Gili Air is remote tropical paradise. Quite literally, it is an island off an island situated off the north-east coast of Lombok in Indonesia. It has always been my experience that an island getaway sounds better in theory than it ever is in reality. You turn up to these so called “island paradises” only to find one of two problems – either the beaches are overpopulated with loud tourists and rip-off vendors selling sunglasses and sugary-drinks. Or, you are faced with miles and miles of empty beach and nothing interesting to do except read a book. Gili Air is different though. Not only is it beautiful and remote (I mean seriously, they have ban on all motorised vehicles for god’s sake!) but there are so many interesting things to do on Gili Air without the usual masses of tourists. Plus, credit cards are welcome!
If there is one gripe I have about Gili Air, it would be the journey to get there. It’s not the length of journey that gets me but the fact that people want to rip you off left, right and bloody centre. Read on for a complete guide to the beautiful Gili Air including how to get there!
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Getting to Gili Air from Lombok
If you are travelling from Singapore, I recommend getting a direct flight from Changi straight to Lombok International Airpot. Silk Air run a direct service three times a week and if you go during the low season, ticket prices are reasonable.
When you exit the airport you will be bombarded with offers from tour companies to drive you to your destination. Do not be phased and walk straight past them and outside. Speak to the guys wearing the blue, short-sleeved shirts – they are the official taxi drivers and their rates are cheaper. Ask them to take you to the public ferry at Bangsal Harbour. You can negotiate a little with them and the price should be between $20-30 for the trip, which takes approximately two hours. Make sure to emphasise that you do not want a private speed boat, you want the public ferry. If you have Grab, you can book a car via the app as well.
When you arrive at Bangsal’s pier gate, you may need to pay some additional money (~$1) to enter by car. Then head to the ferry office and book your ticket. The public ferry is the cheapest and costs only a few dollars for a trip. However, the boats depart less frequently and only when there are enough passengers.
If you don’t want wait for the ferry then there is also the option to go by private speed boat at Bangsal. The vendors will definitely try to rip you off. Just keep in mind that you shouldn’t pay more than 100,000 Rupiah per person and no matter what you do, NEVER buy a return deal.
Chill on the Beach
Obviously, the best thing you can do when visiting an island off an island is to chill out on the beach! Motorised vehicles are strictly prohibited on Gili Air however there are beautiful beaches in every which direction and they are all walking distance.
I prefer beaches that have a bit more of a crowd, where you can rent a chair and sip on some coffee. So, if that is also your thing, then head to the beaches on the southeast of the island. My personal favourite was to hang out at the Zipp Bar. They have the most comfortable beach chairs, serve espresso coffee and they make a mean mojito!
If you would like to lounge on something cosier and where it is a lot quieter, then head up to the northeast beaches. Chill out at the Legend Bar with a choco-banana smoothie and snooze on their pristine-white cushions between dips in the sea.
For all you young hipsters and backpackers, the southwest beaches are for you because they have cheap drinks and are situated near the hostels and budget accommodation. I don’t mind Mowie’s where you can get a really good coffee whilst sun baking.
I would be amiss not to mention the almost famous swing sets of Gili Air. There are four on each corner of the island and they draw quiet a queue during low tide due to the Instagram factor.
Snorkelling is the big thing on Gili Air. For around $10 you can book a popular half-day group snorkelling trip. The group size is capped at roughly 30 people and the boat departs at 9am in the morning. You will stop off at four different snorkelling spots in and around all three Gili islands. There is no need to book in advance and you will save money if you just buy a ticket at the pier a day before.
The waters here are a brilliant aquamarine colour and are so incredibly warm and clean. It is a real pleasure to swim or simply float! Snorkelling is a great chance to spend a day in water (don’t forget your sunscreen!) and you might see a turtle or two. But the highlight for me was discovering the Nest, an underwater sculpture created by underwater photographer Jason DeCaires Taylor, which acts as an artificial reef for corals to grow on it.
You can also hire a pair of snorkelling goggles and check out the marine life “freestyle” by just swimming around the Gili beaches yourself. Particularly off the eastern beaches of Gili Air, it is quite possible to see turtles without going too deep.
