We went to sea as sailors, but only maybe for my dirty mouth, swearing through my teeth that Gili Air was probably going to suck. Given we seemed to have developed a way to enjoy places others don’t and hate places others love as of late, this was the only logical conclusion. I thought of the Gilis as a place people bookend their 2 week holiday on Bali, just to tick the tropical island checkbox off of their list when wondering what to see in Indonesia. They go to Trawangan to drink themselves silly, Air as newlyweds, and Meno, well, I still don’t know. All we knew was, you can’t really go wrong with a $1 boat ticket and we don’t really drink – so Gili Air it was. Off we went to check out this bunch of clueless red skin honeymooners and see what all the flap was about, hoping to prove my cynical little mind wrong.
Searching the crowded road lining the beach on arrival, we were dismayed to find most places full or starting at 300,000RP and up. This place is no abode for long haul backpackers on a shoestring as advertised! Only later did we discover several cheaper options for where to stay in the Gili Islands – despite people telling us that 250,000RP was the cheapest we would find – in the village in the heart of the island, 5 to 10 minutes away from the beach. But we had already settled into our overpriced flashpacker digs by the sea and were a little too smug with ourselves to change location.
So here’s the lowdown on Gili Air:
IT’S PRETTY ALRIGHT.
Gili Air’s coast is impossibly beautiful, a turquoise and blue ribbon running the circumference of the island. I’m pretty sure you’d get a minty fresh breath if you gargled with it. Grab a snorkel and drift down the shore, or better yet, go scuba diving or free diving. What’s hiding below is an enchanted coral garden with more turtles than you can shake a stick at living in the crystal clear water. At night, the sky lights up in reds and pinks and oranges as the sun descends behind Gunung Agung in distant Bali, while speakers pump out the mandatory reggae tunes. We’d slump on large bean bags and sip on papaya and watermelon juices that cost us pennies and decide that, yes, we really like it here. A lot.
It has to be said, there’s one problem with the beach on Gili Air: it’s not user friendly. Most of the sand is made up of chopped up coral bits that will cut your feet and the ocean floor is covered in seaweed where spiny urchins like to hide. It’s like a beautiful thing you can’t cuddle with because it might hurt you. I like to roll around in the sand at the beach and run to the water barefoot, but I didn’t really want to lay on the beach in Gili Air – even though it might well be the most photogenic place I’ve ever been to. It’s a weird dilemma that reinforces my initial hypothesis that people partly just come here to snap the shot and buy the t-shirt.
OH, BUT IT’S NOT THAT SIMPLE.
We loved Gili Air. The expats and locals are laid back and friendly. Despite the very large influx of tourists, there is still an aura of traditional Indonesian rural life going on: friendly farm animals roaming free, coconut farms instead of resorts on large parts of the land, a handful of cheap traditional warungs to chose from and horse and carts as the only form of transportation (although I urge you not to use them, these poor animals are completely underfed and overworked in this heat) – which meant no engine noise, no honking, no exhaust fumes. The diving in Gili is superlative at this time of year, with visibility of 30+ meters and a vast array of coral and marine life like I had not yet witnessed. A lot of it could also be seen very close to shore snorkelling, although the reef is quite damaged in places and inexistent in others. One morning we followed a turtle for a good half an hour as she went about her business, seemingly oblivious to the fact that we were hovering about two feet away.
Every day by which we extended our stay, our scrutiny and criticism of Gili Air melted away a little further, until it had completely dissolved. A typical day consisted of sharing a foraged sprouted coconut on our balcony, eating a big plate of fruit by the sea, chilling out in a lounger or a hammock while reading or doing a bit of work, getting some lunch from one of the cheap warungs inland, having a little workout back at our bungalow or go for a dive, rinse the salt off with a salty shower [sic], walk to Lucky Bar for fruity drinks and sunset, get some dinner in a cabana by the sea and repeat. We did that for six glorious days, never actually busting our budget despite the accommodation price.
I’m glad I was proven wrong about Gili Air. It was the perfect little island getaway for us and despite the beach not being as nice as Thai or Malaysian beaches and the ratio of tourists being higher than we tend to like, we were able to find ourselves a little slice of peace and quiet on the shore of Gili. Gili Air really is what you make of it.
GETTING THERE AND AWAY.
We found some conflicting information on using the public boat so let me get this straight. When you get to Bangsal harbor, face the water and turn right. Walk about 50 meters past the little kiosks selling food and this is what the ticket office will look like:
The price for the ride is 10k ($1) per person and takes 15 minutes, so there really is no point in my mind in paying extra for the fast boat. The only down side is that you have to wait for them to have enough people to go. We waited 15 minutes.
