Images of desert islands, fringed by white-sandy beaches and coconut palms, floating in a turquoise sea are not at the forefront of your mind when contemplating Bali – but the Gili sister islands off the coast of Lombok mirror more exotic, exclusive and expensive places like the Maldives – without the hefty price tag.
The Gili islands have significant attraction in the current environment of travel adventures that are a little bit off the beaten track – and provide a more peaceful reprieve from some of the other touristy places in Bali. Here in lesser-known parts of Indonesia, there is a peacefulness that seems to eke from the mangroves and shallow turquoise waters. Infrastructure also seems to be developing at a slower pace with urban invasion more tasteful and less intrusive.
The three sister islands each has its own special character – Trawangan (universally known as Gili T) is the most cosmopolitan. With its upmarket accommodation and restaurants, it leans more to the chic tropical getaway. Gili Air has more of a laid-back Asian holiday style. Gili Meno provides the idyllic desert-island sojourn in a truly rustic setting.
Gili Trawangan ranks favourably alongside Bali and Borobudur as one of Indonesia's top destinations. Trawangan's main street consists of lots of bikes, tourists and a glitzy facade – but pull back the curtain and travel to the backstreets and discover authentic food stalls and relaxed live music retreats.
There are some larger-scale resorts beginning to emerge here but the majority of the island is still mostly pristine coastline – head just a little inland to discover peaceful, untouched villages. Gili T was 'discovered' about 50 years ago – with its white-sandy beaches and coral reefs, it was known as a tropical party island for a little while but diving seems to have emerged as this island's major drawcard.
Gili Meno is the smallest of the three islands and the perfect setting for those after a real sense of solitude and a need to get away far from the madding crowds. Even in high season, Meno still manages to retain plenty of space with no crowding. Most accommodation is scattered along the east coast, which also has the most beautiful beach on the island.
Closest to Lombok, Gili Air provides some creature comforts but the opportunity for some quiet time – a nice blend of its sister islands. Gili Air can also claim to have the whitest of sandy beaches and there's just a few restaurants and bars to give this little island hideaway some entertainment once the sun goes down. There is great snorkelling from anywhere on the island – even right from the 'main strip' – a narrow, sandy lane with a few bamboo bungalows and some little restaurants.
Gili Air's economy is sourced from local produce and the limited tourism that the island can currently support – for those wishing a simpler and quieter time in this beautiful part of the world, Gili Air certainly delivers.