(Photo by Getty Images. Design by Lauren DeLuca for Yahoo Travel)
The trio of small Indonesian islands east of Bali have distinct identities:
Gili Trawangan is for partiers, Gili Meno is for honeymooners, and Gili Air is for people who want to chill out. What they all have in common is clear turquoise water, white sand beaches, and old-school island charm. The Gilis have long been popular with Australians drawn to their stunning beauty and world-class diving. Yet as tourism booms in Indonesia – with arrivals increasing seven percent last year alone to 9.44 million – many new visitors are adding this sparkling tropical archipelago just off the northwest coast of Lombok to their Bali itineraries. A fleet of fast ferries now offers easy access from the Bali ports of Padang Bai, Nusa Lembongan and Serangan. Or you can fly to Lombok and catch boats from Bangsal, Teluk Nare or Senggigi.
Once you disembark, you’ll quickly realize that you’re not in Bali anymore. Gili residents are mostly Muslim, and you’ll hear the call to prayer rather than Hindu chants. No cars or scooters are allowed on the islands, and the only modes of transportation are bicycles or horse-drawn carts called cidomos.
Some people will party until dawn. Others will dive or snorkel all day. But most will somehow find themselves on a beanbag on a beach under a coconut palm tree watching the longest sunset they’ve ever seen.
Here are 9 reasons you should get to the Gilis:
1. Easy island hopping
Getting from island to island has never been easier. (Photo: Jen Hayoun)
Gili means “small island” in the language of Sasak, the ethnic group that makes up the majority of the population of Lombok. At nearly two miles long and 1.2 miles wide, Gili Trawangan (universally known as Gili T) is the biggest and most developed island. Gili Meno is the smallest and most remote, while Gili Air is somewhere in between. (Translation: Backpackers will still feel at home, but they might get woken up by construction of luxury bungalows.) Wherever you end up, there are public and tourist shuttle boats that offer quick trips between the islands or from Bangsal Harbor on Lombok.
2. The beaches
There’s no shortage of beautiful beaches in Indonesia. What makes these ones special is that the islands’ small size means they’re everywhere. Many feature prime snorkeling spots steps from your beach chair. (Bring water shoes to protect your feet from the rocks in shallow water.) Plus, many cafes are right on the sand, which means you’re never far from a comfy cushion and a cold Bintang beer.
3. The jaw-dropping sunsets
Few things are more magical than the sunsets on the Gili Islands. (Photo: Collin Orcutt)
Set against the backdrop of Mount Agung to the west on Bali, the sunsets here are so breathtaking you’ll see crowds of people wading in the water trying to quickly learn how to use the “pano” photo option on their smartphones to try to capture the gloriousness. The colors of the sky combined with the sand, water, and beach bonfires create a raw nature experience. Considering you can walk around any of the islands in a couple of hours, you’re never far from the show.
4. The scuba diving
You can see turtles, manta rays, reef sharks, cuttlefish, and octopus amid the coral reefs that surround the Gilis. All three islands have dive shops where you can find PADI-certified instructors who will take you on a single dive or teach you an entire course. One of the best features about diving in the Gilis is that most sites are a short boat ride away. Plus, the sport’s popularity means there’s always someone to grab a Bintang with after you wash off your gear.
5. The fresh cheap seafood
The catch of the day. (Photo: Sarah E. Richards)
As the sun sets, the barbecues are lit, and the smell of grilled fish greets tourists stumbling back from happy hours. Considering that the Gili food scene consists mostly of boring versions of pizza, burgers and nasi goreng (the more authentic Sasak food can be found in the villages where the locals live), the fresh seafood is an inexpensive and healthy bright spot. You can pick out a whole fish or skewer from the displays lining the main walkways. Be warned: All those pretty fishies you saw snorkeling are fair game for dinner. That includes the beloved iridescent parrotfish.
6. The nightlife on Gili T
It’s been called the Ibiza of the East. There are boat bashes, full moon parties and psychedelic raves that go until dawn that many bloggers claim are “epic” and “legendary.” (Yes, magic mushroom milkshakes are openly advertised.) There’s even an Irish bar called Tîr na Nôg on the island. The parties rotate venues late at night, so ask around to find out the schedule.
7. The weather is better
A relaxing day on Gili Meno. (Photo: Jordan Shakeshaft)
The Gilis are tropical with a warm and dry season. Yet because they are sheltered between Bali’s Mount Agung and Lombok’s Mount Rinjani, they have a slightly drier microclimate compared to other islands in the region. The average temperature is 82 degrees Fahrenheit, and the dry season lasts from May until October.
8. The proximity to volcano climbing
Everyone loves Bali, but if you’ve made it as far as the Gilis, it’s a shame not to learn more about the island of Lombok. One of the biggest draws is the chance to climb Mount Rinjani, which at 12,000 feet is Indonesia’s second highest volcano. You can take an overnight trip or book a multi-day trekking adventure to explore the emerald green crater lake and natural hot springs. But do your research beforehand. A Smithsonian report from November 2015 said it’s spewing ash.
9. You’re putty after four days
The beauty of the Gilis is that you can make it through your activity list pretty quickly. That means you’re forced to relax. After a few days, though, you can’t take it anymore and shuffle back to the ferry in a delicious languor. And that is exactly the point.
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