Earlier this summer I took a bit of a travel risk: I blindly booked seven nights on Gili Air, an island in Indonesia that I knew almost nothing about. In fact, the only thing I really knew was that it had no scooters, and at that point in my trip that was enough to get me clicking “reserve”!
Fortunately, Gili Air turned out to be the perfect place for me: genuinely peaceful, indulgently quiet and, surprisingly, with more than enough to keep me occupied for an entire week. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the crowd in Bali and looking for a place to stay that feels more authentic, book a boat to Gili Air immediately.
How to Get to Gili Air
The best way to get to Gili Air is to fly to the island of Lombok, Indonesia, and then catch a local boat or fast ferry to Gili Air. The flight from Bali takes less than an hour and can cost as little as $20 USD, while international routes connect Lombok to Singapore, Perth and Kuala Lumpur. From the airport, a taxi or private transfer to Bangsal port should cost another $25 USD or so, and the drive will take between 90 minutes and two hours. At the port, you can choose between a public ferry (which could take about twenty minutes and should cost about $1 USD) or a speed boat (less than ten minutes, about $9 USD) to reach the port on the south side of Gili Air.
Of course, I didn’t do things the best way. Do I ever?
Since my trip to Gili Air was quite spur-of-the-moment, I was not able to arrange a timely (or affordable) flight to Lombok. Instead, I had a private driver (Yogi Bali Driver – not sponsored) take me to Padang Bai, the main departure point for large fast boats between Bali and Gili Air. I spent the night in Padang Bai (at Bay View House, a quaint homestay with only one guestroom!) and then used an open-ended return ticket to travel to Gili Air the next day.
My boat ticket was with Eka Jaya Fast Boat. I would describe the service as passable. The departure from Bali was on time but the departure from Gili Air was delayed by about an hour, while the boat itself was large and comfortable (notably nicer than the one I’d used to travel from Bali to Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan). Due to the large size of the Eka Jaya boat, the final transfer into the Gili Air port is completed on a smaller raft. Porters handle all luggage transfers from port to port and boat to boat.
Unfortunately, though, there was some confusion with my return ticket and I almost wasn’t permitted to board the boat, so if you use an open-ended ticket please ensure that you are correctly booked for the return trip (I asked in person at the port and had my hotel phone – both times I was told that I was good to go, but on the morning of departure everything fell apart).
Because Gili Air doesn’t have any motorized transportation, the streets around the port are packed with horse-drawn carriages ready to transfer travelers and their luggage to their accommodation. Personally, I try to avoid the use of animals for transportation, so I carried my twenty-five-kilogram backpack from the port to the far opposite side of the island in the mid-day sun. It took about twenty-five minutes and it wasn’t particularly pleasant, but I didn’t sacrifice my values (and sweat is detoxifying, right?).
Things to Do on Gili Air
Scuba Dive with Sea Turtles on Gili Air
I’ve been snorkeling and scuba diving with sea turtles before, but nowhere has compared to the Gili Islands in terms of the number of sea turtles. In particular, there is a dive site called Turtle Heaven (closer to Gili Meno, but still only about ten minutes by boat from most Gili Air dive shops) is situated at a turtle cleaning station, where we saw about fifteen sea turtles and loggerhead turtles at the same time, plus more as we explored nearby.
I enjoyed diving on Gili Air more than on nearby Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan, mainly because the water was much calmer and there was hardly any current during my visit. Although I’d only planned to go out diving once, I ended up doing five dives over three days with Blue Marlin Dive Shop on the north side of Gili Air. I can definitely recommend this shop as being safe, professional and fun, and on my next visit to Gili Air I am going to look into staying at their on-site accommodation (right on the beach, and with a beautiful swimming pool).
(I took that photo of a sea turtle at Turtle Heaven using my ancient underwater camera. If you’re heading to Gili Air to dive or snorkel with turtles, I recommend upgrading to a GoPro camera or a higher-quality underwater camera as the opportunities for underwater photography are spectacular).
Snorkel with Sea Turtles (and Sea Statues!)
Any hotel on Gili Air can also arrange for you to join an affordable, half-day snorkeling tour. My hotel was partnered with an operation on the east side of the island who took visitors out on semi-glass-bottomed boats for five hours of snorkeling, with stops near all three Gili Islands. The cost of the tour was about $10 USD and it included equipment rental for the day (masks, snorkels, flippers and life jackets if required).
Yes, you can expect to see sea turtles when you’re snorkeling (though not as many as you’d see if you were scuba diving). In the photo I took above, from one of my scuba dives, you can see a group of about ten snorkelers approaching one sea turtle (on the right). Please, don’t chase the turtles around, and of course, never touch them.
Your tour will also take you to a group of underwater statues that have been places off the coast of Gili Meno. For me, this was the least enjoyable snorkeling stop, as there were dozens of people all swimming around the statues at the same time, there was a fairly substantial current, and a few of the less-confident swimmers (mostly from another boat that was operated by a private, foreign tour company) were panicking and grabbing onto anyone they could, trying to stay afloat (even though I’m sure their life jackets were doing a perfectly adequate job). I actually got punched in the face by a panicking swimmer here, meaning that I ended my snorkeling tour with a bloody nose! Parents, please keep your children close if you’re swimming here during busy times.
