Read more about my Self Care Sabbatical and the other places I’ve visited!
The Gili Islands are a set of three small islands off the coast of Lombok, the island just east of Bali. These islands are known for offering a bit of peace and quiet (no cars or motorbikes allowed) and some fantastic snorkeling and scuba diving. If you want to relax or you want to party, you can find your scene on these islands. The smallest of the islands is Gili Air, followed by Gili Meno, and then Gili T (Trawangan). Though the islands are similar, they each offer something a bit unique for travelers (and it’s worth visiting at least two of them).
When doing my research on Gili, I also got the sense that what makes these islands special is that they offer a bit more of a real glimpse into local life, especially when compared to Bali. I immediately noticed that when I arrived on Gili Air. Yes, there are hotels and beachfront restaurants, but it felt nothing like the tourism-driven Bali. I walked past local homes as I made my way to the beach or to a local restaurant for dinner. I happened to be there during Ramadan and fell asleep to the evening prayers every night (honestly, I am making that sound nicer than it actually is). These islands feel remote, more unplugged. I had a hard time finding decent Wifi on both Gili Air and Gili T which felt like a blessing. I could seriously unplug for a few days and just enjoy being in paradise.
Getting To and Around the Gili Islands:
If you are coming from Bali, you will have to take a fast boat from Padang Bai to the Gili Islands. This boat will also go to Lombok (and thus you can take a boat from Lombok to the Gili Islands). The boat ride takes about 90 minutes and was actually quite pleasant (aside from the bone-chilling AC). There are a number of boat companies offering trips between Bali and the Gilis so it will come down to price and schedule for which you take. I took the Ekajaya boats both ways and thought they were fine – and one of the cheaper options. Though they had some not so great reviews online, I thought the trip was great. No complaints…until I got back to Bali, but that’s another story.
The worst part about taking the fast boat is the harbor experience in Padang Bai. The pier is not very large and there are a bunch of different boat companies all arriving and departing around the same time. There are tourists everywhere with their luggage clambering to get on their boat first. There are tourists getting off the boats, trying to find their bags and get off the pier. There are Balinese selling fruit, drinks, snacks, and souvenirs to all of the sweaty tourists. It’s a mess.
I would recommend buying your fast boat tickets from one of the boat companies on the island directly – you can easily organize transfers in Bali with the boat company for an extra charge on your ticket. I tried buying my tickets online with Direct Ferries and definitely got overcharged/screwed over because I couldn’t book the transfer with them. It also took DAYS to get confirmation of my ticket which left me a bit nervous.
If you are going between the Gili Islands, it’s cheap and easy to take the public ferry (40K RPH). The trip from Air to T takes about 30 minutes, stopping at Meno on the way. There are a few departures each day; you can also opt for a fast boat between the islands for a bit more money. This makes it easy to get between if you want to take a day trip to see another island or if you are island-hopping during your stay.
I decided to go to Gili Air first because it was the furthest away of the three islands. It was also recommended to me as a super chill place and, now that I was back to solo traveling, I was looking to just zen out for a few days. I only booked two nights in Gili Air and I regretted that immediately. The minute I arrived on this island I was in love. I knew I would be back. It was quiet and relaxed. It was far more rustic than I imagined it would be and I was instantly charmed by the little cafes, the stretches of beaches, the views of Lombok island. I walked about 20 minutes from the ferry pier to my hotel and saw all manner of people on bikes (tourists in swimsuits, local women in hijabs). There were kids running around in the streets. My route took me past intersections with wooden signs pointing in different directions to various hotels, restaurants, and yoga studios. There were local homes next to small hotels next to lush green patches. I wanted to stay here forever.
In truth, I would probably be bored here if I stayed forever. But Gili Air seems like the perfect island to disappear to for a bit. An island where you can escape and really get away from the noise, from the news (ahem, poor wifi), from the busy, modern world. It’s no surprise there are yoga retreats here – it’s the ideal spot for a quiet week of meditation and beach time.
So if you are looking to disappear on a beautiful tropical island (and not spend very much money), head to Gili Air.
I spent my first afternoon in Gili walking around the whole island. It’s so small that it is possible to bike around the island in about 30 minutes and walking takes about 70 minutes. The outer perimeter of the island is mostly beach-front restaurants and bars, hotels and resorts, and dive shops. However, once you start to wander through the middle of the island you start to uncover a more local side of Gili Air. Unassuming local restaurants serving delicious Indonesian food.
Dig Into the Local Food
While you can find Western food in Gili Air, I would highly suggest digging into the local cuisine while you are here. The island has a bunch of small restaurants tucked away on quiet, leafy streets that serve really great food. It’s a chance to try some Indonesian specialties, including those that are specific to the Lombok region (translation: not Balinese).
Warung Sunny – Quiet restaurant with a small menu of dishes. Try the jamu, an Indonesian drink made from turmeric and ginger, and get the kelak kuning (yellow curry). It’s amazing.
Warung Alam Damai – Small local spot, was very busy when I was there. Everyone seemed to be ordering the soup or the curry, though I went for the chicken lalapan. Try the sambal here (a chili paste) – it’s SO good! If I’d had more time in Gili Air, I would have definitely come back!
Pachamama – If you are looking to have a trendy, Instagram-friendly meal that is also healthy, come here. The food is excellent though a bit more expensive than other places on the island. They serve breakfast all day and have a number of menu items friendly to various diets (veg, vegan, gluten-free). What I especially liked is that it seems like a place that would have Wifi, catering to the digital nomad crowd. And yet….no WIFI! Try the eggplant bowl, rainbow brekky bowl, and the coffee.
Good Coco – Cute little smoothie shop near the ferry pier. They give you a bamboo straw with your drink that you get to keep. Fun selection of smoothies and juices!
Chill Out, You’re on Gili Air
Relax – This is the most obvious thing to do in Gili. Just chill out. Do whatever you want.
Snorkel – There are a number of tour companies scattered around the island ready to sell you snorkeling tours around Gili Air and the other islands. If you’re looking for an organized excursion, this is the main option. The islands are known for their turtles which often swim close enough for snorkelers to see. If you don’t feel like going in a group, you can also just rent a mask, snorkel, and fins and take them to the beach (or bring your own).
Scuba dive – There are dive shops on Gili Air that will take you to the dive sites around all of the islands but if you are planning to go to Gili T, I would recommend diving there rather than on Air. The best dive sites are closest to Gili T so it’s more likely you will be able to check out those spots if diving from that island.
Hang at the beach – There are many quiet areas of the island with open beaches that anyone is free to use, mostly on the eastern side. On the western side of the island, you will find more beach bars and restaurants – this is also the place to be once sunset rolls around. Come early for the best spot.
Do yoga. Meditate. – There’s a bit of a hippie-dippie feel on Gili Air and thus plenty of yoga studios offering daily classes, workshops, and retreats. I recommend checking out H20 Yoga!
Take one of those Instagram swing photos – This is a thing you can do on all of the islands if you’re into that sort of thing…
Where to Stay
Although it is a small island, there are lots of lodging options that range from budget hostels and hotels to high-end resorts. And it is easy to get around this small island either by foot or by bike so you can’t really go wrong with the location. I chose a small guest house – Balengku Homestay – with five rooms where I would have my own little bungalow (and a fridge!). It was close to the beach and offered a pool in case I wanted time away from the ocean. I liked this spot because it was a bit removed from the “busier” areas of the island yet still easy to get around.