Three islands, one paradise: The Gili Islands, Maldives of the East
Although the Gili Islands are renown for a trippy party scene in Gili Trawangan and Gili Air, there’s so much more to this Gilligan’s Island paradise than meets the eye. Especially on the pristine and powder white sand beaches of Gili Meno. Located northwest of Lombok, the Gili Islands are a winning cluster of pebbles floating in the Lombok Strait that embody everything we love about deserted island escapes: achingly beautiful vistas, unforgettably sublime sunsets, with a surprisingly authentic and unique ambiance — on every island!
Across Asia’s tropical urban city environments, wearing a suit to work is the only form of acceptable attire. We look at our reflections in the mirror every morning: smartly dressed, shoes shined up and hair heavily slicked with frizz-fighting products. Over the years, this becomes our identity. A yuppie. A blazing vision of success.
The thought of visiting a cluster of islands known to be frequented by backpackers, no matter how sexy, just won’t do. There’s an unspoken code of conduct when it comes to choosing a holiday destination. A pressure to pick your adventures the same way you select your wardrobe. To impress: others.
Except that there’s nothing fun about going through life with an unchecked list of unattainable experiences you’ll probably never be able to afford. A month-long tour of the Caribbean and zipping around the coast in sea planes sounds amazing, but the odds that you’re one of the fortunate few who can easily dole out the dollars for those expensive dreams may not be in your favour.
We want to experience adventure now, which is why we’re talking about the Gili Islands. When it comes to a great place to escape to, these untouched, unspoiled deserted islands in South East Asia are often overlooked. The islands boast crystal clear waters, vibrant reefs and desolate white sand beaches (and so, so much more).
In contrast to Asia’s beach holiday destinations, where local culture is diluted for the un-exotic palette, the Gili Islands have welcomed an eclectic mixture of travellers and visitors, while playing up the island culture and humour which makes them unique rather than dialling it down.
Today, the Gili Islands are a hub of sophisticated boutiques, resorts, spas and restaurants (and even a heli-pad if you really want to get here in style). We’re pretty certain that even the most discerning travelista will be impressed with what’s on offer here. You’ll probably forget you’re staying within your budget in this wonderful paradise, because let’s face it, we all have one.
The Gili Islands: Welcome to paradise
There’s a unique energy in the Gili Islands. Some might say the melting pot phenomenon of endemic island culture and sophisticated bohemian-chic lifestyle is mystically influenced by the convergence of the Indian Ocean and the Java Sea where the Gili Islands lie. In addition to a close connection with the magical moon that lingers so close to the islands and illuminates the the beaches across the Lombok Strait. One gets very philosophical here.
But the Gili Islands are far from a backpacker haunt in the way Koh Pha Ngan is treated as a one-time-love party island, packed with swarms of 20-something travellers looking for good times, like minds and sunshine.
The Gili Island vibe is best described as a trendy-Bohemian-meets-Rastafarian island attitude. And the crowd in the Gili Islands is a dynamic mix of international travellers of all ages; visiting in pairs, in groups, with families or flying solo. The islands cater to a complete spectrum of luxury and castaway travellers to social groups and first-time wanderers.
The Gili Islands: People & Culture
The thing that surprises most visitors is how each island has a distinct personality, and it’s laid on wonderfully thick. Sasak islanders have a great sense of humour, they love interacting with visitors and showing off their island culture in equal proportions.
Scratching beneath the surface of this idyllic island paradise reveals the interesting cultural heritage of the indigenous Sasak people who arrived over 200 years ago from all over the archipelago. Fishermen from Sulawesi, Macassar, Bugis and Mandar came to the Gili Islands for better fishing, and in search of fresh water, which they found on Gili Air. They settled on Gili Air first and farmed fruit, corn and tapioca on the land.
In Gili Meno, they harvested salt from the salt lake in the middle of the island and so the island was the second Gili to be inhabited. Gili Trawangan on the other hand, was occupied by the Japanese in WWII, and used as a lookout post. Remnants of the bunker still remain, but the network of tunnels dug by occupying forces have since been filled in.
Whatever the Sasak people couldn’t find or make on the islands, they bartered in the markets of Lombok. Like the people of Lombok, Gili Islanders are Muslim. Each island has a mosque, and you’ll hear the call to prayer before the sunrise and throughout the day. Visitors are not permitted to enter the mosque, so if you’re staying near the traditional villages the respectful thing to do to is wrap a sarong over one’s bikini.