Fortunately, you don’t actually have to join an organized tour to snorkel on Gili Air. Head to the northeast corner of the island and you’ll find excellent snorkeling right from the shore, on the nearby Hans Reef. This is the only part of the island were I saw more than five or six people on a single stretch of beach, and it was mostly people who had rented snorkeling gear to go out in search of sea turtles. Personally, I would have felt safe leaving my bag on the beach (or buying a smoothie from one of the nearby cafes and asking them to keep an eye on my stuff while I was in the water) but you can also buy waterproof pouches that allow you to bring your phone and a bit of money with you into the water.
Circumvent the Island – Walk Around Gili Air
Gili Air is only two kilometers by two kilometers, so it’s easy to walk a complete loop all the way around the island. Although I’d read blogs that said it could be done in an hour, it took me closer to three hours to circumnavigate the island because I made a lot of stops (for photos, for cold coconuts, for looking at random spots of sand…). Most of the road around the island is unshaded, so try to get an early start in the morning, or head out late in the day, so that you don’t get too hot (or too sun-burned).
Rent a Bike – Cycle Around or Across Gili Air
With no motorized transportation on the island, bicycles are the preferred way to get around Gili Air. I didn’t actually rent one, since I was busy in the water most days, but nearly every hotel can hook you up with a bike, either for the day or for your entire stay. There are a few paved roads that criss-cross the island, but most of the roads around the edge are made from thick sand. Most cycles I saw on these stretches were either walking their bikes or heading back towards the pavement.
Take a Cooking Class on Gili Air
I loved the food I ate in Indonesia, so I took a vegetarian cooking class in Ubud, Bali. If I hadn’t already taken that class I would have jumped on the chance to take a cooking class on Gili Air. The Gili Cooking Classes school is located right in front of the port, in a bright and airy cooking space. They have four different cooking programs that can be adapted to suit meat-eaters, vegetarians and vegans.
Take a Yoga Class on Gili Air
Gili Air’s tranquility makes it the ideal destination for drop-in yoga classes or full yoga retreats. I snapped this photo at the H20 Yoga and Meditation Center when I was lunching at their attached cafe, and later I noticed a new yoga studio called Flowers & Fire Yoga. Both yoga studios have attached cafes and on-site accommodations, as well as drop-in programs.
Indulge in a Spa Treatment on Gili Air
Gili Air has quite a few pop-up spas, where locals have set up massage tables in a small room in their house. The quality obviously varies from place to place, and if you’re looking for a more consistent level of service I would suggest checking out one of the dedicated spas, like Bulan Madu (shown above), Slow Spa or Wagwan Spa. Personally, I didn’t have any spa treatments on Gili Air, but I would imaging they are comparable to the spa package I tried in Ubud (read about it here).
Where to Eat on Gili Air
Gili Air is paradise for vegetarian and vegan travelers. Seriously, the food here is just as good as the food in Canggu, Bali, which is world-famous for its healthy cuisine.
Coffee & Thyme
One of the first restaurants you’ll see as you get off the boat to Gili Air is Coffee & Thyme Cafe. At first, I resisted eating here, because it was so busy and it was so close to the port, but I stopped by for breakfast on my last day and was blown away by the delicious banana bread they serve at breakfast: moist and rich, topped with seasonal fruits and citrus-spiked yogurt. Yum!
Pachamama Organic Restaurant on Gili Air
Wow! Another restaurant with a menu that would have knocked my socks off if I hadn’t been wearing flip-flops for the past two months straight! Pachamama serves an elaborate, organic menu of carefully-designed dishes (vegetarian, vegan and with meat) that are absolutely bursting with flavor.
On my first day on Gili Air I headed here for lunch, where I sampled their roast eggplant bowl: “steamed organic red rice cone, cumin soft roast eggplant, fresh side salad drizzled with papaya seed-infused balsamic dressing and sides of vegan basil pesto, feta cheese and spicy raw sambal”. It was amazing!
I also returned a few days later for their take on a veggie burger (which is kind of my signature dish…). I don’t see it on their online menu, but I can assure you that it was delicious too (if a little small – maybe have an appetizer too if you’re ordering the veggie burger for dinner).
The Warungs of Gili Air
Gili Air is packed with warungs, or traditional Indonesian restaurants featuring local dishes at affordable prices. You can easily get a meal here for half the price you’d get at one of the more exotic, foreign-influenced restaurants, so travelers on a budget will want to eat at warungs as often as possible. There are a few of these little restaurants concentrated on the road just inland in from Blue Marlin Dive Shop, including Warung Alam Damai, where vegetarians will want to order the gado-gado (steamed vegetable salad) or a tempeh curry.
