The Gili Islands (fondly known as ‘the gilis’) are small islands nestled between the Indian and Pacific Ocean just off the coast of Lombok in Indonesia. They are only a few hours fast boat ride from Bali.
We were long overdue a family holiday and although we all dreamt of going to the UK for Christmas, we decided on a last-minute trip to Gili Air (one of the larger islands).
So we arrived to the Gilis a few days before Christmas with nothing booked, which was both exciting and scary at the same time. We love an adventure. Ok, let me rephrase that. The husband loves an adventure. I prefer the simplicity of pre-booked accommodation anytime.
There is no motorised transport on Gili Air, which was a breath of fresh air after the noise and traffic in Bali. Tourists get to ride around on carts pulled by horses and carts, which was one of Finley’s favourite parts of Gili Air. On the first night, we easily found somewhere to stay but it was fully booked for Christmas Eve and Christmas.
The funnest part of Gili Air – no transport only mules
So there we were clip-clopping around Gili Air on horse and cart with all our luggage on Christmas Eve looking for an inn, I mean accommodation and finally we found an option. It was quite a bit more expensive than our beach shack budget that we had for the Christmas break, but it was an exciting little indulgence for Christmas – a two-storey little wooden accommodation in Sunrise Resort.
The Sunrise Resort is right on the main swimming beach in Gili Air, has a great restaurant and the pool is great for kids. We stayed in room 10 at the back. We heard the call to prayer from the adjacent mosque at 5am which didn’t disturb me too much, but it was quite early. Plus this was much nicer than the nearby techno music at the nearby Zipp Bar trance party playing until 2am on Christmas Eve.
The accommodation itself though felt like staying on a pirate ship, Upstairs and downstairs – a little tricky to get upstairs with little ones, as the stairs were ladders, but fun nonetheless. The downstairs bathroom was very outdated and a little dirty considering the price. Upstairs was a four-poster bed with mosquito net and air conditioned with a small seating area balcony.
You can rent push bikes and some with baby seats are available. It’s a tricky jaunt around the circumference of the island as approximately one-third is sand, but it’s lots of fun nonetheless. A bit of a trek, but still a pleasant walk even pushing the bike. It’s about a 45 minute cycle around the whole island but there are also a path through the middle of the island which is much easier and faster to navigate. Bike hire is between 30,000 to 50,00 Rupiah depending on the age and size of the bike.
As we visited during rainy season the visibility wasn’t so great for snorkelling and of course the weather was unpredictable which meant that some days you couldn’t go out on a boat. We were fortunate enough to get to swim with turtles off of Gili T on one of the many organized snorkelling day trips. The boat was glass-bottomed and (somewhat) suitable for little kids, but be careful because often they overfill the boat and I highly suggest bringing your own child-size life jacket as often they don’t have smaller sizes. Also bring a few little snacks and some water.
The currents were pretty strong too so I also highly recommend wearing flippers when you snorkel (snorkelling gear usually comes with the price of the trip) and double-check your equipment in the shop before you leave. My flippers were way too big, but I didn’t realise this until I was off the boat and they were falling off my feet while I was snorkelling. Trips usually leave early in the morning and we found our just beside The Waterside just opposite a crepe shop. (Update though – We went back to arrange another group snorkelling trip with our friends and rent our own boat. I asked a number of times about the black clouds I saw on the horizon and if it was still ok to go out in the ocean, especially with small children. We were told over and over that it would be ok because we were heading to Gili T and Gili Meno and the storm was on Lombok. We went out on the outrigger and after about 15 minutes attempting to cross to the other island, the clouds got darker above us and the waves began to get higher. It was seriously choppy and terrifying and despite a few sing songs of Row Row The Boat, it was clear getting to the other island was not a good idea. We finally told the driver to take us back to Gili Air as some of the children were crying and a few of us adults had white knuckles. Thank goodness everyone had life vests on, although thankfully we didn’t have to use them. When we got back to the place where we rented the boat (beside Waterside) we complained to the boat owner as we had paid a lot of money for the day trip and his guarantee that it was safe to go out on the sea, particularly with small children, was just not cool. So perhaps better to go on the organized trips in our experience.
After snorkelling in Gili T, we then went to Gili Meno for lunch. There’s a few places to eat for lunch but I immediately disliked how many vendors were aggresively accosting us (guess they are used to day visitors) but it was more so than on Gili Air.
Double rainbows on Boxing Day over Gili Air. Marking 10 years since the devastating Tsunami hit Southeast Asia
Sunset beach walks were a nightly occurance
Our little three year old enjoying swims with Turtles off of Gili T
At the harbour in Gili Meno
The funnest part of Gili Air – no transport only mules
Christmas Eve and we set off on a horse and cart looking for acccommodation
Santa came and brought our fairy some wings
The simplicity of not having to get motorised transport on the island for nearly two weeks was an indulgence and made the whole trip perfect for little ones. You are always literally a stones throw from the beach.
Christmas was super chilled and laid back. On Christmas Ever we laid out some peanuts and water for santa and slept in our cozy four poster bed. On Christmas morning, Finley found a few little presents from Santa, including her fairy wings and wand which she proudly wore on the beach all day. Our Christmas dinner was pizza and pasta and a few bintangs.
Getting To Gili Air From Bali With Kids
To get to any of the Gilis from Bali, you can take a fast boat from Sanur or Padang Bai. Please note that during the rainy season, it can get very choppy. I mean very choppy. The waves were so bad on the way back that the boats were cancelled one morning. Alternatively, you can get a fast boat across to Lombok and fly back to Bali.
You can prebook your ferry together with a taxi pickup from various location around Bali. Tickets vary depending on agents, but expect to pay anywhere between 50-90 USD two ways. The speedboats stops at all three islands so it can take some time to get to your chosen island. On our journey, we arrived at Gili T, then Lombok, then on to Gili Air.
On the way back we had a few palavas with transport. The boats can be overbooked – particularly if you book through an agent. Which means that we were bumped from our boat and had to buy another ticket and get our refund through the agent.
The biggest (and only) disappointment with Gili Air was the rubbish problem. A common problem throughout Indonesia. As I walked at sunset from the Sunrise beach to the beach near the harbour it was literally as if a garbage truck had dumped plastic waste straight into the sea. A few tourists and staff from the nearby diving resort where helping clear the rubbish into bins, while local staff from the nearby bar were sweeping all the rubbish on the beach into nice neat piles in front of the ocean, and allowing it to be gobbled back up by the sea. When I enquired what he was doing, he told me, ‘All the rubbish comes over from Lombok. They throw everything in the sea and it comes back to us, so I am just (sic) send it back’. I wonder if someone on the other side of the water in Lombok is saying and doing the same thing. And so the game of rubbish ping pong continues.
Despite the rubbish, dodgy weather, snorkelling trip gone wrong, getting stranded during a storm and other mishaps, we still loved Gili Air and cannot wait to return.