Three perfect tropical islands - Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air - sitting in the sparkling ocean just off the northwest coast of Lombok. The Gili’s, together with Mt Rinjani, is Lombok's most famous icons and are consistently rated among the top destinations in South East Asia by travellers and travel publications. Every year the Gili’s attract tens of thousands of visitors from around the world to their pristine waters, great diving and laid-back charm.
The word Gili actually means "small island" in the local dialect, and these three islands have informally come to be known as "The Gili’s". Today the Gili’s attract a range of visitors from serious diving enthusiasts, backpackers, sun-seekers looking for the perfect beach getaway, singles, families, and couples of all ages will find something to attract them to the Gili’s.
There is a good selection of accommodation, restaurants and bars, and tourist facilities on all three of the islands, with the biggest range on Gili Trawangan. We have found the best booking sites to be Agoda and Booking.com and you can find plenty of low-key home stays on the island away from the main zones easy enough.
While shopping might not be the main reason for visiting the Gili’s, each island has plenty of shops selling essentials such as sunscreen, mosquito repellent, toiletries, cold drinks, snacks and more. ln addition, there are cheap clothing and t-shirts, sarongs and local handicrafts stalls abound.
Activities you will find include hiking, cycling, horse riding and kayaking (especially on Gili T), yoga, massage and beauty treatments, glass-bottom boat trips and island hopping, live-aboard dive trips and cruises to nearby islands, fishing, sailing, surfing, SUP and all kinds of other water-based activities. The islands provide ample opportunities for visitors to swim, relax, sunbathe, explore, snorkel and scuba dive with many internationally accredited dive operators.
Visibility is very good and commonly in the 15-30 m range – with water temperatures average 23°C (73°F) to 29°C (84°F). Many of the dive companies on the island are owned and operated by westerners and are PADI and SSI licensed, with professional standards of safety and environmental awareness.
Snorkelling from the shore is easy from each of the Gili’s and at specific dive locations around the three islands, the pristine waters are home to an abundant variety of corals and thousands of species of tropical fish. An impressive array of aquatic life can be found here, including green and hawksbill turtles, moray eels, barracuda, reef sharks, and occasionally leopard sharks and manta rays, and more. During high-tide you might spot even spot turtles grazing in the shallows from the beach around Turtle Point in the north of Gili-T and when snorkelling in this area, it is almost impossible NOT to see a turtle!
Each Gili has developed independently and at a different pace, giving each island a different ‘personality’ or style.
Affectionately abbreviated to ‘Gili-T’ - is the most developed and popular of the three Gili’s, offering the greatest range of facilities and activities. It is the largest island of the three and the furthest from the mainland of Lombok, but is easily reached from Bali in less than 2 hours and is only 10 minutes by speedboat from Lombok.
Until recently Gili-T was known as the ‘the party island’ and although it continues to cater to the party crowd, Gili-T has also developed a cosmopolitan vibe that becomes more evident every year.
The island itself is around 3 km long and 2 km wide - walking is easy and you can cycle around the island in around 1 ½ hour (but you might need to get off and push your bike through sandy sections in the north). If you like to jog, it measures just under 7 km along the outside path around the island; which makes for a perfect early morning run before the streets get too busy!
This is the only of the Gili's to rise significantly above sea level and the hill in the south of the island is a great lookout from which to enjoy the spectacular sunsets across the ocean to Bali or the brilliant sunrise over Mt Rinjani on the mainland of Lombok. On the far south end of the hill are some remnants of WWII Japanese gun emplacements with crumbling bunkers.
The busiest area on Gili-T is the east coast, but Gili-T's popularity means development extends around the entire island.
Accommodation on Gili-T ranges from basic budget places to mid-range and luxury hotels and private villas, so there is something for everyone.
Restaurants rival Bali in quality, and there are beachside cafes to pick and choose. Dining choices range from fresh seafood and modern healthy fare to authentic Indian, Italian and other cuisines; from inexpensive Indonesian dishes to sophisticated fine dining. You can easily find a local Warung in the interior of the island offering deliciously, spicy Nasi Campur for around Rp 15,000!
Even the shopping scene on Gili-T is starting to resemble nearby Bali and new shops are springing up almost monthly. Shops and kiosks selling the usual sarongs and t-shirts now rub shoulders with 69 Siam, Billabong, and other brand outlets, as well as stylish little boutiques.
There is a lively bar scene at night and the island has a rotating roster, where different bars have licenses to host a party on one night of the week (hence the party island reputation). These parties are a big draw-card for the crowds of younger people who come to the island. The busiest area, called ‘Sentral', is on the east of the island, close to the harbour. Here you will find the greatest number of bars and restaurants, many hotels and resorts, and lots of shops and activities.
