I was warned off Gili T; 'it's all partying' I was told. Those partying days are (almost) all behind me, so I had visions of dodging crowds of kids vomiting on the street and deafening hip hop intruding into my sunset drinks. It's possible that I went to bed too early and missed all that but I found Gili T quite charming, very pretty, and easy to get around. Further more, there are plenty of restaurants and waterholes for every budget without the expected large crowds.
Now I imagine if I'd stayed closer to the port I may have seen more of the party crowd later in the evening, but in fact I did have dinner there one night and I enjoyed the bustling little port with no motorised traffic. It was lively and fun and the seafood night market was amazing. The only problem was a dark cycle back to my hotel on the other side of the island, which was a little dicey but not terrible. The port does have the majority of the more budget hotel options.
North of the port on the eastern side there is a mosque and its obligatory call-to-prayer at various (sometimes ungodly) hours. The noise doesn't bother me, but if you get irritated by this, stay on the west side of the island. The other great thing about the west side is that it's perfect for sunset drinks...there are dozens of cute small drinking holes, or fancier places if you'd prefer, where you can pull up a beanbag and enjoy the wash of colour over the horizon as the sun sets.
Gili T stands for Gili Trawangan - the largest of the three Gili Islands. The little islands are part of Lombok, not Bali, but easily reachable by fast boat from Padang Bai port in Bali. There are dozens of companies; I went with Ekajaya which is one of the larger companies. They also have larger boats which take longer to fill and empty, and almost always stop at Sengiggi in Lombok on the way over and back. This adds a bit of time to the two and a half hour trip. The cost is about US$100 return. It's a good idea to check out all the companies and book online as the port is slightly chaotic on both ends.
The other two islands are Gili Meno - a tiny little place suitable for honeymooners - and Gili Air - between the other two in size and apparently good for families. I actually went with Gili T in the end because, since its larger and there are more hotels, the cost of rooms is slightly cheaper than the other two islands....you get more bang for your buck. I stayed with a friend at Aston Sunset beach which is mid range. The pool is excellent, the breakfast quite good and there are free movies on the beach in the evenings. However the dinner buffet wasn't great so I would recommend going elsewhere in the evenings. In fact if you felt like a movie you don't need to be a guest. The kids movies (mostly Disney) are at 7pm and the adults' movie starts at 9pm.
Next time I'd like to pay a little more and stay at the Pearl which looks just fancy enough for my tastes and is a little closer to the port. For most hotels you'll need to get a horse and cart from the port. If you don't have much luggage you could probably hire a bike straight away on the street and peddle to your accomodation. There are no motorised vehicles on the islands, so bicycle and horse-driven cart are the only options.
NOTE ON HORSES: Working domestic animals can make some westerners squeamish, particularly when Asian cultures may have a different approach and acceptance levels. Not all horses working on Gili T will be cherished and cared for in the way westerners expect (or desire). During the pandemic this tourist island struggled and the horses would have been worse off. Angels disguised as a charity have been involved in helping to pay for food and care in particular, and to push for reforms and education. The horses look mostly fine to me, although I'm no expert. Remember that this is a car-free island. You may not like it or use it, but it's hypocritical to complain...every item on the islands was transported by horse and cart. If you are staying or eating on the island, everything you consume used this transport. If you want to help, check out Horses of Gili and make a donation.
Apart from horse and cart, you can get around the island by cycling. For the less fit there are eBikes available but in fact the path is wide and safe and flat, so pretty easy. There is a chunk of island in the north where you have to push your bike over soft sand. Renting is pricey here; you pay around R50,000 for a days' rental and more for the electric bikes. The horse and cart should be about R100,000 for a one-way trip.
The best thing you can do on Gili T is snorkel. Head to the north east side and hire a mask and flippers from a roadside stall. Turtle beach is in this part of the island, and we floated happily in the clear water next to a very large turtle for about twenty minutes which was amazing. You can also hire a boat to take you to the dive places. Again, this is more expensive than Bali; we paid R1,200,000 for barely 1.5 hours and three short stops. There are public boats which are much cheaper. One of the stops will be the pretty sculptures off Gili Meno. These are fun but you'll be fighting off dozens of tourists. If you get to stay on Meno, try swimming out here from the beach as early as possible. I found the snorkelling in the Gili's fun but not nearly as good as Nusa Penida. If you are a scuba diver, or want to try, this is a safe and fun place to do it.
Another day trip is to island hop - get the public ferry from the port to Gili Air and Gili Meno and do the circuit of each island. The boat trip itself is lovely and each island has a slightly different feel. You can also negotiate a full-day private boat tour which would be worthwhile for a family or a group of adults.
You will definitely want to watch the sunset over Bali. Head to the west side at 5.30pm and find a warung or bar. They all have sunset watching beanbags or tables and chairs, and many have happy hour during this time.
For places to eat, this is an 'explore and hope for the best' sort of place. For coffee lovers, you'll like the busy and excellent Coffee and Thyme or Kayu Cafe. I enjoyed some particularly tasty seafood, but the prawns at Almarik were second to none. For more upmarket go to the Pearl's restaurant, or Ko Ko Mo. For super cheap and amazing seafood, the night markets are excellent.
Some delicious food - including the best prawns in SE Asia.
Gili T is a fun and relaxing long weekend or pitstop during your Bali holiday. I wouldn't really recommend more than three nights unless you want to do some writing or learn to scuba, but there is plenty to keep you occupied for a few days.
PLACES TO STAY
Mid Range Pearl of Trawangan
Cheap & Cheerful Mala Garden Resort