The Gili Islands: Indonesia’s Idyllic Beach Getaway

Hostels, Indonesia — By on October 26, 2009 at 6:00 am

by Jodi Ettenberg

Special to The Lost Girls

A long-term traveler’s “island life” is imbued with a deeply decadent routine, one you could never justifiably adopt on a two-week holiday. The guilt associated with spending a full day reading on a soft ribbon of white sand, or sitting and hearing stories about the island from its inhabitants for an entire afternoon all but disappears. The pressure slips away, and you succumb to an almost bovine placidity. You spend your hours as you feel like spending them, without the looming thundercloud of your time in paradise coming to a close.
After a fantastic four months in the Philippines, I made my way to Indonesia to meet a friend on a two week vacation. I choose the Gili Islands, hoping that it would be a nice bridge between our respective travel schedules, and my hunch was correct. The Gilis are a perfect place to relax if you only have a few weeks to spare, but also provide a playground of activities so that long-term travelers have plenty to keep them busy during their time on the islands.

The Gilis are actually made up of three separate islands of descending size. Bridging the waters between Bali and the massive island of Lombok, Gili Trawangan, the biggest at 3 km long and 2km wide, is the most popular and has a reputation for excellent diving, long stretches of white sand and the most lively party scene of the group. Gili Meno is a couples’ paradise, with thoughtful, airy bungalows and quiet sandy paths, as well as a small turtle sanctuary and a bird park. Gili Air lies in between, both in attitude and geography: it has several bars and dive shops to choose from, but is far more secluded and less trafficked than Gili Trawangan. For those looking for a lively time, Gili Trawangan is your best bet, and it was where we ended up.

All three islands share the same animal-transportation rule: no dogs, no cars and no motorcycles. This rule means that the Gilis are populated by a disturbing amount of cats, goats, cows and chickens, and transportation is limited to bicycles and horse-driven carriages called cidomo. With no dogs to chase them away (and no cars to scare them into submission) most of the Gili animals are brazenly unafraid of tourists, locals or horses, darting out of the way at the last second when an approaching carriage gallops by and populating every alleyway and path. There were strange mini-chickens, squat and almost legless, clucking around the warung across from my hotel, and goats roaming up and down the streets, chewing everything they could. [Note: this might include you – I was chased up the street by a pregnant goat myself!] Cats were also omnipresent, and you will find yourself pulling out a chair to sit down for a meal only to find it occupied by something furry and asleep.

Gili Trawangan has a lingering reputation for being a haven for magic mushrooms and a good party. The islands have no official police force and complaints must be formally lodged with the local council for the appropriate island – or you can head over to Lombok and bus it to Mataram to make a proper police report. As a result, streams of tourists make their way to the Gilis on the hunt for substances that are customarily dangerous to possess on mainland Indonesia without risking a 20-year prison sentence. Notwithstanding a few bars with signs that read “We will make your evening magic!” or the less subtle “Ask for magic mushrooms inside!”, I didn’t find Gili T. deserving of its salacious reputation. That said, there were parties on the island. Three times a week, different bars play host to tourists and locals alike, with happy hour starting at 7pm and drinks flowing throughout the night. I’m not kidding about the “through the night” part, either: I was guilty of making it back to my hotel as the mosque began its call to prayer at 5am. On Monday, festivities were at Blue Marlin Bar, where the drinks were weak and the staff unfriendly. Wednesday: party at Tir Na Nog, the local Irish pub, where the drinks were strong and the party everlasting. And on Friday, party at Rudy’s bar, where the venue was packed and I got a drink spilled on me 3 times in one night. My vote goes to Tir Na Nog.

My days were spent relaxing on the beautiful beaches, with public boats hopping between the islands all day long, or exploring the dense inner patches of forest at the heart of Gili Trawangan. Most of the restaurants lining the beach also have small thatched huts with cushions piled high and a personal TV/DVD player, perfect for any rainy days or quiet nights. All said, there was plenty to do on the Gilis and it made for a wonderful beach vacation.

Gili Trawangan Wrap Up

Where to Stay: Pondok Sederhana, Rumah Guest House or Lisa’s Homestay. While the beachside places are beautiful, you get no authentically local experience in staying there. Prices tend to vary throughout the day, with highest prices at night when the owners know that most of the island’s hotels are full. If you get there in the morning, expect to pay 150,000-200,000 Rp ($15-$20) for a double room, including banana pancakes for breakfast. Sleeping in the village proper, with all its animals, friendly locals and charm, was well worth it. Ladies: don’t forget to bring your sarong to cover your shoulders. Bring your moisturizer too: none of the cheaper accommodation has freshwater showers, and the constant salt water will dry up your skin in no time.

Where to Eat: Borobadur 2, Ru’ude Maken and Kiki’s Warung all have great 10,000 Rp – 15,000 Rp ($1 – $1.5) heaping plates of selling nasi campur. Tir Na Nog’s pizza was also thin-crusted, crunchy and delicious. The Soup Lady in the Public Harbor makes a great soto ayam (chicken soup with noodles and meatballs) for 6,000 Rp (60 cents) and across the street from her is another lady selling nasi campur for the same price.

Where to Drink: Tir Na Nog for happy hour, Coco’s Cafe for freshly brewed Illy coffee and a great view of the public harbor, or on the porch of your bungalow, watching the world go by.

What to Do: Rent a bike and cycle the perimeter of Gili Trawangan, take a public boat (20,000 Rp ($2) each way) to Gili Meno for the day and visit the turtle sanctuary and quiet beaches, do a diving course with Manta Dive or Blue Marlin Dive, take a glass-bottom boat and snorkel to your heart’s content, watch the stunning sunset from the northernmost tip of Gili T. or the lookout point in the centre of the island.

Born in Montreal, Canada, Jodi Ettenberg is a former new media and technology lawyer who quit her job after to chase her dream of travelling around the world. Starting in April 2008, Jodi has traipsed through South America, Russia and Mongolia, China and a good part of South East Asia, blogging the whole way. You can follow her on Twitter at @legalnomads or on her blog

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