An hour into what turned out to be something of a white-knuckle adventure in rough seas, Leo turned flush and announced that he wanted off the boat. I have subjected my children to a host of unpleasant travel experiences around the world, usually while pursuing some elusive undiscovered paradise, and I wondered if Gili Air would be worth the bother.
After a brief stop on Gili T, our speedboat docked right on the beach at Gili Air, and Leo was relieved to step onto terra firma. As we gathered our bags and started up a sandy path toward our hotel, a cidomo, the Indonesian term for a horse-drawn cart, trotted by and tooted what sounded like a clown’s horn. There were no cars or scooters in sight, and for the first time in Indonesia we could let the kids walk on their own.
Our moods brightened further upon discovering that our bell-shaped bungalow at the Sunrise Resort had a loft with hammocks and was steps away from an exquisite beach where Europeans in Speedos and bikinis mixed with conservatively dressed Indonesians. (Unlike Bali, the Gilis are predominantly Muslim.)
Neil Hands, a Scot who founded the resort 24 years ago, briefed me on Gili Air’s emergence. At 22, he washed up on this five-square-mile island a “lost soul,” his dream of becoming an Olympic skier extinguished by knee injuries.
“I stayed in a thatched-roof hut on the beach that came with three meals a day for five dollars,” he said over cups of coffee at the Sunrise’s beachfront bar. “There were only three other foreigners here, just a handful of homestays, and if you wanted a cold beer, you had to wait for the ice man to come from Lombok every few days.”
Mr. Hands was seduced by the island’s drowsy charms and within three months he bought a coconut plantation and built what has evolved into a 30-room resort. He said that, despite setbacks after the 2002 and 2005 terrorist attacks in Bali, that Gili Air’s popularity had grown steadily until about seven years ago, when a handful of ferry operators introduced “fast boat” service to the islands, cutting travel time from Bali roughly in half. Since that sea change, dozens of small hotels, homestays, and restaurants have opened. The growth had been limited to small businesses before this year, when a 200-room hotel opened.
In the week to follow, I found out that changes are also afoot on Gili Gede, a previously undeveloped island where a luxury resort, Ko-Ko-Mo, opened in January 2016, and on sleepy Gili Meno, where the actor David Hasselhoff is an investor in Bask, a luxury villa development that is being built on what I had heard was a “Baywatch-quality” beach.
Early one morning while on a walk in Gili Air’s steamy interior, I sought out Mohammed Taufik, the 43-year-old chief of Gili Air, Trawangan and Meno and head of the local mosque, to find out how the islands are changing. One of Mr. Taufik’s two wives answered the door of their modest home, and he greeted me on his front deck in a T-shirt and pajama pants. In between puffs of his morning smokes, Mr. Taufik explained that Air was settled by fishermen from Sulawesi in the 1930s. Unlike Gili Meno and Gili T, which were largely unpopulated until after World War II, there was fresh water on the island and so they named it “air,” which means water in Bahasa Indonesian.
He insisted that he wasn’t going to allow Gili Air, population 1,481, or Gili Meno, which has just 424 residents, to become overdeveloped like Gili T, which has long been a backpacker party haunt. And he said he would never allow gasoline-fueled scooters on the island. (Only electric ones are currently permitted but they are not available to rent.)
“We understand why people come here,” he said. “They want peace and quiet.”
Mr. Taufik acknowledged that he and other locals disliked the fact that some tourists wore bikinis in the village, but maintained that they weren’t very worked up about this, or the fact that tourists consume alcohol at the island’s beach bars. Tourism, he said, had been good to Gili Air. But it has also altered priorities. He said that his 3,750,000-rupiah monthly salary (about 288 U.S. dollars) as chief paled in comparison to the money he made renting bungalows to tourists.
I heard the same thing a day later from Mustafa, a teacher at the island’s lone school, who uses just one name. He spends his afternoons selling necklaces on the beach after school to supplement his $250 monthly salary. I asked him which pastime was more lucrative and he gave me a pitying look. “The necklaces,” he said. “You should come see our school, Dave.”
I tried to coerce my boys into accompanying me to Mustafa’s school but they had other priorities, namely swimming and counting their money. James mistook the name of Indonesia’s currency, the rupiah, which was trading at 13,000 to $1, for “root beer” and felt flush when we rewarded him with a 1,000 note here and a 2,000 note there. That is, until one day when he tried to buy something and said, “Hey, how much are these root beers really worth?”
Not as much as he hoped, but enough to make the Gilis a bargain. A delicious meal of grilled red snapper and Parisian-quality crème brûlée served on the beach at Sunrise’s restaurant was about $12 (150,000 root beers). A divine one-hour massage set me back about $7. Day trips using the public ferry to Gili T and Gili Meno cost $6 each round trip. And I cycled around the exterior of all three islands (it takes about an hour or two) on rented fat bikes, never paying more than about $6.
My bike rides around the islands ran the gamut from delightful to grueling depending on how frequently I stopped at beach bars for liquid refreshment. Down a narrow sandy lane on my first ride into Gili Air’s sweaty interior, I met Silvia Biolo and Giovanni Bagattin, an Italian couple in their 40s who ditched their office jobs in Venice to open Oasi Pizzeria & Bungalows after falling in love with the island on a backpacking trip around Asia.
