Embrace Beach Life on Gili Air
Gili Air Indonesia is a throwback to the classic palm trees and beach life that will recharge even the weariest traveler.
Hot Take: Away from it all, Gili Air rewards beach seeking visitors…even as the tourism industry destroys this once pristine island. (3.0 stars)
Pro Tip: Book ahead of time as the best accommodations are small and all tend to sell out.
Attention to those seeking a slower pace of life after often frenetic Bali, the Gili islands located between Bali and Lombok are what you’re looking for. With no cars or motorbikes, Gili Air was our pick for some much needed beach time after trekking the cultural wonders of Bali.
Featuring endless beaches with reef snorkeling, hot sand with warm breezes, and relaxed days with majestic sunsets, Gili Air has almost a ‘Caribbean’ vibe. Life moves slowly on Gili Air (including internet and service speeds), but island time will quickly slow your pace too. Embrace it and you will love it; but fight it (or stare too closely at its warts) and you will want to be on the next boat out. We recommend you spend 4 nights or less on Gili Air to get a proper taste of the place.
How to Get There
Getting to and from the Gili Islands is an adventure in itself. Less than 30 minutes from Lombok, the Gilis are a full hour and a half via ‘fast boat’ (which is what 20-40 people on a powerboat is referred to as in Indonesia). These boats vary in cost, exact speed, and land transfer inclusions, but none have AC. All the boats looked/felt very safe, but the relatively small size, rough-ish seas (especially if travelling near the full or new moon) and lack of AC was tough on those prone to sea sickness. Expect to pay 200,000 to 650,000 IDR each (most seem willing to negotiate 50,000-100,000 off in person, but you risk missing the boat if you are doing it the same day that you want to leave…so best to book in person a few days ahead so you can get a transfer included, often your accommodation can help with this). One thing to note is that all transfers to the Gilis from Bali involve going first to Gili Trawangan then waiting ~15 minutes while the boat is partially unloaded/re-loaded (or transferring boats) before a 20 minute further trip to Gili Air (sometimes with a further stop in the middle at Gili Meno). All in all, it took us 3-4 hours door to door to get from Bali to Gili Air (and vice versa) each time we made the transfer…it’s a bit of an ordeal.
Note: there are no piers or docks in Bali or the Gilis, so all boats are loaded from the beach (meaning you will be at least knee deep in the ocean)…so plan your outfit and footwear appropriately.
Gili Air Logistics
You survived made the transfer, now getting to your hotel is your next challenge (but you booked ahead, right? …because most places here only have 6-10 rooms/bungalows and often sell out). There are 3 options on Gili Air: walk (free), rent a bicycle (30,000-50,000 IDR/day), or take the ethically controversial donkey carts (we have no idea of the price because we’re not into this kind of transport). These horses live in constant stress and anxiety we saw a couple of them showing signs of 'madness'.
However you get to your lodging, you are going to want to have access to a bicycle during your time in Gili Air. The island is walkable (in 2 hours you could probably circle the whole thing), but it is damn hot. A bicycle will give you a pleasant breeze as you move about and virtually everything is a 5-10 minute bike ride away.
Gili Air is shaped like a ballooned triangle and the island layout is fairly intuitive. The Southern coast is dominated by the harbor (so a bit trashy and no good for swimming). The Eastern coast has the best snorkeling and accommodations. The Western coast has the best sunsets (but the coral has all been destroyed by dynamite fishing). The interior of the island has some lodgings and the best restaurants, but it is mostly non-tourist stuff.
We stayed on the Southeast corner which gave us easy morning access to snorkeling and rented bicycles to head over to the West side for sunset every night.
Gili Air Activities
Life moves slowly on Gili Air and (unless you mistakenly try to fight it) your pace will slow down to. Aside from the Muslim calls to prayer multiple times a day (including at dawn) that Matt was able to sleep through but woke Kelly up, Gili Air is a really laidback place focused on beach and ocean activities.
