I know it must seem like I’ve been banging on about our time in the Gili Islands in Bali for ages now and your probably dying for me to move on and start filling you in on some of the other places we visited during our month long honeymoon, but I feel as if I still have so many photos and stories to share from this initial part of our trip in Gili Trawangan that I’m not quite ready to draw a line under this beautiful location just yet.
Perhaps it was because this was our first stop on the trip, and maybe because it had taken us so very long to reach, but this island location will always feel a little special to us. Of course because it was also where we spent our first Christmas together as a married couple and where our honeymoon really began, it holds wonderful memories.
When we decided to make Bali our first stop of the honeymoon we planned to split our time between beach and rainforest so as to try and see the best of both. There are other beach and coastal locations on mainland Bali that are much easier to reach and nearer the airport but somehow we always knew they weren’t the right spot for us. When we started to delve into our research a little, the idea of visiting the idyllic Gili islands and experiencing true island life on Bali seemed like the most exciting choice, even if it was going to take us a lot longer to get there. We’ve since spoken to a lot of people who have visited the islands (and they are slowly becoming more popular as mainland Bali gets more and more touristy) but on the whole there wasn’t a huge amount of information readily available when we were searching for it.
With that in mind, I thought I’d share a few tips from our trip, and relay some of the adventures we had while there, which might be helpful if you’re considering a trip to Bali in the future.
First things first, where are these infamous islands and which is which? The Gili’s are three small islands just off to the east of mainland Bali. Originally they were fairly rural but slowly over the last ten years or so, as backpackers and holidaymakers who began to tire of the hustle and bustle of the mainland started venturing over to them for a relaxing stint on their trips, they’ve become more popular and as such more accessible. But compared to the rest of Bali they are still very underdeveloped. I’ve been told that they are essentially a picture of what Bali was like 15 years ago, before it started building itself up for the tourism market, and I can believe that as there was still a genuine ‘local’ feel to our time on Gili T, a slower pace than what we experienced in mainland Bali and a feeling that you were spending time in local people’s habitats.
There are three islands altogether, Gili Trawangan, (or Gili T as it’s mostly referred to) which is the largest of the three and the first you reach on the boat, Gili Meno and Gili Air.
When we got to the stage of deciding which to stay on, I was constantly seeing Gili T referred to as the party island which put us off a little as this wasn’t really what we were looking for. But having now been there I realise that when they say ‘party’ they don’t really mean ‘PAAR-TAY!!!’. This is just the largest island and therefore the one that has the most amenities in terms of accommodation, restaurants and bars. We’re not talking Aiya Napa here don’t worry. The two smaller islands are still very under developed and there might not be as many places to stay, and food and drink isn’t imported as much.
We decided on Gili T as it seemed to offer both an idyllic beach side location, as well as the opportunity to enjoy some traditional Balinese fayre easily and perhaps have a few Christmas beverages should we want to. If you are looking for somewhere slow paced, simple and laid back with beautiful beaches, friendly locals and plenty to do, this could be the island to choose.
If you do fancy a little bit of ‘nightlife’ (I say that I the loosest sense) then it’s best to stay somewhere on the south of the island. Nearest the harbour port where all the boats come in is the most built up area with door to door bars and eateries. For us, we wanted to get away from it all and spend the majority of our time relaxing so we opted to stay at the north of the island which (for now) is still fairly unchanged from its natural set up and means each resort is a little more spaced out from one another. There are also some very relaxed resorts in the middle of the island which as yet has remained mostly untouched. This will all change soon however, as even while we were there we could see a lot of the empty spaces being refurbished into hotel resorts so no doubt in another five years the whole perimeter of the island will be lined with resorts.
There are two ways of reaching the Gili Islands from mainland Bali and neither are particularly fast or sea sick free! But as I always say, the most beautiful locations on earth are never going to be easy to get to, part of their charm undoubtedly comes from their remote-ness.
