difficult.  We struggled in spots where the road was not yet paved.  Luckily, locals often came to our aid and gave us a welcome push up the steepest stretches.

If you’re up for a challenge and want to experience one of the world’s most beautiful roads, give the north Sulawesi coastal road a go.

This is a torturous section of road near Palele. Crews are working hard and it ought to be paved within a few months.

 

A good spot for your next cycle tour?

 

 

The Best Coastal Cycling on the Planet
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32 thoughts on “The Best Coastal Cycling on the Planet

  • mark
    May 18, 2014 at 12:48 PM
    Permalink

    hi guys thanks so much for your previous reply.we have changed our minds and will cycle north sulawesi.would you be able to suggest a good route and is it easy to find guest houses in most villages?we will finish with the togian islands from gorontalo.thanks so much

    Reply
    • Damien
      October 24, 2015 at 12:18 AM
      Permalink

      Hi Mark

      Saw your message and not sure if you have travelled yet. Eric and Amaya’s posts bring back some great memories in relation to my 3500 kms of cycling on Sulawesi in 2009. The coastal roads are indeed sensational as are the people!

      I followed the west coast road from Manado to Kwandang and then crossed to Gorontalo before continuing along the east coast to Ampana and beyond. Ferries link to the Togians from both Goratalo and Ampana.

      Guest houses (penginapan) and small hotels are reasonably available along the entire route. You would generally not have to travel more than 50 – 60 kilometres to find something of at least basic standard.

      I used the Nelles map, but will use the Reise map for my next visit. The Nelles map, in many cases, uses district rather than correct village names and locations were often not correct. Names and distances in the Reise maps are pretty much spot on.

      Happy to answer any more questions you may have should you wish to contact me by email.

      Best wishes

      Damien

      Reply
  • Holly and David
    July 16, 2014 at 12:43 PM
    Permalink

    Pinning it on the map NOW!! Your account of your experience and photography is amazing and actually I have butterflies thinking about all the exciting places that are ahead of us now we have hit unchartered territory. We have an afternoon sitting in a bicycle shop waiting for our final service for a while.. perfect opportunity to reading all your wonderful stories! All the best to you both 🙂

    Reply
    • World Biking
      July 16, 2014 at 1:03 PM
      Permalink

      Sulawesi is probably our favorite island–definitely lots of adventure potential. I see David is from the Hunter Valley in AUS– our absolute favorite part of you amazing country. Hope to meet you on the road somewhere!

      Reply
  • stuart
    July 29, 2014 at 11:02 AM
    Permalink

    Thanks for the wonderful tales about your Suawesi advetures and photos. Very inspiring. Actually so inspiring I now plan to ride from Gorontolo to Toli Toli! I will be taking this route because I don’t have a great amount of time (approx. 8 days). So the plan will be to fly Jakarta (where I live) to Makassar to Gorontolo. Start riding and approx. 6 days later end up in Toli Toli. From there hire a car to take me back to Gorontolo – Makassar – Jakarta. I will be riding light (2 panniers bags only) and am quite bike fit, so I assume approx. 80km a day will be feasible. Do you agree?
    I don’t intend to take a tent, and am hoping I can find a place to stay each night in villages. I speak Indonesian so arranging a place to stay shouldn’t be too difficult. I’m just wondering if there are any long stretches where villages are too far apart to make this possible.
    Most appreciate any advice, and thanks again for the wonderful blog!
    Stuart

    Reply
    • World Biking
      July 30, 2014 at 7:11 AM
      Permalink

      Hi Stuart,
      Yes, I think your plan is sound! Finding a place to sleep in the village should be absolutely no problem. We never had to use our tent on that stretch of road. Since you’re short on time, you may want to skip the first 100 kilometers out of Gorontalo–that’s a busy and boring stretch of road. The section further past Toli Toli is also very nice all the way to Palu. Enjoy your ride!

      Reply
  • myra gunawan
    September 9, 2014 at 7:31 AM
    Permalink

    i wish you continue your cycling trip down to the land of Toraja, our authentic cultural heritage with ownderful lanscape as well, please come back and write again thank you for visiting our beautiful country

    Reply
  • Matthew Buttsworth
    February 27, 2016 at 10:18 AM
    Permalink

    Hello,
    After reading your interesting articles I am planning to ride from Palu to Manado.
    I noticed that your bikes are heavily laden with full touring kit.
    My question is, having ridden much of that road would you recommend to carry a tent and mattresses, or are the towns close enough to find somewhere to sleep in them?

    Thanks a lot for your article.

    Matthew

    Reply
    • World Biking
      March 22, 2016 at 2:51 AM
      Permalink

      Hi Matt,
      It may be possible to do the route without a tent, but just to be on the safe side I’ recommend taking one.

      Reply
      • Downhill Dave
        November 7, 2016 at 8:35 PM
        Permalink

        You do not need to bring any sleeping out gear.
        There are losmans en route.
        100km day max between places to stay.
        Go as lite as you can.

