Expat Living reader Karola Clark discovers Lombok’s tropical (and well-priced!) charm on a family trip to Indonesia’s Gili Islands, just off the the coast of Lombok.
My daughter stood perfectly still, entranced by the tiny hermit crab that had just emerged from the shell she was about to pick up. It made a determined march towards the ocean, with my daughter close behind. Together we watched as the gentle waves picked up the crab and deposited him among the coral and seagrass.
There may be a lack of large five-star resorts with kids’ clubs, but the rustic beauty of the Gili Islands gives children a taste of nature’s magic. There are long stretches of beach with water so clear that you can watch from the shore as fish swim in the shallows. On one of our walks, a school of baby black-tipped reef sharks cruised alongside us for a few metres, before darting back to the cover of the seagrass beds.
Three island paradises
Just a few kilometres off the coast of Lombok in Indonesia, the three Gili Islands (Gili Trawangan, Gili Air and Gili Meno) can be reached via a two-hour speedboat from Bali, or a 90-minute drive and 15-minute speedboat from Lombok Airport.
Nestled between Bali’s Mount Agung and Lombok’s Mount Rinjani, the Gili Islands enjoy a drier microclimate than most of Indonesia, although there is a rainy season from November to March. High season is in July and August.
The three islands are perfect for those who want a relaxed, rustic island escape on a budget. Although Wi-Fi, hot water and air-conditioning are all widely available, they are sometimes patchy. There’s no motorised transport, so you get around the islands on foot, by bicycle or by horse-drawn cart.
Gili Trawangan is the largest of the three islands, and has a reputation as a backpacker party hotspot. We chose to stay on the slightly smaller and quieter Gili Air for our family vacation.
The real drawcard of the Gilis is underwater. Coral reefs and seagrass beds surround the islands, creating an ideal environment for turtles. Massive green and hawksbill turtles call the area home. Mark Cornell, manager of Gili Air’s Aus Diving Academy, told us, “Green sea turtles are the largest in the world and can live to 150 years of age. We have a number of them that are over 100 years old and weigh around 300kg.” You don’t even need to be a diver to see them; they can be spotted while snorkelling too.
Daily diving and snorkelling trips can be arranged by one of the many dive centres on the island. An organised allday trip can cost as little as S$15, but we were five people so we organised a private boat, which cost about $80 for three hours. We’d spent less than five minutes in the water when we spotted the first turtle. All up, we saw eight large turtles across the three snorkelling sites we visited.
The waters around the Gilis also host stingrays, white-tipped and black-tipped reef sharks, lion fish, frog fish, stingrays, sea snakes, titan triggerfish, bump-head parrot fish and a veritable aquarium of other species.
Snorkelling the 28-degree water is not taxing. We simply drifted along with the slow current, no wetsuits necessary. It’s perfect for kids who are confident in the water, and older kids can try scuba for the first time; over-eights can do the PADI “Bubblemaker” programme, and kids over ten can do their Open Water Diver certification.
If, like us, you have very young children that are not yet swimmers, they can still get in on the underwater action. Ask one of the dive shops about chartering a glass bottomed boat. The boat will slow down over the reef areas, allowing the kids to see shoals of fish through the “window” in the boat’s deck.
One of our first activities was walking a leisurely lap of Gili Air’s 6km perimeter. The southern part of the island is relatively busy, with restaurants, dive shops and small resorts lining the beachfront. As we got closer to the northern beaches, it grew quieter and resorts became sparser. The scenic stroll was a great way to orientate ourselves and discover the beaches, bars and cafés around the island.
You can rent bicycles to get around, including some with child seats. But as some parts of the “road” occasionally dissolve into sandy beach track, it can be a bit of a slog for the less fit cyclists. Another option is horse-drawn cart, which my toddler loved.
We spent a lazy afternoon at one of the beachfront restaurants while our toddler and baby dug in the sand, hunted for seashells, swung from hammocks and tried out the Instagram-worthy ocean swings.
The trip to the northern beaches is particularly rewarding in the late afternoon. We took advantage of cheap cocktails at the Scratch Beach Club’s happy hour, and settled down on their comfy loungers to watch the golden sunset with views over neighbouring Gili Meno.