When leaving Gili Air, the tickets for the first public boat of the day go on sale at 8am, and the boat should have enough people to depart for Bangsal by about 8:30am. If you’re headed for Senggigi or somewhere else in Lombok, don’t bother paying through the nose for a shuttle service in advance. Get the public boat first thing and negotiate direct with the drivers in Bangsal – they’re keen to fill the shuttle buses that have just dropped people off and you can get a much better deal.
Gili Air Santay is the cheapest place we found (mind you, we didn’t look extremely hard) on the beach at 250k for a fan bungalow including breakfast. The location is excellent, in a very quiet part of the beach but a short walk from the nicest sand, the main restaurant strip, snorkelling and the dive shops. The bungalows are in a quiet little coconut grove and it’s very peaceful. The bed and mosquito net were both very nice, as was the balcony and the bathroom was basic but fine. The staff were always very friendly and helpful. The setting of the restaurant is lovely, and it’s a great place to sit, but the food was not really hit and miss, more “average and miss”. The complimentary morning fruit plate was really very nice however. There is no wifi – understandable in the bungalows but it would be nice in the restaurant. Finally, and the thing that really made us want to leave: nightly, we had an unwelcome visitor in our bathroom. We could hear scratching and scurrying, and every single morning our papaya hand soap was relocated and left with some nice teeth marks in it. We don’t care about the soap – that was quite funny – but the intruder itself was quite disturbing. It says a lot that despite these issues we still stayed in Gili Air Santay for five nights and were quite happy. If you are looking for cheaper options, take a left as you disembark the boat and turn inland on the first right. We heard 3W Cottages had rooms for 150K. Don’t worry about being far from the beach, it’s a very small island.
EATING VEGAN THINGS.
There’s a surprisingly good selection of fruit that can be purchased on Gili Air: the papayas are humongous and exceptional value for money. Look out for ladies walking up and down the road with big baskets on their head. We were able to score a few durians from Lombok as well as pineapples, bananas and watermelons. We also foraged several sprouted coconuts which are a fantastic healthy snack. You can read more about it here. The fruit plate at Gili Air Santay where we stayed is generous at 18K. You can also find fruit drinks for less than 15K everywhere. Almost every restaurant on the island has got the usual Indonesian and Western suspects that are vegan or easily made vegan, so it won’t be a problem. The food on Gili Air is nothing to write home about, being generally quite bland and watered down for the western palate. The big busy restaurants in the main tourist area such as Scallywags and Chill Out had a “package holiday” feel as well as being overpriced and we really didn’t care for them. Here’s a few places that rang more authentic to us.
The most traditional and tasty food you will find on the island. Tell the lady you are vegetarian and she’ll make you a plate of whatever she has on offer that day: rice, vegetables, fried tempeh and tofu, sprinkled with coconut and peanuts. Ask for “tidak telur” (no egg). $2 for a mixed plate.
Easy Gili Warung
Right next door to Warung Muslim is this bright little restaurant ran by two extremely friendly brothers. Here we found an excellent tempeh curry and the best gado gado of the whole island. They also have an inventive menu of blended fruity drinks to boot. $3 to $4 for a main.
No name warung that reads “Organic local food” on their blackboard, opposite Caballito de Mar
Yup, it’s still possible to eat for $1 on Gili Air, funny that the cheapest and most expensive restaurants should be located right opposite one another. Similar to Warung Muslim if a little less tasty, the lady will load your plate with rice, veggies, tempeh, tofu and curry for $1. Can’t go wrong here.
Nafifa Cafe and Ceria Warung
The food at these two restaurants located in the south-western part of the island close to the harbor was nothing to write home about, but it was perfectly adequate – curries, gado gado, cap chay, urap urap, the ‘uge. What we loved however were the peaceful beach side cabanas, away from the main drag’s hustle and bustle. $3 for a main, castaway island feeling completely free.
If you have a sweet tooth, you’ll find kiosks of this Italian-style gelateria scattered all across the island. They have several non-dairy sorbet flavors to chose from, the cherry one is the bomb diggity.
Diving on Gili Air is more expensive than elsewhere in South East Asia due to some kind of mob-like cartel between the different facilities, but it is absolutely worth it. Do your homework when choosing a shop as even the best rated ones had a few bad reviews pertaining to safety issues that raised a big no-no with us. We chose to dive with 7SEAS. Between us we did five dives and were really happy. The two dive masters we went with were both fun and professional. The seas around the Gilis are abundant and in late September the visibility was absolutely incredible. We saw a simply mind blowing amount of wildlife and left very happy.The dive shop itself is relaxed and they have good equipment. All the staff were very helpful and friendly, and the shop is well stocked with goodies. Overall we would be happy to dive here again.
So there you go! Hope this comes in helpful for anyone. Please let me know if it does!