        Reply
  • Downhill Dave
    November 7, 2016 at 8:28 PM
    Permalink

    Hi Guys,
    A friend and I have just finished riding the 470km from Tolitoli to Gorontalo (Nov 2016) and would like to make the following comments; which I hope might help people considering to do this ride.
    We are both Caucasian males and over 50 and reasonably bike fit.
    We were travelling on steel 29″ touring bikes Salsa and Surly. We did not have a lot of time to hang out and had 4.5 days to ride from Tolitoli to Gorontalo.
    I don’t think we could have done it in less. If you are on a laden touring bike you may (will) need a few extra days.
    Lets cut to the quick here. This is not your usual lay-back, relaxing, easy riding coastal ride; pottering from bay to bay with the occasional gentle hill to make things interesting.
    Yes the road does follow the coast but there is more riding away from the coast than on it. What I do remember about this is the hills. It is a series of hill rides with coastal views not a coastal ride with some hills!
    Yes the road surface is good and being maintained.
    Yes the views of the limpid azure waters of north Central Sulawesi are very nice.
    Yes the traffic is very light
    So what is the downside?
    The downside is that it is extremely tough due to the heat and hills. The hills are not very high but they are very steep and with a loaded touring bike, a real grind to get up and one must be very careful to maintain control going downhill as the bike wants to accelerate from zero to 60km/hr before you have time to reach for the brakes.
    The heat gets up during the day and from 11am till 4pm it is a sauna, We set off as soon as it was light enough to see 0515 and usually got a good ride in before the heat built up too much. If you have the time; stop before lunch and relax for the rest of the day! The highest hill was about 400m so never high enough to escape the heat. There is little shade on the road to escape the sun. We were expecting to do 100km plus days but found it quite tiring to achieve this due to the amount of rests we were forced to take.
    My advice to those wishing to enjoy some views with their hills and pain, is to go light. Go very light and then throw some more stuff out!
    The diet may also be aa little restrictive for some. Not a lot of variety unless you are in the bigger towns. Quality of the food is lower than Java.
    If you like Ikan Bakar (Grilled Fish) then you can eat it 3 times a day!
    All you need is a change of clothes for off the bike and money.

    This is what we did.
    Day One
    We arrived in Tolitoli on wings air from Palu after an early morning (0500) flight from Jakarta on Lion Air.
    The bikes were assembled at the tolitoli airport which is 10km north of town (in the direction we wanted to go.)
    We set off just before 1pm and rode to Salumpagar which is 67km from the airport. It felt quite flat but the Garmin said we climbed 1400m. (It didn’t feel like that at all. I think the weather may have messed it up?) Weather was overcast so not too hot. In Salumpagar you can stay at the last restaurant out of town. Ride thru the town and down the road a bit and it is on the left. Total time was 4 and a half hours. The water in the mandi was delightfully refreshing.

    Day Two
    Salumpagar to Buol 86.6km. 8 hours total time and 2400m of elevation gain.
    The best coastal views of the ride and the highest hill. Great riding day but tough.
    Buol is the biggest town between Tolitoli and Gorontalo. Several hotels and guesthouses and the only place en route with aircon. We stayed in one on the left a couple of Km thru town on main street. Plenty of eateries selling Gado gado and East Java dishes. there are also a couple of bakeries but their main product is bread.

    Day 3
    Buol to Paleleh 101km, 8.5 hours and oddly only 1352m elevation gain. It felt like a lot more climbing!! This was another tough day.
    Paleleh is a little town on the coast and it has a small penginapan (guesthouse) down by the sea in a row of other nondescript dwellings.
    Seashore was not particularly inviting and we ate ikan Bakar in a small restaurant over the water. It was a hot night..like all of them but there was a fan in the room.
    We were told by a young guy at a pisang goreng stand in town that they get a lot of cyclists coming through. Really? When was the last one? “Sometime last year”, was the reply!!!

    Day 4
    Paleleh to Palau Dionumo.
    A nice ride full of hills again, but ended up along the coast and Stu was adamant he was going to sleep out and use the mat he had lugged all the way and had arranged for a speed boat to take us over to the island a km offshore to spend the night. So that’s what we did. Bikes were left in somebodies house and off we went. island was nice. a coupe of restos selling ikan bakar and fried bananas, coffee water etc and an open shelter to sleep out of the rain on. It was cloudy but no rain so another quite hot humid night. A few mozzies but not so bad.

    Day 5
    Gorontalo 110km and 7.5 hours 1200m of elevation
    It began to get easier, hills not as steep or as long and a big increase in traffic as we approached the main trans Sulawesi highway to Manado.
    the market town at the turn off to Gorontalo was right out of Java. Fruits, veges, everything. A stiff climb out of town for a couple of km then a smooth downhill leading to flat all the remaining 40km into Gorontalo.
    Phew!
    Tough but worth it.

    Reply

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