IN a thatched-roof bamboo bungalow on the edge of a steep-banked river, we awaken to the soothing sound of gurgling water . . . ring the gong on the open veranda, and in minutes our sarong-clad houseboy scrambles down the stone steps still lit by candle-and-flower offerings at every post, a tray on his head holding our breakfast of mango juice and banana crepes . . . then an invigorating dip in the spring- fed swimming pool amid the banyan, mango, and frangipani trees . . . before an early-morning walk through the monkey forest to the ancient shrine nearby. . . . Papeete, Tahiti In Papeete's main harbor we boarded our little ship, the Exploration Cruise Line's ``teeny-weeny Love Boat'' named the Majestic Tahiti Explorer. Based upon our experience with Polynesian hotel and food costs, the eight-day cruise was a marvelous buy at about $150 a day per person, including a medium-price, windowed, air-conditioned cabin; travel to Moorea, Raiatea, Tahaa, Bora Bora, Huahine, and back to Tahiti; and all meals and shore excursions.
The whole trip covered 300 miles, with the longest portion at sea being the eight hours across open water between Moorea and Raiatea. It was a rocky voyage, since the very shallow-draft design that allowed the 100-ton vessel to sail over coral reefs into lagoons for snorkeling and to perform bow-landings onto reef atolls and reef motus (low islands) made for a rolling motion in rough seas.
Although the ship has 44 cabins and can accommodate about 80 passengers, it was only about half filled the week before Christmas. We found the passengers to be well-traveled and cosmopolitan companions; the young and eager crew was helpful and fun. Dress was informal, with jeans and T-shirts the order of the day . . . and night.
Cabins were small but comfortable, with everything in the tiny bathroom/shower biodisposable; we noticed that wherever we docked, the environment-oriented crew policed the area to make sure everything was clean when we left so we would not be the cause of any pollution of the Polynesian waters.
Since the simple meals were served family style, with diners sitting wherever they pleased, just about all of the passengers got to know one another. Many joined the crew at night in port, when the public-address system announced that ``le truck'' was taking the crew to the local disco and that passengers were welcome to come along.
Often, however, it was arranged for the ship to pick up local dancers and singers to entertain aboard as we sailed among the atolls at night. Several of the passengers and crew, under the guidance of the amused locals, learned a few of the energetic, knee-knocking Polynesian dances.
The cruise included snorkeling instruction, sociology lectures, reef walks, demonstrations of pareo (sarong) tying, and screenings of ``Mutiny on the Bounty.'' There was plenty of opportunity for swimming and for frequent luncheons ashore in interesting local places and exotic hotels. And on each island where there was a stop, we were taken on a circle tour. In most cases, however, we discovered that there were few if any roads into the lush interior, and the perimeter roads passed mostly ti n-roofed shacks and grass hovels. Occasionally, there were was something of special interest, such as the ancient shrines (called mareas), the Marlon Brando/Jack Nich-olson condominiums on Bora Bora, or a Polynesian crafts center (where gifts were on sale, of course).
December weather provides a good mixture of sunshine and rain, before the real rainy season sets in. By the time the ``little Love Boat'' returned to Papeete, we were sun-tanned, relaxed . . . and ready for the rest of the world. Surprising Sydney
Sydney, the Australian Tourist Board had told us, is a cosmopolitan city with fine restaurants and an opera house. Coming from New York, however, we reasoned that we didn't really have to travel halfway across the world for that. So Sydney was planned as just a stopover on our way to Bali. It turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises on the whole round-the-world tour.
Thousands of Australians head for Bali beach resorts at Christmastime, just as East Coast Americans are apt to head for the Caribbean. Not only was it impossible to get a reservation at a beach hotel in Bali, but we also had to wait five days for a Qantas airline reservation from Sydney to Denpasar, the capital of the island of Bali.
We booked into the Regent of Sydney, one of the city's newest, poshest, and reputedly best hotels. Although we were paying quite a bit less than the listed price of $135 Australian (about US$97) for a double -- we had prebooked it at A$85 -- we asked for a preferred room overlooking the harbor with a view of the opera house.
