Which Gili island is best for you?

The Gili archipelago is famous for its crystal-clear water, bucolic sandy beaches and magnificent marine life. In all, this group of small islands are an oasis in the Bali sea. There is no “best” island, in short, but they’re in such close proximity to one-another ( just 1km separates Gili Meno and Gili Air) that it’s possible to see all three in one day.

If you have the luxury of time, it’s worth having at least one day per island to explore. Though similar in appearance, each island takes pride in its own, unique culture that vastly differs from its nearby neighbours. Though this is something that can only be fully appreciated and experienced in hindsight.

One of the many beautiful beaches on Gili T. Photograph: Jake McCabe.

One of the many beautiful beaches on Gili T. Photograph: Jake McCabe.

The three-island group – Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air – is technically part of Lombok island and not Bali, but travellers can come and go freely between the islands and Lombok.

Travelling from Bali is relatively easy if you’ve done some ground-work a day or so before travelling. There are ample boat operators to choose from, but not all providers are cheap and some take longer routes.

A crossing with Scoot Cruises from Sanur, Bali, cost €94 for two adults, one way, including a transfer from Legian provided by Scoot Cruises. The sailing took three-and-a-half hours and stopped at Lembongan and Sengigi (Lombok) before docking at Gili T.

The boat is a small cruiser and fits 30 people and luggage on board. Sailing can be rough (the Bali sea is temperamental), so if sea-sickness is an issue, it’s advised to take anti travel-sickness tablets before sailing. Most sailings take place between 08:00am and 09:00am, with pickups starting around 06:30am.

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Gili Trawangan (Gili T) is the largest of the island group and is furthest from Lombok. The island has around 800 permanent residents and has a reputation for being the “party” island, with ample bars and party hostels to choose from. The rich, tropical forests, secluded beaches, cool yoga studios and breathtaking nature walks balance out the lively nightlife. Especially if “Harry Potter juice” is not your idea of paradise found.

The island is broken into two sections: the harbour side, or East side, is where the majority of accommodation and restaurants are situated. The West side is more family-orientated with plenty of 4 and 5 star resorts. It’s on this side where the sun sets and where more idyllic beaches can be found.

Whether your trip is a backpacking adventure or honeymoon escape, secluded exotic retreats are in easy supply while private traditional Airbnb houses and huts offer an intimate, cultural experience.

We stayed at My Mates Place Hostel in a standard three-bed mixed dorm for two nights for €49.29. The hostel, though basic in its decor, is spacious, very clean and a great place to meet other travellers. Bathrooms are spotless and large and the showers have hot water, which can be difficult to find in other hostels. The food here is really good and a great option for travellers on a budget. All guests are encouraged to gather in the courtyard area between 7pm and 10pm each evening to get to know new people over a beer or cocktail.

There are no motorised vehicles allowed on the island (a pleasant change from Bali’s congested traffic) and instead, horse-drawn buggies (or “cidomo’s”) are used. However, it’s strongly discouraged not to use these and to walk instead. The island is small and hotels and hostels can be reached by foot in just a few minutes.

The horses are native to the islands and are strong and sturdy animals, but treatment of the horses can be brutal and they work in extreme heat without any obvious water or food supply.

Bicycles can be rented at any hostel and hotel and are readily available. Two bikes for 48 hours cost 180IDR or €2.50 each.

When booking accommodation, remember that the Gili islands are largely muslim and prayer takes place five to seven times per day. Some hostels and hotels are situated next to the Mosque, so do check unless you like an early wake-up call (morning prayer starts at 04:30am!).

Swimming with a sea turtle off Gili T. Photography: Jake McCabe.

Swimming with a sea turtle off Gili T. Photography: Jake McCabe.

Snorkelling, diving and free-diving are the real highlights of visiting the Gili’s, and each island is home to specific tropical species and eco-habitats. On Gili T, you can find hawksbill turtles and green sea turtles as well as coral reefs, batfish, moorish idol fish and purple jelly fish.

Local people are likely to push expensive snorkelling tours to tourists, but it’s cheaper to rent fins, masks and bikes and explore the different swimming points independently. La Moomba beach and bar, a ten-minute walk from the harbour, offers amazing opportunities to swim with turtles, manta and other fish.

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After a day of exploring the reefs and swimming with marine life, cycle to the West side of the island for a dramatic sunset. There, you will find plenty of cool, chilled bars and beach huts with comfortable bean bags and shore-line swings to watch the dropping sun in style. Just make sure you have a camera ready.

A sunset at Gili T. Photography: Jake McCabe.

A sunset at Gili T. Photography: Jake McCabe.

