Why we love the Gili Islands
As Bali’s most popular island escape, the Gili Islands trio of tropical isles, each with distinctly different personalities, is where every traveller finds their perfect fit.
Each island nurtures a distinctly different scene, naturally segregating the party-hard backpackers who arrive in droves for Gili Trawagan, from the nature-seeking snorkellers and swooning honeymooners who head for quiet, coral-fringed Gili Meno or one of the plush, beachfront resorts on Gili Air.
Choosing where to stay on the Gili Islands is a bit like reading Goldilocks and the Three Bears. One will be too hard, one will be too soft and one will be just right, and that’s was makes this destination so universally appealing.
For me – 40-something, mother-of-one – Gili Trawangan was a bit hard-core, crammed with backpacker bars instead of bungalows, beaches crowded with longtail boats and touts.
On the far side of the islands, Gili Air was a bit too resorty, but right in the middle, crowd-free Gili Meno was just the right fit offering us a poolside room in a gorgeous little French-run resort, off-the-beach snorkelling, and a string of sandy bars for sunset drinks.
Mellow Gili Meno
Tagged the romantic isle, this stunning little coral-fringed cay with sweeping, white sand beaches and clear, cerulean seas is dotted with boutique resorts and beach bars where you can sip a cocktail with your toes dug into the sand, or lounge in the water with an icy Bintang and watch the sun disappear over Gili T.
Motorbikes and parties are banned on the island, making the pulse of Meno especially mellow, and offering timeout to travellers keen to snorkel, dive and unwind.
There’s no car or motorbike traffic – everyone cruises around Meno by bicycle, cycling off to one of a dozen dive and snorkelling spots that travellers based on the other islands pay boatmen to bring them to.
Dive & Snorkel
Dive trips on Meno visit the Meno Wall and a sunken pier known as the Bounty, and Meno’s northern edge is where boatloads of snorkellers hope to spot hawksbill turtles on the edge of the reef.
Rough seas on our trip to Meno might explain the lack of turtle sightings, so despite all the marketing, I can’t vouch for your hope of seeing turtles. Instead I found the coral to be in pretty poor shape, but admittedly, I’d just spent a few weeks in Flores and faraway Maratua Atoll so perhaps my expectations were high.
What I did love about Meno was the surprising salt lake at its centre where we spotted egrets hunting around the mangrove fringe, and the unexpectedly beautiful sunsets seen from Meno’s eastern shore as the setting sun threw its colours back over Lombok’s towering volcanic skyline.
Best Bed on the Island
Of the twenty-odd places I checked out on the island, Les Villas Ottalia was absolutely the most charming resort and a great deal at just 300,000 rupees (AUD$30) a night (off-season) for a double poolside room, two-course breakfast included!
Our room was positively decadent for the price – think flower petals on the pillows, plush white bedding, fluffy towels, a private patio – all about three steps from the pool.
Bikes were provided free-of-charge and the huge, cooked-to-order breakfast with juice, tea and coffee included got us through every day.
This resort earns top points for their super-friendly staff and for letting our six-year-old stay and eat for free.
Which Gili Island is for you?
Meno offers a good range of accommodation dotted pretty much around the entire island. There are meals and beds for all budgets, and plenty of places renting snorkelling gear and bikes. The lack of nightlife might leave singles lonely, but for couples, families and recluses, Meno is a top choice.
You’ll Love Gili Trawangan
…..if you are single or looking to party, if you want to learn to dive and hang with other travellers, if you want to see the sun set over smoky Gunung Agung or squeeze in some shopping once your hangover recedes.
You’ll Love Gili Air
….if you like your Bob Marley in the background while you sink some chilled beachside beers with plenty of company, if you want to be dazzled by uninterrupted views of Lombok’s looming mountain peaks or if you want to relax on beaches without too many towels. Gili Air rates as a smaller, more refined version of Gili T with room prices a touch higher too.
Getting to the Gilis
Fast ferries take about two hours from Bali to Gili Trawangan (beware the big seas that many bloggers warn about…they are not exaggerating!). For less sea time, leave form Padangbai or Amed rather than Benowa Harbour and Sanur to the south. From Gili T, transfer to the other islands by local boat.
Boat standards and ticket prices vary widely. On our pre-Christmas (off-season) trip we paid 150,000 rupees to get from Padangbai to Gili T (AUD$15), plus another 85,000 rupees (AUD$8.50) for the five-minute transfer to Gili Meno. Expect higher prices in peak season.
If you are returning to Bali, booking a return trip will save you money. We bought our return ticket on Gili Meno and despite some serious bargaining and hunting around, ended up paying 400,000 rupees (AUD$40), 250,000 rupees more than our trip out.