Imagine three tiny islands off the north-west coast of Lombok, surrounded by white sandy beaches lapped by turquoise waters on which coconut palms sway: the Gili Islands are a true paradise. However, each island has its own unique personality: find out which one is right for you, whether you come here to party wildly, to isolate yourself from the world or for a romantic getaway.
Gili Trawangan: the island of fun
The largest, most developed and liveliest of the Gili Islands is also one of the cheapest and safest places in the world to learn to dive, with a large number of reliable schools to choose from. You can walk the entire sandy circumference of the island in about two hours (or run in less than an hour).
Gili T is an island with positive vibes where people are eager to make friends. Social background makes no difference: every night a different club or the bar of a dive centre organises the only party, so everyone ends up in the same place (and the evenings are divided equally between all locations).
However, you can enjoy your time on Gili T even if you are not a party fan. The snorkelling, diving and sunbathing opportunities are more than enough to satisfy visitors, while the party atmosphere is not too intrusive for open-minded families. The wisest choice for snorkelling is to head to the northern part of the island, where you will discover the most diverse underwater life.
There is a good variety of accommodation on Gili T, with some quality hostels, bungalows and private rooms for rent on the main road on the east side of the island, as well as a wide choice of international restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets. Cars are banned on all of Gili, but the main road on Gili T can become surprisingly congested with pedestrians, bicycles and horse-drawn carts.
The western side of the island is much quieter and is largely occupied by high-end resorts. The most exciting sunset can be admired from the southwestern cape, while the popular night food market on the eastern road offers delicious dinners with grilled fish and side dishes. Occasional beach parties complete with DJs and dancing around the bonfire are also organised here.
Gili Meno: the romantic getaway
The smallest and quietest of the archipelago is Gili Meno, which undoubtedly boasts the most beautiful beaches of the three, with stretches of white sand dotted with leafy trees and lapped by crystal-clear waters. As soon as you step off the boat, there is a real honeymoon atmosphere, with couples in love on the beach and romantic thatched huts for two lining the shoreline.
There are only a handful of restaurants on the eastern side to choose from, and accommodation is mostly limited to mid-range resorts and bungalows. A few other new isolated resorts are springing up, but the west of the island has remained virtually deserted, so you will find all the privacy you want.
There are some spectacular dive sites, such as Bounty – a submerged pier that you will have a lot of fun exploring – and Meno Wall, and two or three diving schools to choose from.
On the main road on the east coast you will find islanders who rent snorkelling equipment and bicycles – make sure the equipment is in good condition before taking it away with you. In Gili M everything revolves around rest and relaxation, so if you get bored easily, it will be best to limit your visit to one day.
Gili Air: leisure and chill-out
Gili Air is the perfect combination of the other two Gili. While it offers similar quality facilities to Gili T – with an array of restaurants and dive centres of the same frinchising quality – it is at the same time almost as quiet as Gili M and with a vague hippy vibe – think guitars strumming Bob Marley reggae tunes. It is also the only Gili from which the entire mountainous coastline of northern Lombok can be seen across the sea.
On the eastern side of the island, there are a large number of beach bars and restaurants. As far as nightlife is concerned, there are clubs to hang out in while drinking a Bintang beer, and although there are a few places to go dancing, those who go to Gili Air are not looking for glossy clubs. That said, big full moon parties take place every month.
There are a couple of dive centres in Gili Air and many places to rent a bike (beware: it can be difficult to pedal on the sandy roads) or snorkelling equipment. The reef off the east coast offers amazing snorkelling opportunities – just like in the other Gili, you’re sure to end up seeing some clown fish, and there’s a good chance of spotting turtles. On the west side, however, you’ll find pristine white beaches and little else.
There is a lot of development going on in Gili Air, but hopefully the authentic atmosphere of the island will not be lost, as it is the key to its charm. At the moment, accommodation consists of comfortable bungalows for budget travellers (try Bintang Beach 2 or Gili Air Hostel ), but keep an eye out for new developments.
Those coming from Lombok can either reach the islands by one of the speedboats departing from Teluk Nare/Teluk Kade, north of Senggigi, or do as most people do and use the public boats that leave from Bangsal harbour. In Bangsal, tickets can only be bought at the large ticket office in the harbour, where the fares are clearly displayed and where, if you wish, you can also hire a boat. Buying tickets elsewhere exposes you to scams and fraud.
Public boats operate to all three islands until 11am, after which there is usually only a connection to Gili T or Gili Air. On both outward and return trips, the boats do not leave the harbour until they are full (about 30 passengers). If there is no public boat to the island you want to reach, you can hire a boat. Boats often moor in front of the beaches, so you have to reach the shore by walking through the water. There is also a public speedboat service between Gili T and Bangsal, which runs several times a day.
Bangsal had a bad reputation for years, but now the situation is much improved. however, avoid procurers and keep in mind that those who help you carry luggage deserve a tip. There are ATMs in the port. If you are travelling by public transport and coming from Mataram and Senggigi, take a bus or bemo to Pemenang, from where the Bangsal harbour is 1.2 km away, which you can also do on foot, by ojek or by taxi. Metered taxis will then take you back to the harbour.