The Gili Islands in Indonesia are a slice of paradise on earth. You can lounge on white, sandy beaches, enjoy world-class diving and snorkelling, and (on Trawangan) party all night long
The Gili Islands are one of Indonesia’s must-see places - which is why I found myself on a boat with Bali receding into a small speck in the distance. Less than four hours later we were there. As I jumped off the boat on Gili Trawangan and took a look around at the white, sandy beaches stretching along the island in both directions, I began to get an inkling of what all the excitement was about.
A few days in, and I completely understood why the Gilis have become the darling destination of Indonesia. The islands - there are three of them, each with its own different and unique identity - have something for everyone. The best beaches can be found on Gili Meno, while Trawangan, the island I was based on, has something of a reputation as a party island, thanks to its thrice-weekly parties. Gili Air is like the laidback older sister of Trawangan, with enough of a scene to stop it from being completely dead, but without the Robinson Crusoe-style desertedness of Meno.
Out to sea
Days on Trawangan were spent lounging on the beaches and cooling off in the sea. Although the area is famed as an excellent diving destination (Simon Liddiard, who owns the Blue Marlin dive outfit on the beachfront, holds the record as the world’s deepest diver, so you know you’re in safe hands), it’s also just as good for snorkelling. The dive shops pay the local fishermen not to fish on the island’s reef, so there’s a huge abundance of marine life for snorkellers and divers to see, including sea turtles and, if you’re lucky, a reef shark or two.
The walk around the island takes roughly two hours. It was on this walk that we discovered Karma Kayaks (on the far side of the island, about halfway along), where we rented some kayaks and took our snorkelling gear to see some of the best marine life around the reefs further from the shore. Paddling around the island is the best way to work off some of the languor that’s the result of too much time sunbathing with too little action. If you’re feeling particularly energetic you can paddle to the other islands, but be warned: the current is strong, so it’s not as easy as it looks.
After a day of paddling, we dragged our kayaks back on to the beach for a refreshing sundowner cocktail looking out over the sea. Karma’s cocktails are some of the cheapest and the best on the island, and go well with a dish or two from the expansive menu. As I’ve been travelling for a while, I was particularly happy to see home favourites such as babaganoush and olive tapenade on bruschetta, but there is a wide range of Indonesian (particularly Lombok) cuisine for those wanting a taste of authenticity.
Excellent food can also be found at the ever-popular Beach House Restaurant (on the main strip, about halfway along), which serves up tasty seafood dishes in rather large portions. The restaurant's views out on to the sea are hard to beat and they also serve up a mean cocktail or two. Pick your fresh catch of the day, get your salad and then wait as the chefs prepare your dish to your specifications.
Trewangan doesn’t get its party reputation for nothing. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays the island gears up to throw some of the most lively all-nighters to be found in Asia. Monday is the trance night at the original party venue Blue Marlin, on the main strip, which has an upstairs dance floor and bar area that can get pretty heaving. A little more to my taste was the Wednesday-night party at the Irish Bar (also on the main strip). Averse as you might be to Irish pubs, this one is definitely one of the best I’ve come across on my travels. Staff are friendly, the food is delicious and drinks are cheap.
The Wednesday-night party sees the DJ put on all manner of hits from Michael Jackson to Pink and everything in between. In the beachside part of the pub, dancing on tables is not unheard of, but it’s a little quieter out on the pavement, where the rest of the crowd spill out. In one night there, I met people aged anything from 20 to 65, from every corner of the world. Spain, Australia, Japan, Chile, America, the UK... you name it, they were there. If you have the willpower, the party lasts until sunrise, a sight that shouldn’t be missed. Friday night at Rudy’s was similarly fun, with even more dancing and all-night fun lasting into the early hours of the morning.
Accomodation on the island varies from super-cheap digs set back a little from the shore to mid-range and luxury options with views of the sea. A clean, simply furnished mid-range villa costs between 250,000 and 600,000 rupiah (£16 to £40). Highly recommended are the Hotel Villa Ombak, which has an excellent pool, perfect for cooling off after sunbathing on the beach five metres away, and Desi Dunia Beda Lombok.
Budget options include Desi Bungalows a bit further inland (singles 100,000 rupiah, doubles 120,000 – roughly £7 to £9) and Jessie Bungalows next door. Beware: in most of the hotels, especially the budget ones, the bathwater is saltwater and electricity can be temperamental – bring lots of conditioner for your hair!
Too soon it was time to leave and start the trip back to Bali. If you have a lot of time, I’d recommend spending a few nights on each of the islands and seeing which one you like the most. But if it has to be one, Trawangan’s a great base for exploring all three.