Located off the coast of Bali, Lombok and the Gili Islands are an entirely different experience. Lombok is renowned for its trekking and diving and to access the Gilis, you drive across the island, taking in breathtaking views, lush forests and scores of monkeys. Itâ€™s tempting to stay, but I chose to continue on towards my destination, the Gili Islands.Â Gili Air and Gili T. cater to the backpacker crowds, hordes of young tourists descend for cheap arak cocktails and cheap, but spectacular, diving. Save yourself the exhausting ten-hour bus-ferry-bus-boat journey and stay in Kuta if this is what you are after.
Gili Meno, however, is different. Two kilometers in length, and a kilometer across, itâ€™s a tiny haven of peace and tranquility. There are no roads on the island, just sandy paths for the picturesque horse and carts decorated with brightly coloured tassels and bells. Its quiet sandy beaches look out over crystal clear waters. There are virtually no waves and you can easily spend days floating in the water, staring at the mountains of Bali and Lombok in the distance. Even if you forgo the fishing, snorkeling and diving trips on offer, its possible to see fish teeming around your feet. Or visit the Turtle Conservation Sanctuary of Gili Meno. Here, the impossibly tiny turtles born on the island grow in small pools, waiting until they are big enough to released into the oceans. Itâ€™s refreshingly un-touristy, just a small sign asking you not to feed or touch the turtles, and a display explaining the organizationâ€™s work. Itâ€™s wonderful to see these amazing creatures so close. Explore the coconut groves or the salt lake, where locals harvest salt in the dry season. Bring a good supply of books, sunscreen and a flashlight. Wake up early and enjoy the sunrise and slowly make your way across the island to enjoy the sunset over the mountains
Known as the â€œHoneymoon Island,â€ Gili Meno is dotted with intimate reed huts, concealing net-swathed beds and an abundance of seashells. Thereâ€™s a youth hostel aimed at party-weary backpackers set in a lush green hideaway (worrying when the island is experiencing such a dangerous drought).Â Being neither recently wed nor eighteen, I opt to stay in the bird sanctuary. Like much of the island, itâ€™s either closed for restoration or falling into disrepair. Itâ€™s very large and surreal, and supposedly the alligator is missing. But itâ€™s pink, quiet, reasonably priced and has a remarkably well-stocked book exchange. The abandoned resorts and collapsing huts make for stunning photographs, and heighten the feeling that you truly are â€˜away from it all.â€™
The seafront restaurants offer an abundance of fresh fish, sublime fruit juices and the usual variety of western and Balinese dishes. Most interesting is the local Sasak cuisine, reliant on fish, coconut and chili. It is delicious and unusual, and sometimes tear-jerkingly spicy. Persuading yourself to try something other than the fresh fruit juices is a challenge, but itâ€™s worth trying the arak once. Itâ€™s best to have some water on hand as the homebrewed rice liquor tastes as strong as it smells. Thereâ€™s no cash point on the island and the exchange rate is not in your favour, so bring a good supply of cash so you can sample everything, and be prepared to spend more than in most South East Asian countries.
Sending out regular calls to prayer, the bright blue mosque dominates the centre of the island. The Sasak inhabitants of the Gilis are Muslim and itâ€™s important to be modestly dressed when in the villages. Many Westerners ignore the fact that they are causing offence and itâ€™s a source of some tension. Turning a blind eye to bikinis on the beach has become an economic necessity, but respect the local inhabitants and save your swimsuit for the sea.
Gili Meno is a beautiful place to relax and feel the worries of day-to-day life drift away. Itâ€™s easy to see why so many couples choose to spend their honeymoons here. It is a place of no worries, love and turtles. What more can you want?
Image reproduced from Verity Danbold
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