6 Reasons Why We Love Gili Air
I’ve always left Gili Islands out of my to-go places in Indonesia simply because it hadn’t appealed to me as a solo backpacker. It had sounded very much like another fun Thai island like Ko Phangan or the sort of place that you’d prefer to take romantic sunset walks with a loved one. However, when it came to planning our honeymoon, Chris and I had thought it sounded perfect: neither of us had been there and we needed something nice and relaxing to cap off our Indonesian trip.
Gili Islands are three little islands, situated just off Lombok. Initially, we’d planned to base ourselves in Gili Air and island hop to the other Gilis. Gili Trawangan is the largest and a magnet for party-seekers while Gili Meno is the most underdeveloped, thus the quietest among all. Few days in Gili Air, we realized we didn’t need to go anywhere else: Gili Air has it all! An island that straddles between both a vibrant beach life and a reasonable amount of wilderness for those seeking uninterrupted bliss, is the epitome of a tropical beach vacation. Granted, Gili Air isn’t Togian Islands, Komodo or Bira Beach, but it still lived up to our paradise island expectations.
Here are a few reasons why we love Gili Air:
1. Yes, you can have the best of both worlds
We chose to stay on the western side of the island for it’s spectacular sunsets and its long and incredibly beautiful beaches. The coast is long, the waters bathtub warm, shallow and dazzling blue and the sands, sugar white and silken. There are pockets of wilderness where you can cycle to and have the beach all to yourself.
If you like chilling out to a nice ambience, a $2 Happy Hour cocktail in your hand while watching the sun slowly dip behind the horizon, here’s your place. The bars and cafes along this side of the coast are pretty spread out so even when the beach pavilions or bean bags are all taken, your sense of space and privacy will still be intact. If Instagramming swings are your thing, you’ll have one at right in front of Gili Lumbung Bungalows.
The eastern side is densely packed with dive centres, resorts, restaurants and cafes. The restaurant choices are plentiful so you’ll be spoilt for choices. The only caveat here is that, nights tend to be long and noisy. The beach here is also narrow and busy with snorkelling trippers and dive boats, which tend to come in around midday and in the evening.
The northern is probably the most remote, so here’s the best place to head to if you’re seeking some solitude.
2. The food is amazeballs
After existing for two weeks on Indonesian staples like Nasi Goreng, Mee Goreng and Nasi Campur, our taste buds had craved for something different.
We stumbled into Mowies, a cozy looking cafe sitting right across Mowies On The Beach bungalows after we arrived. With the sun beating down on us, we were naturally tired and starving. Not wanting to walk so far for food, we spotted Mowies which is only a 100m walk away from our resort. It was unassuming, chilled out and well–just like every other place out there. The only difference was, the vibe. Patrons seemed high on conversation and colourful-looking shakes. No one seemed to want to leave. It looked like a good place to stay so we did.
But we didn’t understand what exactly made this an excellent place until our dishes arrived. For starters, it looked exactly like brunch dishes served in hipster joints in Melbourne and Bangkok. The Chicken Katsu Burger was humongous, while the hand cut wedges were salted and crisped to perfection. It also tasted just as good as how it looked. Chris’ Radical Salmon Pizza was just as exceptional. The pumpkin soup that we had as a starter was homemade and deliciously wholesome. Digging in greedily into our little feast, we almost forgot that we were in Gili Air. Over the next few days, we returned again, ticking off the items on the menu and trying new ones (we recommend the burgers!). We were never once disappointed.
Our other favourite eat out is Zipp Bar, on the eastern side. It’s a little further down the harbour, so if you keep walking down the sandy path, you’ll eventually get there. Here, both international and local dishes are good options. Their 2-for-1 Happy Hour cocktails go on till 8 p.m. so they’re perfect to whet your appetite before dinner starts. On our first night, we tried food off the grill. Our grilled fish had come with rice (or french fries if you like) and a few different sauces. Staff were attentive and friendly. We also got to have our dinner on the beach. It was very romantic and most of all, everything on the menu was very affordable.
In comparison to most other restaurants that we’d checked out, Zipp Bar offers the best value deal. Avoid Casa Mio or Scallywags. Casa Mio’s Nasi Goreng was expensive ($3-$4/45K-50K IDR) and bland while Scallywags’ just overpriced. We’ve seen it recommended by a lot of other bloggers for its high-quality Western food and salad bar but when we saw the prices, we were completely turned off. Staff were also reported to be rude. We gave it a miss–it wasn’t the only restaurant in Gili Air with solid food and a gorgeous view.
3. A range of high-quality accommodation available
There are plenty of accommodation available around Gili Air, including beach side bungalows, rustic chalets, resorts with pools, three-four star hotels, so it highly depends on how much you’re willing to pay for your comforts. I wouldn’t say they come cheap (in comparison to the ones on the Thai islands and other parts of Indonesia) but for the quality, I’d say they’re affordable enough.
