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Indonesia’s tiny treasures: The Gili Islands

Close your eyes and imagine white sand trickling through your toes, turquoise blue waters lapping calmly against the shore and jaw-dropping sunsets that come at the end of lounging beachside on a lazy afternoon. Even your most vivid mind’s eye depiction cannot compare to the simple and serene beauty of Indonesia’s Gili Islands.

Located 35 min by speedboat from Lombok in Indonesia and a two-hour speedboat ride from Bali, these islands, each with its own, individual vibe, are perfect destinations for travelers from all walks of life.

Why the Gilis?

You may be asking, “What makes these islands so special?” Well, in addition to their sheer beauty, these islands will transport you to another world. One of the main features that drew my attention is that there are no motor vehicles on the islands. Visitors and locals alike share travel options of bikes, horse-pulled trolleys and, the old faithful, your own two feet.

Which island is for me?

Each island has its own personal characteristics. Gili Trawangan is best known as a party island where you can dance, drink and stumble your way from one bar to the next, with DJs and dance parties lasting long into the night.

Falling on middle ground is Gili Air, which I like to call the hippie paradise. While Gili Air still has bars and nightlife, it is miles away from the drunken hoards at Gili Trawangan, providing visitors with a more laid back experience. My favorite spot was a little beachside lounge with bean bag chairs that served a wine happy hour every night with red and white wine for $2.50 a glass, now that’s something to cheers about. Last but not least, Gili Meno, or as some call it, “honeymoon island.” Gili Meno is the quietest of the three islands and the most untouched. It is perfect for those who want quiet nights and lazy days far from other tourists.

It’s the island life for me

With the ability to traverse the outer edges of each island in their entirety in around two hours, you can really get a feel for the islands. Personally, my sister and I decided to go off the beaten track and explore the inner workings of the dirt roads that twist their way through the interior of the islands.

On these dusty trails, you will happen upon locals taking part in their daily activities, children playing, chickens running amok, and I even met a calf who was more than eager to give me a little kiss and let me rub his head.

However, one the best finds in the island’s interior was a tiny hidden restaurant called Warung Mexicana run by one local man on Gili Air. As we sat to read the menu, in the corner, a sign read: “We have no wifi; just enjoy the crepes like in Paris.” The menu was filled with delicious juices, chicken and vegan falafel wraps, as well as the aforementioned crepes.

My sister and I each ordered a Mexicana Jamu, a drink made with turmeric, ginger lime and mint, and shared the vegan falafel. Even though neither of us is vegan, it was sincerely one of the best falafels I had ever had the pleasure of eating! The total for our five-star lunch at the hidden island restaurant came to $2.80. What a steal!

If you find that you would like to get to know the island life a little more than I highly suggest you take some time to meet and talk to some locals. Many of the locals come from Lombok and make a living for their families on the islands working at shops and hotels. On our stay, we met a lovely group of guys working at a hotel, and at night we would head over to the outdoor restaurant area and sing while the guys playing guitars covered popular songs.

A group of guys even went into the water to spear fish so they could sell their catch to the locals in the morning. These quaint nights filled with music, laughter and grilled fish were some of the best nights of the entire vacation. Take some time to get to know the locals and what their life is like. You won’t regret it.

So, while laying out is great, make sure you strap on your favorite sandals and explore the entire island. There is so much culture and life to be found inside.

What to do... what to do....

While the islands are incredibly relaxing, there are still a lot of activities to partake in.

Snorkeling, diving and tours

On our second day, we took at full-day snorkeling trip island hopping from Gili Trawangan to the other two Gilis, all while hitting some excellent snorkeling spots. I got up close and personal with a turtle as big as me and swam through underwater sculptures teaming with schools of brightly colored fish and sea creatures surrounded by a sea bed of coral.

For only $12 each, this tour could not have been more perfect. Aside from meeting my turtle friend, having an ice cold cocktails while sitting on the quiet shores of Gili Meno was my favorite part of the afternoon. In addition to the snorkeling tours, you can just rent gear most anywhere on the island and go snorkeling right off the shore, where you are sure to see fish, coral and even our friend the turtle.

If you are into diving, there are a million and one places on Gili Air and Gili Trawangan to get your certification or sign up for dives where you can explore a sunken ship and underwater sculptures. There are many other tours that will take you to Lombok, Komodo Island or on waterfall treks, all of which you can book easily at one of the many island tourism booking shops.

Catch a movie

While we roamed the islands, we found an outdoor cinema on Gili Air where they showed movies each night at 8 pm for a mere $3.50. While we were there, they showed The Island (2005) with Leonardo DiCaprio and Eat Pray Love (2010) starring Julia Roberts. This is a perfect way to wind down a day on the islands.

Whether you want a lazy or an activity-packed day, there is truly something for everyone on the islands.

Eat ALL the seafood

Whichever island you are on, there will be no shortage of seafood. If you love fresh, delicious seafood as much as I do, you will be in a fishy heaven! On Gili Trawangan there is a night market where you can have your pick of various fish, shellfish and even squid. Pair it with some veggie skewers and the local beer Bintang, and you have a feat!

On Gili Air almost every spot had a fish grill where you pick fish or steak, which is accompanied by either a buffet or your choice of veggies and sides. The fresh fish was tender and delicious and the atmosphere of sitting under the sparking stars while enjoying our dinner was one I will not soon forget. Go out and go hungry!

Visit the swings during sunset and sunsets, sunsets and did I mention... SUNSETS!

One of our favorite rituals during our week-long stay was heading over to the sunset side of whichever island we were on and snapping some pics on the famous swings. The calm waters allow you to take the most beautiful pictures of sunsets, and after the sun drops below the horizon, most bars set up a small fire on the beach for you to enjoy while you lounge and wait for the moon to take the sun’s place in the sky. Aside from the bars, my sister and I rode our bikes and found a private little section of the beach where we watched one of the most spectacular sunsets, collected seashells and enjoyed some sister time.

Once the sun sets, I highly suggest either venturing into the island or finding a section on the shores with the least light and lying down. Stargazing was breathtaking on the island. I felt like I was lost in the universe. The lack of light pollution allows you to see the entire Milky Way so clearly and the depth of the stars.

I couldn’t keep my eyes off the sky at night. Thank goodness for bells on bikes or I may have been hit by one on my many night strolls home while focused on the skies above.

JUST GO

While I could spend hours, days or even months going on and on about how amazing these islands are, there is only one way for you to find out -- just go!

I know Seminyak and Kuta are the “top spots,” but you will be kicking yourself if you don’t get out to these islands before it’s too late and they are taken over by hoards of tourists. I hope to bump into you stargazing on the Gili streets! Keep wandering!