Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

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The boat sails from Bali in the early morning towards the Gili islands – three humps 60 blue miles to the east. Padang Bai port is like this: a jam of thin puppies and fortune-tellers balancing on uncertain boxes; dozing Swedish teenagers with hair sunned to candyfloss rousing each other to buy mango for the journey; smells of synthetic plum juice and drying fish. Up close, men with faces swathed in bandannas against the day’s coming heat hurl rucksacks and heavy poles of bamboo into piles as the vessel slops against its pontoon. The sky black as a flash storm approaches, ragged forks of lightning plunging down the horizon, the decks sodden, rain in our mouths. Ask anybody about the weather on the Gilis and they shrug. It can be pelting down on Lombok while the sun roasts high over the islands. Approached from the sea, the three Gilis emerge like a dream of coconut-palm-feathered desertness; bean-green freaked with white and gold. Some people visit just one island. Others hop between the three. The distance between them seems seductively swimmable but the current is deep and strong, and boats labour back and forth. And although there are similarities (each is Muslim, each bans mechanical vehicles bar horse-drawn carts and bikes), each island is distinct.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    Gili Air is the furthest east. It has all you might need: both peace and life, a place of semi-reclusiveness with a beatnik jeu d’esprit. For every long and solitary stretch of sand there’s a fist of beach bars somewhere near, or a lone stall selling vanilla wafers and trays of cold cucumbers the size of your finger. Coffee & Thyme in the port serves the strongest brew to post-party kids and hippie grandmothers, quietly croaking along to Woody Guthrie. Air’s interior is partly branched with winding lanes and pathways that join one another or suddenly come to an end, thronged with people wandering in thirsty circles looking for Pachamama – the finest café in all the Gilis, folded secretively into the back of a back street, selling watermelon gazpacho and home-made vodka with rosella kombucha.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    The streets all around wave with inward-leaning grasses and pretty walled villas, like Manusia Dunia Green Lodge (pictured above), its garden tended as though it were an exhibit at Kew, with jasmine and frangipani as creamy as the butterflies that hang off them around a pool kept at bath temperature by the sun. A meadowful of cows grazes beyond, on Technicolor dandelions as sheeny and orange as Sixties Bakelite. The plants on the Gilis live so intensely, jutting up and blossoming in the middle of the night – cashew nuts and banana and violent pink bougainvillaea. Tiny red birds sleep hugger-mugger in a milkwood tree.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    I spend hours in the day spas along the beach, where everybody sits dazedly having their arms and necks massaged, hair slathered in coconut oil, not breathing a word, the only noise the clunk of exhausted fans. It’s staggeringly hot but the doors are shut only to keep out the flies, not for any Europeanish desire for privacy. The streets on the Gilis, as in most of Indonesia, are an extension of the houses, and people live quite publicly. In one home I’m given a snake fruit – it’s the size of a fig, the skin has red-brown scales and the flesh looks like garlic but tastes of crunching-sour citrus. Time does what it does for a while. Nella Kharisma songs squeak from a kitchen somewhere, and then the call to prayer, fierce and sudden, rouses everyone with a jolt. Somebody complains that the mullah has bought a new speaker and it’s a struggle to get used to the volume. Whole days can pass like this, moving from spa to café to sea to bar. But Air is also perfect to cycle round and round, the light and mood changing through the day, the coral-stone coastal path running out now and again, and the sand in between volcanic and thick and near-black.

