Not long ago, the Gili Islands were just a popular stop for sun- and beach-loving backpackers travelling through South East Asia. Cheap accommodations, white sand beaches, crystal clear blue water and a laidback atmosphere were the main attractions. All that can still be found on the Gili Islands, but recently, luxurious villas, posh restaurants and spas have popped up on the islands, attracting a different crowd.
With a 7 km long coastline, Gili Trawangan is the largest and most vibrant of the three Islands. Gili Meno is the complete opposite — a calm oasis for those seeking a peaceful island getaway. Somewhere in between the two, you find Gili Air which has the most local feel of the islands. All three islands are within a five-minute boat ride from each other so you can easily visit all three.
The three islands have a “no cars/no motorbikes policy”, making bicycles and horses the only forms of inland transportation. Add to that a love of reggae music and a rasta-like lifestyle and you see why the Gili Islands are the perfect spot to slow down.
What to do on the Gili Islands
Most people who visit the Gili Islands plan on spending most of their time on the beach, eating freshly caught seafood and sipping fruit juices or cocktails. But should the urge to do something more active arise, the islands provide several options.
The Gili islands have plenty of options for scuba divers. With more than 20 named dive sites near the coasts of the islands, there are sites that suit both beginners and experienced divers. Pigmy seahorses, barracudas, reef sharks, manta rays, sea turtles and fish in all colors are among the many different species you may encounter. If you are new to diving, several operators on the islands offer scuba diving courses for beginners.
Snorkel with sea turtles
Put on your fins and mask (if you didn’t bring your own, they can easily be rented) and go searching for sea turtles just off the beach. There is a good chance you’ll be swimming with one of these beautiful creatures. If you have trouble finding turtles ask someone local and they’ll be glad to guide you to a good spot.
If you don’t like getting your head below water, you can visit the turtle hatchery on the main beach on Gili Trawangan where young turtles are getting ready to be released into the waters.
Bike or walk around the Islands
Bikes can be rented almost everywhere and are a great way to explore the islands. If you head inland on the small dirt roads, you will see village life as it is lived on the Gilis, which is slow-paced. Bike along the coast and you’ll come by several small beaches where you can have a picnic on your own “private” secluded beach.
On Gili Trawangan, a popular walking trip is to the summit of the small hill on the southern part of the island, especially around sunset where you can see the sun set behind Bali. On Gili Meno, there is an inland salt lake that makes a good destination for a walk.
Explore nearby Lombok
Take a boat to Lombok and venture into the Gili Islands’ closest neighbor. Lombok is mainly Muslim, which means the culture is different compared to nearby Bali’s Hindu culture.
A day trip from the Gilis can include visits to unspoilt villages or trekking to waterfalls. Serious trekkers should consider climbing the spectacular 3726 meter high volcano Mount Rinjani with a crater view that will take your breath away. A trip to the summit of Mount Rinjani is a 3-day tour.
Where to stay on the Gili Islands
Deciding which of the three islands you want to stay on depends on whether you are looking for tranquility or prefer a busier place with nightlife and a large selection of small shops and restaurants. Gili Meno is the most peaceful of the three, Gili Trawangan is more happening, and Gili Air has a bit from both worlds.
If you are a light sleeper, it can be a good idea to avoid the area around the two mosques in the south when booking a hotel. The calls to prayer five times a day are part of the Gili experience and adds to the atmosphere, but it can be hard to sleep through them if you stay right next to the mosque.
On the Gilis accommodations are a mix of cheap bungalows and luxury villas. Most of the cheap bungalows can’t be booked in advance, but they are numerous and are usually easy to find.
Places to eat on the Gili Islands
At night, many of the restaurants light up barbecues and grill fish and other seafood from their displays along the beach road. Often you will dine right on the beach. If you sit to close to the water’s edge, be prepared to get wet feet when the tide comes in.
For a more local authentic dining experience, head to square near the harbor on Gili Trawangan, where local fishermen prepare their catches of fish and seafood on small barbecues. Enjoy it with a cold beer, a squeeze of lemon and you won’t miss the tablecloths and candle lights found in some of the fancier places.
Restaurant Ko-Ko-Mo (Gili Trawangan)
Ko-Ko-Mo has one of the most ambitious kitchens on the Gili Islands and a beach location to match it. The kitchen is French with Asian touches. Prices are higher than most other places, but so is the quality.
Il Pirata (Gili Trawangan)
If you are hungry for pizza, try Il Pirata. You’ll be amazed that pizzas can taste that authentic on a tropical island thousands of miles from Italy. The restaurant is hidden down one of the small alleys from the beach road and fills up most nights.
Café Kecil (Gili Trawangan)
Close to Il Pirata you find the brightly colored Café Kecil. There is nothing extravagant about Café Kecil. The atmosphere is cosy and you can get a decent sandwich, a noodle or pasta dish for less than 2$. Good stop for lunch.
Mahamaya (Gili Meno)
If you want a classy dining experience on Gili Meno, Mahamaya is the place to go. On top of delicious food and a service minded staff, you get a beautiful sunset with your pre-dinner drink if you get there on time.
Warung Gili (Gili Air)
Warung Gili is a family run warung right in the center of Gili Air. The food is local and prices are very reasonable.
How to get to the Gili Islands
Several places along Bali’s east coast have ferry routes to the Gili Islands. The most popular is the ferry departing from Padang Bai.
There are plenty of boat companies to choose from. Prices range between US$20 to US$100. The expensive options include pick up and drop off at your villa or hotel in Bali. If you go for the cheapest options, don’t expect much when it comes to maritime safety. Most likely you won’t find life vests for everyone or a working radio on board.
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This travel guide to the Gili Islands was contributed by Stefan Russel, who is co-founder of Vilondo.com, a villa rental company that focuses on Bali and the nearby islands. Bali has a special place in his heart and he enjoys blogging about and sharing his travel tips to The Island of the Gods.