The Gili Islands (Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air) off the coast of Lombok offer relaxation, snorkeling and diving in a tropical paradise, but getting to the Gilis isn’t the easiest task. Gili Trawangan is the largest of the three tiny islands and attracts the largest number of tourists.
Most visitors travel to the Gilis from Bali, though the Lombok International Airport (LOP) recently opened on the adjacent island of Lombok so there are more options. From Bali there are a couple of ways to go about it, depending on time and money.
Quick travel to the Gilis
Private operators run fast boats from Bali direct to the Gilis. It takes about three hours to cross the Lombok Strait. British-owned Blue Water Express is one company, offering trips for about $135 per person roundtrip and is worth it if time is limited. The seas can be rough at the mid-point and bouts of seasickness are not uncommon for those who are prone to the malady. Water shoes are a good idea as the disembarkation can involve stepping into the water at the beach at the Gilis.
Slow travel to the Gilis
A transportation package from Bali to the Gilis can be purchased from any of the many tour agents in Kuta, Legian or Padang Bai. Perama Tour and Travel is one well known operator that can arrange customized tour packages.The package usually includes three segments, including a ferry ride from Bali to Lembar, Lombok, and most ground transportation from Lembar to Bangsal, where the second ferry to the Gilis is picked up. There is an option to stay overnight in Lombok if desired. There is no reason to stay in Lembar but some stay in the bustling, conservative, provincial capital city of Mataram, while others opt for the tourist-friendly beaches of Sengiggi, where the snorkeling is decent and restaurants display the catch of the day on ice next to the sidewalk.
Independent travelers can make their own arrangements for local transportation and may purchase ferry tickets from the official ticket booth, but should use caution to avoid scams.
1st Leg: Ferry #1: A large car ferry operates from Padang Bai on the east side of Bali, taking passengers to Lembar, a small dock town just south of Mataram . If you’re coming from the airport in Denpasar or staying in Kuta, Bali you’ll need a package that includes ground transportation to Padang Bai. There are several pleasant guesthouses and restaurants in Padang Bai. The massive ferry has a poor safety record but feels quite stable in the big swells. Be aware that although the actual transit time is about four to five hours it’s not uncommon to be moored at either or both ends for up to two hours waiting for dock space, extending the trip to six or eight hours. The price can’t be beat at Rp 36K (US$3.75) per person.
2nd Leg: Ground transportation: From Lembar travelers must take ground transportation north to Bangsal along the coast, which takes a couple of hours. The last kilometer is sometimes the most challenging and confusing as most tourist shuttles cannot proceed past a checkpoint and must discharge passengers a half mile () from the ferry. Even if you have purchased a ticket from Mataram or Senggigi to the Gilis, which covers most ground transportation and the brief ferry ride, it will likely not cover this one short section, leading to many misunderstandings and harsh words as most tourists feel taken advantage of. The choice is simple: either pay a little extra (around Rp 50K [US$5] or whatever you can bargain) for a horse cart, or walk the one kilometer to the water’s edge. It’s an easy, flat walk so if you’re in shape, don’t have too much luggage and can tolerate the heat it is definitely a viable option.
3rd Leg: Ferry #2: The second ferry is a quick journey from Bangsal to the jetty at Gili T or the other Gilis, lasting about 30 minutes on a small, tippy outrigger boat loaded to capacity with travelers and baggage. Wear water shoes as you will need to get your feet wet to get into the boat.
Where to stay on Gili T
There is a wide range of accommodations on Gili T. The majority of places are strung out along the eastern shore of the atoll, with a few mellower places on the northern shore and in the middle of the island. The western shore is fairly undeveloped but a few luxury resorts are popping up there. Snorkeling is possible all over, but the best beach is north of the jetty on the eastern shore. The offerings range in amenities and price points from backpacker guesthouses to luxury hotels with prices ranging from $21 to $250 per night. Use the filters on Agoda.com to pinpoint what you’re looking for and reserve rooms.
On the luxurious end of the scale, the Ko Ko Mo Resort, Pondok Santi Estate and Trawangan Resort stand clustered together near the southern end of the island where the high end restaurants tend to be, while in the center of the island an oasis of calm entices those looking for tranquility among the coconut groves at Eden Cottages and Trawangan Oasis at the lower end of the price (but not amenity) scale. Many places offer fresh- or salt-water pools, but it is wise to verify that fresh-water showers are available.
Eating and drinking on Gili T
The eastern beach is lined with restaurants on both sides of the street, mostly open air restaurants proudly displaying an array of freshly caught fish. Many feature a salad bar, which careful travelers typically avoid, or vegetable kebabs as side dishes. A favorite gathering place for the more adventurous is the night market across from the jetty. It bustles with food stalls grilling fresh fish, sate and other delicacies such as nasi campur (pronounced “champur”), a concoction of white rice, shredded meat, cabbage and chili wrapped in a banana leaf. Lombok means “chili” in Indonesian, so the food is very spicy and delicious.
Though there is a mosque and Muslim presence Gili T is a tourist island and beer is plentiful. Some bars feature live music so you can stroll down the main street to find what you’re looking for, from disco to reggae. A party schedule offers different bars the opportunity to stay open until 4 am, but only one per night, giving Gili T a strong reputation as a party island. It can be that, but those seeking a quieter tropical experience can certainly find that too.
The Gilis are still a special place offering a slower pace than bustling Bali. Snorkeling, diving and watching the sunset are activities that while away the hours. The beer is cold while the food is spicy hot and authentic.
Several airlines provide air service from the U.S. to Denpasar International Airport (DPS) in Bali, Indonesia including Qantas, Cathay Pacific and KLM. Prices for airlines departing from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) are currently starting at around $1,200 with one or two stops. Flight time is about 22 hours. Check Skyscanner for more information.
To fly to Lombok most flights from the U.S. route through Jakarta or Denpasar before arriving at the Lombok International Airport (LOP) in Mataram. It is a 30 minute flight from Denpasar to Mataram.
A visa is required for U.S. citizens and a 30-day visa can be purchased upon arrival at the airport in Bali for US $25/person. Look for the kiosks before you get to customs. Indonesia, like many other countries, requires that your passport be valid for at least 6 months when you enter the country.