The locals who work in the bars are less reserved, as they’re used to interacting with visitors. They have a brilliant sense of island humour. If you hear them giggling, it’s probably about you if you’re stumbling about in the dark, but you’re welcome to join in and have one for the road.
Most, if not all the islanders you come across in Gili Air and Gili Meno are Sasak people. In Gili Trawangan however, most of the tour guides and bar staff come from Lombok in search of work. This distinction is clear in the temperature of hospitality in each island.
In Gili Trawangan, the islanders working the tourist shlep will always make small talk but it’s pretty banal, it’s clear they’re angling for a tip. In contrast, the local Sasak people in Gili Meno are shy and will smile warmly but keep out of your way. If you really want to get to know them, then head to Gili Air. The locals of Gili Air are proud of their island paradise and protective about preserving their island attitude, never giving too much away to tourism.
The Gili Islands experience
Bootstrapping travellers started visiting the Gili Islands in the 80s, drawn to the islands by unbelievably vibrant coral reefs, brilliant snorkelling and mind blowing diving. Today, you’ll find more things to do in the Gili Islands than you’d expect. The South Sea Nomads are the go-to people for party boat trips, UV night dives and aquaflights (you know, jetting out of the water Justin Bieber style).
The most breathtaking encounter you’ll have in the Gili Islands however, is swimming with families of sea turtles in the warm ocean. The Gili Islands are proclaimed as the turtle capitol of Asia. Here, you’ll find them at almost anytime of the year, especially in the Gili Meno Wall. It’s not uncommon to encounter sightings with the magnificent creatures in the shallows of Gili Meno either.
Green sea turtles and Loggerhead turtles are the most commonly sighted species of turtles in the waters of the Gili Islands. They grow up to 2 meters in diameter and live for an average of 80 to 90 years. Many more species of turtles from around the world, some from as far as South America, migrate across the Wallace Line; which is where the Indian Ocean meets the Pacific Ocean right in between Bali and Lombok.
In the Gili Islands, turtle sanctuaries and hatcheries play a vital role in protecting and proliferating turtle populations. In exchange for a small donations, you can release baby turtles that were hatched in the sanctuary back into the ocean. It’s something fun for the kids, and it makes for an unforgettable romantic island moment between couples.
The calm, shallow waters of the Gili Islands are a fantastic place to dive for the first time. Many visitors to the Gili Islands come here just for the excellent diving. Some of them are doing away with the air tanks completely and going really YOLO on diving by learning how to freedive, which is the next frontier of underwater exploration meets sport.
Diving in the Gili islands offers a range of topography; from sea mounds to slopes, canyons, walls and flatter areas. All three islands are speckled with dive sites, providing a selection of dives for all levels. Black and white tip reef sharks, stingrays, octopus, eels and large exotic fish and clams are an easy spot. The real highlight of diving in the Gilis however is the spectacular array of small critters: frogfish, ghost pipefish, sea horses and anemones. If diving is on your bucket list, this is the place to do it. Speak to Manta Dive and Blue Marlin Dive, they’re the go-to dive operators in the Gili Islands.
Other popular activities in the Gili Islands include sea kayaking and kite surfing in Gili Air. There’s also horseback riding and cooking classes available in Gili Trawangan to keep the kids entertained, a collection of boutique and resort spas across the islands to rejuvenate mum, and more than enough beach bars and sports bars to sneak off for an afternoon cooler.
There’s no motorised transport on the islands, which makes it wonderfully peaceful in the day, and while you sleep at night. If you’re travelling in Bali before heading to the islands, you notice the absence of the incessant rattling of motorbikes whizzing past immediately.
To explore the islands, you can rent a bike or get lost on foot. It takes around one to two hours to walk around the perimeter of the islands, but you could really spend the whole day getting lost through the villages and chatting to the locals.
The dirt paths and sand covered walkways are superb running tracks, so don’t forget to pack your running shoes and iPod! Especially if you’ve been out of practice, this is the perfect place to get back into your running routine.
Decompress in Gili Trawangan
Gili Trawangan is the best island to start your Gili adventure, because it gives you a chance to decompress with a good night out. Plus it gives you a good way to compare the rest of the Gili islands (and be grateful for the peaceful bliss in Gili Meno).