For those looking for more of a physical challenge, there are several freediving (“breath-hold” diving) schools on the islands. Other water sports like stand-up paddle boarding are also popular. The Gilis are a yoga hotspot too, with yoga retreats on both Gili Trawangan and Gili Air. Try Gili Air’s H2O Yoga, which offers yoga classes and meditation for all levels.
We spent a morning exploring the interior of Gili Air, where shady paths meander through forested areas and little villages. Some of the island’s best restaurants and resorts are found away from the livelier beachfront stretch. There’s even a couple of Indonesian cooking schools if you want to learn the local cuisine for yourself.
A boat tour to visit the best spots on Gili Trawangan and Gili Meno was another highlight. My daughter was captivated by the baby turtles at the small turtle sanctuary on Gili Meno. With its abundance of white sand beaches, a lack of development and smaller crowds, parts of Gili Meno feel like a true lost-island paradise.
If your muscles are a bit sore, or your skin needs some care after all the snorkelling and sun-tanning, avail yourself of a $10 massage or body scrub at one of the many Turtle image: Aus Diving Academy massages houses around the island.
Once the sun goes down, check out an open-air movie from loungers on the sand. Several resorts offer movie screenings, from family movies to the latest blockbusters. Just keep an eye out for movie night billboards on your strolls. Live music and DJs are frequent too. We spent a couple of evenings at the Bel Air Resort’s beachfront restaurant, dancing to rock and reggae cover bands.
Feeling more adventurous? Ask the dive shops about a night-dive to explore the nocturnal marine life. Non-divers can get a waterproof torch for a nighttime snorkel, but be sure to check with experienced local snorkellers or divers for any dangerous currents or spots to avoid.
A must-try eatery tucked away in Gili Air’s back streets is Ruby’s Café. Ruby, the Indonesian head chef, makes mouth-wateringly good local curries and Australian beef burgers.
The wide availability of good, cheap local food means you can feed your family for less than $10 per person per day. Warung Lalapan Sapa does more-ish fried chicken and fish for a few dollars, and Warung Bambu 1 offers the local speciality martabak, a delicious roti-like stuffed fried flatbread with chicken, egg and herbs, for under $4.
Slightly more upmarket is the Scallywags Resort nightly barbecue, where you choose your meat or fish from the display and help yourself to their excellent salad bar. If your kids have less adventurous palates, wood-fired pizza, hamburgers and french fries are ubiquitous and cheap. Try the Waterfront Café for freshly-baked baguettes.
A stroll to the Gili Gelato shop was the highlight of my daughter’s afternoon, while another favourite was Scooperific Café’s Nutella and banana crepes served in their tree-house-like café.
Where to sleep
Accommodation on Gili Air ranges from backpacker hostels to private villas, but all at very wallet-friendly rates. Many hotels accommodate their guests in lumbung bungalows, a traditional hut prominent in Lombok architecture.
We stayed at the Bel Air Resort in a Deluxe Room for $110 per night. It was just big enough to fit a king-sized bed, the toddler on a fold-out bed and the baby in a cot. If you want to stay in a traditional lumbung, the Turtle Beach Hotel’s Family Deluxe bungalow offers modern comforts in a traditional setting from $120 a night.
For something a little bit more luxurious, try the two-room Family Suite at Sunrise Beach Resorts, priced from around $180 a night.
• Aus Diving Academy’s (adadivinggiliair.com) three day PADI Open Water Certification costs 5,500,000 IDR (approximately S$550). They offer a 10 percent discount for pre-booking any dives or courses before your arrival.
• Numerous companies offer daily speedboat transfers for the two hour trip from Bali to the Gilis. Try Bluewater Express (bluewaterexpress.com; around $140 return). From Lombok, organise a taxi or private van transfer for the 1.5-hour drive to Bangsal Harbour (your Gili Air hotel can help arrange this, or just book a taxi on arrival at the airport). At the harbour, book a ferry or private speedboat to Gili Air. For our party of four adults and two children, the car and boat transfer cost around $160 return
Like this? Read more at our travel section.
4 easy Malaysian road trips from Singapore
Family holidays: The best child friendly resorts in Asia
5 reasons to take a break at the St Regis