Nusa Lembongan was such a perfect little island, that, quite frankly, I didn’t think the Gilis would be able to top it. Sure, they were high on every “must-visit” list for Bali and Lombok, but I was worried that they would be a little too crowded, a little too busy, a little too polished. While most guides insisted one at least make a 1-day stop on all 3 of the Gili islands, I didn’t know how easy transport between islands would be and I didn’t want to risk a flare up by overdoing it.

Given its reputation as a party island, I eliminated Gili Trawagan pretty quickly. But between Gili Meno (known for its laid-back vibe) and Gili Air (often referred to as the “honeymoon island”), the choice was a little tougher. Eventually, I ended up booking my stay at Gili Meno because I found a better (or so I thought) accommodation within my budget. As it turned out, my resort was actually the worst thing about my experience on the island, but everything else was so perfect, that it more than made up for the poor accommodation.

Along with Mykonos (Greece), Moorea (Tahiti) and Oahu (Hawaii), Gili Meno is truly one of the most beautiful islands I have ever visited. It’s small enough to feel special and large enough that you don’t get bored senseless, and it has preserved a rugged, exotic feel that’s hard to find nowadays. It’s possible to walk around the island on the beach within a few hours if you’re feeling like it, or you can hire a horse-cart for a flat rate of 80,000 IDR one way. I rode a horse cart to my hotel upon arrival and found that just holding onto it required more muscle strength than I could stomach, so I spent most of my 4 days on the strip of beach between Kontiki Cottage and Karma Beach, which is widely considered the most beautiful on the island.

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A local woman selling fresh pineapple on the beach

While I only covered the southern half of the island during my 3-night stay on Gili Meno, I found everything I needed there and didn’t see the point of paying the extra bucks to ride to the north. My hotel, the gorgeous but unwelcoming maoMeno resort (read more about my experience here), was only a short 10 minute walk to a grocery store, ATM, pharmacy, dive and snorkeling shops, bars and warungs (small, family-owned restaurants) and a beach that was just crowded enough for the solo traveler.

Given my below-average diving experience on Nusa Lembongan, the first thing I wanted to check out were the dive shops in the area. I opted for Blue Marlin Dive after chatting with their lovely manager and booked a one-tank dive to “Deep Halik” for the next day. Although we didn’t see much beyond turtles and our dive was cut short due to a strong current, I was so impressed with the team’s professionalism that I decided to book two dives the next day, one in the AM and one night-dive with UV lights. A couple of years ago, I fell in love with the Pelagic Magic black water night dive that Jack’s Diving Locker offers off the coast of Kona, HI, so, when I heard about “hunting” for fluorescent fish and corals with ultraviolet light in tropical water, I was sold.

Although a little more challenging than your typical night-dive, the effort was worth it. Prior to departure the dive instructor warned us that because of extensive coral bleaching (due to El Niño, they said), the dive wouldn’t be as spectacular as it had been in previous years. But even though the ocean bed didn’t light up like a Christmas tree, I still thought it was a breathtaking experience and well-worth the extra bucks.

Food was another pleasant surprise on the island, at least after some trial and error. First day, I had an underwhelming dinner at Mallia’s Beach Bar, which I suspected would be the case after looking at the menu, but I was too wiped out from the trip and the check-in to go exploring. Plus, the setting overlooking the beach was really beautiful and just what I needed. I ordered the Pepes Ikan (grilled fish in banana leaves) with steamed rice, but the  salmon they used was poor quality and the portion very meager. Despite that, I ended up going back twice to have a drink (their cocktails are very sweet, so you might want to ask for a sugar-free version), enjoy the sunset and just chill.

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Grilled red snapper at Ya-Ya Warung – delicious!

The second day I decided to check-out Ya-Ya Warung, which my hotel manager recommended when I asked for good local food. It’s the oldest warung on this part of the island, and the food is simple but delicious. The location is terrific (right on the beach), the vibe is laid-back and service takes a while, so make sure you arrive before starvation has set in! I opted for the catch of the day, which was red-snapper, and it was (actually) fresh and prepared with a lot of care. It’s a no-frills place but they pay attention to detail and the value for money is incredible.

On my final day on the island, I decided to check out Sasak cafe, a popular lunch-spot among snorkeling boats from around the Gilis. In order to avoid the crowds, I decided to come for dinner. I’d met some divers who raved about Sasak’s barbecued fish, but because I’d had a grilled mackerel for lunch earlier that day, I decided to go for a simple rice and veggie stir fry with chicken. It was very spicy, which I enjoyed, but a little too oily for my taste. In retrospect, I should have probably gone for their catch of their day, which looked marvelous and is a luxury in the part of the world where I live.

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Sunset view from Sasak cafe

Regardless, it was a great spot to catch the sunset and enjoy the prayers from the mosque on Gili Trawagan, the largest of the three islands. Much like the rest of Indonesia, the Gilis are predominantly Muslim, which is a nice contrast to nearby Bali, and this particular spot on Gili Meno was the only part I visited where you could get a feel for local life and islamic culture. I appreciated that.

A word of caution: Make sure you bring a flashlight if you’re visiting after dark. There are no street lights or large resorts around to help light your way and it’s easy to get lost or get hurt on your way back.

 

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