Having said that, when it comes to migratory patterns of travellers in the Gili Islands, most head straight to Gili Trawangan before considering the other Gilis, because that’s what everyone is doing right? But if you have a few days, or a week to spend in paradise then we highly recommend visiting all three islands if you want to experience first-hand what makes each island, and this place, such a gem.
Is Gili T as wild as they say? Let’s put it this way: The party island hasn’t been dubbed ‘The Ibiza of the East’ for no reason. You will be offered drugs of all manner on the island, very casually, but remember that drugs of any description are completely forbidden in Indonesia.
Mushrooms were officially legal up until recently, but bars and mushroom shacks still serve the legendary shakes. The blatant sign boards advertising the potent concoction were taken down, and you won’t get into any trouble for having one. Not with the Headman of the island at least. There’s always someone looking terribly washed up on the beach and willing for the nauseating trip to stop. Doesn’t look like very much fun.
Every night is party night in Gili Trawangan. The bars along the main strip take turns to pull in the crowds with live bands and music. Blue Marlin, Sama Sama Raggae Bar and Tir Na Nog are the most popular all-night party haunts, while full moon parties are held at difference venues. You’ll know where the party is going down, don’t worry. Flyers are handed out in the day, or just follow your ears towards the unmistakable party call. It goes something like this: Phoof, phoof, phoof.
The two spots in Gili T that really stood out to this 30-going-on-50 writer was the sunset bar on Coral Beach. Walk 20 minutes north from the Art Market until you get to the beach, and on your left you’ll see a platoon of bales built on stilts above the shoreline. From here, you’ll see the sunsetting behind Mount Agung.
The second sweet spot for a magical night in Gili Trawangan is the sunset bar on the southwest tip of the island just past sunset point. When night falls, the bonfires are lit and the fire bearers come out to put on a show. Music is melodically beaten out of a calf skin drum, and there’s an interesting menu of cocktails to get through. A bewildering array of stars over head, the lapping of waves on the shore and one cheek kept warm by the fire, while the other kept cool by the balmy breeze. What more do you need on a deserted island?
Without giving Gili T a bad rep, it must be said that the party Gili has a wonderfully bustling atmosphere in the day, and it does offer more options when it comes to accommodation, dining and activities than the other Gilis. Although, if we’re completely honest, it’s hard to escape the techno music of the night. Unless of course, you retreat to the luxurious southwest coast of the island. Seems like an unnecessary hassle when you have the ultimate paradise desert island next door: Gili Meno.
Castaway to Gili Meno
Gili Meno is the most untouched Gili and has the finest beaches of all the Gili islands, no contest. Powder white sands, vacant beaches and lines of coconut trees swaying in the wind makes this place Instagram gold. Time slows down here completely. It’s such a cliche to say, but Gili Meno really does have that effect.
Gili Meno’s shores are fringed by incredibly fine white sand beaches all around the tiny island paradise. A shallow reef where a celebration of fish, coral, crustaceans, turtles and tropical marine life scallops the underwater perimeter. Sun bleached bungalows cling to the shores as though they were washed up on the island years ago and might be pulled back into the sea. It’s utterly dreamy.
For a classic castaway traveller like me, on an endless search for paradise, shangri-la, utopia.. Gili Meno makes the most sense.
You’ll want to do little else but check into one of Gili Meno’s boutique resorts and bask in blissful paradise. A visit to the islands’ bird park, which houses an impressive collection of exotic birds is not to be missed, as is a walk around Gili Meno’s salt lake, where you might spot a rare blue kingfisher and the skittish monitor lizard. And the kids always love a visit to the turtle sanctuary. This wide array of nature activities makes Gili Meno the most ideal Gili for families. The calm, shallow waters of the sheltered reef are the most ideal for kids to swim and snorkel in the Gilis, and the complete absence of nightlife means a complete absence of the characters that go with the territory.
And no, you don’t need a partner to enjoy this island paradise. Sure, it’s the ultimate honeymoon island, but it seems Gili Meno is the most misrespresented island in the Gilis! From the rumours which the Lonely Planet started about Gili Meno suffering from mosquito problems because of it’s salt lake in the 80s (untrue), to being branded exclusively as the honeymoon island and hence putting off the singles crowd. To put it simply, Gili Meno is a divine deserted island paradise for anyone in the market looking for a castaway beach vacation that’ll make all your Facebook friends swoon.