The hotel, designed for high-rise luxury, was a delight. It's situated on the edge of ``The Rocks,'' one of the oldest areas of Sydney, now in the process of being restored. Very much like San Francisco, Sydney is filled with good restaurants, jazz and rock clubs, and industrial compounds converted into chic shopping malls with international boutiques.
From Circular Quay to the right of the hotel were ferries that regularly left for suburban areas and beaches. We took boats to two fine surf beaches: Bondi and Manly.
For the most part, we dined at several restaurants in the Harborside complex, a group of uniquely restored warehouses in The Rocks. We tried spear lobsters, which turned out to be a kind of hard-shelled shrimp with long, spearlike tails, a bit more trouble to eat than they were worth. One evening we took a bus out to Watson's Bay, where we watched the sun set over huge A$16 (US$11.50) lobsters at the famous Doyle's restaurant. Another night, we had dinner at the Bennelong Restaurant in the extraordinary
Sydney Opera House -- expensive, but an experience worth the A$25 (US$18) a person. And we took in several local tours.
When our five days were up, there was still much to do, much to see. Sydney, it seemed to us, had many of the civilized virtues of San Francisco combined with the superb weather and beaches of San Diego. If it weren't for the difficulty of changing reservations, we might have decided to stay down under for a while. But the gamelans (Indonesian musical ensembles) of Bali, now a mere couple of thousand miles away, beckoned. . . . Going native in Bali
There was no gamelan orchestra to meet us at prosaic Denpasar airport, only canned music playing ``Don't Cry for Me, Argentina'' and a driver holding up a card with our names on it. That was pleasure enough for us -- we had been worried about getting to Ubud, a town in the hills about 25 miles north of the airport.
We had arranged to stay at a tiny hotel in Tjampuhan, a small village next to Ubud, which was owned by a local prince. The Tjampuhan Hotel had been recommended in two good guidebooks, Bali & Lombok: A Travel Survival Kit (Lonely Planet Publications, Australia, $6.95), and the Insight Guide to Bali (APA Productions -- Spectrum Books, Singapore, $14.95). They were vague as to cost and reservations, so I had contacted an Indonesian travel agency -- Natrabu -- through its Los Angele s office and asked it to make a reservation. (For information on the Hotel Tjampuhan, write to PO Box 15, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia -- or just to the hotel itself in Ubud.)
It was dusk as we drove the narrow road into the hills, but we could see lush tropical landscape unencumbered by ugly signs of modernity. Every bit of land was covered with rice paddies, terraced wherever there were hills. Bananas, mangoes, and papayas hung from trees along the road. There were colorful flowers everywhere, and the Balinese wore gorgeous batik sarongs. There was no ugliness at all -- even modest little houses seemed to have an insouciant charm all their own. It was a picture of a tropica l paradise as drawn by an imaginative youngster . . . more Gauguin than anything I had seen in Polynesia.
By the time we arrived in Ubud, it was dark. We were startled when our driver pulled up to a kerosene-lantern-lit counter right off the road and told us this was the reception desk of the Tjampuhan Hotel. The Balinese man behind the desk introduced himself by his first name, asked us our first names, and then told us that Carssa would be our houseboy. He banged on a bamboo gong to fetch him and Carssa appeared.
When I asked what the tariff would be, I was told ``$21 per person . . . with all meals.'' The hotel clerk looked at me hesitantly, as if expecting me to challenge the price (and I later discovered it was about a third more than other guests were paying), but it seemed so reasonable that it never occurred to me to bargain. Ubud seems to be one of the last really inexpensive places for foreigners to live -- there are many fine bed-and-breakfast places, ``Homestays,'' for anywhere from $2 to $5 a day per person. Later, I discovered that in Bali one bargains for everything. Half of the thrill of a sale is lost if the customer doesn't make it fun by bargaining.