    Above: a view of Lombok.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    From certain angles, Air almost looks like 1890s Surrey. E M Forster-ish. One steaming morning I come across a string of old cottages built back from the sand with sagging wrought-iron beds and porches twined in honeysuckle. Wood pigeons the size of young geese, and butterflies everywhere, striped brown like a convent-school uniform. Only in front the scene is ferociously unlikely, pure Little Mermaid glistering sea, shallow for quite a distance and full of angelfish and tiny blue fry. A family of goats lounge in the cleft of a dead branch, like somnolent tree spirits, then get up and totter down to the water for the cool of it. A gorgeous Argentinian backpacker toils up the sand, carrying what might be her life’s possessions in one rucksack and with what turns out to be a new baby tucked in a pouch at her breast. She strokes its sleeping cheeks. Later, at the bars along the sand, people chalk up their dive sightings of the day. Hairy frogfish, bobtail squid, devil rays, bumpheads. Someone is projecting The Shawshank Redemption on a little screen – specifically for the moment the prisoner hero finds himself, after many tribulations, on a perfect beach such as this. A generator makes the occasional defunct sputter and the local football team heads to the pitch for practice. Sunset takes ages, slipping down like a heavy barrier of burgundy. Lamps and bonfires are lit along the sand marking different bars, different encampments. Gone midnight, I pass a group of island kids playing guitars and singing Bob Dylan’s ‘I Shall be Released’ around a gambling table, singing it so purely and sincerely it sounds like a lament or a kind of liturgical incantation, dwelling over the harmonies to a murmur of applause from a few people watching. A bright moon and the sudden groan of rusty bike brakes. A hawker emerges with a tray of misshapen brown pearls: sold cheap, but the loveliest objects – some look like carob pods – catching the lamplight in a winking gleam.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    Gili Meno is the quietest island, the least visited but most gorgeous – people come here to read and sleep. It’s less than a mile across and has one small village, and all life happens along the near-empty beaches. Jukung boats called Pearl and Scallywag, clumsily painted in bright jags of pink and yellow, slosh in the clear shallows. What look like coconut shells bobbing in the sea turn out to be green turtles. A few snorkellers are prone in the water amongst clouds of little violet fish, having shuffled the few paces into the sea from thatched guesthouses.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    Swallows dive-bomb the low wooden fence of Robinson (pictured above) and Crusoe beach houses, 10 minutes from the port, with various outhouses and awnings made from russet clay and embroidered linen, and trees shading a saltwater pool. These staffed thatched villas are the most beautiful on the island, looking east over the water towards Gili Air, set back just a little from the waterfront. Their gardens are edged by low wooden trellises that provide privacy without isolation. Each has plenty of land dotted with various bedrooms and bicycles, places to cook and eat, loungers and hammocks, and enough trees casting shade to never burn. Beds are curtained with thick amber muslin, all facing the sea just feet away, the breeze bringing a perpetual freshness, and little birds not much bigger than bees pecking the carved sills. From the garden of Robinson I watch a line of schoolchildren chant along the shore path, reciting the alphabet and holding yellow plastic cobras. There’s the occasional jingling of harnesses on distant carriages drawn by weary geldings and steered by young men with gold hoop earrings and faded headbands. They’re always bouncing through island pits and potholes, overstuffed with heavy suitcases and pink honeymooners. Boxes of flippers and crackers and limes.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    The official history is that the Gilis weren’t much inhabited until the 1970s – Bugis fishermen from Sulawesi arrived then, and Sasaks from Lombok – but I hear people tell stories from before that, about relatives living on cockles and papaya. Later I pass a shack, half-hidden in the stubborn jungle trees beyond the sand, made of palms and with overhanging rattan eaves like a collapsing birdhouse. A sandalled foot sticks out in a mid-afternoon swoon. The whole place looks ancient, but might only have been built last month.

    Nothing lasts long in this climate of heat and monsoon rain, this baking whiteness. On a spring weekend, there’s a two-day wedding in progress and I stand back from the hooting and parading with thirty-something Sarapudin. He drives boats between the islands for a living and generally charges around making deals. Waving wads of cash and clipping his assistant on the ear, bartering and goading in a roundelay of transactions, he usually goes home with unexpected booty under his arm – today, a box of frangipani hair clips and three cartons of Marlboro Reds.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    We drink some kind of fizzy plum juice while the whole island purls its way to the village inland for the continuing celebrations; the bridesmaids in robes of lime-coloured layered lace and pristine violet make-up, small boys dragging parrot and Superman balloons, paths scattered with paper plates of rice and peanut sauce. Sarapudin puffs out his cheeks. He prefers Meno when it’s quiet, and recalls with horror the time when cruise-ships began to stop at the Gilis. ‘10,000 people got off one day!’ he groans. Then, with a pause, amends the figure to 900. ‘Maybe 100,’ he shrugs. ‘Maybe more?’ Whatever the figure, it was too much, and they stopped coming anyway. Instead, men play chess; a jala bird sulks and honks in a cage; Sarapudin tucks a pack of playing cards into his top pocket. The sky is a cloudless hard blue. It’s a scene that appears timeless. Many things on Meno are reminders of how ephemeral civilisation can be. Everything feels just a little temporary, a little ramshackle, nets and hurricane lamps and nautical bric-à-brac, lights ingeniously made from coat wire and bulbs strung up inside hacked-off cordial bottles, things salvaged and occasionally put next to something fantastically expensive and ordered from a long way off, left standing in the drumming sun. One time, I see an antique Louis XV silk-upholstered chair being haphazardly unloaded from a ketch and plonked next to boxes of star fruit – unclaimed and incongruous as a bowler hat.

    Most visitors go to eat at least once at Mahamaya restaurant. Sometimes you’ll find the napkins painstakingly folded into bishop’s mitres, other times all the staff’s energies have gone into mixing the perfect Rebujito. Curries are presented under silver domes – although everybody eats barefoot. At the bars on the north-western shore the sandy walkways between hammocks and cabanas are strung with pieces of broken coral that look like octopus tentacles, and a lovely spit of beach here is piled so high with coral it’s as if dinosaur bones have been heaped against the flaming evening horizon. I watch a ginger cat twisting and curling, toasting itself in the last of the sun. Just like the baby turtles in a stone butcher’s sink on a further-flung western point, back-flipping luxuriantly under a weather-beaten portrait of Bob Marley pinned to a tree, staring Ozymandias-like across the sweltering blue.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    You develop a certain way of walking in Indonesia. Like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, weaving, almost dancing, dodging traffic, second-guessing and always interacting, existing entirely in the present tense and getting into a particular rhythm with the sinews of your body. Gili Trawangan – the busiest island – insists you do this. Venture here only if you like a party. Most come simply to do that, and then perhaps escape to Meno or Air to recover. Or to a hotel such as Kuno Villas in the not-quite barmy north of the island, made up of a handful of Japanese-style houses set over carp ponds with walled open-air bathrooms and a central pool.

