Zooming across the often choppy Lombok Strait from Bali, the Gili Islands emerge on the horizon with the supermodel looks of all paradise islands. White sand glows brightly in the sun and aqua water sparkles in the light.
The three Gilis, Trawangan, Meno and Air, even offer different personalities to suit yours.
Trawangan, affectionately known as Gili T, used to be the domain of backpackers drawn to the party vibe of the main drag. Now, glamorous lounge bars and yoga retreats join bohemian reggae shacks and throbbing nightclubs.
Serenity reigns on the north coast, where you’ll find a stretch of beach to yourself between quirky restaurants that dot the coast.
The middle child of the three, Gili Air, offers the perfect blend of chilled out bliss and just enough restaurants, bars and shops to create a buzzing vibe.
Gili Meno is the baby and the odd one out, with coral beaches and a barefoot atmosphere that doesn’t rely on anything other than coconut groves, beachside cafes and secluded spots of natural beauty.
Best things to do on the Gili Islands
No matter which island you choose as a base, hopping across all three is an easy boat ride.
All of the islands are car-free, so hire a fat tyre beach cruiser and cycle across sandy pathways for a fun way to explore.
Explore underwater magic.
There’s nothing better than flopping into crystalline water after a few too many cocktails the night before, except for spotting sea turtles straight off the beach.
Snorkelling and diving put you up-close to green turtles, pygmy seahorses, moray eels, butterflyfish and even reef sharks.
Take a boat tour to check out ‘The Nest’, an evocative underwater sculpture of life-sized couples embracing.
If it’s in the budget, hire a private boat for snorkelling tours and escape the tour groups. You’ll find plenty of dive resorts to get certified and go deep at Shark Point, Turtle Heaven, Deep Turbo and Simon’s Reef.
Beach-hop by bike.
This is an obvious, but a pretty special thing to do on the Gilis. Throw your swimwear on and hop on your bike to circumnavigate the beaches, no matter which island you’re on.
Shoes aren’t even necessary, let alone plans. Along the way, pop into colourful restaurants and pull up a beach chair or a seafront swing for a break.
On Gili T, cool off in tantalizing resort pools, many of which are open to the public when you buy a drink or a snack at the bar.
Criss-cross over inland trails and watch out for chickens running free, shady cafes playing Bob Marley tunes and quaint farmhouses.
Eat, drink and be merry.
The overriding vibe on the Gilis is an intoxicating blend of relaxation and fun. Pure indulgence is also on the menu when it comes to eating and drinking.
Especially on Gili T, tempt your taste buds with everything from the succulent catch of the day to gourmet Japanese and late-night pizzas.
Sunsets are a big deal on each island, and everyone settles into bean bags, with cocktails and coconuts, of course, to watch the fiery show.
From swish restaurants bathed in lantern light to colourful shack bars with rustic bottles swinging from the branches, you’ll find the perfect sunset spot for you, or wondering which is the best Indonesian beer to drink?
Best time to visit the Gili Islands.
It’s always warm on the Gilis and the chances of sunny weather in any season are high.
The wet season runs from about November to March, and boat trips across the Lombok Strait can be a little adventurous due to big swells.
When it rains, it’s often just a torrential downpour that clears up quickly.
High season is from June to August, so expect to share the sand with plenty of new friends, especially on Gili T. May and September are near-perfect choices, in terms of weather, fewer tourists and cheaper prices.
How to get there.
Fly into Bali’s Denpasar Airport one of the busiest airports in Indonesia, and take a taxi to Padang Bai or Serangan.
Fast boats leave to the Gili Islands from both areas, and it’s easy to book tickets online or from tour operators once there.
The crossing takes around one and a half hours from Padang Bai.
If you’re not so keen on longer boat trips, fly to Lombok from Bali and take the opportunity to explore, before taking the 15-minute boat trip to the Gilis.
Gili Islands accommodation.
You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to quaint villas, luxury resorts, funky hostels and serene retreats. On Gili T, check out My Mate’s Place if you’re backpacking and Trawangan Dive to get certified while you’re there. Splurge on a little luxury at the Amyela Hotel & Villa on Gili Air and enjoy the serenity at Mahogany Cottage on Gili Meno.
Money and costs.
Spend as little or as much as you like, once you get to the islands. If you’re on a strict budget, you’ll find small warungs and supermarkets for really cheap eats, along with happy hour drink prices. As with Bali, it’s easy to spend under $20 a day for accommodation, and the gorgeous beaches will cost you nothing.
Gili Islands travel tips
Life’s basically a breeze on the Gili Islands. The only things you need to watch out for are horse-drawn carts zipping in and out of laneways, and the occasional bike theft (usually by accident, so make sure you mark your own). Other than that, feel free to kick your shoes off and sink into the inevitable bliss.
Nicole Leigh West is an Australian travel writer and novelist. More often than not, she’s traversing the globe on assignment and seeking new destinations to fall in love with.
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