Like most good travel destinations, Gili Meno is not easily reached. From Bali, it’s a bus ride and a two-hour speedboat trip, or another small flight, a two-hour drive and then a boat trip. Travelling from Delhi, it took us nearly 24 hours, and it was long after sunset by the time we boarded a rickety motor boat to take us across from Lombok. I looked up at the full moon, intermittently visible through the clouds, and thought that this had to be the least-safe thing I’d ever done with my children, forget the Himalayan trek or the rickety boat through the Sunderbans jungle in Bengal. But my ecstatic son whooped up at the same moon and declared, “I love my life!” The captain pulled in near shore and tossed our luggage (mostly) up on to dry sand. A small knot of men were playing guitar and looked up as we waded ashore. “Hello,” they said. “Welcome to Gili Meno.” And then they went back to strumming.
Our host, Saleh, was there to meet us. He led us on a 15-minute walk across humid fields – where a curious cow briefly terrified us, looming out of the dark – and through the gate at Villa Sayang. A traditional two-storey wooden house, it had everything we needed – and no more – for a perfect week: a couple of bedrooms with wide windows, mosquito nets and strong fans, nooks for naps and reading, an outdoor bathroom where we showered under that big moon, a basic kitchen and a wide wooden table with benches for picking over our beachcombing treasures. When we woke on our first morning, Saleh appeared with fresh bread and mango jam made by his wife, Sylvia, and fish they smoked together. He made us a plate of pineapple fritters dusted in confectionery sugar, which sounds weird but tastes like bliss. He had masks and fins and snorkels for the beach, cold Bintang beer for the fridge and reassuring words. “There are scorpions and snakes and spiders on the island,” he told a delighted Darragh. “But nothing is poisonous. Nothing will kill you.” The best kind of creepy-crawlies.
We headed that first morning – and every morning thereafter – for the beach. Sometimes we ventured a bit further around the island in one direction or another, but mostly, we went to the end of our sand track and stopped. An affable man named Soheil ran a little café, with just as much shade as we needed; the menu was what his wife made that day, including fiery hot Sasak curries, fish stews and pancakes. The beer was cold and the milkshakes were giant enough to thrill a three-year-old. Sometimes islanders walked by and said hello; once a couple of tourists padding by in bare feet stopped to compare notes on the snorkelling. The children made friends with local kids and ran in and out of the palm forest. When the call to prayer wafted out at sunset, we heretically ordered another Bintang and toasted the view out across the water at Lombok’s volcanic mountain, and the emerald-green forests and rice terraces that line its sides.
You can, theoretically, get Internet reception at a few places on the island, but we never found it (not that we looked very hard). The cellular connection was also helpfully erratic. We had nothing to do but swim and turtle-track and debate which of the beachfront cafés to have dinner in. An enchanting feeling pervades Gili Meno, as if you’ve stumbled into a world where everything happens more slowly and always turns out well. Perhaps it’s a mix of chilled-out Sasak culture and everything being so crazy beautiful. You feel lucky to have found it, lucky to be welcomed, and lucky to leave knowing that you may one day make it back.
IF YOU GO
There are three Gilis, but Meno is the nicest. Gili Air is a bit bigger and a bit more upscale; Gili Trawangan is the biggest and the “party island,” with late-night dance spots.