For those who prefer quieter entertainment, there are many low-key and romantic options, such as beach-side dining, spas, yoga retreats and more.
Resorts, restaurants, dive centres, bars, shops and other businesses line the paved road that runs around the entire coast of the island. Small roads meander inland from the main coastal road, where many of the islands local people live. Home-stays, small hotels and private villas here offer a quieter (and often cheaper) alternative to the beachfront choices.
The north coast of Gili-T has a quieter vibe and offers a peaceful alternative to the central area. Although the beaches to the north can be a bit ordinary, the views are beautiful and snorkelling from the beach is good. The location makes it easy to access the dining and nightlife options nearby but also offers a different, more natural side of the island.
Likewise, the south and west coasts are popular with travellers seeking a place away from the crowds and are now dotted with small hotels. private villas and a couple of larger resorts. Although the beaches aren’t as nice as those on the East, the sunsets across the sea to Bali are magical.
Gili Meno is the smallest and quietest of the three Gili’s, perfect for really getting away from it all.
Located between Gili Air and Gili-T, Meno has the lowest population of the three Gili’s and receive the least number of visitors. However, Menos’ popularity has soared over the past 5 years as travellers discover this quieter Gili' with its beautiful undeveloped beaches and laid-back charm - all within easy reach of the diving and activities that have made the Gili’s famous.
If you base yourself on Gili Meno, it is easy to scuba-dive and snorkel around the other islands and to make day trips to Gili-T and Gili Air via public boats and private boat charter. The water surrounding the island is clear turquoise and the beaches are covered in brilliant white sand, fringed with coconut palms and native sea pines.
Like all the Gili’s, the best swimming beaches and the most tourist facilities (including the boat harbour) are located along the east coast.
It is possible to walk around the whole island on a small beach track in around 90 minutes. Those seeking total tranquillity head to the north and west coasts, where more development has been quietly taking place over the past years.
The north coast boasts some beautiful quiet beaches and quality accommodation such as the luxurious Mahamaya Boutique Resort, quirky Adeng-Adeng Resort, and the elegant Seri Resort and Yoga Retreat to the northeast. Apart from these, small hotels and bungalows provide accommodation for those seeking a peaceful place in the sun with uncrowded beaches, clean waters and peaceful nights under the star-filled skies.
You won't find much of a rowdy bar scene or any full moon parties here. Dotted around the island, casual beachfront cafes and bars serve Indonesian and popular western meals, with fresh fish and wood-fired pizzas being Gili Meno specialities. Some provide low-key entertainment in the evenings, more so in the high season, but visitors to Gili Meno largely come for romantic escapes and a chance to rejuvenate on the island’s pretty beaches.
A major attraction off the west coast is the underwater sculpture named Nest located in the sea directly in front of BASK Resort. Snorkelling trips often include a visit to the sculpture or you can swim out to the site from the beach.
Depicting 48 life-size male and female figures, standing together in a circle and entwined together on the ground, the art installation by famous sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor is hauntingly beautiful and well worth a visit.
Gili Meno is also famous for the many turtles that live here. To swim with these huge creatures that are so awkward and ungainly on land but move through their natural element with grace is perhaps the most special underwater experience of all and a major reason for visiting Gili Meno.
Gili Air has a relaxed, laid-back style and is a good balance between the buzz of Gili-T and the chill vibe of Gili Meno. Gili Air is the island closest to the mainland of Lombok and can be reached in around 20 minutes by local boat or five minutes by speedboat.
Being the closest of the Gili’s to the mainland, Gili Air has the largest local population of the three islands; combining the charm of a tropical island with access to the people and culture that make Lombok unique.
Like all the Gili’s, the best swimming beaches are on the east coast and most development runs along the beaches here down to the harbour in the south.
The views from all points of the island are stunning but the east coast, facing Lombok is probably the best – the view over the big island shows off its white beaches and green mountains dominated by Indonesia's second-largest volcano, Mt Rinjani hovering.
Accommodation on Gili Air ranges from simple backpacker bungalows to luxurious air-conditioned rooms and private villas with hot water and swimming pools.
There is a good variety of restaurants and beach-side cafes on the island, offering everything from traditional Indonesian dishes to up-market international fare, authentic Italian and other cuisines.
The bar scene can get pretty lively in the evenings and, during high season, the island kicks into high gear with beach parties during full-moon. Alternatively, pull up a seat at one of the beach bars and enjoy live music by some talented local musicians.
