Just a short boat ride across the water from Lombok, the trio of small islands that make up the Gili Islands have been a firm favourite with an eclectic mix of travellers since their “discovery” in the 1990’s. A quintessential tropical island paradise with swaying palms, white sandy beaches, fringing coral reefs and consistent surf breaks, the Gili’s attract surfers, backpackers, divers, families, honeymooners and retirees alike. All drawn by the allure of days lazing on sandy beaches, snorkelling, diving, chowing down in one of the many beachside warungs or island hopping between the three Gili’s followed by a night of partying or quiet solitude, whatever their preference.
Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air, affectionately referred to as Gili T, Gili M and Gili A each have their own character. Most of the action happens on Gili Trawangan, the largest of the three. It has a classically cool island vibe that seeps in a takes hold and makes it hard to leave when the time comes. A sprawling village of guesthouses, world class dive schools, shops, bars and restaurants stretches along the eastern shoreline. It’s a cobbled collection of modern buildings, bamboo shacks and everything in between lining a beachside thoroughfare and narrow laneways, all nestled beneath swaying palms and native casuarinas. With no cars on the islands, ambling tourists share the pathways with cyclists and horse-drawn carriages called a cidomo. The beach is lined with sunbathers, shady lounging pergolas, kids playing in the shallows and colourful outrigger canoes that day trippers charter to bring them over from Lombok. By mid-afternoon, the beachside warungs start filling up with sun drenched tourists sipping on cold beer and cheap cocktails, listening to reggae music and staring across the water to Gili Meno the exodus of day trippers.
It’s when the sun goes down that the seedier side of Gili T reveals itself. Having earned itself a reputation as a cheap destination where drugs like magic mushrooms fuel night long parties that spilled from the foreshore dens onto the same beach you could soothe away your hangover on the next day, Gili T has long been on the backpackers so-called “Banana Pancake Trail” through SE Asia. In recent years, the island has cleaned up its act somewhat but it still retains its popularity as a place to party.
Fortunately, if that’s not your thing it’s not too hard to avoid. The main parties tend to rotate on a nightly basis between a handful of bars. There is a schedule of sorts so the trick is to book your accommodation well away from the scheduled party or towards the quiet interior of the island. Non-partying tourists will likely be tucked up in bed before the serious partying starts. Quieter nightly options include cheap eats at the night market followed by movies on the beach. If you’re really concerned, the best thing to do is stay on one of the other Gili’s instead and just head over to Gili T during the day when there’s little evidence of the previous night’s parties.
The smallest of the island trio, Gili Meno is sandwiched between its neighbours and is by far the most laid back of them all. Most of the accommodation is spread out along the east coast of the island backed by coconut plantations and a salty lake hidden in the interior. Being quite secluded, Gili M’s retreats are a favourite with honeymooners. Most of the dining is from beachside warungs where grilled fish is a local favourite.
The “Gili Meno Wall” just to the west of the island is regarded as the best dive and snorkelling spot in close proximity to the Gili’s. The sandy bank drops down to 22 metres and as well as attracting a host of fish and turtles, has some excellent coral and nudibranches. The visibility is generally excellent so snorkelers can get a good view of the action even in the deeper water. In the writers experience, the chances of seeing a turtle feeding or swimming over the bank are better than even. The wall can be accessed right off the beach or grab a local outrigger from any of the three islands to take you out over the wall which will allow you to drift with the current and be plucked out of the water when you’re done.
Gili Air, the eastern most island of the group and the closest to Lombok is the perfect blend of Gili T’s energy and Gili M’s quiet ambience. Much of the current accommodation is geared towards budget travellers but things are slowly starting to change as more and more people drift over from Gili T and discover the islands easy going charm. The main settlement on the southeast coast is a quaint collection of ramshackle bamboo bungalows and sea side warungs linked by sandy pathways and has a great buzz. The entire island can be walked around in 2-3 hours and with gorgeous sandy beaches and coral reefs fringing most of the island which are perfect for swimming and snorkelling and three dive centres operating along the main beach strip, Gili M arguably has all the best qualities of its neighbours without the downside.