Carssa told us to follow him as he proceeded down some stone steps, lighted by homemade shrines of candles and small oil lamps decorated with flowers. We could hear the sound of a river not far off as we followed him across a large veranda and into a thatched-roof bamboo cottage furnished with two batik-covered beds. There was a large, tiled bathroom with an uncovered tank of water in the corner. The dipper made it clear that this was the shower. Carssa then led us to the open, thatched-roof dining room
lighted with kerosene lanterns. About 20 people were seated at large tables. A gamelan orchestra sat on the floor in the corner of the room playing tinkling Balinese music. We ate Indonesian food -- frogs' legs, meatballs, rice, various unidentifiable fried vegetables, and, for dessert, fresh fruit, including rambutans and mangosteens.
We found our way back to our cottage in the dark and climbed into bed, and suddenly I noticed two green eyes under one of the beds. ``There's a creature in here,'' I whispered and investigated, only to discover fireflies under the beds. The woven bamboo walls of the bungalow were only waist high; there was no screening in the gap between them and the ceiling, so all sorts of creatures could find their way in . . . none of them poisonous, fortunately.
The next morning we banged the bamboo gong on our veranda as Carssa had instructed. Within moments he was there with our mango juice, banana crepes, and toast. As we ate on the veranda we looked around at our surroundings. A few yards away down a steep bank was the confluence of two small rivers. A short distance in the other direction was a small, spring-fed swimming pool. All around us were thick, perfumed growths of bougainvillea, frangipani, mango, and banyan trees.
We discovered that our house had a name: Walter Spies, Down. Down stood for the fact that there was also an Up, above us. Walter Spies was the artist who built the house and lived in it during the 1930s and '40s. Legend in Ubud has it that Barbara Hutton sailed into Bali in her yacht, fell in love with painter Spies, and planned to marry him -- but changed her mind and built him the swimming pool as a consolation prize.
The Hotel Tjampuhan was as close to going native in Bali as we got. Most Balinese are Hindus and practice a very animistic form of the religion, involving sacrifices and constant celebrations and ceremonies. The natives don't mind tourists joining in, so every morning we would find out what dances and ceremonies were being held in nearby villages and arrange with the hotel to be transported there. Never was there one moment of unpleasantness with a Balinese -- we found only warmth, curiosity, and kindne ss.
There were shadow puppet plays, mask and sword dances, chant ceremonies, walks in a monkey forest -- all within easy reach.
We visited the beach resorts and found that we had been fortunate to be unable to get accommodations there, as they were like beach resorts anywhere else in the world -- crowded, honky-tonk, expensive. The Bali Hyatt is around $100 a day without meals. The beaches at Sanur and Kuta are overrun with tourists and are becoming more like Coney Island every day. We were eager to return to the relative calm of Ubud.
There were lots of excursions to major temples, a water palace, an isolated beach at Mangis, and a primitive walled city. For 10 days we reveled in exploring a Bali few tourists ever see. We were helped by friends of friends -- the Borracks, an Australian couple from Melbourne who happened to own a villa just across the road from the Hotel Tjampuhan.
The Borracks live in a charming, seven-room villa on an escarpment overlooking rice paddies and mountains. We spent a delightful Christmas and New Year's Eve with them and their children in their ``House of Butterflies,'' listening to gamelan music, watching Balinese dancing, and eating roast suckling pig.
Our 10 days were up, and it was difficult to leave Ubud. But one day at 4 a.m. Carssa woke us up and piled us into a waiting taxi, and we managed to catch a flight from Denpasar to Singapore. As we circled above the area, we looked down at the terraced rice paddies, the huge banyan trees, the natives in their sarongs with their heads piled high with the morning's produce headed for market. Why were we leaving? we asked each other.
``The rest of the world is waiting, that's why.''
In the Travel Section Friday, Oct. 11: The ``malled'' city of Singapore; Bombay; the Palace on Wheels through Rajasthan. The first article on his recent round-the-world trip on a frequent-flyer bonus plan ran in the June 14 Travel Section.