The Gili Islands are 3 pieces of splendid land, where tropical dreams come to life. Marvel in white sand beaches, turquoise water, and untouched coral reefs, while you sip coconut milk, picked right from the palm.
Considering their tiny size, the Gilis, as the islands are widely known, offer amazing diversity. Whether you’d like to roll around the beach all day, swim with sea creatures, or go to insane parties, the Gilis offer a condensed tropical vacation.
The Gilis are 3 Indonesian islands, located east of Bali. Bali’s less famous neighbor – Lombok, seems to have spit the Gilis out of its shores. Gili Air is closes to the northwest end of Lombok, Gili Trawangan (or simply Gili T) is the farthest, and the idyllic little Gili Meno is in the middle.
Between the 3 islands, as well as to and from other parts of the country, especially Bali and Lombok, you can travel by boat. There are 3 main alternatives:
We got one from Amed, Bali, and it was an entertaining experience. The boat is small and the engine powerful, so the vessel rips through the waves and sends them up the deck, to the passengers’ delight. The crew is fun-loving and creates a party vibe. Besides, this is a convenient way to try out sailing for the first time – enjoy the taste of sea salt on your lips, as the wind tousles your hair and the sun glazes your shoulders.
Makes the journey between the 3 islands twice a day. It is a slightly slower and a significantly cheaper option. These boats are usually crammed, but you’ll get the chance to meet locals, as well as other travelers, with whom to exchange adventure stories.
This category includes boats of various size and function, which you can haggle for at the beach. When we arrived at the Gilis, the fast boat dropped us off at Gili T and to reach Gili Meno we found a wooden canoe. The sailors unloaded a pile of stones and loaded us instead. With this option, your comfort, security, and the price, depend solely on your bargaining skills.
Which Island Should You Choose?
Just like every other legendary destination, the Gilis have their reputation, which isn’t far from the truth.
Gili T is a party central, favored by European and Australian college students, on their school break. The Indonesian people are also charmed by Gili T, since this is one of the very few places in the country, where drinks are easily accessible, along with everything that accompanies them in party towns.
Gili Air is famous for offering a reasonable balance between entertainment and relaxation. Here, you’ll also find plenty of bars, clubs, shops, and restaurants, yet they haven’t swallowed the entire shore, as is the case on Gili T.
Gili Meno is the place where we spent most of our time since it felt like a picture perfect tropical paradise. Although the island does have a few bars and restaurants, there are also plenty of stunning, secluded beaches.
The tourism wave hasn’t flooded Gili Meno yet, so you can savor perfectly preserved coral reefs, with thousands of tropical fish, swim with turtles, enjoy fresh and healthy food, all with the accompaniment of locals playing the guitar.
Even though we took short trips to the other two islands, Gili Meno stole my heart. You can circumnavigate the entire island, by foot, in about 1-2 hours, and at every step you’ll find something to gape at.
The Best of Gili Meno
The island is entirely encircled by sandy beaches, and in spite of its small size, offers enough diversity so that you can find the spot that is just right for you. Naturally, you simply must wile the time away, lying on the beach with a coffee or a cocktail in hand. The fine white sand will massage your feet, as the enchanting sea turns from light blue to deep turquoise.
Every day, the remains of corals are washed ashore, so you can spend hours looking for your favorite pieces. However, before you take them home, make sure you learn about the customs restrictions in your country, when it comes to corals.
The strip on the south side of the island is the most beautiful. A sunset walk there will be a rich reward for your senses.
As soon as you arrive on Meno, you’ll receive numerous offers for snorkeling boat trips, along some of the best reefs in Indonesia. It’s worth knowing that most boats gather groups of about 20-30 tourists, which then get spewed out into some of the most popular (and crowded) snorkeling spots. We met a few people who had tried the tourist boats and shared how whenever something interesting swims by, everyone rushes towards it, so people inevitably slap each other around with their fins.
What we did requires a bit more effort but is a lot more rewarding. Through our homestay, we found an elderly fisherman, who took us on a private adventure, for the same price as the cramped tourist boat (150,000 rupiahs, around €10). Years of open water had left obvious traces on the wooden barge, but our captain handled it with ease. He took us to 5 fabulous spots, around the island, and dove into the deep, just like a fish, to discover and show us otherworldly sea creatures.
We saw our first untouched coral reefs, anemones, sea stars, and countless types of tropical fish. The highlight of the trip were two turtles, gracefully swimming right below us. Gili Meno is one of the best places in the region to spot sea turtles, but that rarely happens if you’re in a large group.
The experience was perfect, apart from two small details. Not a single one of our pictures came out well, and we forgot to apply sunscreen to our backs, so the 3-hour underwater parade rendered our skin afire.
The Gili islands are a popular place for scuba diving because the underwater diversity is incredible and the currents are rarely dangerous. You can try a single dive and then do a few more, to get your scuba certification.
After some research, I decided that Blue Marlin is the most professional dive center on the island – not only are the instructors friendly and experienced, but you also do pool exercises, before going into open water.
I must admit that I’ve always feared the sea. In combination with my difficulty to equalize, I was ready to give up even in the pool. Thankfully, I was able to handle my anxiety and was rewarded with a phenomenal dive!
As we reached a depth of 12 meters, an alien world of color and movement was revealed. I felt as if I had dipped by head in a National Geographic documentary. The perfectly clear waters allowed our gaze to soar for many meters. Every single moment of the experience was filled with an abundance of pastel corals and shimmering fish. We also were extremely lucky to have spotted enormous parrot fish, which are very rare. Most amazingly, we were able to swim with a few turtles, the largest of which was around 2 meters!
Blue Marlin were absolutely right – the only way to come out of the water is with a huge smile and a new appreciation for the world.
For such a small island, the wildlife diversity is surprising.
Apart from an abundance of bird and crab species, if you’re lucky, you may also spot some small Komodo dragon cousins, with a maximum size of 1.5 meters. Since we did not know this at first, our jaws dropped, when two Gili dragons walked by. Luckily, these lizards are too small to attack humans.
On Gili Meno, as well as the other 2 islands, locals occupy the heart of the land, while the beaches are tourist territory. We met people who had lived on Meno their entire lives and learned that years ago the locals used to feed themselves by fishing and farming. The sea was their second home. Now, however, almost everyone has opened a homestay in their backyard, and the old traditions are dying out.
Yet we were curious to see that the local people still live in their own way, despite the neat bungalow that they’ve built for tourists. While the guests can enjoy a clean room, with an air-conditioner, a comfy bed, and a lush garden, the owners live in empty houses, with muddy yards, and no “western” comforts.
The Dark Side of Paradise
Gili Meno’s natural treasures certainly make it seem like heaven on Earth. Yes, your magical tropical vacation is guaranteed, but when we travel we should try to give back, not only take for ourselves, shouldn’t we? That’s why I believe that it is important to talk about the dark side of the Gilis, so that we can help change it.
On all 3 islands there is a ban on motorized vehicles, which is great, other than the fact that it encourages a horrible trade. Horse carts, called cidomo, serve as taxis for the tourists. These horses are sad, tortured creatures, which suffer needlessly, just so tourists can avoid walking a few meters. To contribute to the elimination of this cruel practice, don’t vote for cidomo, with your money. The Gilis are small enough that you can walk or cycle everywhere. Besides, this way you’ll get in an even better shape for the beach photos.
Have you ever been on the Gilis? What seems most appealing there?
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