Indonesia Island Life: Nusa & Gili Islands

Bearded hipsters, bumper-to-bumper traffic and trendy beach clubs got you down? Want to feel like you're in Indonesia rather than an equatorial Miami Beach? Bali’s next door neighbors offer sanctuary for those seeking unspoilt landscapes, adventure, solitude or just a seachange.

Photo © iStock.com/miniloc

Nusa Lembongan: For Surfers and Selfie Takers

If you’re looking to leave the big smoke, but aren’t entirely ready to let go of the creature comforts of Bali – the luxury villas, cold-press coffee shops, abundant yoga studios and vegan restaurants on every corner – then head to the island of Nusa Lembongan, which lies in wait just seven miles (12 kilometers) to the east.  

On this Hindu island  you will still see the beautiful offerings and intriguing temples familiar in Bali.

In spite of recent development, Nusa Lembongan is still a lovely place to pass a few days. Go surfing at Shipwrecks, watch the sunset over Bali’s Mount Batur, dive with manta rays, or hike to the white sand and clear water at Mushroom Bay.

Nusa Ceningan: For DIY Day Trippers

Rent a scooter in Nusa Lembongan (make sure you're covered before hopping on) and find your way over the recently rebuilt yellow suspension bridge to the neighboring island of Nusa Ceningan.

The bridge is excitingly narrow and the waterway below is home to a 8-ft (2.5m) underwater Buddha, that you can snorkel to. Circumnavigate the island and experience the slow pace of local life; fishermen carefully throw out their nets as women work the seaweed patches just offshore.

Be sure to stop at the gorgeous Blue Lagoon before you leave, famous for its clear blue waters.

Yellow suspension bridge at Nusa Ceningan. Photo Credit: iStock.com/Nuture

Nusa Penida: For Adventurers

Just a 10-minute boat trip from Nusa Lembongan, you’ll find unspoilt Nusa Penida, a haven for adventurers, with few travelers. 

Start at Atuh Beach, where you could have the beach to yourself,  as the steep descent to the sand keeps many people away. Head on to Pura Goa Giri Putri Cave, don a sarong and squeeze through the narrow opening in the rockface alongside the Hindu pilgrims who have come to the cave to pray in this underground temple. 

On the west side of the island, visit Broken Beach, where a natural rock arch spans the sea below, and nearby Angel’s Billabong, a natural rock pool carved out of the volcanic sea cliff.

On route to Angel’s Billabong. Photo Credit: iStock.com/Joel Carillet

Gili Islands

“Gili" means "island” in the local Sasak language, but for most travelers “Gili” only refers to one of three places: Gili Trawangan, Gili Air and Gili Meno. 

The Gilis are considered part of Lombok, so the local people are predominantly Sasak Muslims. All three Gilis are motorized-vehicle-free, so you’ll have to walk or cycle to get around.  

Gili Trawangan: For Party People

Gili T is the largest and most developed of the trio. Known among backpackers as a party island, the eastern side is home to many beach bars and reggae clubs, and house and electronic music blares at night. Many of the bartenders, waiters and hotel staff come from Lombok to work and are dedicated to making sure party-goers have a good time.

If the bright lights become too much, escape to the west side, where families and resort-lovers find solace  and a slower pace.

Grab dinner at the Night Market, watch a local stick fighting competition or explore the underwater world; Gili T is one of the world’s cheapest and safest places to learn to scuba dive. Dive sites including Shark Point, Mantra Point and Halick are well loved by novice and expert divers.

Travelers arriving at Gili Trawangan. Photo Credit: iStock.com/holgs

To neutralize your carbon footprint, join Gili Eco Trust for the Debris Free Friday beach clean-up, or try the RE-Cycle Gili Tour which focuses on the Sasak culture, sustainability and includes an eye-opening visit to the dump.

Gili Air: For Chillers

If the thought of beer pong tables (the drinking game) makes you cringe, head to Gili Air; it’s the Goldilocks island – not too busy, not too quiet – with just the right mix of amenities, authenticity and peace.

Yet, Gili Air is far from boring; here you can snorkel with turtles, hire a glass-bottom kayak or take a yoga class. Watch the sunset with a cold Bintang in hand and chat with the locals as they cook up chargrilled corn on the cob with sambal (Indonesian chili sauce).

Gili Air. Photo Credit: iStock.com/Evgenii Korneev

Gili Meno: For Lovers

Gili Meno could easily be renamed Gili Mellow. This quiet, secluded island is home to only 300 locals, and generally hosts more relaxed travelers and quite a few honeymooners.

You’ll find the indigenous population of Gili Meno to be enterprising and friendly; they are proud of their island and love talking about it as they offer you a fresh cut pineapple or beach massage.

Walk around the island, dive with vibrant colored fish and go shoe-free for your entire trip.

Turquoise sea of Gili Meno. Photo Credit: iStock.com/MasterLu 

Want to know more about Indonesia? Listen to the World Nomads podcast. With around 17,000 islands to choose from, where are the must visits, and if you have your surfboard, best surf breaks? Hear the tale of a man chased by headhunters, and tips for traveling the world solo.

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