Gili Islands

Dark blue waters fade into turquoise up to the white beaches of the Gilis of Lombok, Indonesia. Made up of Gili Trawangan (or just ‘Gili T’ for ease), Gili Meno and Gili Air, these islands are the perfect combination of the different styles of island life to be experienced in a short space of time. Or, as many do, for much longer than you intended (I have a fair few mates who rocked up for two days and never left).

With stunning sunsets, no cars and dive shops every five metres, the Gilis is not a destination to be missed. Gili T, the biggest of the three islands, leads the way with raucous nightlife (make sure you try a Vodka Joss – I take no responsibility for your heart rate afterwards, proceed with caution) and this combined with the great diving and lazy way of life means that this is the island I have spent most of my time on. If you’re looking for a quieter time or want to island hop between them all, Meno and Air are a mere 10 and 20 minutes or so by boat respectively.

FOOD
The Night Market – the night market in the middle of main strip opposite the jetty is the best choice for great food on a backpacker budget. A meal here will cost you hardly anything and it is delicious. There are plenty of stalls offering fresh seafood cooked in front of you, as well as having the option to pick from an array of traditional Indonesian dishes to make great nasi campur. My favourite warung, Kiki Novi, is also there at night.
Scallywags – one of my favourite restaurants in the world, probably. High quality food and service set in a beautiful rustic setting on the beach. Fresh BBQ, tapas, large a la carte menu and international beers and wines.
Ko Ko Mo – one of the fancier places to eat on the island with great food and the best sushi on the island. If you’re looking for something a bit more romantic, this is a good option.
Wilson’s – this is on the North side of the island so take a wander or to bike around to it. Quiet with fantastic food, this is another solid romantic option.
Kayu Cafe – delicious healthy food and juices to attempt to counteract the effects of the night before, as well as a glass cabinet full of tempting cakes.
The Boat House – an excellent alternative to Scallywag’s, with a superb bbq each night.
Pizzeria Regina – some of the best pizza I’ve ever eaten, including whilst in Italy. A favourite well worth exploring.
La Dolce Vita – lovely focaccia style pizza breads and Nutella croissants to stave off the impending hangover.
Trattoria Cucina Italiana – this chain of Italian restaurants can be found around Indonesia and Malaysia. Consistently good food and wine.
Genius – I knew nothing of Austrian food before my native friend took me here. I’m assured it’s a true representation of excellent Austrian food. Delicious, with proper freshly baked bread.
Casa Vintage Beach – excellent Caribbean food in an idyllic setting.

SUNDOWNERS AND NIGHTLIFE

I find it hard to tear myself away from Chappie’s after my day of diving with mates, but when I do, I go around to the west side of the island to watch the epic sunsets. Hire a bike (you can hire a bike for 30,000 for two hours over sunset from many places along the main road behind the beach on the east side) and head to Casa Vintage Sunset Beach or Gili Teak Beach Club. These havens are next door to each other, with lovely wooden furniture painted white and beanbags from which to sip your cocktail. Casa Vintage also serves up amazing Caribbean food which I implore you to try, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about Gili Teak’s menu.

Since my last visit Casa Vintage Beach has opened up a small spa area too, which is the perfect excuse to set up camp there for the afternoon, enjoying the quiet part of the island whilst having a massage before your sundowner drinks. Definitely one of my favourite places to hang out away from the hustle and bustle of the main stretch on the eastern side.

When it comes to nightlife, there is an agreement on the island that one bar will host the main event each night, with the biggest nights happening Monday, Wednesday and Friday, although you can always find a party of some sort to join. Ask around for where’s best to go that night. Personal favourite is Tir Na Nog, the island’s Irish bar, who host on a Wednesday, as well as Ladies Night with 50% off drinks specials each Sunday. During Ramandan “Irish” run silent disco nights so you can all still party like you should be partying on Gili T, and this is also the place to go to watch any major sporting events on the big screen. Everywhere needs an Irish bar and this is one of the best.

ACCOMMODATION

I personally tend to spend at least one or two weeks on Gili Trawangan at any one time so my preference is to hunt down a decent private room in a homestay not far from my dive shop of choice and haggle on the long term stay. If you’re lucky and it’s not high season, you can manage to get a room at around 100,000 IDR per night on a longer term stay, although it’s more likely you will be paying around 150,000 IDR or above pn. It really depends on how busy the island is, your length of stay, how many of you sharing and the place in question. Shop around, check a few places out and for the love of God, be sure to check for bedbugs. Gili T is unfortunately notorious for bed bugs and I would only wish them on my worst enemies.

A law has now been enforced on the island which outlaws rooms with more than three beds in, so unfortunately the few hostels that have cropped up on the island in recent years are no more.  Gili Hostel has now become Gili Beach Bum Hotel, Gili Boheme is now Gili La Boheme & Sister, offering 3 bed dormitories and Gili Backpackers is now called Gili Castle, again offering rooms with 3 beds maximum.

If you’re not backpacking and can afford somewhere fancier to stay, Gili Teak is a gorgeous boutique resort well set for those epic sunsets, Scallywags have a beautiful set of rooms  behind their restaurant and Ko Ko Mo is also a hotel as well as a restaurant. Desa Dunia Beda, Pondok Santi, Hotel Vila Ombak and Kaleydo Villas are also all worth looking into at the luxury end of the scale.

