For our last big vacation, we traveled through Malaysia, Indonesia, and southern Thailand, and during one leg of the trip, we met a friendly German guy who’d been on the road for months. Tanned skin, wild hair, he was the kind of guy who literally did not own shoes because he’d been living the island life for so long.
We got to talking and it turned out he was getting his dive master certification out on the Indonesian island of Gili Air…right where we were headed!
We told him we’d just been in Bali and that we decided to pass up visiting the bigger, party-island of Gili Trawangan (aka Gili T.) in favor of the less crowded Gili Air. With that, he said he immediately liked us. According to him, we adhered to his three step travel theory, which I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since. He told us…
I follow the three step rule when I travel, always visiting the third step away from the easy, popular destination. For example, most people want to come to Indonesia and all they do is consider the first step: Bali. It’s the obvious choice. Then there are the people who go one step further and decide to head somewhere off the coast of Bali, probably Gili T. From there, there are people who go to the third step: Gili Air. At the third step, he said, you’ll find people like him and like us…people who want to step away, relax, live.
I love this concept. I love the idea of being three steps away from it all. It seems like the perfect distance from the obvious choice — just touristy enough to be comfortable but far enough removed to feel special and new.
For us, Gili Air was the perfect third step.
Even though we really loved Bali, we had heard so many great things about the Gili Islands that we knew we had to see them. They’re just like Bali used to be, people said. Some of the best diving in the world, bloggers raved.
And they were all right. It was spectacular.
Gili Air is one of three little islands just off the coast of Lombok, Indonesia where motorized transport and dogs are forbidden (hooray for a break from scary street dogs!). It also happens to have a gorgeous view of the mountains on Lombok and some of the most beautiful little beaches I’ve ever seen…crystal clear water with perfect soft sand.
You could walk around the entire island in about an hour since it is so tiny, and if we had been more ambitious we probably would have done that walk ourselves. However, we decided to be luxuriously lazy and do practically nothing for the three days we were there. You could also hire one of the many horse-drawn carriages or rent a bike to ride around the island! We’re cheapskates so we didn’t do either, but I imagine it’s really fun!
Getting to Gili Air
To get to Gili Air, we flew to Lombok and stayed overnight (not recommended), then took a public boat from Bangsal Harbor on Lombok’s north coast to the island the next morning. The boat itself was super cheap (10,000 IDR, or less than $1 USD) but it took some negotiating to actually get that price…
Pro-Tip: Do not buy Gili tickets from the first little shop you see on the road down to the Bangsal harbor. They will tell you flat out that they are the only company that sells boat tickets and that they need 50 people before the boat will leave. That is absolutely not true, and we almost fell for it. Make sure you walk all the way down to the water before you buy tickets and make sure you’re getting the public boat price. If you’re really in a time crunch, you can charter your own boat but that can be pricey, so we didn’t mind waiting the 45 minutes for the boat to depart.
When we finally did board and leave Bangsal harbor, our boat was packed to the gills with people and a ton of random supplies. Seemed pretty dangerous, to be honest, but luckily, the water was calm which made for an uneventful 15 minute ride to the island.
If you do this trip, make sure to be prepared with a plastic bag or something to cover your valuables on the boat ride over, since the waves did spray us a little even on a calm day.
Also, be conscious of the luggage you’re bringing with you. We only had our backpacks, which was hard enough, and I think anything more wouldn’t be worth the hassle. We did see one guy lug a 50 lb. rolling suitcase onto the boat (with the help of some locals), but it looked difficult to manuever and took up a lot of space in the crowd. Not fun.
Where We Stayed
We kept right on budget with our $20 USD room at Gili Air Santay guesthouse, located smack dab in the middle of the island’s east side. We had a cute, private beach bungalow set a little ways back from the main dirt road that lines the island, but still only a 2 minutes walk to the beach.
Gili Air Santay Pros:
- Good price
- Soft bed with mosquito netting
- Fan included
- Plumbing that could handle toilet paper (not always the case in SE Asia!)
- Awesome front porch with a hammock
- Great location near a ton of restaurants
- Cold water showers (worst. thing. ever!)
- Thin walls let a lot of noise in
- No wifi in the room or the restaurant
- Wrong side for the sunset
Activities on Gili Air
We spent the entirety of our time eating delicious food, sipping fruity island-inspired drinks, lazing on the beach, floating in the gentle waves, and catching amazing sunsets.
My favorite stretch of beach was right in front of Scallywags restaurant on the southeast-ish side of the island. You had to spend a minimum amount at the restaurant to use their beach chairs, and we ain’t rich folk, so we just lounged on the warm sand. It was lovely.
Everyday around 3 o’clock, right on cue, there was a small rain shower. This gave us the perfect opportunity to take a break from the sun, read a book on our bungalow’s front porch while swinging in our hammock, listening to the storm. And it always stopped just in time for us to make our way over to the other side of the island for the sunset.
The west side is (obviously) where you want to start heading to catch the sunset. On our first evening, we walked over there about an hour before the sun started going down and were surprised to find that side of the island had a crazy sandbar that came right up to shore…You could walk straight out into the ocean for a really far distance and the water would never reach higher than your calves. Even David, Mr. Hawaii, said he’d never seen a sandbar like it. The best part was how clear the water was…we easily caught sightings of a seastar (exciting!) and a little sea-snake (second one on this trip! ick!).
The waves all around the island were definitely my pace (meaning, there were none at all). I loved it. There’s also supposed to be great diving and snorkeling, but we didn’t get the chance to do either. We just focused on doing, well, nothing. And it was paradise.