The Best Coastal Cycling on the Planet

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.

 

So what makes this road so special?

 

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?

 

 

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26 Responses to The Best Coastal Cycling on the Planet

  1. Abel
    Abel February 28, 2014 at 9:21 am #

    Dear cyclists,

    I love your reviews and appreciate all your information. I’ve been following you for longer as a year. You inspire me to fly and cycle around the world, unfortunatelly I have no time and I have to attend my work and studies.

    Just let me be critic with one picture in this review of Sulawesi coastal road, is abount only one picture which has a footnote as “Even the dog’s spinning around to have a look” This pictures, under my point of view, shows how cynical a cyclotourist can be: you, the cyclist are showing a bycicle that carries a big amount of stuff and while these amount of young people, and even the dog, are looking at you, and they may be not have these stuff you are carrying in your bike!!

    It’s like that you have some disgusting taste you this comment under the picture. Sorry it’s my opinion and I’m very sensitive with these issues.

    Look forward to have some feedback with you

    Best regards

    Abel (Barcelona, Catalunya of course!!)

    • World Biking
      World Biking March 6, 2014 at 1:31 pm #

      Hi Abel,
      Indonesia is not the Congo and these people don’t live in mud huts where they sleep on the bare floor and possess little more that a change of clothes and a couple of cooking pots.

      Of course there are pockets of poverty, but from what we’ve seen, the standard of living in Indonesia is actually pretty good.

      Almost all Indonesian families own at least one motorcycle, so I don’t think they’re envious of our beat-up bicycles.

      Their homes are mostly made of concrete bricks with metal roofs. Even farmers in small villages have televisions, beds, gas cookers and sofas. From the looks of the washing lines, people have plenty of clothes.

      If anything these people stare at us because they can’t understand why two westerners (who are supposed to be rich) would ride bicycles instead of cruise around in an SUV like the village chief.

      I’d also like to point out that, like you, I am sensitive to certain remarks–being accused of having “disgusting taste” did nothing to improve my day.

      • Arjen
        Arjen August 2, 2014 at 2:45 pm #

        One of my friends pointed me to your website. Thanks for the excellent writing and information.
        Soon I will be cycling in North Sulawesi too: Palu – Toli Toli – Gorontalo – Manado.

        I think your writing is very respectful and not cynical at all.
        What can possibly be wrong with the neutral capture ‘Even the dog’s spinning around to have a look!’
        To condemn this, someone must have a lot of assumptions going on in his head.

        I couldn’t find it so far, but when did you cycle the coastal road in North Sulawesi? (which year I mean).

        Keep up the good work!

        • World Biking
          World Biking August 5, 2014 at 8:57 am #

          Hi! Thanks for your supportive comments. We cycled Sulawesi in March 2014–probably the hottest time of the year. Great road–even if we did struggle.

  2. Lars
    Lars February 28, 2014 at 11:29 am #

    Very interesting & brilliant pictures! Sulawesi have been on my list for years! Next (big) trip maybe.. :-)

    Take care

    Lars

    Ps Dog? Isn´t that a cat? :-)

    • World Biking
      World Biking March 6, 2014 at 1:14 pm #

      Guess the tropical sun has messed up my eyesight–yep, it’s definitely a cat. I’m sure you’ll love Sulawesi, around lake Poso there are some really remote routes going towards Lori Lindu National Park–Slava Rodriguez cycled there, but we gave it a pass due to rainy conditions.

  3. ant
    ant February 28, 2014 at 5:22 pm #

    Beautiful scenery, straight to the bucket list… :) just one question, how long does the road go for? kms I mean

    • World Biking
      World Biking March 6, 2014 at 1:40 pm #

      The section from Toli-Toli to the turn-off at Gorontolo where the road becomes the trans-Sualwesi highway is around 500 kilometers (it’s hard cycling though and we topped 100 kilometers on just one day).