The first way to travel (and the one we opted for) is to fly into Denpasar (Bali’s main airport) and then drive to one of the ferry ports, Padang Bai being the one most of the boats depart from, in order to get a speedboat out to the islands.
Three things to note here. The first is that many websites and forums will tell you that the drive to Padang Bai from the airport is a very short one and you can easily make your own way there in a taxi. I can tell you it’s not a short journey at all, it’s at least three hours and the roads are crazy which means you’ll spend those three hours either stuck in traffic or weaving through the windiest tracks you can imagine. Add 30 degree humidity and heat to this, and no doubt tiredness from a long flight and your on your way to serious travel sickness. Also, I definitely wouldn’t recommend just jumping in a taxi as the airport was a little crazy and overwhelming when it came to people offering us lifts, and with it being such a long way it would no doubt cost you a lot. What I’d recommend is that you book your speedboat trip through one of the operators (we booked ours through Easy Gili Transfers) and request an airport transfer as part of the package. Most offer it all as one journey for no extra and they will estimate which boat they can get you to on time. That way you know that your journey from A to B is sorted without worrying about timings.
The second noteworthy thing about this option is that despite the fact I keep referring to a ‘ferry’ terminal, this is in no way indicative of the type of boat you will get on to reach your destination. Often referred to as vomit comets, these speedboats are often very rickety in nature and simply fire up the engine and fling their way there with 50 people and their suitcases in tow. The journey times vary (I’d recommend not drawing it out and paying extra for the fastest one just to get it over quicker) but to Gili T it usually takes about an hour and a half. Yes ONE WHOLE HOUR AND A HALF OF TORTURE. The waters can be VERY choppy and if you are at all prone to sea sickness this might not be the best option for you. Our one on the way back was significantly better – much smoother, with air con and not nearly as bumpy – but on the way out I kid you not when I say I have never known anything like it. Unfortunately I really don’t think there is any way to predict which style of boat you will get or how bad the water will be. It’s totally hit or miss.
While Fast and the Furious 7 was put on on a screen at the front of the boat, I spent the whole hour and a half concentrating harder on those subtitles than I have anything in my life so as a. Not to throw up all over myself and b. not to wee myself. At one point (once the boat was already moving at warp speed and bumping up and down like a maniac!!) they asked if any of us wanted to sit on top of the boat, which to my surprise about three quarters of the boat decided to do, while I looked on in horror as they navigated a tiny wooden ladder over the ocean to find a spot on the open roof with nothing to hold on to. By this point I was clinging onto the rail in front of me for dear life!
There are lots of different tour operators with boats to the Gili islands and I’d recommend choosing one of the bigger and more established companies (Marina SriKandi is the most well known) but there really is no way of making this part of the journey easier – you just have to man up and get on with it. Gili T is the first stop, with the other two island following after that so they obviously take a little longer. The trip from one island to the next is not far however so should you want to break it up a bit, you could stay at Gili T and do a day trip to the others.
The second (and slightly less traumatic you might say) way of reaching the islands is to once again fly into Denpasar but then take a connecting flight to Lombok Island (one of the bigger neighbouring islands which also isn’t far from the Gili’s) and then attempt a boat ride from there. The short flight only takes 45 mins and is relatively cheap to book and the boat ride from Lombok to Gili T is only around 30 mins. I hear the boats aren’t quite as fast and choppy as those coming from the mainland so if you are worried about your sea legs this might be the better option.
Having said that, this option takes a little more planning and the reason we opted for the speedboat in the end is because there are only two flights out to Lombok a day (one early morning and one afternoon) and those don’t always coincide with the boat trips (which I believe only go first thing) so depending on when your flight arrives into Denpasar it’s likely that you’ll have to add another day onto your journey by either stopping over in Bali for one night or stopping over in Lombok for one night before you can reach the Gili’s. As we were travelling so close to Christmas we really wanted to get to our final destination as soon as possible rather than doing another extra night elsewhere so this didn’t quite work for us timings wise. I have heard that Lombok is also very beautiful though so perhaps you could opt to spend a few days there before visiting the Gili’s.