Activities include walking and cycling around the island, sunbathing, and swimming, snorkelling and diving, free diving, sub-wing, kite surfing, glass-bottom boat trips, stand up paddleboarding, surfing and other water sports.
For exploring, there is a path running parallel to the beach - which will take around 90 minutes to circle the whole island. The interior is crisscrossed with a maze of tracks that can get confusing, but mostly all lead back to the beach.
The calm waters and good visibility make Gili Air an ideal place to learn to dive or to upgrade your diving skills. There are a number of professional dive centres on the island and, of course, it is easy to explore the other islands from here. Popular dive sites on Gili Air that attract divers from the other Gili’s include Air Wall off the west coast, Hans Reef and Frogfish Point off the north coast.
The water surrounding the island is a clear, translucent aquamarine, made even more stunning by the sparkling white sand beneath. For those who have never had the pleasure of viewing the magical world under the ocean, Gili Air offers a superb opportunity to do so in safety and comfort.
Other activities on the island include yoga and meditation classes, cooking classes, browsing the cute shops, relaxing massages and body treatments, and simply chilling out on a beautiful little tropical island.
POPULAR TOURS ON THE GILI ISLANDS
GILI'S FAST FACTS:
Gili Air, Meno and Trawangan are grouped together off the northwest coast of Lombok and only a short distance apart, so it is easy to move between the three islands. You may want to explore each island for a couple of days or base yourself on one and take day trips to the other islands.
Public boats leave from the harbours on each island with transfers to the other islands available every morning and afternoon. Eg: Gili Air to Gili Meno, or Gili Air to Gili Trawangan, and vice versa. Prices are reasonable and you can purchase tickets at the ticket office located at the harbour on each island.
It is possible to charter ‘perahu’ (local outrigger boats), speed boats and even glass-bottom boats for exploring the islands. But you may have to bargain hard to get a good deal.
Electricity is fairly stable on all three Gili’s, although blackouts are sometimes a problem. Most places have their own emergency generators for back-up power but smaller businesses may rely on candles and lanterns when the power goes out.
Water is a scarce resource on the islands and is supplied by desalination plants and groundwater wells. Your awareness in conserving this finite resource will be appreciated; take short showers and opt to reuse bedding and towels where possible. The tap water on all the islands is not suitable for drinking but bottled water is cheap and readily available.
Internet is available on all three Gilis at most hotels and restaurants. Connections can be intermittent and speeds are generally slow.
All three islands have ATM machines so you don’t need to carry a lot of cash. Credit cards are accepted at some dive shops and larger hotels and restaurants - be in some cases you may be charged a surcharge fee. Money changers are available on all the islands, although the rate is lower than on Lombok.
Health services on the islands are slowly improving and you will find some basic medical supplies available. There are around a dozen clinics on GiliT, including a 24-hour Clinic at Hotel Vila Ombak. Gili Air also has a number of clinics and there are some local clinics on Gili Meno. Dive shop staff are also usually trained for emergency first aid. For anything serious, though, it is best to visit a hospital on the mainland. Weather is generally hotter on the islands than mainland Lombok. Make sure you drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and use sun protection, even on cloudy days. There is no motorised transport on any of the islands. Your only options are to ride a bicycle or catch a cidomo (local horse cart). None of the islands is very large, so walking is an easy option. Bicycles can be hired for around IDR 50,000 per day, depending on the type and condition of the bike. Some hotels around the islands provide bikes free of charge for their guests. Cidomo fares are generally expensive and rates are fixed by the koperasi on each island. On Gili-T, rates are displayed in the front of the cart. Generally, short distances will cost around IDR 50,000 to IDR 100,000; depending on your bargaining skills. Walking or riding a bike is usually the best option. Dresscode is casual on the islands and it is normal to see tourists walking around in swimsuits, sarongs and shorts. Remember that the islands residents are majority Muslim and nude or topless sunbathing are frowned upon. Respect the island culture and rather keep your clothes on! Mosquitoes can sometimes be a problem, especially during the rainy season. DEET repellents are the best protection and we have found that local products such as “OFF!" to be relatively cheap and available in most shops. The Gili Eco Trust (GET) is a non-profit organisation based on Gili T that works to protect and conserve the environment. GET activities include reef conservation, waste management and education programmes to name but a few. The Eco Trust raises funds for its programmes for an Eco-tax collected from divers on the islands. The Trust arranges regular clean-up days to collect rubbish from both the sea and beaches. You can register at any Gili-T dive shop if you would like to partake. To find out more about the Eco Trust and support their programmes you can visit www.giliecotrust.com