Yes, Gili Meno is this perfect. See it for yourself with InGili’s aerial tour.
Palm trees and 30 degrees in Gili Air
Gili Air is also known for a social and party scene that’s less full-on that in Gili Trawangan but groovy all the same. Gili Air is frequented by Bali expats and repeat visitors to the Gili islands who prefer their music without ear drum shattering techno baselines in favour of revived 80s tunes, and their milkshakes without mushrooms.
Guide books always refer to Gili Air as the “alternative” Gili with a brow knitting tone. What does alternative mean? I kept wondering before I arrived in Gili Air.
At first, I didn’t think much of the hunky men, travelling in pairs and relaxing on bales in the beach bars on Gili Air. Then it stopped being a coincidence when the tank t-shirt clad hunks failed to pay attention at the scores of attractive women in neon bikinis that passed by. Then it clicked. Alternative-couple Gili. Got it.
Gili Air combines the best of Gili Trawangan’s party scene, with Gili Meno’s charm and laid back vibe. But the waters and beaches of Gili Air are not as good as Gili Meno’s shores, not for frolicking around in and snorkelling at least. What you do get in Gili Air is the option to take it fast or slow.
Here, you’ll find opportunities for diving, kitesurfing, yoga and cycling. In the evenings, pull up a beanbag at The Beach Club and watch a movie under the stars. Head to the northwest coast of the island and you’ll find yourself on a deserted beach and sweeping vistas of Mount Agung.
Gili Air is the most indigenously populated Gili, with 1500 inhabitants. You’re touched by their endearing sense of humour and island pride from the moment you arrive. They’ve managed to do something pretty special: retain the culture and personality which makes them unique while welcoming travellers at the same time. Nothing about Gili Air and it’s people is diluted for your benefit. And we love that about them.
Gili Air also offers a great selection of interesting restaurants and menus. You’ll find homemade Italian, Mediterranean cuisine, tapas and Japanese. Stroll along the east coast and you’re bound to find something that’s calling out to you.
If you’re tossing up between Gili Trawangan and Gili Air, we recommend Gili Air. But if we could only visit one island, it would be Gili Meno every time. Take our lead, you won’t be disappointed.
The million dollar question: When is the best time to visit the Gili islands?
On the fringes of high season, the Gili Islands don’t suffer from too many tourists the way Kuta and Seminyak in Bali do. Having said that, the islands can fill up quickly in high season, so it’s wise to book your accommodation before you arrive. Otherwise you might be wandering around the island on foot with heavy bag in tow. It’s a pretty common sight.
The rainy season runs from November to April, although you’ll still get plenty of days of sunshine. The dry high season runs from May to October. In December and January, the seas get rather choppy. If you’re travelling to the Gilis during the Christmas school holidays, it’s advisable to take the boat from Lombok instead of Bali.
Unlike Thailand, and the islands off Phuket, where wet and dry seasons are more pronounced, the Gili islands enjoy a milder micro-climate. Due to their location between two volcances, Mount Rinjani in Lombok and Mount Agung in Bali, and being situated at the convergence of the Indian and Pacific Ocean.
Getting to the Gili islands in style
A 45-minute helicopter journey from Bali’s heliport in Benoa to Gili Trawangan is highly recommended. Book your flight at least 24 hours in advance with airbali.com. The helicopter takes up to five passengers *travelling light* and works out around US$345 per person, which is pretty reasonable by international standards. Air Bali also operates a Gili-copter charter on Fridays and Sundays at a special rate.
Air Bali, Benoa Harbour Jl. Raya Pelabuhan, Benoa Pesanggaran, Denpasar 80222, Tel: 62 361 767466 or 62 361 766582 (during Bali office hours 08.30 – 17.00 pm) Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
But if you’re a sea lover then you’ll want to check out the recently-launched Bounty Cruise, a 44-meter luxury catamaran that carries up to 650 passengers from Benoa Harbour in Bali to Gili Trawangan. The boat sets sail at 9am and arrives at noon, allowing plenty of time to settle in and enjoy the day.
Special introductory rates for this daily service are IDR650,000, which includes breakfast. Or IDR1.2 million for a return trip. Contact Bounty Cruises for bookings at 62 361 726666 or 62 812 389666.
