The Gili Islands – Which one is best? Depends on your travel style…

We apologize for the long wait for another post from us.  No good excuses, we’ve just been having too much fun to sit down and write….  We’ll figure out the balance between experiencing and writing one of these days!  Pictures continue to be problematic (this one photo took about 40 minutes to upload!), so please follow us on Facebook and Instagram for more pictures and more timely updates on our travels.

Close encounter with a sea turtle on Gili Meno snorkel trip!

Close encounter with a sea turtle on Gili Meno snorkel trip!

The great difference between voyages rests not with the ships, but with the people you meet on them.  ~ Amelia E. Barr

We recently visited the Gili Islands in Lombok, Indonesia.  It seems, from our conversations with several travellers, few people make it to all three and, due to time restraints, are forced to decide on just one.  Choosing which one can be tough. So we thought we’d help out with our admittedly very biased review of all three.

Here’s our lowdown:  All three islands have picturesque beaches with white sand, palm trees and seaside restaurants with beach gazebos and sunbeds.  All three have beautiful sea coasts with blue and turquoise water and sometimes big surf and strong currents between the islands.  All three have tour operators who will overcharge to take you to all the same places and it is possible to arrange cheaper options with friendly locals (just be clear on the negotiated price and ask to see the boat before making final arrangements).  All three have local island hopping ferries that are cheap and no frills as well as faster motorboats which cost more but will likely keep you and your stuff a bit drier. If you ask around, you can likely charter a local boat for about the same price as the fast boats, especially if you’re travelling with two people or more.  Also, on all three islands, the locals are more than willing to help you with anything – if they can’t help you themselves, they ALWAYS “have a friend” they can call so don’t be afraid to ask.

Gili Trawangan

Now for the differences, we’ll start with Gili Trawangan, or affectionately referred to as “Gili T” by many of the locals.  This is partyville.  The average age-range of the tourists here is probably 18-25 with the majority being Australians, many of them on a gap year at the end of high school or university or an end of school break.  This Island is lined with all budget levels of accommodations and restaurants and it’s easy to find a place to stay once you arrive (at least in September).  Speaking of budget, prices here and everywhere on the Gilis are higher because everything is imported from mainland Lombok.  Beaches here are picturesque white sand but there is a lot of dead coral along the shore and we had wished we had reef shoes, especially at low tide.  There is every manner of water sports available here and kite-boarding seemed to be very popular during low tide.

Many people have written about drug trafficking being an issue on Gili T but we did not experience this.  Mind you, we’re past the age that might attract sellers (yes, we felt too old to be partying with young twenty-somethings).  We had many conversations with locals before we left for the Gilis that left us with the impression that marijuana and magic mushrooms would be openly advertised in every warung and street corner.  Only twice did we experience any reference to drugs.  Once we had a local quietly offer to sell us weed as we walked by and a local bar had a sign out front saying “Save the Mushrooms, drink Bintang”.  There was talk amongst tourists of having tried “magic shakes” supposedly made with said mushrooms, but they weren’t openly advertised.  I’m sure if you’re looking for such indulgences, somebody will “have a friend” who can hook you up.  Not our scene.  We have been told that the days of lawlessness, suggesting that the Indonesian police turn a blind eye to the Gilis, are fast becoming a bygone era as tourism continues to heat up on Gili T.

Gili Trawangan is definitely a fun in the sun destination with all manner of water activities to stay active along with every type of beach lounger from sunbeds to gazebos to huge beanbag chairs available at every beachfront restaurant to laze away the afternoons.  The restaurants all offer fresh seafood barbecue menus and the food we tried was excellent, some of the best we’ve had so far.  There is not much in the way of diving and snorkelling nearby but the tour offices and dive shops will take you to choice locations off Gili Meno and Gili Air for a reasonable price if you ask around.  If your thing is to get away to a fun beach locale and party with high school to university aged Westerners and then work on your tan while nursing your hangover, this is the island to choose.  But if you’re into a more laid-back, quiet scene, Gili T is probably not your best choice.

Gili Meno

Gili Meno was our second stop.  It is referred to as the Honeymoon Island because it is the complete opposite of Gili T.  First thing to note is that there are no ATMs on the island and Rupiahs are king so make sure you fill your pockets with enough local cash to sustain you.  It is possible to get cash advances on credit cards and you can also arrange a return trip to either Gili T or Gili Air to use their ATMs, if needed.  There are also two local ferry trips a day that will bring you to one of the other islands in the morning and back again in the afternoon.

Gili Meno is small and quiet.  And, although there are new developments building up all along the shore, the locals here want to keep it that way.  Here, you will have plenty of opportunities to meet and interact with locals (although, as with all of the Gilis, here too, most of the people working in the tourist industry are from Lombok and the ones that gravitate to Meno told us it was because its quietness means they don’t have to work so hard!).  The people here are very friendly and will happily spend the evening with you, just to get to know you.  Being such a small and quiet place, it naturally attracts mostly couples, many in fact on their honeymoon!  There is no nightlife here to speak of but has nice chill out places like Diana’s Cafe (great place to watch the sunset) and Jali Restaurant (great for friendly staff and late night guitar strumming).  Most of the accommodations are budget to three star at most, with the exception of one fancy resort, Maha Maya (which seems out of place on this laid-back, rather rustic island).