    In the evenings everyone gathers on the beaches, an Australian and Norwegian teenage swarm of pink-fringed wraps and rings of scrimshaw and knotted hair – all the emblems of an eternal summer of love dosed on local magic-mushroom tea, randomly drumming to DJ Mangoo while hawkers sell portable speakers made out of cans of Bintang beer through the neon-zany dusk. As the sky turns first apricot, then vermilion in a great throbbing pall over on Lombok, its distant volcano looks more than ever like an act of God. Some eat at Pearl Beach Lounge on the south-eastern shore, a high construction that glimmers with night lights like some tendrilled bio-luminescent deep-sea creature pulsing through the gloam.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    At the island’s night food market beyond, blue and pink mottled lobsters wallow in trays of melting ice and traders labour under flickering naked bulbs, frantically fanning rows of char-grilling whole squid with their tragic human eyes. Scallops are dunked into hot grease while tabby kittens make off with the lobbed heads of snapper. Snogging couples fall with splintering thuds off kegs of peanut oil, a confusion of suntan and sunburn and denim that’s really just high-waisted underwear, and shirts sequinned in scarlet and green. There are beach-bum hostels and men with Peaky Blinders haircuts having pedicures, guzzling immense rum and jackfruit cocktails through bamboo straws.

    Above: lunch at Robinson.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    The sea is so contrastingly tranquil it reflects passing fluffy white clouds, and the clean and tepid surf has such a dreamlike, enervating effect that you have to physically rouse yourself to get out of it, coming up coughing and gasping to sit out the noon glare on the soft sand in the few parts of the island free from the continual hammering up of hotels and laying out of new marinas.

    And when the boats eventually leave the islands in the morning, back to Bali and on to other spits of land and cities, the walkways on wheels heave and swing. Visitors and night-trippers, hippies and drifters, dopers and chicks, and all those energetically giggling teenagers, up pontoons, waves thudding, bags dropped, friends lost and rapturously found. A staggering exodus that melts away suddenly, leaving nothing but a fizz on the water and a fisherman cleaning shrimp, wearing a transistor radio round his neck playing ‘I am the Black Gold of the Sun’.

    Scroll down for more pictures of the Gili Islands…

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  • A view of Lombok from Gili Meno.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    Sunset at Robinson

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    The cool stone stairs at Robinson.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    Riding on the beach on Gili Trawangan.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    The pool at the Robinson.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    The straw-thatched exterior of Robinson House.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    A reading spot at Robinson on Gili Meno.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    An oil lamp at Robinson.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    Straw hats on the patchwork sunbeds at Crusoe House.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    A hand-stitched foot stool at Robinson.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    Dusk at Robinson.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    A shady daybed at Robinson.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    An antique day bed at Crusoe.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    A bike at Crusoe House for cycling around the island.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    Blossoming bougainvillaea flowers.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    Pachamama café on Gili Air.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    The outdoor, sun-warmed pool at Robinson.

    Anna Chittenden on the Gili Islands

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    Where to go when acai bowls in Canggu or Ubud’s bamboo co-working spaces become too much? The answer is to get off-grid in the Gilis, a cluster of tiny sand splashes off neighbouring Lombok. The biggest of the trio, party-happy Gili Trawangan is smartening up fast with places to stay including villas hidden among coconut groves at Pondok Santi. The quietest and tiniest, Gili Meno, is home to Crusoe House, a four-bedroom fantasy of vintage rattan furniture and French linens.

    Gili Air mixes the best of both with deserted beaches, foodie hotspots (try vegan Pachamama or sunset hangout Mowies) and wooden-hut hideouts such as Manusia Dunia Green Lodge. But those ahead of the curve are charting a course for the even more off-the-map ‘secret Gilis’ further south-west, to stay at Gili Asahan Eco Lodge and feast on spaghetti al polpo on the beach.

    ‘Lost Guides – Bali & Islands’ by Anna Chittenden is out now from amazon.com

    Scroll down to see more photos of Crusoe House…

    This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of Condé Nast Traveller

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    Green tiles and a wash basin in the bathroom at Crusoe House.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    A hammock strung outside.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    Shells from the beach and woven interiors.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    A canopy bed at Crusoe.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    A swing hanging from a tree at Crusoe.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    A sun-lit shower room.

  • Our guide to the Gili Islands, Indonesia

    Outdoor seating at Crusoe House, Gili Meno.