Where to stay
I really can’t recommend our accommodation enough. We stayed at a small resort on the north of the island called Desa Dunia Beda and it was absolutely beautiful. Most of the accommodation options on Gili T are fairly cheap anyway as it’s not an expensive island so price wise we probably picked one of the more ‘upmarket’ resorts (you can do things very cheaply if you want to) but it was still dirt cheap for the standard and service we received (book through booking.com rather than direct). Accommodation is rustic in the best way possible and you stay in traditional Balinese wooden huts on stilts, situated amongst the island greenery and looking out to the ocean. There are different sizes of huts depending on your group size but even though ours was a small 2 person one it was huge. A large bed was situated in the middle of the wooden room (up high I now realise in case of flooding during the storms!) while the back had sinks, wardrobes, and a mirror changing area. Two small doors at the back of the hut led out into our own private outdoor bathroom complete with sheltered toilet, traditional and modern shower (you can choose) and sink. Honestly this may sound scary but it was probably the most luxurious of bathrooms you can imagine. I spent more time out there than I did in the room – having a cold shower after being in the sea/ pool on a hot day amongst nature and with the sun shining down on you and the birds singing next to you was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.
The resort has a salt water pool, a restaurant and a private beach area (although you are so remote anyway that you hardly see a soul). Most days we found we had the beach/ pool all to ourselves and with the sheltered and relaxing day beds on the beach, and the staff bringing you food and drinks wherever you asked for it, the whole place felt magical and truly idyllic. You could jump in the pool for a swim at any time of the day or night, were pretty much always left to your own devices unless you asked otherwise and could still be sitting on the beach with a glass of wine in hand at 3am should you want to be. At night you could eat dinner on one of the dining tables at the beach while the waves crashed around your feet, and a large open BBQ was fired up each evening with a selection of fresh food cooked there in front of you.
By far the best thing about this place and what really made it special for us however, was the people. The staff were so SO incredibly friendly and couldn’t do enough for us, wanting to tell us everything about their island and provide us with the best experience they could. We’d kind of fallen in love with them all by the time our few days were up, especially when they offered to make me one last pineapple pancake (it had been my favourite breakfast dish) on the morning we left even though it was the crack of dawn and the kitchen wasn’t yet open.
If you’re looking for a perfect romantic getaway or just a lovely friendly spot to stay, this is your place.
There is no transport on the Gili Islands (which is part of what makes them so relaxing) so the only way to get around is by the local Cidomo’s (horse and cart), cycling (definitely what I’d recommend) or by walking. As our accommodation was too far to walk from where the boat had dropped us off (and it was sweltering hot and by this point we hadn’t slept for around 48 hours) we took our first cidomo to the resort when we first arrived. This was a really unique experience, definitely the best option if you’ve got bags and cases and a great way to see the ins and outs of the island, but I wouldn’t recommend using this transport day to day once you are on the island as cycling is just so much more fun.
Most of the resorts offer free cycle hire and we were given our own bikes for the duration of our stay so we could simply get up each day and hop on and off whenever we liked. I’ll admit that I was a little nervous to begin with as we had no idea where we were going or what the terrain was going to be like, plus it was the hottest heat I’d ever cycled in but within about ten minutes I felt free-er than I ever have before and honestly after that there was no getting us off those bikes! You can cycle around the perimeter of the island in around an hour or so it’s not at all big and pretty much impossible to get lost. The paths are just small sand tracks and the only vehicles you have to avoid are other bikes and the odd cidomo which you could always hear coming so it was incredibly fun and easy (not at all like cycling on busy roads here in London!). I’m really not sure we would have seen as much of the island as we did had we not had the bikes and each day we set off in a different direction and just stopped wherever took our fancy. There’s other accommodation, bars and restaurants as you go so it’s easy to stop for a drink or something to eat, or a swim should you get tired. We simply locked the bikes together and came back to them when we were ready.
