Incredible peace and quiet, turquoise water, sea turtles and nemos at your fingertips, chilled beach bars and breathtaking sunsets. Welcome to the paradise of the Gili islands! This archipelago in the Indian Ocean consists of three islands which are similar but each one attracts different kinds of people: Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air.
The intense calm of the islands is due to the fact that there are no motor vehicles there. You can only move on foot, with a bike or horse-drawn carriages, the so-called Cidomos. But I advise you not to get into a Cidomo. Yes, it is an experience and a backpack can really become pretty heavy, but the way the horses are kept there is far from decent.
Unlike Bali the Gilis are Muslim. This means you will meet women wearing headskarfs and hear the Muezzin call from a Minarett several times a day. You don’t have to worry about your clothes though. Shorts and t-shirt and even a dress are fine.
A few years ago the Gilis were a real secret tip, now more and more backpackers come to this little paradise which nowadays draws backpackers and other tourists alike. In the off-season, I was there around April, it still is pretty nice though and you will easily find accommodation on site if you are flexible. I had booked mine in advance just in case.
Which Gili shall it be?
Gili Trawangan is the largest of the three islands and most backpackers that you meet on the boat are headed there. It is known for parties and often for drugs as well. But you find those on the other islands as well. In the North of Trawangan you will find quiet bungalow areas to where you can withdraw and relax. And then when you feel like action and dancing you won’t have to go far. It takes around 1 ½ hours to cycle around the entire island – with a few episodes of pushing through the deeper sand.
Gili Air and Meno
The other two islands would have earned the title Chilly Isles. They are a lot calmer. Small cafes and restaurants by the beach with live music and good drinks. Compared to Meno Gili Air is the more lively. Meno really is super quiet and buildings even scarcer. It sure is called honeymoon island for a reason!
Gili Air was perfect for me. I wanted to hang out and relax, go snorcheling, lie on the beach and chill out in beach bars. Gili Air is the right place for that. I did meet a few other backpackers but didn’t feel like partying excessively.
The distance between the islands is so short that you can always see the other ones and can reach them pretty quickly with a boat. Don’t try swimming over though, several people have already overestimated themselves on that!
Getting to the islands
There are several ports on Bali from where boats depart to the Gilis. You can for example board a boat in Sanur or Padang Bai. I recommend taking a speed boat. The slower ones are cheaper but take 5 hours. With the speed boat you will be there in about 2,5 hours, sometimes longer if it stops in Lombok and the other Gilis.
Tickets for the speed boat are available on site or you can book it from wherever you last stayed. My homestay Mom in Ubud booked for me. I paid just under 30 Euros for a return ticket, transfer included. You have to watch out here, some of the operators will not accept the return ticket and there is not much you can to do then. I was lucky with mine but to be on the safe side maybe only get a one way ticket.
Tip: With many of the boat operators you have to register on a list a day before departure if you already have a return ticket. Don’t miss doing that or they will not take you along in the end and you have to (or better, get to?) stay a day longer. The weather also always is a risk factor. In case of strong storms boats might be cancelled. So be flexible!
For excursions to the other islands you can simply get onto a public boat that leaves twice a day. The boat from Gili Trawangan departs at 9:30 am and in the afternoon goes from Gili Air to Meno and back. Calculate 1 to 2 Euros one way for the trip, tickets are available at the harbor.
If you have more time a stop in Lombok is also worthwhile. Tourism hasn’t really picked up here yet and you can experience pristine villages and marvelous beaches where you will be virtually alone. Unfortunately I did not make it there but what I heard and what I could see from the boat was very promising!
The area around Padang Bai is also great. I spent two days in Candidasa where I rented a scooter and drove North to a great lookout from where you can see one of Balis few steep coasts. After that I stopped at White Sand Beach which I definitely recommend. A nice sandy beach, crystal clear water and a coconut in your hand – what a life!
Why Gili Air Island?
