Although Monique and I were drawn to Indonesia by its temples and volcanoes it was the beaches and diving of the Gili Islands that we were most excited about after hearing some great things about them. The Gili Islands are three islands off the North coast of Lombok which is, in turn, an island off the East coast of Bali. Gili Trawangan (a.k.a. Gili T by the cool kids) is known as the party island; Gili Meno is known as the quiet/romantic island; and Gili Air is somewhere in between. We decided to head to Gili Air first as it had more options for diving than Gili Meno, and we weren't really interested in partying with the youngsters on Gili T.
The fast boat from Bali takes only 2 hours but is extremely expensive for our budget, so we took the longer and cheaper option of a (very) slow ferry to Lombok followed by a taxi to Senggigi (which we shared with a Finnish guy we met on the ferry) where we stayed overnight before taking an early boat to Gili Air. We were a little concerned about arriving on the island without pre-booked accommodation because every guesthouse we had enquired with was full, and there are limited options on the small island. However, our concerns were unfounded as we immediately found a basic bungalow near to the harbour that met minimum requirements.
Our initial explorations revealed Gili Air to be a beautiful and fairly undeveloped island. By way of an example the island only has one ATM which rarely has any cash (fortunately we were pre-warned of this potential difficulty). It was certainly the relaxing place we were looking for, but to be super critical we were slightly disappointed by the beaches. The majority of development on the island is on the East coast which is almost entirely lined with beach-side restaurants/bars. Unfortunately the beach is very narrow (5-10m) and so there wasn't really any decent area of beach that wasn't directly overlooked by the people eating and drinking in the restaurants/bars. Not exactly the secluded bays we had hoped for. In addition, the sea around Gili Air has a very strong current which doesn't make it idea for taking a dip.
Whilst I had been on the dive course Monique had done some snorkelling immediately off the coast of Gili Air. After my course finished we went on a glass-bottomed boat trip around the islands to enjoy the snorkelling further out. The boat itself was a bit disappointing as the glass-bottomed element occupied only around 2 square metres of the boat, however we intended to be spending most of our time in the water, so this didn't prevent us from having a great day.
At the first snorkelling stop alone we saw 5 turtles, and we probably saw around a dozen throughout the day. They are stunningly beautiful creatures, and are so chilled-out that they let you swim along with them without reacting any more than giving a cursory glance over their shoulder (apart from when a couple of our fellow snorkellers decided they wanted to try to touch them, prompting a swift change of gear and an effortless getaway). Monique's highlight of the day (and one of the highlights of the whole trip) was just as we were returning to the boat and I spotted a turtle; Monique followed it and a few moments later the turtle surfaced just feet in front of her, and then again a moment later. Monique is convinced that the turtle knew that she needed cheering up.
On the other snorkelling stops we saw scores of beautiful tropical fish, and spectacular coral reefs. The wildlife around the Gilis is so rich and diverse that every moment you spend in the water there is so much to see that it's difficult to take it all in – I won't bore you by listing the various types of fish we saw, but it suffices to say that it was like being in the opening scenes of Finding Nemo (although it turns out that Nemo is pretty easy to find – virtually all of the large anemones were home to a family of clown fish). It was far and away the best snorkelling I have ever done.
The lunch stop on our boat trip was on Gili Meno, and was long enough for us to decide that we preferred the even less developed Meno and wanted to relocate there, and to locate a suitable guesthouse and make a reservation for the following day. Result!
In the evenings we were able to enjoy some beautiful sunsets whilst sitting out at one of the many bars/restaurants with seating on the beach.
I also loved the availability of fantastic seafood on Gili Air. Many of the beach-side restaurants had seafood barbeques in the evening where you could select what you wanted from that day's catch and have it cooked to your requirements. The food was fantastic, especially when combined with happy hour!
Our stay on Gili Air had not exactly been perfect; it wasn't quite the white-sand paradise that we had (perhaps unfairly) hoped for, and scuba diving had not gone to plan for Monique. Even so, it was a really memorable place for me, and had some great moments for Monique too.