On the southwestern corner, those on a budget can opt for standard fan bungalows at Mowies On The Beach. The place seems popular with backpackers and they’re well-kept and clean. These basic bungalows start from $26/350K IDR. Not too far away, Lucky’s offers equally decent sized bungalows with air-conditioning from $26/350K IDR. The staff is also willing to negotiate for a cheaper price if you plan to stay for more than two nights. Gili Lumbung has more luxurious rooms for $52/700K IDR, with air-conditioning and an outdoor bathroom.
Island View bungalows on the northwestern part of the island start from $48/650K IDR. The only problem is its place; its remoteness makes it inconvenient for anyone who wants to venture further south where most awesome restaurants and bars are.
We stayed at Mola2 Resort Gili Air for $52/700K IDR. It was a little out of our budget but for the quality of the rooms, absolutely worth it. The service was proper, just like a five-star hotel with electronic key cards, a pool, free bicycles (most places charge for bike rentals) and free breakfast that went beyond the regular white toast and fried eggs. The room was also beautifully decorated –wooden interior with a funky-coloured settee, a sprawling deluxe bed and an outdoor bathroom. When we arrived, sweaty after our lugging our backpacks under the sun, the reception staff welcomed us in and offered us cold towels and fruit juice as welcome drinks.
The only thing to keep in mind is that there are no forms of motorized transportation around the island, so be prepared to carry your luggage with you while you check out accommodations. We did walk for about an hour before settling on Mola2 Resort (read as Mola Mola Resort).
We were offered to take a cidomo or a horse cart at the harbour when we got in. They quoted us $11/150K IDR for a ride that may take just about 10 minutes. Daylight robbery indeed. When we said no, they just shrugged and went away. Which meant, other tourists must have been willing to pay these prices! So we walked. It was a struggle, especially when the sun’s beating down hard, even with our less than 7kg backpacks, but there was no way we’d encourage these horse cart riders to overcharge tourists.
P.S.–Prices quoted are for the low season. We were there early March, 2017. Prices do pick up from June onwards.
4. The snorkelling was shockingly great
Snorkelling is an important requirement when it comes to choosing a location for our beach vacation. Two weeks before Gili Air, we’d already snorkelled at Hatta of Banda Islands and Amed, Bali’s eastern shorelines. Naturally, we didn’t have as high expectations as we did for the other two but to our surprise, we were completely blown away. Unbeknownst to us, Gili Air’s underwater realm was just as enthralling. Visibility especially during dawn, was excellent.
While the corals were mainly dead (and sharp, watch out!), there were a lot of fish and turtles. It wasn’t even difficult to find the turtles–they appeared each time we snorkelled. Once we swam along one, watching it graze seaweed and gnawing at corals in its own ethereal way. Then when it eventually swam away, ten minutes later, we spotted another. The amount of turtles spotted and how close we could get to them was far better than our experience during the snorkelling tour.
Where to snorkel: East of Gili Air
While the beaches here aren’t as idyllic as the ones on the west, this is the perfect place to snorkel.
We tried a few spots. One of them was off Manta Dive Center. We got in as soon as we saw the dive center and then swam south. Within the first 100 metres, we found coral beds and plenty of life. Some people call this area the Nemo City point. This area gets busy in the evenings, where snorkel boats bring in boatloads of tourists with life vests.
Another spot is the Han’s Reef area. We dropped off our bikes at Bambu Cottages and plunged in from there. However, we had to swim past a fair stretch of seaweed before getting to the reefs. Once out of the seaweed, we found the reefs and swam around them before eventually heading south again.
Best time for snorkelling are mornings, especially during sunrise. The sea is calm like a lake; no boats, active fish, excellent visibility, no nasty sunburn and most of all, you get to witness the sun soaring slowly over Mount Rinjani. Yes, you lazy asses–it’s totally worth dragging your butts out of bed for.
Do wear reef shoes or fins due to sea urchins and sharp corals.
5. Getting to Gili Air is easy
Getting to Gili Air is pretty straightforward. No need to worry about missing your flight due to boat or ferry cancellations, etc. If you don’t like waiting around for the public boat, there are also a lot of private companies offering shuttle services directly to places like Padang Bai, Sanur or Amed of Bali and to the rest of Lombok. I’ll explain further below.
As for around the island, you’ll be able to circumnavigate it within an hour or a little more, if you are one of those who tends to stop at every bracelet shop (like me!). The island isn’t big so within a few days, you’ll know most of your favourite beach nooks by heart. Cycling gets you around quicker, but do note that the northern parts are pretty much sand and no path. You’ll need sand bikes (the ones with the fat tyres) to cut through them. If not, you’ll have to end up wheeling your bike for at least 20 minutes. But hey, it makes a great workout!