For me Gili Air is the perfect mixture of quiet, relaxation and chilled beach life. There are a few bars and restaurants right by the sea where you can drink and chat till late at night. Big parties are rare here. Instead you have all the more beaches to enjoy the sunsets over Bali.
What to do on Gili Air Island?
Stand up paddeling or kite surfing
The stand up paddeling trend from Hawaii has made it all over the world by now. SUP is not hard and to be honest, it is super cool to be standing on a board circumnavigating the island. Maybe you find a yet undiscovered spot…
Kite surfing is not as chilled. After a little helpful theoretical input you will learn to keep yourself on the board with the kite and how to control the wind. Watch out for the current or you might end up on a different island in the end!
For more info check out http://www.gilikitesurf.com/.
I went to the H20 Yoga and Meditation Centre in the middle of the island a couple of times and really enjoyed that! A beautiful facility – you can also stay here and book a longer retreat – and a nice open yoga pavillion make the center a nice haven on Gili Air. The candle light class was especially nice!
I had planned on getting a diving licence on the Gilis but in the end did not take the time for that, I was more in relaxation mode. But there are some good schools on Gili Air that will teach you diving and bring you to the best places for doing so once you have gained a little experience. Sea turtles, sepias, colourful corals and beautiful fish await you!
Check out Manta Dive.
Renting a bike
If you are too lazy to walk on some days and know that you might be going back and forth between your accommodation and the beach that day and maybe want to go to a restaurant in the evening, then rent a bike. You find them on every corner. I rented mine in the harbour in the very beginning and cycled the island. Maybe you will even have the company of a funny local cracking jokes all along like I did. In general I have to say that the people on Gili Air are super nice. People will greet you in the mornings and are all smiles without being oppressive.
Going snorcheling alone
If you don’t dive or don’t feel like going snorcheling with a group then set out on your own! You can rent snorchels everywhere and simply head for the water. I went in the area where all the restaurants are in the East of the island and after 3 meters was surrounded by rainbow coloured fish. I saw Nemos with babies and around 30 other species for the first time and after an hour left the water brimming with joy.
Snorcheling excursion with the Glass Bottom Boat
Another great way of discovering the Gilis’ wonderful under water world is heading out on the boat. You will go by the other islands as well and the guides know the very best spots. A big dream came true for me here: twice I got to swim with a large turtle for probably a minute, it was so close I could have touched it. What an incredible moment, pure bliss! Turtles you will find mostly around Gili Meno.
And if you don’t feel like getting into the water you can watch through the glass bottom of the boat, but you really miss out on a unique experience!
I bought my ticket at Lucky Bar and that all went great. On the day I was supposed to go the tour was rescheduled because not enough people had signed up so far, so you really have to be flexible and plan a few days to be on the safe side.
This might sound strange but you can really go shopping nicely on the mini island, the South East is best for that. Of course there are not many shops but they immediately attracted me and I caved in: you will find clothes, accessories and shoes as well as little souvenir trinkets like wall decorations (I bought a dream catcher).
Watching the sun set
My favourite pass time after 6 pm was to find a nice cafe in the East of the island and watch the sun set. Be it cozied up in a bean bag feet in the sand or in an own pavillion, the sunsets over Bali are breathtaking! You can grab a drink or a fresh coconut and enjoy the atmosphere when the ocean retreats and the red ball of fire disappears behind the volcano of Bali. Photographers can go nuts here and get some really great pictures.
Counting the stars
Gili Air is pretty dark at night, in the case of a power out there will only be a few candles on and an occasional generator sustaining life in a bar. It is perfect for lying down on the beach and gazing at the sky. I have to say that what I saw here can almost compete with the stunning night sky of Fraser Island in Australia. One star next to the other, the milkyway and shooting stars – so beautiful and romantic!
Tips for your stay on Gili Air Island
There are two ATMs on Gili Air but they are stocked irregularly. And due to occasional power outs you might not be able to access money all the time. I had to pay my accommodation in cash so I suggest you take along enough cash when you come to the Island.
