Just off the coast of Lombok are the three small, teardrop-shaped Gili Islands. Only reachable by boat from either Bali or Lombok, news of their turquoise seas, white sand, coral reefs, laid-back atmosphere and fab seafood is definitely out. Now well and truly on the Indonesian backpacker circuit, the islands attract a mix of visitors – mainly couples, solo travellers and a few families – but haven’t lost their relaxed charm. It’s a great place to kick back and relax for a few days with a touch of luxury without blowing the budget.
Gili Trawangan, the largest of the islands, is the easiest to get to and has the biggest range of accommodation, from hotel-style dorms to boutique resorts (we stayed at the gorgeous Scallywags Resort). The beach is widest towards the south of the island, and a sandy track leads along the shore, lined with hotels, bars, restaurants, travel agencies and shops. With no cars or motorbikes, transport around the island is by bike or you can hire one of the horse-drawn carts if your bag’s too much to haul in the heat. It’s an easy place to do nothing in, swim, laze, read a book and watch the sunset over a few Bintang beers.
Or if you’re feeling more energetic, there are plenty of dive schools running PADI diving courses, or you can hire a snorkel and head out to the coral just off the beach, or take a boat trip round to the quieter eastern side of the island. The area is home to a sanctuary for turtles and you can also spot other exotic marine life, like parrot fish, barracuda, seahorses and cuttlefish. The smaller islands Gili Air and Gili Meno are even more low-key, with simple beach bungalows scattered along the edge of the sand. Local boats can take you from one island to the other if you fancy a day of lazing and sunbathing in a different spot.
Gili Trawangan has bit of a reputation as a backpacker party spot and after hearing it described as an ‘Indonesian Ibiza’, I was expecting hoardes of drunken gap-yearers. There is a party scene on Trawangan, revolving around three bars with parties on alternate nights and a serious array of lurid coloured cocktails. But it’s not too in-your-face and you can easily escape it. If you’re looking for a slightly more sophisticated night out (or can’t stay awake til the parties start… I blame the humidity!), then you can take your pick from lantern-lit beach bars along the shore, choose a film to watch in a private ‘cinema’ TV cabin, or stuff yourselves at restaurants ranging from freshly caught seafood BBQs to Japanese and Mexican food.