If you’re interested in the underwater world, Gili Meno has good snorkelling right off the beach and even better opportunities for diving and snorkelling around the island by boat.  There are dive shops but, if you want to just snorkel, everybody “has a friend” with a boat that will happily take you out to snorkel over beautiful coral with plenty of fish and sea turtles and even a small shipwreck.  We did a two hour snorkel trip and experienced our closest encounter with a sea turtle yet!  It was magical!

Gili Meno is also a great place to meet other travellers  who are like-minded in terms of enjoying chilling out to the sounds of the ocean rather than dancing, getting drunk, hooking up and generally partying it up.  Instead of listening to live bands and watching drunk young people staggering around looking to get laid, we enjoyed trying palm wine for the first time with Madi, a very outgoing server from Jali and a German couple we met there one evening and watching the sunset with Paula (our well-travelled Auzzie snorkelling buddy) and O’Neil (a local that lives on the island) and then heading back to Jali to enjoy an impromptu guitar jamming session with Mike (an American traveller) and Luna (Jali’s very talented musician).

Maybe Gili Meno doesn’t offer the five star opulence or lively bar scenes available on the other islands, but, for a more back to nature, chilled out vibe, this Island is perfect!  The beaches here are softer sand and despite the lack of beanbag chairs, it’s easy to while away many hours watching the boats go by and snorkelling in the turquoise waters.  The restaurants might not be as gourmet as can be found elsewhere but the food is good and the friendliness of the staff can’t be beat.

Gili Air

This is the “happy medium” island.  Gili Air was our third stop and immediately, we noticed it attracts a very different clientele.  This is an island of many higher-end resorts and pricier restaurants and therefore the average age range is at least ten years older than Gili T.  It is also popular with families with young children.  This island has the best of both worlds in terms of quiet romance and a good bar scene.  On Gili Air it is possible to find gourmet, candlelit restaurants beside bars with good live bands all along the beach strip.  This isn’t the party-all-night atmosphere of Gili T but there are plenty of bars to choose from to tie one on, if you want and with a better mix of ages.  The locals mainly work in tourism and they are friendly but tend to be harding working and professional so opportunities to sit back and chat are seldom.  The Westerner visitors seemed rather cliquey to us based on interests – eg, families with children stuck together, divers formed fast friendships with fellow divers and there was a large contingency of older, mainly Australian, older adults who have been vacationing here for years. Don’t get me wrong, we met some lovely friendly people and enjoyed the Western comforts but we did not meet anyone with a similar mindset to us – travelling for the sake of travelling, to meet and learn about the lives of people from different cultural backgrounds than our own and to immerse ourselves in an exotic locale.

The beaches in Gili Air are beautiful with good soft sand and the snorkelling off shore was interesting with calmer waters than the other islands but there was more fish than coral.  Al tried scuba diving here for the first time and was impressed with the professionalism of the dive centre and the variety of sea life he encountered further offshore.  He is now hooked on diving and has promised to post about his experience later.  I was too chicken shit to try it but, after hearing about his experience, I’m sure I’ll work up the nerve at some point!  Be patient with me, I’m a “get my feet wet” kind of person, while Al’s personality is more “dive right in” (excuse the pun).  That balance is what makes us good travel companions and life partners, even though my slow, cautious approach probably drives Al nuts at times!

Which Gili is Right for You?

Given our analysis, it is clear that Gili Meno was our favourite because it suited our travel style – laid-back, easy to meet people to talk and chill out with, great snorkelling and a good mix of ages.  Others would find Gili Meno boring with its limited water activities and night life.  Gili T, on the other hand, would have been a great scene if we were early twenty-something and still enjoyed drinking until we puked ( really – does anyone enjoy that??) but certainly wasn’t our thing as forty-somethings (ouch, we sound awfully old).  Gili Air was nice but a bit too rich and fancy for us, although we did enjoy being middle of the pack in terms of age!

Our biased conclusion is that Gili Trawangan and Gili Air will offer anyone a nice beach holiday with all the creature comforts and postcard quality views but, other than hearing the Mosques’ Call to Prayer, we could have been in Cancun, Mexico or Varadero, Cuba.  These were beautiful picturesque beach resort areas similar to those that can be found in any tropical location that caters to Westerners.  Gili Meno was different.  The atmosphere, the people and the abundance of natural environment reminded us that we were in Indonesia.  But feel free to go to Gili T and Gili Air and leave the paradise of Gili Meno to us…. 🙂

Have you been to the Gilis?  Which one is your favourite and why?

As always, thanks for reading and sharing.   Please leave us a comment, we love hearing from you!