Getting to the Gili islands from Lombok Airport
From Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and now Perth, a direct flight to Lombok international airport takes less time than it takes to get through an in-flight blockbuster.
Then from Bandar Udara International Airport, the Gili islands are reached with just a 10-minute fast boat ride from Bangsal harbour. Ok so we didn’t count the 45-minute airport transfer. The roads in Lombok are wonderfully uncongested. Between the rustic scenery across rural villages and magnificent landscapes, the road trip is half the journey in our opinion!
A fair price for the airport transfer from Lombok to Senggigi with a local taxi or driver is IDR150,000 – 200,000. If you want to avoid the hassle of haggling, then see if your hotel or resort in the Gili islands can make arrangements for you. Some will even include the airport and boat transfers with a three-day stay.
Fast boats from Bangsal harbour to the Gili islands run every hour between 1030am and 430pm. Tickets cost just IDR75,000 and can be purchased from the ticket office at the harbour. Local touts will try to sell you an overpriced ticket. Don’t mind them and walk straight to the counter. They’ll want to carry your bags for you, this service is not free, a token IDR10,000 tip will suffice.
If you’re travelling light on the other hand, the local ferry which departs at 930am and 430pm costs less than US$1. Local boats can also be chartered for up to 20 people for IDR280,000 to Gili Air, IDR350,000 to Gili Meno and IDR375,00 to Gili Trawangan — which is less than the cost of one fast boat ticket from Bali to the Gili islands.
No matter what time you land in Lombok and arrive in Bangsal harbour, you’ll have a way of getting to the islands. If you do find yourself having to spend the night in Lombok, you’ll find a number of guesthouses and small hotels near the harbour. The Sheraton Senggi Beach Resort is a decent place to spend the night. The hotel is slightly dated but the rooms are massive and the poolside is rather impressive for around US$120 a night (or less on latestays.com).
Or save yourself the hassle completely and have your shore-to-shore transfer organised for you when you stay at one of these 5 hotels in Lombok closest to the Gili islands.
By the time you wash up on the shores of the Gili islands, the concerns of urban life would have long dissolved under the glowing rays of the sun, washed away by the brilliant blue sea and replaced by a sublime sense of relaxation. The first thing I said within minutes of arriving in Gili Meno was, “I don’t remember the last time I felt this relaxed.”
Just a quick travel tip: Travel light. Whichever boat you use to get to the Gili islands, you’ll get wet shins. The boats anchor in the shallows and passengers wade to and fro, hugging heavy cases and massive backpacks above the waterline.
If you’re travelling to the Gili islands from Bali, here are 5 ways to get to the Gili islands from Bali.
Island hopping between the Gili islands
The local boats which the islanders use to shuffle between the islands cost just IDR30,000 per trip and run twice a day. Once in the morning at 930am and in the afternoon at 430pm. Turn up a quarter of an hour before the boat leaves to buy a ticket on the boat.
The other way to island hop between the Gilis is with a glass bottom boat or an outrigger. A reasonable price to pay is IDR350,000. These small boats take four to five people, or less if you’re travelling with large bags.
You might be tempted to swim or kayak between the islands. They look so close. But the currents are strong, so please don’t.
Parting travel tips
Arak is not for the faint hearted. Quite literally so. Dubbed the ‘sip of death’ following numerous fatal accidents involving too many shots of Arak and young travellers. The spirit made from grape alcohol, aniseed and water, caused my heart to jump out of my chest and skip beats after just a tiny sip of this potent moonshine diluted in a sugary cocktail of juice and Grenadine. It’s not a spirit you can chase like vodka, even though the locals do — they’re used to it. Stick to Bintangs and be aware of cocktail specials, they usually contain arak.
ATMS can be found on practically every corner in Gili Trawangan. In Gili Air, there’s just two ATMS, and on Gili Meno there are none. Newer resorts and restaurants accept credit cards, but you’re likely to be charged a processing fee of up to 7 percent. So bring enough cash for your trip. If you run out of wedge on Gili Meno, a quick day trip on the local boats is easy enough to do — and a good excuse to move from your sun lounger.
Be respectful of the local Muslim culture and customs. Always use your right hand to give and receive something from someone, wear a sarong when walking through the village and smile always.
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