GETTING THERE AND AROUND

The easiest way to arrange your journey to the Gilis is through a travel agent in the place you are coming from, or through your most recent guesthouse/hostel. You’ll be able to gain a bit of bargaining power if you are booking in a group, but generally speaking you are looking at spending around 300,000 IDR one way for a ticket with one of the fast boats and transfers to Padang Bai, the pier these boats run from. All of the fast boat journeys are pretty much of a muchness in terms of transfer time, though some boats are better value for money with movies showing. More information on this can be found here. Generally speaking, the journey time on the boat will be around 2.5 hours from Padang Bai to Gili, depending on which Gili the boat drops customers off at first and sea conditions.

My advice would be travel on the early boats as the Lombok Strait can get choppy even on a sunny day, and seasickness is not rare on these journeys. The sea is calmer in the morning and it’s going to be far more enjoyable to be sitting on the top of the boat with a 9am Bintang making new friends than sitting indoors trying to keep your lunch down. I speak from experience and have always considered myself to have sea legs.

In terms of actually getting around the Gilis…walk or cycle. These islands are small and there are no motorised vehicles on the island. You can hire a bike for the equivalent of a couple of quid a day, or haggle a good weekly rate if you’d like one for longer. It’s great to have a bike to cycle around the island one day, check out the less busy parts of the island and catch the beautiful sunsets over Bali in the distance.

There are little horse drawn carriages called cidomos on the island, but I would urge you not to use these. Although supporting the locals, the ponies they use are badly treated and worked hard in hot conditions. I’d just try to avoid it if possible – walking to and from the places you need to be doesn’t take long, and it’s a great way to check out the island at the same time.

DIVING

The diving off of the Gilis is great for fun diving and an excellent place to learn. If it’s turtles you’re interested in, this is undoubtedly the place for you. I’ll buy you a beer if you don’t see one at Turtle Point.

There are something like fifteen dive shops on Gili T, all priced the same for their courses to make competition fair. Each has its own personality but I would never dive with any other than Manta Dive, who practically became my second family whilst travelling. Famed for their friendliness, customers and dive masters who trained with Manta come back repeatedly. Always inclusive, whether you are a fun diver or taking part in a course (they cover everything from Discover Scuba Diving through to Instructor courses with SSI), there will always be a friendly face to greet you and a great dive story to be told over a Bintang or five as day turns to night and you once again miss the sunset you promised yourself you would go watch. British managed, Manta offer courses in a tonne of different languages, with instructors from all over the world.

I cannot recommend Manta enough. I’ve made friends for life there and I will always go back (hopefully to do my dive master next time…if only to stop them from asking me when I’m doing it for once and for all!) Order an espresso martini from my friend Tommy at Chappie’s and say hi for me.

SWIMMING POOLS

Well, you have the sea surrounding you of course, but the sea isn’t my favourite for swimming in around these parts. The current is very strong between the islands so don’t be That Guy trying to swim between them, unless you want a search and rescue party coming out from the dive shops to rescue your arse as you float away from civilisation. If you want a day relaxing by a lovely pool, there are a couple of options up the ‘posher’ end of the island on your way to the sunset side.

Villa Ombak allows you to use their pool for the day at a cost of around 70,000 IDR and Pearl Beach Lounge allows use of theirs for 150,000 IDR, which is redeemable against food and drink whilst you hang out there. The pools are big and designed beautifully, along with plenty of sunbeds. Great excuse to feel a little less like a backpacker and a little more like a proper holiday maker every so often.

ACTIVITIES

Snorkelling
There are dozens of little shops along the main run of road near the harbour and night market that will offer you snorkelling trips or equipment hire for the day. I would suggest going out on a trip or clubbing together with a few others for a private boat that will take you to the best snorkelling spots rather than snorkel off of the beach.

Cycling
One of the best ways to see Gili T and realise it’s not just a party place is to hire bikes for the day and head around the island, stopping off to snorkel or have lunch or a beer at any of the amazing spots along the way. The West and North sides of Gili T have some beautiful but small resorts that feel a million miles from the bars and dive shops of the East side, which is far more backpacker-y. It took me until my third visit to do this, and although cycling around should take no more than 1 or 1.5 hours, we left at 10.30am and arrived home at 12.30am…but we may have stopped for a few drinks and various meals along the way.

Silver Making
Yin, on the main road along to the left of the harbour if you’re looking out to sea, not only sells wonderful jewellery, but runs a silver making class twice a day. The class is 3 hours long and you get a certain amount of silver included in the price (350,000 IDR), plus additional silver can be purchased at a reasonable rate to ensure you can recreate the vision you have in mind.

Cooking Courses
There are a couple of places where you can do a cooking class on Gili T, which is a great idea if you find yourself on the island during monsoon season and your sunbathing has been scuppered. Sweet and Spicy is the original, with classes starting from 330, 000 IDR for 4 hours, and Gili Cooking Classes offer three different types of courses which suit different skill levels.

Yoga
Run by a lovely and charming expats, The Yoga Place is relatively new on Gili T. Set back off of the main strip that hugs the coastline but only five minutes walk from the centre of the hustle and bustle and the night market, The Yoga Place is a quiet retreat away from the busy strip of Gili T, opposite Gili Boheme hostel. The Yoga Place offers a range of daily yoga classes in the morning and around sunset from experienced teachers, suitable for all levels. There are also classes that run on the beach in front of the sun set, which is about as idyllic as it comes

 

Have you been to the Gilis? What was your favourite part? Let me know in the comments or Tweet or Instagram me instead! I can talk about Indonesia forever…

N.B: first published on Burnessie.com. Things change rapidly on the Gilis, but prices correct as of April 2015.

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