One minute she wasn't there and the next she was immediately below us, her patchy bronze shell scarred and her flippers flashing pale yellow as she paddled, head cocked to the left, watching us stare down through our masks. In the clear turquoise water above the reef that surrounds the island of Gili Meno in Indonesia, an ancient, endangered hawksbill turtle materialized out of the blue gloom beneath my six-year-old son, Darragh, and I as we snorkelled, holding hands and drifting in a cool current.
We followed her for the next 20 minutes or so, turning our heads the smallest bit so we could look at each other in amazement as the turtle – nearly the length of my son – lollygagged and doubled back on herself for a tempting bit of sea grass, apparently perfectly content to have us intrude in her world. I could hear Darragh's thrilled giggles, muffled through his snorkel.
Gili Meno is the middle of the three gilis (it means "small islands" in Sasak, the local language) scattered between tourist-choked Bali and more mysterious Lombok. Gili Meno is the smallest, quietest island – and one of the most magical places I've ever been. It has the slightly secret air of a place that's way off the path to anywhere, and a seductive culture that's a hybrid of aboriginal, Islam and beach hippy. It's lush and lovely in every direction, and time here is as transportive as it is restorative.
The resident population is 400 people and the island is car-free (you can find a couple of lackadaisical horses hitched to a cart if you really need to move something). Some of the coast is dotted with tiny hotels and thatched cabins; in the centre is the village where the islanders live, and a handful of larger houses for rent. It takes 90 minutes to make your way around the whole thing – or the entire day if you stop every time you are overcome by the desire to loll in the sand, sit on a lounger and order a fresh pineapple shake.
The currents off Gili Meno are a preferred feeding ground for sea turtles – loggerheads, greens and the hawksbill who dawdled with us. They were easy to find. We went out the gate of our rental house, walked 150 metres to the beach straight into the water, and 20 metres out came upon all three at once. Even my three-year-old Lizalou "swam" with them by floating above while wearing a life jacket.
The reefs have been damaged by fishing nets and climate change, but they still teem with tropical fish flitting through bright-coloured coral. Islanders know the turtles are key to the future of Gili tourism, so they are working to protect the marine environment. At a tiny "turtle sanctuary" on Gili Meno, one committed islander raises babies in tanks: He gathers the eggs after they're laid, hatches them, and hand feeds the babies in small pools until they are about eight months old and have a better chance of surviving the appetites of big fish and birds. Each August, he lets them go in a ceremony rich with Sasak tradition; visitors are welcome to help carry the slippery, flippery turtle teenagers down to the surf and release them.
The Gilis are also great for diving, and a couple of exceedingly laid-back dive shops can provide gear. One morning we left the kids happily making crafts with our hosts, and went out with Blue Marlin. They puttered us about 15 minutes off shore in a wooden dive boat, and then took us down 18 metres to a reef with pinnacles and canyons where we saw octopi, manta rays, cuttlefish and still more turtles – one of them snuggled up sound asleep in a giant barrel sponge, a bit like a cat on a hearthside pillow.
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.
There really isn't much to buy on Gili Meno, so bring what you'll need: sunscreen, hats, maybe a towel or two, lots of reading material and batteries. And a lot of cash – there's no ATM and no one takes credit cards.
Fly into Bali's Denpansar International Airport and then you have two choices: either a bus to the coast, where you can take one of the speedboat services to Lombok and the Gilis, or another short flight to Lombok, a two-hour drive and then a brief boat tip off the north of Lombok. The speedboats cost about $35 a person, and leave only in the morning. You can book local connections through Travelindo.com, whom we found very helpful. They don't take foreign credit cards but we used PayPal with no problem.
WHERE TO STAY
The best place, by far, is Villa Sayang, a two-bedroom house set in a huge, lush garden. Hosts Sylvia and Saleh live on the other side of the hedge, and can help with anything you need, from money-changing to ferry tickets to milk for breakfast. $75 a night, in cash.
Other options to consider: Villa Nautilus, set in a verdant garden, has air conditioning and is well-maintained. The Royal Reef is basic but right at the water's edge with a trillion-dollar view. And try to stay on the east side of the island, where the view is better and you don't get noise blown across the water from the largest Gili island.
WHERE TO EAT
Gili Meno has only one proper restaurant – with tables and chairs – the high-design and pricey Mahamaya Boutique Resort. The rest are palm-thatched lapas where you sprawl on pillows, stare out to sea and eat off a low table.
The Jetty Bar is strategically positioned right at the shoreline of the island's best snorkelling reef. The ingredients in their coconut-banana shake are plucked while you wait.
The Sunset Gecko has charming staff, an excellent tuna steak and an unbeatable view of the sunset.
Rusty's is at Gili Meno's main dock, and consequently a "busy" spot – if you'd call a half-dozen guests busy. Amazing fish kebabs made with the catch of the day.