Only 2 hours by boat from Bali lie the gorgeous Gili islands. A string of 3 white sand, reef fringed islands in turquoise seas just off the coast of Indonesia's Lombok each with an individual feel.
Motorized transport is not permitted on any of the islands so the honks and noise of the motorbikes and thumping music from the bars of crowded Kuta were replaced by just the gentle jingle of the Cidomo – horse carts that trot along the island's sandy tracks carrying everything from tourists, island supplies to building materials that come off the boats, villages working as a human chain line wading into the water to bring in the supplies.
The Gili Islands also differ from in spirit from Bali. I loved witnessing the temple processions and offerings at the Balinese Hindu temples. Instead, on the Gili islands the call to prayer wafts through the palm trees while roosters crow and waves gently lap at the soft, white sands.
Of the 3 Gili islands, Gili Trawangan is the largest and most developed by far, earning itself a reputation as a backpacker's party island but now drawing in families and all kinds of tourists. Gili Meno is the smallest island and remains very laid back while Gili Air retains a good balance of the two, laid back and charmingly rustic but with enough restaurants to keep you entertained and bars for sunset cocktails whilst retaining a local feel.
It's easy to relax on Gili Air, soaking up the sun on the beach and taking in the beautiful views over to the hills of Lombok, swimming in turquoise, crystal clear waters. It's also possible to hire a snorkel and mask and see a large variety of fish on the fringing reef just a short swim off shore.
Relaxed beach cafes complete with 'berang' for lounging and gorgeous views dot the south east corner of the island. A walk cycle or ride in a cidomo around the small island or through the local village in the middle shows off the authentic life still thriving on the island. In the late afternoon switch to the west coast for a cocktail while watching the amazing, pinky, orange sunsets against a background of the looming Gunung Agung on Bali.
Mellow, Gili Meno is the smallest island and while Gili Trawangan booms and Air develops a buzz Meno still offers that chilled out, laid back tropical island experience.
To be honest, for me, Gili Trawangan, despite being billed as a backpackers paradise is actually getting pretty busy and congested in areas.
The main center has become built up and crowded along the muddy lanes forcing tourists to leap aside to avoid being hit by cidomos and bicycles, bars openly advertise magic mushrooms, noise and trash start to spill out from the bars onto the streets.
However, the long main beach is still glorious despite being crowded with boats and theres a huge choice of bars, restaurants, accommodation and even a night market. You can cycle around the island in a few hours as longs as you don't mind pushing your bike through some stretches of deep sand and once away from the main center the island vibe returns again.
Despite this, I'm sad to say that Gili T's popularity is becoming it's downfall as the island out grows it's infrastructure and loses its charm as so many of these popular islands inevitably do.
Still, there is a Gili island for everyone. Travelfish has an excellent article on deciding which Gili Island is right for you. Whichever island you choose offers excellent diving and snorkeling and the chance to see turtles, reef sharks, parrot fish and manta rays not far off shore.
Expect accommodation and food are more expensive than on Bali but the beaches, sunsets and island vibes are always free. Go to Gili Air now before it turns into another Gili Trawangan, another paradise lost island ruined by popularity,