Beyond Bali: Exploring the island of Gili Trawangan in Lombok, Indonesia

2 December 2016

The island archipelago known as the Gilis are one of the most popular destinations in Lombok, the region of Indonesia that many call 'the unspoilt Bali'. Alexia Santamaria goes exploring on the biggest island of the group, Gili Trawangan.

Gili Trawangan, Lombok, Indonesia A beach at Gili Trawangan with nearby Gili Meno island in the distance. Photo: Marcos Welsh/Getty Images

 

As we disembarked the boat at the island of Gili Trawangan, several things struck me. Firstly, 'That may just be the clearest, bluest water I have ever seen' followed swiftly by 'Wow, there are a lot of tourists on those other boats too' and, after dragging our cases to the main street, 'Gee, there really are quite a few twenty-somethings rocking bikinis with their shirtless men." As a woman whose twenty-something days are a couple of decades back, some of this was slightly disconcerting at first, but I soon found out there were plenty of ways to enjoy this incredible island, no matter your age.

Gili Trawangan is part of a small archipelago off the coast of Lombok in Indonesia (the other two islands are called Gili Meno and Gili Air). It attracts the majority of the tourists to the three islands and is definitely set up with this in mind. Some years ago it may have been off the beaten track, but now it's incredibly popular and the streets are lined with cafes and bars geared to Western tourists. While this is sad in some ways, it's still possible to interact with the local population if you dig a bit deeper.

Gili Trawagan, Lombok, Indonesia A busy street in central Gili Trawangan. Photo: Alexia Santamaria

 

A great way to get your bearings is to hire a bicycle. Gili Trawangan is car-free so the only ways to get around are by foot, horse and cart, or bike. You can hire a bike from vendors in the centre but we got ours from our hotel. We cycled away from the main strip straightaway, a good decision as we got to experience the calmer side of the island first and only needed to navigate the hustle and bustle of the centre at the end of our ride, when we were used to Gili Trawangan’s uneven roads. Cycling the main strip involves dodging tourists, other bikes, and horse and carts, so it's nice to get your confidence up first. It takes an hour to an hour and a half to circumnavigate the island and is really worth doing early in your stay.

Our accommodation was on the southeastern side of the island, a perfect location. The beach was magnificent all day – around the other side it's more tidal – and it was away from the madness of the party crowd at night. If you have kids or older people in your group, it's advisable to stay slightly away from the centre (unless grandma really likes to let her hair down!). If you're free, young and single there’s plenty of fun to be had in the centre with a wide range of loud, active bars to choose from.

Gili Trawangan, Lombok, Indonesia 3 The night market. Photo: Alexia Santamaria

 

This central shopping and nightlife area is lively and fun, with vendors selling street corn, cafes, a turtle hatchery – a conservation project – and various shops and spas. Massage is incredibly affordable and I went to Xquisite Spa (yes I did choose it based on the spelling) every day for reflexology or a massage on their gorgeous tables with a view out to a sparkling azure sea. Make sure you tip – several conversations with staff made me realise that local wages aren't high and a little extra on your part will go a long way in their world.

We loved the buzz around the small central market square in the evenings. This is the best place to try the local cuisine. Nasi Campur is a really popular local dish; it's basically rice with a bunch of other bits and pieces (spiced veggies, peanuts, sambal, fried shrimp or whatever the vendor has on offer that day). We adored the sweet vendor’s Indonesian coconut cakes and other local treats as well.

Gili Trawangan, Lombok, Indonesia 4 The Pearl of Trawangan restaurant. Photo: Alexia Santamaria

 

For fancier meals we ventured to the restaurants at Kokomo's and the Pearl of Trawangan (both resorts) where we really enjoyed the eastern/western mix and good quality fresh ingredients, in particular the seafood at Kokomo’s. The Pearl of Trawangan is especially good for cocktails and eats in their open-style restaurant right at the water's edge. It’s magical eating and drinking with that backdrop, any time of day. Another fun place to dine is Casa Vintage; while a little further out, it's worth the trip for a total experience including sunsets, a vintage clothing shop, rustic outdoor seating and Caribbean food. Sounds odd for an Indonesian island, but it works really well.

Gili Trawangan, Lombok, Indonesia 5 A bar at Turtle Point, Gili Trawangan. Photo: Alexia Santamaria

 

Perhaps my favourite place on the island was Turtle Point. It’s on the northeastern coast, past the end of the shopping area, and is filled with tiki-style huts run by locals. You can while away hours reading in a bean bag, snorkelling in the sea (yes there are turtles in the water; several of our family swam with these gentle giants and were blown away by the experience), drinking fresh juices and eating local food. We went several times in the morning and were sometimes the only people there. You don’t have to pay to rent the huts but it’s expected you’ll buy food from the adjoining vendor – at Gili prices this will hardly break the bank.

Gili Trawangan is definitely worth a visit. Although the true Indonesian experience has been eroded somewhat by the bias towards the tourist dollar, its stunning beaches, friendly people, tasty food, pretty resorts, great spa treatments and interesting shopping are undeniably enjoyable. And if you really talk to the local people and watch them interact with each other, you’ll still see Indonesia in flashes – at the night markets, in groups of horse and cart drivers joking and teasing each other, in the local shops where children have afternoon naps on sarongs on the floor. When you get a real true Gili Trawangan smile, not the obliging tourist version, you’ll know all about it, and keep going back for more.

Alexia Santamaria

Alexia Santamaria is a freelance writer for the NZ Herald, Metro, Next and others, focusing primarily on food and travel. Her past includes two years living in Narita, Japan, one year in London and another in Glasgow. She now calls Auckland home.