Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air are three small, picturesque islands off the coast of north-west Lombok that have become popular tourist destinations since being ‘discovered’ by party-loving backpackers in the mid-eighties. Gili Trawangan still boasts an active nightlife scene and beach parties and raves continue to be held on both Trawangan and Air, but all three islands have now been developed to cater to families and a wide range of other tourists, with accommodation options, including luxury villas, to suit various tastes and budgets. Nightlife aside, the complete absence of motorized transport makes the Gilis (gili means ‘small island’ in the local Sasak dialect) cleaner and quieter than either Bali or Lombok, and helps to create a relaxing, serene atmosphere.
With their stunning white beaches, clear blue water and magnificent marine life, the Gilis are ideal for anyone who loves diving, snorkeling and other water pursuits. Billed as the turtle capital of the world, this is the place to watch baby turtles make their debut in the water as they are released from the hatchery. Sit on the beach and watch the sun rise over Lombok’s Mount Rinjani and then return for the sunset over Mount Agung in Bali, and you will know that all is well with the world.
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For many visitors, the laid-back atmosphere is one of the greatest attractions of the Gilis. While the pace is noticeably slower on Meno and Air, it is possible to have an utterly relaxing holiday on Gili Trawangan too, despite the fact that there is a lively nightlife scene. With no cars, buses and motorcycles to disturb the peace and pollute the air, a day spent on the white sand that rings each island can make you feel like you have found true paradise.
Cool off in the clear water, or grab a snorkel and check out the coral reefs, turtles and colourful fish. Back on land, you can walk around each island in a couple of hours and meet the local people who are always happy to stop for a friendly chat or game of chess. There are also bicycles for rent, or you can take a cidomo – the traditional horse-drawn carriage that still serves as the main mode of transport here. If you are on Gili Meno, visit the Bird Park to see over three hundred species of tropical birds from around the world, as well as the nearby turtle sanctuary.
Gone are the days when eating out in the Gilis meant grabbing a greasy nasi goring from a lone beachfront shack with dubious hygiene standards. You can still get all the local food you want, but the quality has improved along with the selection. All three islands now offer a surprisingly wide range of dining and snacking options, with pizzerias, organic cafes, Japanese restaurants, curry houses and white-tablecloth fine dining establishments competing with places that serve up ocean-fresh barbecued seafood and delicious homestyle Balinese and Sasak food.
As you would expect, most cafes and restaurants are situated on Gili Trawangan, particularly in the south of the island. The all-day cooked breakfasts at Tir Na Nog Irish bar, as well as its pies and pizzas, are longtime favourites with the visiting party crowd. Nearby, Scallywags serves mouthwatering Basque dishes such as pan-seared coral trout with Manchego salad, while Hotel Vila Ombak next door boasts an excellent international restaurant that is perfect for a romantic dinner or special celebration. If you find yourself on Gili Air, try the Lombok-style ‘rice table’ at Frangipani Garden Restaurant. On Gili Meno, the best pizzas are served at Bibi’s Café, while Malia’s Child offers tasty, good-value meals too.
Long known as the party island, Gili Trawangan has now broadened its appeal and attracts a good mix of families, singles, luxury travellers and backpackers. There is still plenty of fun to be had in the evenings, however, with bars and cafes lining the beachfront on the eastern side of the island. Many places have live bands or DJs playing your favourite tunes until the early hours. On Monday nights you can head to the rave party at Blue Marlin, while Wednesday is party night at the Shipwrecked Bar at Tir Na Nog Irish bar. Rudy’s Bar is the place to be on Fridays, while there is good reggae at Sama Sama every night.
When the moon is full, you can let it all hang out at the full moon party on the beach next to the southern end of Trawangan’s restaurant strip. Over on Gili Air, there are also psychedelic full moon parties on the beach at Space Bar, as well as both full and black moon parties in other locations. On the eastern shore of Gili Air you will also find a number of bars such as Legend Bar, Zipp’s and Star Bar, all excellent places to unwind and admire the spectacular view of Mount Rinjani across the water. Gili Meno, meanwhile is quieter, with no raucous nightlife to speak of.
The Gilis used to be infamous for all the touts who bothered sunbathing tourists, trying desperately to sell them wood carvings, beaded necklaces, massages and magic mushrooms. This situation has, thankfully, improved now, perhaps because the locals now have more opportunity to make a living from all the cafes, bars, guesthouses, hotels and organised tourist activities that have sprung up in recent years. You can still buy handicrafts from vendors who roam the beaches in search of customers, and there is also an art market on Gili Trawangan. However, the Gilis are not really a shopping destination and you will find a far better selection of souvenirs in Lombok or Bali.
The only ATM is at Hotel Vila Ombak on Trawangan. All dive shops and large hotels take credit cards, and some can also arrange cash advances, but be aware that for either service they will slap a surcharge of up to 10% onto your bill. While there several moneychangers on the Gilis, they have no qualms about taking advantage of a captive market and offering terrible exchange rates. All in all, it is best to ensure you have enough local currency before you arrive.
While simply kicking back and relaxing with a good book on the beach or by the pool is a popular pastime here, there are also plenty of other activities to fill your day with. With over 25 dive sites around the islands, there are PADI and SSI-licenced dive operators on all three Gilis. Popular diving locations include the Gili Air Wall, a spectacular 24-metre vertical drop that provides a safe haven for schools of lionfish, leaf scorpionfish and seahorses, while nearby Haan’s Reef is often photographed for its abundant frogfish, flying gunard and other unusual varieties. Non-divers can hire snorkels, masks and fins at dive shops and on the beach. You can also get a good view of the coral reefs, turtles and other sea creatures from one of the glass-bottomed boats for charter.
The shallow water near the shore is perfectly safe, but the swift currents in the channels between islands can be dangerous and even strong swimmers have been known to drown there. It is possible to kayak from Trawangan to Meno, however, with kayak rentals and instruction sessions available from Karma Kayak. Before leaving Gili Trawangan, you can also visit the Stud Stables and take a leisurely horseback ride along the beach.
Good to Know
How to get there: Several operators run regular boat services from Bali to Gili Trawangan, departing from either Benoa or Serangan Island in south Bali or Padangbai on the east coast. Sailing times range from around 80 minutes for the catamaran from Padangbai to two and a half hours for the ferry from south Bali. From Trawangan there are frequent and inexpensive island hopper boats to the other Gilis. For those on a tight budget, there are also cheaper services from Bali via Lombok that take around 12 hours and sometimes require an overnight stay in Lombok. If you are travelling from Lombok, you can either take a public boat from Bangsal (15/30/45 minutes to Gili Air/Meno/Trawangan) or charter a private boat from Senggigi or Teluk Nare (1-2 hours and 30 minutes, respectively, to Trawangan).