Strikingly beautiful, with glorious white-sand beaches lapped by warm, brilliant-blue waters, the three Gili Islands just off the northwest coast of Lombok are a magnet for visitors. Of the three, Gili Trawangan best fits the image of “party island”, with heaps of accommodation, restaurants and nightlife. The smallest of the islands, Gili Meno, has no nightlife and is known as the “honeymoon island” for its secluded atmosphere. Closest to the mainland is Gili Air which offers a mix of the two, with plenty of facilities in the south and more peace elsewhere.
A similar oval shape to Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno is much smaller, about 2km long and just over 1km wide. This is the most tranquil island of the three, with a small local population, no nightlife and arguably the best beaches, as less space is taken up by fishing boats and hawkers (although unfortunately the few hawkers there are here are even more persistent than most). It takes a couple of hours to stroll around the island. There’s a bird park in the middle of the island (Taman Burung) that’s worth a visit; it houses three hundred tropical birds.
The snorkelling is good along the east coast; start at Royal Reef and drift down to Kontiki in the south. Take care – there may well be boats coming in and out to the harbour along here. The other option is to start at the yellow light beacon in the north of the island, swim left and the current will take you round to the west coast over the Meno Wall and you can get out at the old Bounty jetty, part of the way down the west coast. Keep your fins on until you’re in very shallow water, as there can often be quite an undertow. You can venture further afield by boat: ask on the beach. Equipment is available on the island but a lot has seen (far) better days.
Relaxed Gili Air stretches about 1.5km in each direction and takes a couple of hours to walk round. It’s a pleasant cross between lively, social Gili Trawangan and peaceful Gili Meno; however as there’s no more land available on Gili Trawangan, the island is, sadly, becoming increasingly developed. Although accommodation is spread around most of the coast, it’s concentrated on the southeast and northeast corners.
The beach in the southeast corner is popular, with good snorkelling. Snorkelling gear is widely available for rent; try Ozzy’s Shop on the east coast. For snorkelling further afield, boat trips are advertised pretty much everywhere and take in sites off all three islands.
Furthest from the mainland, the largest of the islands, Gili Trawangan attracts the greatest number of visitors (many of whom come for the magic mushrooms for which the island is infamous) and is the most developed. The southeast of the island is wall-to-wall guesthouses, restaurants and dive shops, although it is still low-key and relaxing outside the high season. For quieter surroundings, head further north.
Island transport is by cidomo (horse and cart), or you can rent bicycles – particularly popular at sunset for reaching the hundred-metre hill, from which you can enjoy stunning views of the Bali volcanoes with the sky blazing behind. To get there, follow any of the tracks from the southern end of the island, but be sure to return before dark, as riding through the sand is fairly hazardous. A walk around the island, less than 3km long by 2km at its widest part, takes four hours or less. The northern end of the east coast is popular for snorkelling: most people hang out here during the day, and there are plenty of restaurants nearby.
Gili Trawangan is renowned for its many high-season parties, which alternate between venues depending on the day, and full-moon parties in the low season. All get going at about 11pm. Flyers around the island advertise venues.
The snorkelling and diving around the Gili Islands is some of the best and most accessible in Lombok, despite the havoc wreaked by an El Niňo in 1998, which locals estimate has cut down the visible marine life to around a fifth of what it was. Despite this, and a lot of visitors, however, the reefs remain in reasonable condition. All the islands are fringed by coral reefs and visibility is generally around 15m. The fish life includes white-tip and black-tip reef shark, sea turtles, manta rays, Napoleon wrasse and bumphead parrotfish.
There are good snorkelling spots just off all the islands’ beaches. Snorkel gear is widely available, but the condition does vary. Dive companies take snorkellers further afield for about and half-day tours of the three islands in a glass-bottomed boat are commonly advertised. The offshore currents around the island are strong and can be seriously hazardous. Dive operators are aware of this, but if you’re snorkelling or swimming off the beach it’s easy to get carried out further than you intend and then be unable to get back to land. There has been at least one drowning in recent years.
