Three islets dotting the ocean off the coast of Lombok make up the palm-fringed Gili Islands. Each island has slowly developed its own personality. The largest and busiest is Gili Trawangan, host to a lively nightlife and a convergence of hotels. Gili Air is more relaxed, with laid-back bars, hammocks strung between the palms and thriving coral reefs. Sat between the two is Gili Meno, an undeveloped refuge of thatched-roof huts, a handful of restaurants and, arguably, the best beaches. Island-hopping between the three, you could find yourself relaxing in desert-island seclusion one day, and buzzing in a beachside bar the next.
I’ve found some of my most treasured snorkeling spots off the coast of the Gili Islands, where you can walk in straight from the beach. It’s as easy to find a completely deserted cove, as it is a lively spot with beachside cocktails and accompanying music.
Indonesia specialist Mat
Things to see and do in the Gili Islands
Take a ride on the local transport
The Gili Islands are refreshingly vehicle-free. Motorised traffic is banned by local order, and only the occasional cyclist is likely to nip past. The islands may be small enough to walk around, but it’s worth taking a ride in a cidomo, a mode of transport that’s original to here and nearby Lombok.
These brightly painted horse-drawn carriages are passed down from father to son and proudly adorned with tassels and ribbons. A ride in a cidomo is so slow that walking may actually be quicker, but they’re an ideal way to settle into laid-back island life.
Walk around Gili Meno
The smallest island of the trio, Gili Meno has a coastal path running right around it. Following the route, you’ll discover secluded coves, long stretches of white sand and rows of squat coconut and banana trees.
You’ll pass wandering horses and cows that were brought over from the mainland by the original settlers. On an afternoon walk, you may also spot some of the island’s indigenous iguanas basking in the sun.
It takes just 90 minutes to circumnavigate the island, but it’s worth lingering to take a swim in the calm waters or to stop at one of the few restaurants along the east coast for freshly caught fish grilled on an open fire.
Diving in the Gili Islands
It’s difficult to dispute that some of the best scenery the islands have to offer is underwater. A number of well-reputed dive schools operate on the islands, making it simple to arrange a dive. One of the most popular dive spots is a coral-covered sunken pier off the coast of Gili Meno. Crustaceans and a resident school of shimmering drummer fish have found convenient hideouts in the wreck’s nooks and crannies.
For a deeper dive, Gili Air shelters a deep coral wall that drops vertically for 30 m (98 ft), interspersed with overhangs and sweeping arches of hard and soft coral. Glassfish and moray eels dart from hole to hole, and you can sometimes see the exploratory reach of an octopus tentacle.
Snorkel with turtles
You don’t have to dive to see some of the islands’ marine residents. Sea turtles can be spotted right from the beach, often as they pop a curious head above water.
The northeast beaches of Gili Air are well populated, and a short paddle towards the coral usually results in a sighting as the turtles feed on nearby seagrasses. Swim out a little further and you might spot a turtle family investigating the coral beds.
Best time to visit the Gili Islands
From May to August, the islands enjoy clear skies and comfortably warm temperatures. June and July can be quite busy, and we recommend booking ahead. September still maintains good weather, with the occasional shower, and is a quieter and good-value time to stay. Visiting from October through to April isn’t recommended as the regular rainfall can erode roads and disrupt travel.
Festivals, events and seasonal reasons to visit
- During the month of Ramadan, some smaller shops close, beach parties cease, and visitor numbers drop. It’s an ideal time to visit if you’re looking for a quieter experience.