Internet / electricity
Be prepared for more than one power out. This happens all the time. I kind of enjoyed it and felt like I was at the other end of the world where civilization has not made it yet. Usually the power comes back within an hour or two but it can sometimes take longer or even last the entire evening.
One night I sat in a Warung for 1,5 hours where the people cooked with a mini generator and candle light. Definitely an experience!
My accommodation had internet but it did not work all the time. Some restaurants and bars will offer you access to the internet once you have consumed something there. In any case, make sure you don’t have important business to take care of in your time on the Gilis, the internet and power supply is way too unstable!
Excursions to Lombok or Komodo
Lombok lies right across from Gili Air. You can make this a day trip or stop bay on your way to Bali. Many backpackers hike up Mt. Runjani or chill out on the lonely beaches there.
Also consider a multiple day boat trip to Komodo if you are in the area, you can see Komodo dragons in real life. Experienced divers will also love Komodo. I preferred exploring the under water world of the Gilis for a few more days rather than going to look at giant iguanas, but each to his or her own.
Where to stay on Gili Air Island?
My favourite accommodation! I had had enough of bungalows where all kinds of insects can crawl around my bedroom. Especially the mosquitos really annoyed me in the evenings and I never wanted to put the lights on.
In the Senang Villa you will have a nice quiet room with an outdoor pool and a patio facing the pool. Unlike most other accommodations the water from the faucet here is fresh water, usually you have rinse the salt from your skin by washing with more salt. The breakfast is great and there even is yoghurt and granola. Add a fresh watermelon juice and the day can start!
The premises may not be right by the sea but it only takes you 2 minutes to reach the water and it is wonderfully quiet and intimate.
And the staff is extremely nice. I played Uno with the guys in the evening and on the last night they even arranged a barbecue in the garden. I will never forget the days there – thanks again to Lim, Adid and Malek!
Manta Dive Gili Air Resort
This accommodation is part of Manta Dive diving school but it is not just for diving students. The beach is only a few meters from the place which also has its own outdoor pool and restaurant. A good place to stay with cool people where you will easily connect to other travelers if you are journeying on your own.
Gili Guesthouse Bungalow
You would love to sleep in a typical bamboo bungalow? There is nothing easier than that. The Gili Guesthouse Bungalow is quiet, but still it’s only a 5 minute walk to the harbour. The outdoor bathroom is great!
The best places to eat and drink
Eazy Gili Waroeng
Located centrally on the island this warung is one of the best Gili Air has to offer and even up to 30 percent cheeper than those by the sea. I had a freshly squeezed pineapple juice and a nice Nase Campur.
They light up some candles and cook straight through the power outs. If it is busy you might have to wait a little for your food but that is worth it. My curry was really good and affordable!
Zipp Bar Restaurant
This restaurant sits right by the water next to Manta Dive Resort. They offer good burgers but also authentic Indonesian cuisine. In the evenings you can choose a fresh fish straight from the counter for about 4 Euros. And the best part is you sit by the sea with tables and chairs in the sand.
Scallywags Organic Restaurant
This organic restaurant is super popular on Gili Air. The atmosphere there is downright perfect. White chairs and tables in the sand, candle light and great food. It is a little pricier but you get great pasta and veggie skewers if you don’t feel like eating Indonesian for a change.
Here you can enjoy the sunset with a nice cocktail or party hard to raggae and house music.
Conclusion: Gili Air is perfect if you were a little disappointed by the beaches of Bali and are looking for some peace and quiet. However, if you have to work and rely on the internet to do so then is it wiser to stay on Bali where the infrastructure is a lot better. And don’t forget to bring along cash or you might not be able to really enjoy the island paradise in the end!
I in any case fell in love with Gili Air and will definitely come back!
Have you been to the Gilis? Which one is your favourite? I am eager to hear about your experiences there!