The best dive sites involve short boat trips. There are plenty of dive operators on the islands, and there’s a price agreement, so they all charge the same. All divers pay a one-off reef tax to the Gili Eco Trust, which works to protect the reefs around the islands.
If you’re all about the nightlife, then Gili Trawangan is for you. Famed for its raucous party scene, a young crowd gathers after dark at the lively bars and beach parties. Furthest from the mainland, the largest and most-developed of the islands attracts the greatest number of visitors. The east coast is packed with guesthouses, restaurants and dive shops, while the north and west coasts are quieter. The southwestern coast is wildly popular for sunset drinks and the ubiquitous photos at the Instagrammable beach swing. The morning after the night before, rent bikes or walk around the island, less than 3km long by 2km at its widest part. The northern end of the east coast is a chilled hangout with good snorkelling and plenty of restaurants.
For those who prefer to slip down a few gears, head to smaller sibling Gili Meno, about 2km long and just over 1km wide. This is the most tranquil island of the three, with a small local population and no nightlife except a couple of low-key bars. Meno also arguably has the best beaches in the Gili Islands, as less space is taken up by fishing boats and hawkers. As you’ll spend less time partying, you’ll have more energy for daytime pursuits. The snorkelling is good along the east coast; start at Royal Reef and drift down to Kontiki in the south. For boat trips, search out Dean (Tel: 0813 3950 9859), one of the boat captains. He’ll take you on fishing trips and to see dolphins (best March–August and November) in the sea off the north coast of Lombok.
Meeting somewhere in the middle, Gili Air is a pleasant cross between lively, social Gili Trawangan and peaceful Gili Meno. Tourism is increasingly important here, but village life dominates the heart of the island, giving it a more Indonesian atmosphere. The beach in the southeast corner is popular, with good snorkelling.
Public ferries travel between the Gili Islands and all main tourist destinations on Bali and Lombok. Fast boats (1hr 30min–2hr) depart from several harbours around south and east Bali – Benoa, Sanur, Padang Bai, Nusa Lembongan and Amed. Public boats also run between Bangsal, 25km north of Senggigi, and the Gili Islands, leaving when full. You could also use the the “hopping island” boat service for day-trips to other islands. It does one circuit – Air–Meno–Trawangan–Meno–Air – in the morning, and one in the afternoon. Most boats anchor in the shallows and passengers wade to and fro, so expect to get your feet wet.
Accommodation prices vary dramatically depending on the season and reservations are essential in the high season. Otherwise, you might face a long, possibly fruitless, search for a bed. Prices are greatly reduced during low season, particularly on the coasts.
A boutique hotel located in gorgeous seclusion on the north of the Gili Trawangan, with a pool overlooking the sea that offers a perfect sunset view. The seven rooms all boast king-size beds and huge baths, and the food, served in the tropical garden or on the beach, is a delicious fusion of Western and Balinese. To get here, take a cidomo from the harbour (Rp50,000) or walk north (25min from the harbour). Rp800,000.
It’s worth noting that there’s no fresh water on any of the islands – showers are salinated, except in the more upmarket resorts which transport the water by boat from the mainland.
Women should take care during and after the Gili Trawangan parties, as there have been cases of sexual harassment and assault. Try to avoid leaving these parties alone.
Drugs of all types are commonly offered to tourists on the island. There are no police; it’s the role of the kepala desa, the headman who looks after Gili Air and Gili Meno, and the kepala kampung on Gili Trawangan, to deal with any problems, so report any incidents to them initially. If you need to make a police report, go to the police on the mainland (at Tanjung or Ampenan).
The nearest hospital is in Mataram, where there is also a recompression chamber at Jl Adi Sucipto 13B. Find more essential travel advice for Lombok and the Gili Islands.