Lying off the northwest coast of Lombok, just over 2 hours direct from Serangan Harbor in Bali and 1 hour 15 minutes direct from Padang Bai Harbor in Lombok is a trio of islands known as The Gili Islands. These idyllic islands have long attracted travelers in search of sea, sun, and sand in laid back surroundings. “The turtle capital of the world” and even the “Maldives of Southeast Asia” are just some of the honorary names traveler enthusiast use to describe Indonesia’s Gili Islands. These tiny circles of small paradise islands are popular with those seeking out a luxury cast away experience. If snorkeling is your thing, you are in for a treat. Gili Islands not only packs an assortment of powder-soft beaches but is also near many snorkeling spots that promise some of the best coral reefs. No surprise, Gili Islands is also a famous diving hub in the region with over 20 dive sites to discover. Although not one of the top sites to dive in Indonesia, Gili Islands still offer quite a diving experience with some sharks, rays, turtles and more.
In local Sasak language, Gili means “small islands.” There are other Gilis around mainland Lombok, but the Gili Islands usually refer to these three sister islands: Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air. Over time due to the popularity and proximity, this particular three have become collectively known as the Gilis, they have many things in common: idyllic beaches, exotic marine species roaming the crystal clear water and a tranquil beach vibe that makes you want to drink a cocktail out of a coconut. There is no motorized transport on the islands. Your options are horse-drawn carts, known as cidomo’s, or bicycles, which are available for rent all over the islands. Even though these three islands are next to each other and share a name, each island has its own unique characteristics and range of activities depending on your preferences. If you have seen one, you definitely have not seen them all, so if you get an opportunity to go to all three, be sure to do that.
Getting to the Gili Islands is cheap and easy from either Bali or Lombok. From Bali, at Sanur Beach or Serangan Harbor, your fast boat tickets will get you to Gili Trawangan or Gili Air. The trip takes less than one hour from either point. A few companies also now service Gili Meno directly, but as services are limited you may need to catch a local boat from the jetty in Gili Trawangan or Gili Air when you arrive. A cheaper route would involve a ferry transfer to Lombok followed by a road trip to one of the harbors at the northwestern tip of the island. There are three main departure points from Lombok: Teluk Kodek and Teluk Nare offer premium services like private speed boats, while Bangsal provides a much cheaper alternative with public traditional boats to the Gili of your choice.
Any time of the year is an enjoyable time for this little escapade, but depending on the season and weather, each trip to the islands can be a completely new experience. The Gilis are noticeably drier and hotter than Lombok, but evenings can still be cool and refreshing. The best time to visit Gili Islands is April, May, October, and November. These months would be your best chance of beating the crowd (high season) and optimal weather. If sea activities are your main drive, you want to avoid months between July – August and December – January as they are peak tourist seasons. The same goes for November to March, during which the rainy season is in swing and the sea is not beautiful as it should be for snorkeling and diving.
The biggest and most developed of the Gili Islands, Gili Trawangan (or Gili T), is both a vibrant party island and laid-back tropical getaway, alluring an exciting mix of crowds to its shores. The main draw of the island is scuba diving, with several professional dive centers offering courses and fun dives. Night time really is a partygoer’s paradise. Accommodation choices start from budget guesthouses through to a wide selection of mid-range beachfront hotels, going all the way up to resort-style hotels and luxury villas. There are plenty of bars to quench your thirst, with weekly themed party nights.
Gili Air used to be the main attraction of the Gilis, with impressive natural features described like legends in many a backpacker bar. Until now, a large population of locals still resides on this island. This is where you will find the most authentic villages and traditional huts, which also sell locally produced goods and crafts. Gili Air is also for the adventurous at heart, offering avant-garde attractions like sub winging, kite surfing, aqua yoga, SUP yoga and more. The name “Air” actually means ‘Water’ in Indonesian, so “Gili Air” is about as literal a name as it can get, being a small island surrounded by water. Enjoy clear views out towards mount Rinjani, Lombok’s highest and most active volcano; from the east shore of the island, you can hop over to Lombok for a Rinjani hiking excursion to see the volcano close up. The dive centers and islanders love Gili Air so much, they all do their best to keep it clean and beautiful with weekly beach clean ups. Various places around the island take it in turns to host them. Visitors are encouraged to join in with the weekly beach clean ups, it is a wonderful way of meeting likeminded people.
With its population of just 400, Gili Meno is the smallest and quietest of the three islands and a true tropical island getaway. Sandwiched between Gili Trawangan and Gili Air, the pristine coral beaches of Gili Meno is a favorite destination for conservation and wildlife spotting, where you can trail along the white-sand beaches with hardly another soul in sight. Gili Meno also houses the turtle sanctuary that in turn has bestowed a thriving population of sea turtles to keep divers company. The sanctuary is open from 8am to 6pm daily, this wonderful initiative collects the eggs of green sea and loggerhead turtles lain on Meno’s shores, hatches them in a safe and controlled environment and releases the younglings safely into the ocean when ready. Turtles are released into the wild annually in conjunction with the sanctuary on Gili Trawangan. For a small fee you can pick and release a young turtle into the ocean. The collaboration with foreign and local people has ensured the protection of more than 1000 turtles per year since 2008 and you can become a part of this great initiative. There is also plenty of great diving and snorkeling on offer as well as bird and turtle sanctuaries to visit.