6. Touristy but without being overcrowded
I tend to enjoy my beaches better when they’re less crowded. Unlike Togian Islands or Hatta Island–islands which are remote, pristine but a pain in the butt to get to–on Gili Air, you’ll still have access to spectacular sunset or sunrise views, without having to fight for your space. You’ll also be able to easily take photos of its breathtaking beach landscapes without having the unwanted presence of other people in your photos.
I was utterly surprised at this fact. Gili Air, despite small and touristy, had still somehow felt spacious to me. You definitely don’t have to worry about walking into people, wait for ages to be served at a restaurant or get that feeling that you’ve arrived at your paradise a little too late.
There is a general laid-back vibe everywhere. Apart from the occasional horse cart racing past, or the clamour and chaos around the harbour area, the island remains serene and relaxing.
Gili Air is perfect for a quick honeymoon trip, a weekend getaway, a yoga retreat, a girlfriends weekend and what nots. It’s however, not ideal for solo backpackers, unless you’ve got a blog to write or are craving for some me-time to yourself.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
There are many ways to get in.
For us, we opted to leave from Amed using a speedboat transfer ($18/250K IDR per person) which took us an hour and a half. The boat also called at Gili Trawangan and Bangsal (Lombok). The process is simple: first they allocate your backpacks according to the island you’re heading to, then you produce your passport for registration and get boarding passes in exchange, and in the end, you’ll have to throw in your shoes in the buckets provided and climb along the sides of the boat to get in. When the boat arrives at the island of your destination, they’ll let you know. The boat we took could fit no more than 30 people, and was new and fast.
If you’re leaving from Padang Bai or Sanur, you might be taking larger vessels and will be paying more, since it’s further away. There are a lot of companies offering this service so do shop around for the cheapest and safest option before buying your tickets.
For the budget conscious, you can take a 4-5 hour public ferry from Padang Bai to Lembar port. From there, you’ll need to take an ojek or a taxi to get to Bangsal pier, where boats going to Gili Islands leave from. A one-way ticket for the public ferry costs only $3.20/43,000 IDR so you’ll save quite a bit. If you aren’t bothered with time and would like to experience a slice of local life, the public ferry is the way to go.
Fly into Lombok International Airport and take a Bluebird Taxi directly to Bangsal pier. As it’s metered, you won’t have to worry about haggling for a good price. It should cost you about $18/250K IDR for a 1.5 hours ride.
Getting Out (To Lombok Airport)
As we’d initially came to Gili Air via Bali, we didn’t know how to get to Lombok Airport directly. In hindsight, it was easy. But at that time, we’d mulled over our options: should we book a shuttle transfer that cost $15/200K IDR per person and be transferred to the airport with a group of people or book a private transfer that costs $37-$45/500-600K IDR per car? Or neither?
We hadn’t been to Bangsal pier so we had no way of knowing if getting private taxis or Bluebird cabs would be doable. All we knew was that we had a flight to catch at 4 pm.
In the end, we’d decided to DIY our own way to Lombok airport instead of using a tour transfers. We caught a public boat from Lombok to Bangsal. The boat took 30 minutes to get to the other side and had cost $0.95/12,000 IDR per person. Public boats leave for Bangsal as soon as there are 40 passengers. We waited for an hour before the boat left. We would recommend that mornings (between 8-10am) are best for public boats. There are less demand in the afternoons so it might take more than an hour to get one.
At Bangsal, there were a lot of touts. Chris managed to strike a deal with a private taxi driver for $18/250,000 IDR–which would have been the same price as a metered taxi so we took it. Initially, I was a little apprehensive but thankfully, the taxi took us directly to the airport without any hassle or unnecessary stops. There was also plenty of space in the big van for the both of us. However, if you prefer to take a Bluebird taxi, keep walking till you reach the pier’s gates. Here you’ll see rows and rows of Bluebird taxis.
We saved more than 20 dollars DIYing our journey. When you’re a couple or a group travelling together, it definitely makes more financial sense!
There are at least 3 ATMs near the harbour so you don’t have to worry about not having enough. There are also money changers but exchange rates are not as favourable as on main land.
There’s free wifi in most accommodation and restaurants. They’re all surprisingly fast.
The only tour we did was a snorkelling tour by Lucky’s. It was 100,000 IDR per person and we went to 4-5 popular spots around Gili Islands. Food wasn’t included. I wouldn’t recommend the tour however. For some reason, the guide hurried us instead of letting us enjoy the spots on our time. It wasn’t as if he’d spotted a turtle or a shark and needed to us swim alongside him to see it.
I’d say, save your 100,000 IDR and do it on your own. It’s more relaxing and you’ll see more turtles, sharks and other interesting sea creatures on the east of Gili Air than anywhere else.
Have you been to Gili Air? Did you like it? Would you go back?