Our favorite activity was snorkeling (which we did every morning) from the constant sand beaches that line the island. The Eastern side of the island (especially near the Southeast tip) had the best snorkeling that was very easy for beginner (or weaker) snorkelers as the currents were weak, the water relatively shallow (5-10 ft), the area was well protected from boats, and the coral/fish life was abundant close to shore (as you swim out: first there is the sand beach for 10-20 ft, followed by 20-30 ft of grasses, then you hit the coral garden for another 200-300 ft until the drop off to the deep water – which is where the boat mooring buoys are located). Specifically, the Southeast tip area from Bel Air Resort to the Sunrise Resort’s beach was the best. Although the area at the Northeast tip (around the Sandy Beach Bungalows) was very nice as well (though it is a bit further out and deeper to see the really good stuff). Unfortunately, the majority of the coral on the Western side of the island has all been destroyed by dynamite fishing so it is just a deserted desert of broken coral pieces with few fish (but maybe one day it can regrow). And the South coast of the island is massively polluted by the working harbor (so it is gross and dangerous to try to snorkel there). One tip is to snorkel before 10a or after 4p to avoid the tourist boats from other islands (as the life-jacket wearing boat tour passengers are very loud and scare away the fish life). Another tip is to not fight the current…just float along and when you get tired come out of the water and then walk back to your stuff (theft of our sandals and coverups was not something we were worried about, but use common sense and don’t leave anything too valuable on the beach; however, if you are really worried then most of the waterfront businesses would hold it for you, even if you don’t buy something from them).
Our second favorite activity on Gili Air was watching the amazing sunsets. These sunsets were more interesting than on most islands because the sun sets directly over Mt Agung in Bali (an active volcano) instead of just digging in to the endless ocean. We think the best spot to watch it is at Mowie’s (where the food was good, the vibe happening but not in your face, and the angle was just right for the sunset over a volcano picture). One tip is to make sure that you get to your desired viewing location at least 45 minutes before sunset to get a primo chair (and to give the ‘laid back’ service time to deliver your food/cocktail before the sunset arrives). There are also numerous swings to distract yourself on (and everyone is pretty good about sharing time on them, so you can get a social media worthy pic if you so desire). If you want more of the ‘alone on the beach at sunset’ feel, then just keep heading North up the coast road as the development quickly gives way to open beach with goat fields behind them.
Other great activities include:
Sunbathing (but PLEASE use caution and sunscreen).
Bicycling around the island (with frequent cool offs in the ocean)…a leisurely 2 hours is all you need (including frequent photo stops and ocean plunges).
SCUBA and snorkel trips (there are numerous schools and daytrips, but you really only need to do them if you want to see more than just Gili Air).
Day trips to Gili Memo and/or Gili Trawangan.
‘Coconut and chill’ (just 25 IDR).
Gili Air Food
No vacation is complete without a hearty meal. Gili Air has more than its fair share of eateries (from local to Western), but we wouldn’t exactly call it a foodie paradise (things are fairly pricey and basic as the majority of all the water and food has to be shipped in from Lombok). That said, we had some great meals while we were on Gili Air and would strongly recommend:
- Mowie’s (especially for sunset): the chicken katsu burger (75 IDR) was really good
- Le Sate Bar: the satay sampler (75 IDR) was excellent
- Ruby’s: the best Nasi Goreng we had in 2 months in Indonesia
Final Thoughts on Gili Air
We had a great time on Gili Air and would definitely recommend it to anyone spending time in Indonesia for an extended time. However, the impact of tourism is definitely starting to show on this tiny island (trash, crowding, etc) and some travelers have rightly complained that it has last some of its charm. We would not get on a plane to specifically see it (we hear the next hot area is the West coast of Lombok), but we have no regrets in spending time there during our 2 months in the Bali region. Gili Air was just the beachy relaxation that we wanted (just don’t stare too closely at the warts and do your part as a visitor to reduce waste).