I can also recommend Warung Hello Lumbung, a tiny, 100% vegan operation run by several generations of the women from the same family. The focus here is on fresh, homemade noodles from grandma’s recipe, and they can be served in a few different ways: stir-fried with veggies and plant-based proteins (tempeh or tofu), or soaked in broth to make a rich and steamy noodle soup.
Smoothies & Smoothie Bowls on Gili Air
With an abundance of fresh tropical fruits at your doorstep, you can’t go wrong ordering smoothies and smoothie bowls on Gili Air.
My favorite actually came from the cafe attached to Flowers & Fire Yoga, where they customize the bowls exactly to your liking (personally, I hate finding crunchy chia seeds in a soft smoothie, so I always skip them). The top photo shows the bowl I designed there, rich with cacao, nut butters and pumpkin seeds (it’s healthy, I swear!).
The bottom photo shows my spinach-and-mango smoothie bowl from Gili Bliss, the most famous smoothie place on the island. Located near the port, you ascend a rickety narrow staircase to a tiny, but very Instagrammable, cafe where you can order from their menu of smoothies, bowls and other healthy treats.
Gili Air is also home to a popular smoothie bowl restaurant called Aura Bowls, but it was closed during my visit. If you’ve been, let me know in the comments if you liked your smoothie!
Other Restaurants on Gili Air
Good Earth Cafe is part of the H20 Yoga and Meditation Center. I stopped by for lunch and had the falafel bowl shown above – it was okay, but it wasn’t great, and this little cafe had about ten times more flies buzzing around than anywhere else I ate on Gili Air.
When Aura Bowls was closed I decided to visit the nearby Le Sate for lunch instead. I thought it was a great deal – I believe I paid something like $2 USD for this vegetarian combination plate with tempeh, tofu, grilled vegetables, grilled corn and potato chips with sauce.
I skipped most of the other “big name” and “popular” restaurants, since they were a fair walk away from where I was staying. However, I did also check out Shark Bites for (bottled) craft beer, Perla Nera for home-cooked Italian food, The Mexican Kitchen for enchiladas and Breadlicious for a cookie.
Hotels on Gili Air
Since I was on Gili Air for a full week, I decided to split my stay between two different Gili Air accommodation options. And, apparently I didn’t take any good photos of either place!
I started at a private bungalow at a hotel called Bintang Beach 2 by Anis. Directly opposite the beach on the north side of the island, this family-run guesthouse had a fantastic location that was perfect for morning walks to the dive shop and afternoon dips in the sea. The guesthouse owns lots of palapas and sun chairs, which they place on the beach across the street (like, five meters away!) for their guests to use (shown in the photo at the top of this post). They serve a basic breakfast each morning, which you can eat right on the beach, and they also have a partnership with a little restaurant next door so that you can get cold drinks delivered straight to your beach chair.
After a few nights at Bintang Beach I moved a few blocks inland to Gili Buana, a hybrid hostel-hotel with a swimming pool and on-site restaurant. I’d been hoping to meet other travelers here but it was pretty quiet during my stay, so I rarely took advantage of the common area (covered and cooled by fans) or the on-site swimming pool. If traffic picks up here this would be a great, affordable social hub on the island.
If I were going back to Gili Air, I would look into two other accommodation options… at both ends of the price range. I would start my search at PinkCoco, an upscale resort on the west side of the island. Here, everything is fabulously fuchsia, and it was the accommodation of choice for the Asian pop stars who were visiting the island during my stay (sorry, I don’t know who they were!). The pool here is spectacular, the rooms are decorated beautifully and the restaurant gets rave reviews. I always advocate saving your money in expensive countries and splurging in the developing world, where your dollar goes that much further, and that definitely applies here!
Of course, if you’re on a very tight budget, PinkCoco probably isn’t going to be in your travel plans. If you’re looking for a busy hostel that is full of other travelers, check out Begadang. I walked past this hostel-hostel combo every day on my way to Gili Buana, and each time I poked my head around the doorway I could see that it was full of backpackers socializing around the pool, drinking beer and having fun. From what I can tell, it’s the most popular hostel on Gili Air, and a great place to meet other people.
Gili Air in a (Coco)Nutshell
I left Gili Air almost two months ago, and I’m still raving about it to other travelers I meet on the road. When people ask me what I liked best about Bali, I always have to say, “Well, it’s not exactly Bali, it’s actually this little island called Gili Air…”
Seriously, Gili Air is ideal for travelers who are looking for a little peace and quiet, who want to connect with nature and the local community, and who can sacrifice paved roads for an authentic Indonesian experience.
If you’ve got any questions about Gili Air, don’t hesitate to pop a comment below and I will get back to you as soon as I have reliable internet (in case you haven’t heard, I’m in the middle of an eight-month trip, and my access to the internet has been surprisingly limited!).
Thinking of traveling to Indonesia?
Check out my Indonesia Archives for all my posts about the country, including guides to Ubud (without a scooter!), how to scuba dive with manta rays on Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan, and the best vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Canggu!
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