The islands have implemented a strict no single-use plastic policy to protect the delicate eco-system. Many cafés and restaurants offer cheap or free water refills if you bring your own bottle and bamboo or metal straws are widely used. Remember to do your part and clean as you go and avoid plastic where possible.

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Travelling by public boat is the cheapest way to travel between the islands. The ferry departs Gili T at 9.30am and 4.00pm daily (cost is approximately IDR 23,000 or €1.40) and takes 15 minutes to sail to Gili Meno. Of the three islands, Meno is the least populated with tourists.

The smallest of the islands, Gili Meno is picture-perfect with lush, white sandy beaches, stunning clear water and traditional Indonesian architecture. The island was was badly effected from the recent Lombok earthquake and the majority of local communities are still rebuilding their homes and villages. Tourist accommodation, however, is largely fixed and safe.

There is little by way of accommodation and “Western” restaurants here. Swap hotels for jungle huts and beach-front bars for Warung’s instead (a Warung is a type of small family-owned restaurant or café selling locally-produced food). We stayed at Villas Ganjor found on Airbnb and cost €10 for two people for one night (breakfast included). The property was made up of three traditional Indonesian huts with an air-conditioned room, bathroom and small living space over two-floors. The huts are in a local community surrounded by farm animals and local infrastructure.

Villas Ganjor. Photo: Jake McCabe.

Villas Ganjor. Photo: Jake McCabe.

If you’re staying on the island, it’s highly advised to bring mosquito nets and use local anti-mosquito sprays. We bought expensive Deet spray before travelling and it was ineffective against the insects here. A torch for nighttime is also recommended as there’s limited electricity and no street lights for walking home.

Similarly to Gili T, Meno’s tranquil, alluring shores offer unrivalled snorkelling opportunities, from one side of the island to the other. It’s easy to find empty beaches that stretch for miles. Bars and restaurants are limited, as is renting snorkel equipment. It’s also slightly more expensive than Gili T. Again, locals may push snorkelling excursions, but you can save money by taking time to explore the land yourself.

Jake exploring the salt lake at Gili Meno. Photograph: Niamh O’Donoghue

Jake exploring the salt lake at Gili Meno. Photograph: Niamh O’Donoghue

An example of a local bar or “warung” on Gili Meno.

An example of a local bar or “warung” on Gili Meno.

The incredible underwater sculptures located on the West side of the island is a must see. Located 50 meters from the shore-line, the giant sunken statues are hauntingly beautiful and depicts 48 life-size figures, standing together and curled up on the ground. It’s hoped that the statues will encourage coral reef to grow and marine life to thrive. If you’re unsure where to go on the beach, just keep watch for all the snorkelling trips stopping there!

Niamh swimming among the 48 statues. Photography: Jake McCabe.

Niamh swimming among the 48 statues. Photography: Jake McCabe.

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Gili Air is a happy medium of family-friendly resorts, backpacker hide-outs, laid-back beach bars and cultural hot-spots. With its pristine beaches, arguably the best of all the islands, a quick rendezvous over two or three nights is enough time to take in the sights and relax in a lazy hammock somewhere.

The snorkelling here is second-to-none. Exotic clownfish families and anemone fish are just within reach from the shore, but be careful of the rocky shoal and coral. Experienced divers can swim among whale sharks and giant manta with PADI-approved instructors, while beginners can earn basic certificates over one, two or three-day courses.

A stay at the popular Manta Dive Resort for one night will cost €37.50 (breakfast included) for two people. The rooms are spacious and very comfortable and each bungalow is surrounded by well-kept exotic gardens. The staff are extremely polite and professional, and eager to learn from and talk to tourists.

The infrastructure here is noticeably more developed, though much of the island is still undergoing lots of construction. Take a walk up the main street by the harbour and discover trendy boutiques, modern bars and brand new cafés.

The island boasts a great coffee culture. Stop by Coffee And Thyme for a cold glass of freshly-pressed orange juice with breakfast. Later, a traditional Indonesian curry at Scallywags will curb hunger pangs after a day of activities. Try the frozen mojito, too.

Transport is again limited to horse-drawn buggies but almost all accommodation can be reached by foot.

Points to note before travelling to the Gili’s

Bring enough cash. The majority of businesses are cash-only and, though there are plenty of ATMs on the islands, they’re not all tourist-friendly. Both of our cards got scammed during our time on the Gili’s. Boat tickets, for example, can be paid for using card but it’s advised to keep cash for eating and drinking.

Buy local mosquito spray. Yes, it’s necessary to repeat this again. And hand sanitiser. And plasters.

Book your boat ticket as far in advance as possible to avoid extra costs. During peak seasons (January through April), the boats tend to fill up fast.

Niamh O'Donoghue