The great escape
Indonesia's Gili Islands – blanketed by white, sandy beaches, awash in Indian Ocean tides and a lengthy flight from North America – make for the perfect postelection refuge
The bells. That's the first thing you notice – clanging, ringing and dinging, a collective cacophony of chaotic sound. A rhythmic racket of horse-driven taxis that, more often than not, are coming straight for you.
I'd just been dropped on the beach by a fast ferry from Bali, slipping off my flip-flops and hopping into the warm clear Indian Ocean to stride up the white, sandy beach to the Gili Trawangan's main thoroughfare. Within a few minutes, I'm packed into the back of one of those equine cabs and make good time, en route over an impossibly busy, thoroughly unpaved road, to a beachside paradise.
Indonesia's Gili Trawangan, often known by its breezy nickname "Gili T," is the largest and most populated of the Gili Islands – a few round dollops of far-flung Indonesian earth that weren't settled until the 1970s, though a Japanese prisoner of war camp was set up in the Second World War. Gili T sits just off the coast of Lombok, about 35 kilometres east of Bali and, perhaps more importantly, a full day's flight from North America. It's the perfect postelection getaway, far from the hyperbolic airwaves of an anxiety-filled fall; a place to escape if you are wrung out from contemplating the fate of our American cousins and the presidential election's effect on our own country.
Trawangan and its quieter neighbours have long been a magnet for backpackers and a long-term stop for Southeast Asian nomads, but its has recently begun attracting a more upscale crowd drawn to the islands' best attributes: sun, sand and sanity.
After settling into my hotel – an all-villa property where I enjoy my own private pool – I take a stroll down the Jalan Pantai, the circular road that circumnavigates the island, dodging those loud, horse-drawn taxis and bicycles ridden by visitors of all ages. Crammed with businesses, each vying for frontage and many combining a variety of services (hotel, dive shop, bar and restaurant is a popular combination), I pass through a central square where, every evening, a market lights up the night. Here, great clouds of steam rise from the many food stalls, from ersatz pubs with flimsy plastic chairs selling cheap bottles of Bintang beer, to seafood joints cooking up some of the freshest fish you'll find anywhere.
On a whim, I pop into one of those dive shops and meet veteran diver Adam Baxter. A Brit by birth, he came here on a six-month dive-master contract and never left. "Here, the reefs are just 20 minutes out. You can do three dives during the day, and still have a nice dinner in the evening," he says. Baxter is the general manager of Trawangan Dive and business, he says, is good. His typical client now goes well beyond backpackers living on a shoestring and sleeping in the cheapest possible hostels – he's getting more bookings from families with kids and a new class of older traveller, ones looking for longer dives and more creature comforts during their stay on the island.
Things have changed dramatically since he arrived six years ago. It used to take all day, via slow boat from Bali, to reach Gili Trawangan. Now, 250-horsepower ferries get you here in as little as two hours.
Baxter, who sports some impressive tattoos, including various depictions of pirates ("I just like pirates," he says), says that with better access, the range of visitors has expanded. "It's paradise, I suppose," he observes, with typical British reserve.
I book a dive with Baxter and soon see what he's talking about.
Riding out a short distance from shore on a wooden boat, I flip over the side and plunge into a different world. I am quickly engulfed in clouds of fish, schools that include batfish, parrotfish, stonefish and butterfly fish. I emerge refreshed, ready to explore more back in town.
That evening, I browse the night market. As I pick my way from the tacky souvenir stands to nearby, air-conditioned shops with quality handmade arts, crafts and even designer clothes I notice a number of visitors that fit the profile Baxter described – monied Australian retirees, well-dressed European honeymooners and sleek families with kids in tow. For dinner, I dine beside the water on snapper and lobster at a couple of the upscale restaurants along that bustling main street. And I take in a film at a seaside outdoor theatre with comfy lounge chairs and cooling breezes, content in the open air until a sudden storm drives moviegoers under what little shelter we can find.
Then I heard about another island nearby offering even more of an escape from the world. Gili Gede (pronounced "g'day") is about an hour's ferry ride south. Its pleasures are simple – the island opened its first resort earlier this year and only recently offered electricity 24 hours a day – but Gili Gede is a glimpse of these distant islands as they used to be. Not many visitors make it out this far.
A local named Wayan Romi shows me around. We walk past thatched huts and he points to outrigger canoes moored in the blue waters just offshore, and goats, prized possessions of the families lingering nearby, that play in the sand and climb over fishing boats. Romi tells me that the islands in this part of Indonesia have historically been very isolated, even from one another, to the point that residents speaks different dialects.
As we enter a market, we cause a minor stir; locals are unaccustomed to an outsider. A few minutes later, further down the path, a group of children ignore us, but a few of them cast sidelong glances, eyeing us curiously as they sit in hammocks and play a game of what, to my eye, looks a little like a cross between cricket and outdoor bowling.
Romi notes that, like these kids, he grew up here playing this game, and went out with his father, a fisherman, on his small wooden boat to harvest the sea. "It's a hard life sometimes. Very quiet. And everyone knows everyone," he says. "It's simple, yes. But it's often fun."
Life here, he tells me, follows traditions, customs and connections that have persisted for hundreds of years, and that will continue, even as more travellers arrive on these distant shores.
Given our complicated times, simple sounds pretty good to me.
The writer was a guest of ko-ko-mo Resorts. It did not review or approve the story.
If you go
Cathay Pacific provides the most direct route for the 24-hour-plus trip from Canada to the Gili Islands. Flights from Toronto and Vancouver to Denpasar, the capital of Bali, make just a single connection in Hong Kong. cathaypacific.com
Gili Getaway provides fast ferry service from Bali's Serangan Harbour to Gili Trawangan and the only scheduled transfers to Gili Gede. giligetaway.com
On Gili Trawangan, ko-ko-mo resort provides all-villa accommodations on the quiet side of the island, within walking distance of Trawangan's night market and best restaurants. One-bedroom villas from $280 a night, includes breakfast. kokomogilit.com
Scallywag's, a seaside seafood joint on Gili Trawangan, provides some of the freshest fish on the island with dining right next to the water, from prawns and butterfish and tuna steaks to fish and chips. scallywagsresort.com
Ko-ko-mo Gili Gede, on the even smaller, more remote island, opened earlier this year. It's a small resort with a full-service restaurant, where every villa has its own private pool. One bedroom villas from $280 a night, includes breakfast. kokomogiligede.com