      So far we’ve biked around 2,500 kilometers on Sulawesi–around 75% of that on beautiful roads with little traffic. It really is a great destination (if you don’t mind hills, heat and humidity and a bit of roughing it).

  4. arby
    arby February 28, 2014 at 11:03 pm #

    Beautiful pictures, they pretty much always are, wherever you guys are. Sulawesi does seem to lend itself to photography though, it looks like it would be hard to take a bad shot.
    Yep, I’m betting it’s a cat too. =^.^=

  5. Adrian
    Adrian March 1, 2014 at 5:38 am #

    Love your photos from Sulawesi. This was also one of our favorite places of our tour. We haven’t ridden this stretch of road and just looking at it makes me want to go back. Also glad to see, that we are not the only ones riding heavily loaded bikes. ;)

    • World Biking
      World Biking March 6, 2014 at 1:42 pm #

      Definitely worth a return trip, but you’ll be much happier if you can lighten your load. We really, really suffered on some of the climbs. Enjoy your write-ups on Crazy Guy!

  6. Alee
    Alee March 1, 2014 at 6:26 am #

    Look forward to making a trip to Sulawesi in the next few years. Unfortunately we’re flying from Singapore to Cairns this time around, but the great thing about Indonesia is that it is our neighbour!

    • World Biking
      World Biking March 6, 2014 at 1:44 pm #

      Right next door and very cheap flights with Air Asia.

  7. Garfunkel Mok
    Garfunkel Mok March 4, 2014 at 3:42 am #

    Wow ~~~ Really wonderful pictures ! I had to learn from you how to use SLR :)
    Thanks for sharing your fantastic experience with me… Take care !

    • World Biking
      World Biking March 6, 2014 at 1:43 pm #

      Don’t even need much Lightroom magic to bring out the beauty of Sulawesi!

  8. Hélène
    Hélène March 9, 2014 at 10:44 am #

    Waou, ça faisait un bout de temps que je n’étais pas passé par là, les photos sont toujours aussi belles !!

    • World Biking
      World Biking March 9, 2014 at 11:32 am #

      Still using the same Nikon we bought in Kuching! That’s all thanks to you that I got hooked on photography. Hope all is well your way.

  9. mark
    mark March 31, 2014 at 5:06 am #

    hi guys.fanstastic photos and very inspirational.my wife and i will cycle sulawesi,most likely central.our plan is to cycle and finish off with the togean islands to chill.we have 1 month.we thought of starting in palau and make our way luwuk.any suggested routes?or would it be better to go to gorontalo?thanks so much for your help.oh another thing,do you think we should bring our own bikes or buy over there?cheers

    • World Biking
      World Biking March 31, 2014 at 6:41 am #

      For a good short Sulawesi route I suggest:
      Palu– Toli Toli–Buol –Palele- Gorontalo and then you can end on the islands. Will be some tough cycling and not a lot of services, but beautiful roads.

      I would definitely bring your bikes. I think only in Makassar will you find decent quality bikes and then they’ll be expensive.

      Enjoy!

  10. Graydon Hazenberg
    Graydon Hazenberg April 10, 2014 at 9:26 pm #

    Great photos, and an interesting write-up of an amazing place to cycle.

    Strange comment by Abel; you always get a few strange, off-the-wall comments on a blog, some of which miss the point entirely and show a lot of (un-)repressed anger and hostility. I got compared to being “little better than a pedophile” for riding my bicycle through Ethiopia and complaining about having so many rocks thrown at me. Don’t let it spoil some amazing experiences.

    Where are you off to next? Peace and Tailwinds!

    Graydon

  11. mark
    mark May 18, 2014 at 12:48 pm #

    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

  12. Holly and David
    Holly and David July 16, 2014 at 12:43 pm #

    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 :-)

    • World Biking
      World Biking July 16, 2014 at 1:03 pm #

      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!

  13. stuart
    stuart July 29, 2014 at 11:02 am #

    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

    • World Biking
      World Biking July 30, 2014 at 7:11 am #

      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!

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