Things to do
Visit the swing – The most iconic thing to do while on Gili T (and probably the most photographed) is to visit the swing. What’s slightly confusing is that there is actually more than one swing (perhaps due to the first’s popularity). The most famous is the one (or ones – there are 4 dotted along the beach) at Villa Ombak, which is one of the largest accommodation resorts on the island. This is the swing that attracts most people as you’ll see the sun set here in the evening and it makes for the perfect Instagram snapshot. It is also the busiest spot on the island too so be prepared to take your turn alongside every other beach goer. While looking for that swing on our first day in the island, we actually stumbled across another at Exile Bar, mistaking it for the Gili T swing, and this one was a lot quieter and perhaps just as picturesque, with a water hammock to pose on too. But of course once we’d found the one of Instagram dreams later that day I insisted on a re-shoot!
Cycle around the island – I’d definitely recommend cycling all around the island as I mentioned above which really won’t take a lot of time and is the best way to explore and find the spots and bars you like.
Shop, eat and party – If you want a bit more buzz, take yourself down to the dock area, where you can spend some time browsing the markets, buying trinkets, chatting to the locals and watching the boats come in with fresh loads of people, food and supplies. This is also where you’ll find the most bars and less traditional food if you fancy something like a burger or pizza. It’s busier here at night with most of the bars having live music, dancing and cocktails and so if you’re keen to meet people and have a fun night this is the place to be.
Get caught in the rain – The Gili Islands are known for their thunderstorms and while at first you might think rain is the last thing you want on your summer holiday, honestly getting caught in a storm was our favourite memory from the trip. This isn’t rain like we have at home – there’s nothing grey, miserable or drizzly about this – instead it’s tropical, crazy, get soaked in seconds kind of rain. Rain you can dance around in in your bikini and still feel warm and happy. Don’t be put off by the ‘low season’ in Bali when you’re told storms are frequent as the country experiences high temperatures all year round and experiencing a storm while you’re there is pretty damn cool.
Watch the sunset (or a storm) while cosied up on the beach – Our resort had these wonderful little huts on the beach which had a roof and drapes which came down either side, and not only were they great for relaxing in during the heat of the day, but they made the most perfect little viewing platform come evening to look out at the ocean and watch the sunset from (glass of wine in hand). One night we even retreated to one after dinner, and watched as the beginning of a storm erupted in the sea in front of us, while we kept cosy inside eating chocolate brownie for dessert and drinking cocktails (we may even have fallen asleep for a little while it was so peaceful).
Eating and drinking
We tried a few different places on the island for food, but soon concluded that the food at Desa Dunia Beda was by far the best. Even if you don’t stay there, head up one evening for their open BBQ on the beach and have the satay, or the Rendang curry – both delicious – and then enjoy cocktails on the beach. We also ate at Villa Ombak one day when we were visiting the swing and that was pretty good too.
Another favourite of ours was the Pearl Beach Lounge where I had an amazing noodle dish, and we also heard talk of a food market by the dock, but we couldn’t find signs of this while we were there.
Most of the resorts offer good quality Balinese dishes and you’ll find more holiday classics such as pizzas, burgers and chips at some of the more family orientated places or in the busier south side of the island which is by far the most touristy.
The beer of choice in Bali is the Bintang (their local) which is just what’s needed on a hot day at the beach. Cocktails aren’t quite as good on the islands as they are on the mainland (simply because they don’t have the ingredients) so opt for the classics to get the best quality.
As long as you remember that you’re on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere and embrace that way of living while you’re there, you will have the best time visiting the Gili’s. I’d particularly recommend Gili T from our experience but of course I would have loved to visit the other islands too had we had more time. Even just one more day and I think we would have hopped on a boat again to do a little day trip.
Have you visited the Gili Islands or are you considering them as a holiday destination? I’d love to hear how you got on!