Get a Massage
After too much swim and sun, there is nothing better than a relaxing massage, an invigorating body scrub or a soothing aloe vera facial! The massage prices on Gili Air are reasonable, costing on average $15-20 for an hour. However the expertise of the staff can vary greatly.
My top recommendation is the Beach Spa Gili Air, located right off the beach. I had a facial here as my face seriously needed some moisture after getting sunburnt. I laid back in one of the massage chairs outside and the beautician rubbed fragrant mosquito repellent on my arms and legs. I enjoyed cool breezes and listening to the sounds of the surf as beautiful-smelling lotions and potions were applied to my face. The facial ended with the best head, arm and shoulder rub I’ve ever had. What an experience!
The Jasmine Spa, located on the main road in the middle of the island, is also recommended. The masseuses give a very firm massage and will press away all your aches and pains.
Watch the Sunset
One of the finest things to do on Gili Air is to wile away the time with a cocktail in hand, watching the sunset. The sunsets here are magical and in the space of one or two hours you can witness the skies and waters change a million different colours, from blue to pink to orange to dusky brown! For the most comfortable vantage point, head to the Mirage Bar at the northeast of the island and order one of their mouthwatering pineapple mojitos. Life does not get much better than that!
Gili Air attracts a different type of tourist. There are not too many families or loud groups of youths celebrating hen and stag dos. There are an inordinate number of solo travellers and organic-types visiting the Gili islands. Perhaps that is why Gili Air has some first-rate yoga studios. If you are a passionate yogi, or are looking for a low-effort way to burn some of those cocktail calories, then start your day with an early morning yoga session.
The Flowers & Fire studio is impressive. Imagine lots of lush and carefully cultivated greenery decorating the grounds. The physical studio is made from bamboo and feels like a grownup treehouse. Needless to say, all the instructors are world class delivering yoga classes daily that last for 90 minutes each.
If you’d prefer a one hour yoga session, then check out the H20 Yoga Meditation Centre instead. The grounds are not as beautiful as it has a hostel-like feel to it, but the ambience is really cool and kinda hippyish. After your done, you can order one of their amazing healthy smoothies from the cafe.
Cafe & Bar Hopping
There are so many great cafes on Gili Air. If you are sick of swimming then you could seriously spend an entire day just cafe hopping. Gili Bliss is my top choice because the decor is so chic – think pineapple meets girlie pink. They don’t serve any espresso coffee but they have local coffee (try it if you dare) otherwise the smoothes are to die for! I love the Brown Lady, which is a blend of raw chocolate, organic peanut butter, banana and coconut water. It tasted like a healthy version of milo!
But if coffee is not your thing and you’d rather something more alcoholic or mind-altering… then visit Shantidelic Space Bar. It doesn’t get busy until late in the evening and they have a range of spirits, beer and “other” stuff. The glow-in-the-dark wall paintings are something else!
Have a Chicken Dinner
I don’t rate the food on Gili Air much. I mean sure, they have some good brunch options but the dinner options are surprisingly poor. I mean, I was actually served beef satay made with peanut butter and ketchup… need I say more?!
However there is one exceptional little place in the middle of the island called I Am Bagus. Their menu is simple – just roast chicken and salads but boy, do they do it well! Their chicken is juicy and plump, richly seasoned with herbs and sea salt, and the skin is crisped to perfection. We ordered a large side salad made of fresh tomato, cucumber, healthy seeds, crumbly feta and watermelon. Mmmmmm, my mouth is watering just thinking about it. My dinner at I Am Bagus was the best chicken dinner I have had in years and the price was super cheap!
Take a Cooking Class
Learn about Indonesian food and cooking techniques by attending a cooking class on Gili Air! Okay… you probably won’t learn much but you will have fun. Gili Air cooking studio is right by the main pier and for around $30 a person you will make four simple dishes, eat some food and hang out with other travellers. You can also buy a beer from the fridge! If you want to learn more about what I cooked during my cooking lesson, visit my blog here.
If you have been chasing the real “island paradise” holiday dream and have never managed to find it, then give Gili Air a chance. It is the real deal – beautiful vistas, warm waters and plenty of things to see, do, eat and drink. The best time of year to visit is in May when the rainy season has ended and just before the tourist season begins.