“In Italy, we felt like we were in a prison, always just waiting for the weekend,” Ms. Biolo said as her husband made my pizza in their wood-fire oven. “Here, life is good. It’s quiet but not too quiet.” Nearly a year into their Gili experiment, they were happy, but Ms. Biolo said they worried that the island would become overdeveloped.
On my cycling excursion around mellow Gili Meno, I asked a number of residents if they had similar concerns, but few had heard about the Bask development or Meno Mojo, a luxury condo development I saw advertised. Pedaling my bike through thick sand and sinister humidity, I found some idyllic, nearly empty beaches on the southeast corner of the island. But I was disappointed by the so-called “Baywatch” beach on the island’s west side. As I tiptoed over dense layers of coral, I found it hard to imagine Mr. Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson frolicking on this beach. (Since my visit, the developers have reportedly used a John Deere crusher to make the sand soft and smooth.)
But Gili Meno still seemed infinitely more appealing than Gili T, which was crowded, touristy, and full of cheap watering holes and litter. I couldn’t wait to get back to Gili Air.
On a final spin back on my adopted home island, I met Adi and Ali, brothers from Lombok who said I could call them Adidas and Muhammad Ali, while taking a break at a beach bar. They were renting snorkels, fins and masks from a rickety wooden desk for the equivalent of $2. “You can leave your things with us,” Adi suggested.
I wasn’t worried about the bike — no one uses locks on the island and they hadn’t even asked me my name when I rented it — but I had an iPhone 6, an expensive D.S.L.R. camera, plus 110 U.S. dollars, 15 Australian dollars, and 347,000 rupiahs.
The person who stepped off the boat five days before wouldn’t have entrusted Adidas and Muhammad Ali with that haul. But I was in a Gili Air state of mind, so I took a leap of faith right into the Bali Sea, and spent more than an hour snorkeling in the company of colorful tropical fish without concern. Upon my return, I took an inventory as soon as they weren’t looking. It was all there.
That night, a sensuous cool breeze materialized like a gift from God and I was reminded of the old axiom, “the best things in life are free.” Even so, I had to bribe Leo to accompany me to Mustafa’s primary school the next morning before our ferry left for Bali.
Mustafa brought us into a few classrooms and asked the students what they wanted to know about America. We were asked how big it is, if there are black people, where is the best place to visit and many other questions. A few times, our responses resulted in rowdy applause. Mustafa refused to interpret something one of the teachers said about “Doe-nald Trump” that caused the class to break out in riotous laughter. The teacher asked Leo if he liked Trump or “Hee-lah-ree” and seemed confused when Leo replied, “neither one.”
Mustafa had told me that only a few of his female students wore conservative Muslim attire, but in fact, they all did. Our visit may have created a small bond between us and a few dozen Muslim children on one tiny island in the world’s biggest Muslim country, but there was still an unspoken barrier.
He had probably told us that his female students wore Western-style clothing assuming that an American might equate conservative dress with Islamic fundamentalism. And when I was asked about Muslims in the United States, I declined to mention that some Americans harbor have a negative view of Islam. Instead, we smiled and laughed along with them and hoped they would go home and tell their parents they’d met some Americans who were pretty nice.
On our walk back to the hotel, I was surprised to see Mustafa on an electric scooter taking a shortcut through a clearing well before the end of the school day. “Where are you going?” I called out to him. “This way,” he said, sheepishly nodding forward. He was headed to the beach.
If You Go
The three main Gili Islands (Air, Trawangan and Meno) are a two-to-three hour ferry ride from Bali, or a 15- to 30-minute ferry ride from Lombok. There are numerous companies operating from different ports; most will also arrange a transfer to the boat from your hotel for a reasonable fee. Gili Getaway (giligetaway.com) is an Australian-owned company that has a good reputation. If you prefer a larger boat, consider Eka Jaya (ekajayafastboat.com).
What to Do
Snorkeling, scuba and free diving, cycling and island hopping are the most popular activities on Gili Air and the other Gili islands. Companies like Blue Marine Dive (bluemarinedive.com), Manta Dive Gili Air (manta-dive-giliair.com) and many others offer diving courses and excursions. Gili Cooking Classes offers crash courses on how to prepare classic Indonesian dishes (gilicookingclasses.com).
Where to Stay
The Sunrise Resort has very comfortable, value-priced bungalows, some with sea views and decks with hammocks, along with a great pool, just steps from a lovely beach. (Beaches are public property in Indonesia, so hotels aren’t located directly on the beach, but there are only walking paths and no roads on Gili Air so hotels like this one are essentially beachfront.) From $50 per night (sunrisegiliair.com).
The Turtle Beach Hotel has cozy bell-shaped cottages in a quiet location across from the beach. From $100 per night (turtlebeach.co.id).
If you elect to stay on quieter Gili Meno, Australian-owned Ana Warung & Bungalows has great value bungalows starting at just $30 per night/$45 with air-conditioning (anawarung.com).
Where to Eat
Gili Cooking Classes offers crash courses on how to prepare classic Indonesian dishes (gilicookingclasses.com).
Dine right on the beach at Chill Out Café (chilloutbargiliair.com), which has an eclectic menu and bargain prices, or at the Sunrise Resort (see above), which has a chef who prepares superb fresh seafood, satay, and crème brûlée among other tasty offerings. Oasi Italian Pizzeria has authentic wood-fire pizzas in a serene setting.
Note: There are no addresses on Gili Air or Gili Meno but it’s not hard to find anything as there are signs pointing toward businesses all over the islands.