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Back to Bali

Ah, well. Just as I am dropping over the side, he recalls one of his few English phrases and, gesturing toward the horizon, exclaims, "Set coming! Set coming!"

I spend the next 90 minutes riding the biggest, most consistent and well-formed waves of my life. The waves range from about eight to 15 feet and peel powerfully across the coral. Numerous times I find myself completely enveloped in a tube, bracing for the beating of a closeout wave, only to reemerge into sunlight, coasting above the colorful reef visible through the crystal water beneath me.

A woman carries scuba gear on Bali's Tulamben Beach. (John Briley)

Eager to get a little closer to the reef life, we desert our hotel for two days and drive to Bali's east coast, where the scuba diving is renowned.

"Relax, we will dive today," says Wolfram "Sigi" Siegmeth, moments after we pull into the Tauch Terminal dive resort in the east coast town of Tulamben. The resort sits like an oasis at the end of a dusty gravel road, with white canvas umbrellas and a thatch-roofed massage bed adjacent to a swimming pool, all overlooking the tranquil Bali Sea. A canopied dining deck is next to the dive shop.

There is something disorienting about a German guy telling me to relax, but Sigi, the robust, balding resort manager, has a case. Bill and I are strung out after four hours of driving on sporadically marked roads. We had pulled off the main road at 4:30 p.m. and jumped out of the car, inquiring immediately if we could dive the wreck of the American Liberty cargo ship, which rests 150 feet offshore from the resort.

Sigi sets us at one of the waterfront tables and saunters off to find a guide. He has good reason to want us happy: Though a few Dutch and German guests mill around the pool, the hotel is far less full than it would be in a typical July, one of Bali's high seasons.

The ship was torpedoed -- but not sunk -- by the Japanese in 1942. The U.S. military towed the vessel to shore, offloaded the cargo and abandoned the craft. A massive eruption in 1963 of "Mother Mountain," the 9,888-foot Gunung Agung volcano, killed more than 1,000 people and shook the ship off the shelf where it sat. The 300-foot-long boat, now coral-encrusted and teeming with fish, rests on its side in water ranging from 15 to about 100 feet. It is among Bali's most popular dives.

We walk down a narrow, black-stone beach followed by a wiry Balinese woman in flip-flops, who carries our scuba tanks on her head. Our Hungarian guide, Misa, explains that the dive resorts "pay the villagers here not to fish the reefs, but then other villages come and fish it." At least, Misa says, the locals have stopped bomb-fishing -- dropping explosives into the reef -- and harvesting coral to make cement, a practice that greatly accelerated beach erosion down the coast in the town of Candidasa in the 1980s. The resorts also pay village women and children to carry the scuba tanks to steer them away from more destructive wage earning.

But we see little evidence of ruin underwater. Clouds of fish ply the ship: bright yellow cornet fish, vibrant queen angelfish, a huge school of jacks and a small black tip reef shark. Most interesting are the species I haven't seen in my limited diving career, including nudibranchs, flatworms and odd fish like the Oriental sweetlip.

The next morning we leave Tulamben shadowed by the hulking mass of Gunung Agung. Somewhere up there, the gods are keeping a close eye on the karma ledger. They have much accounting to do. Whether Bali will emerge from uncertain times as a place of peace, war or fear is uncertain. Driving down the coast on a breezy day, all I see are clear skies, blue waters and the smiles of a people who are holding firm to a welcoming way of life.

John Briley last wrote for Travel about skiing in Chile.

Details: Bali Deals

PACKAGES: Asian Affair Holidays (800-742-3133, www.asianaffairholidays.com) of El Secundo, Calif., offers Bali packages starting at $929 plus tax, including round-trip air from D.C., five nights in a five-star hotel, airport transfers and breakfast. Extra nights are $40 per person per night. Prices are per person double. The agency's best deals are for departures through Dec. 5, but good prices are available through March.

Crown Travel (800-853-6453, www.crown-travel.com)has two Bali deals, one with a Hong Kong side trip. The $1,519 per-person package includes round-trip air from Dulles to Hong Kong and Hong Kong to Bali; seven nights' lodging double; breakfast; and tours. November-March departures. For Bali only, spend five nights for $1,529 per person double, with air. January departures. For both trips, add $120 in taxes.

HOTELS AND TOURS: The Bali Tourism Authority lists various hotel packages and cultural tours, such as three nights in an oceanfront property, plus daily breakfast, candlelit dinner for two, massages and more. Cost: $289 per person double, plus 21 percent tax. Good till Dec. 23. Info: www.balitourismauthority.net. Bali-Tours.com lists hotel promotions, discount tours and more. For example, two nights' hotel, plus breakfast and dinner, is $158 for two people.

AIR: China Airlines (800-227-5118, www.china-airlines.com) is listing fall specials from New York to Bali for $777 round trip, plus $62 in taxes. Book and depart by Nov. 30. Bali is one of 17 stops included in Cathay Pacific's 21-day All Asia Pass, which includes round-trip air from New York to Hong Kong and flights to select Asian destinations. Price is $1,199, or $999 if you register (free) as a CyberTraveler. Various dates; up to $50 in taxes extra. The airline also offers reduced fares from New York to Bali to travelers age 55 and older and their companion. Plus, no change fees. Info: 800-233-2742, www.cathay-usa.com

-- Andrea Sachs and John Briley

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