Monday, March 4, 2013

Vacationing on the Water, Part I: The Gili Islands

It is cold in Chicago.  It has been cold the entire time I've been here.  Every night, I curl up on my couch under my Red Sox fleece blanket and imagine being somewhere warm.  To indulge my fantasy, let me recommend some of the best tropical/seaside locations I've visited in the past few years.  Maybe you can escape to one of them soon.

Longboats on the beach
The Gili Islands, Indonesia

My favorite part of these three islands near Bali is that there are no cars or motorbikes.  People get around on bicycles or horse-drawn carts.  Though there is the risk of getting trampled by a pony, I loved not having motorbikes sneak up behind me.  Maybe because of this, the water seemed extra blue and the beaches extra clean.  Gili Trawangan, the largest of the three islands, is still small enough that you can walk around the entire coastline in an afternoon.  The main road is lined with hotels, guest houses, restaurants and snorkeling companies.  Eric and I spent six nights on Gili Trawangan, and I could have happily spent another few days.  



Looking out from Gili Trawangan to Lombok, the closest big island
I loved the two shades of blue in the water
It's not an action-packed place.  Our most adventurous day was taking snorkeling tour around the three islands.  I saw more colorful fish than I ever imagined and I spotted a sea turtle.  Eric even got to see some clown fish, which let him pretend to "hunt Nemo."  Other afternoons we spent reading in beachfront cafés or on the front porch of our bungalow.  There are spas for people interested in getting pampered after a day in the sun and bike rental shops for those who want to tour the island on wheels.  At night, the bars along the main strip open late for just about any kind of party you could want.  From the reggae clubs (I do not understand why reggae is so incredibly popular in Southeast Asia) to the sleek cocktail bars to the Irish pubs, you can find somewhere to hang out and make new friends, at least for the evening.

Low tide at a beachfront café
The restaurants along the main road in Gili Trawangan vary widely from casual to fancy.  As in any major tourist destination, you can find western cuisine along with traditional Indonesia fare.  A night market near the pier offers nasi goreng, grilled fish and other dishes for those on a backpacker budget.  (My fried noodles cost around $3.)  For a nicer, sit-down meal, you can try one of several fresh seafood buffets at the higher-end hotels on the beach.  You choose your swordfish filet, tuna steak, or shellfish on offer, and then sip a drink at your table while the chefs grill it.  While these meals were a special treat for Eric and me, the bill for two of us was roughly $25.  That's another benefit of Gili; an excellent dinner out in Gili does not cost nearly what it would back in the US.

A nice dinner out right by the water
On that same note, the hotels in Gili are spectacular for the price they charge.  Eric and I ate lunch at Scallywags Resort frequently (every so often you need western food, and their tuna sandwich was spectacular) and their rooms were gorgeous, but out of our price range at 1,350,000 rupiah a night.  While that number might seem ridiculous at first, that comes out to about $140.  Eric and I got a deal on a private bungalow with its own pool, though the price was regularly around $100 a night.  As we walked past the beachfront entrances for the even nicer resorts, I kept telling Eric we had to come back when we weren't on such a strict budget. 


A private table on the beach at one of the resorts
The Gili Islands are high on my list of places to revisit soon.  I could see planning a romantic vacation there, a luxurious week with my best girlfriends, or even going on my own to snorkel and make new friends.  Getting to Indonesia takes some effort, but it is absolutely worth the trip.


I loved Indonesian food, but the tuna sandwiches were delicious
Getting there: The most direct trip from the US is likely to fly into Bali and then take a boat to whichever island of the three you want to visit.  The islands are a popular destination, so you can probably even book the trip through your hotel in Bali.  Once you're on the islands, there are frequent longboats that run between Gili Tawangan, Meno and Air.  A warning, though: the longboats are fast and low in the water, and riding in them was one of the more terrifying experiences of my life.

Where to stay: For those on a backpacker's budget, you can show up on the beach and find a homestay for about $20-$35 a night.  Get ready to pay extra for hot, freshwater showers.  If you're looking more for a relaxing, luxurious vacation spot, just Google "Gili Islands hotels" for your pick of gorgeous places running $75-$175 a night.

Practical Info: Though our copy of Lonely Planet claimed that the Gili Islands did not have any ATMs, there were a few right on the main drag.  You can get cash easily there. 


There were lots of cats and kittens wandering around Gili Trawangan.
This one in a sandwich shop showed Eric's bag what was what.
What are your favorite tropical destinations?

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