Your Guide to What Could Be the Most Perfect Island Paradise
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you don’t know what fast is until you’ve slowed down.
By Sanjena Sathian
On her first day in Bali, my friend Charishma was surprised. There was a lot of honking. She was in Ubud, home to all mimickers of Eat, Pray, Love — shouldn’t this feel slow, like a deep-tissue massage for the soul? She and I live in Mumbai, where traffic never ceases and a quiet night means one with just a honk a minute instead of 15 every 60 seconds. Though Charishma knew of a few places in Ubud to find peace, she decided to get out — to a little island between Bali and Lombok called Gili Air.
Home to fewer than 2,000 locals, Gili Air is traversable in about 90 minutes, if you’re walking slowly. And you have to walk, bike or hitch a ride on one of the bumpy horse-drawn taxis. No cars, no motorbikes. I found myself on Gili Air in April, overlapping with Charishma for an evening. We were mellow and deep-chocolate-tanned, and strolled from the southwest corner of the island where the sun was setting across white-sand beaches, stopping for fresh pineapple juice and tempeh curry.
Inland, the island smells like childhood summers — bamboo, humidity, sunscreen.
Gili Air has plenty of activities, despite its size. You can take a sunset float on a paddleboard, possibly careening sideways into the mostly flat sea. Dive schools abound, and sun-kissed Europeans studying for their PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certifications are a common sight. You can snorkel with turtles or ride in a glass-bottomed boat. Or, if you’re like me, you can consider most of the aforementioned activities briefly, and then bid your travel FOMO goodbye. Sitting here with the crystal azure-and-jade waters feels enough. When your butt has made too permanent an impression on your beach chair, get up and walk until you arrive back where you started.
Inland, the island smells like childhood summers — bamboo, humidity, sunscreen. I frequented yoga classes at the two main spots on the island, H20 Yoga and Mandala Blue. At the latter, try Fly High aerial yoga; the former hosts a Hatha class using bamboo sticks to improve alignment and balance. There’s also aqua yoga in H20’s pool, which is not like old folks’ water aerobics. Owner Jon Meston, an Australian who opened H20 in May 2011, learned the bamboo practice at a retreat with Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh in Thailand. The aqua yoga, which he started at Christmas, was just kind of obvious, given the pool and the name, he says.
Meston is fresh from Bali when I meet him, and he’s happy to be back. “Gili Air provides the opportunity to slow down,” he says. “You can’t go faster than walking or biking rate.” He’s keenly aware of the buzz and bumps of motorbikes when he leaves the island.
Unlike Meston, most of the so-called locals working on Gili Air live back in the bustle on Lombok proper. Fatima Ibrahim, the manager of one of the island’s most popular restaurants, Pachamama, says commuting via a short ferry ride to Gili Air is a good deal for Lombokians. Gili Air is one of three Gili Islands — Gili Meno is the smallest; Gili Trawangan is the best known, beloved for its parties. Ibrahim, who is Muslim like most Lombokians, says her family wouldn’t let her work on Gili T, as it’s known.
Paradise, of course, is imperfect. Because of the dearth of true locals, Gili Air doesn’t offer many opportunities for cultural immersion. And though the island feels tranquil to outsiders, Meston says it’s grown more crowded over the past five years. When I ask him if that bothers him, though, he gives me the kind of Enlightened Smile that apparently comes from years in the Gili Air sun. “It’s the law of impermanence,” he says of the shift. “Change is inevitable.”
How to get there:
- A quick ferry from Amed, in Bali, or the northwest corner of Lombok will do the trick. Most hotels in Amed offer an airport pickup from Denpasar. Expect to ride about three hours to reach quiet, forgettable Amed — a town best for diving and little else.
- Lombok has its own airport, and shuttles run from Senggigi and Kuta Lombok to the harbor.
Where to stay:
- A budget single at Scallywags Smugglers is about $23 a night.
- Homestays are also an option — book these when you arrive by wandering in, looking scraggly and backpackery.
- On the northern side of the island, beachside bungalows sprawl, with a Hobbitsy aesthetic. For these, you’ll pay upwards of $50.
Where to eat:
- Restaurants along the beach have almost indistinguishable menus of typical Indonesian curries with fresh seafood. Waterfront is among the favorites.
- Pachamama is an organic, vegan-friendly option on the northern side of the island, offering California-style cuisine with local ingredients (tempeh, tempeh, tempeh!). Try topping a smoothie with Borneo bee pollen.
- Classico is an authentic pizza spot run by Italian expats. It’s nestled inland, about five minutes from the harbor.