Beyond its shores, Bali’s neighbouring islands have a similar vibe to some of Thailand’s backpacker retreats; days can be spent partying at all-night raves, eating banana pancakes or diving beside the reef. And nowhere is this more apparent that on the Gili Islands — three paradise-like islands off the northwest coast of Lombok, fringed with a halo of white sand, just an hour’s boat ride from Bali.
The daily muezzin call to prayer here is a reminder that Bali — where Hinduism remains the predominate religion — is the anomaly in the Muslim Indonesian archipelago. Life is pretty laid-back, regardless — sunbathing is all the rage, magic mushroom-infused milkshakes are sold in many of the beachside bars, while no police presence means life is governed by an elected village head, the kepala dusum.
I’m desperate for a pummelling Balinese massage and several hours’ bobbing in the turquoise waters. Minutes after arriving at Gili Trawangen — the largest of the three islands — I’m spreadeagled on a lounger, nose pressed into a cushion, with a smug grin across my face as I’m rubbed from head to toe. Come evening, I head to a beachside bar, crowded with backpackers, honeymooners and divers, waxing euphoric about their day’s beach bacchanalia.
“Whatever you do, just drink beer,” warns a red-faced Scot, drawing deeply on a suspicious-looking roll-up. “Wine is very overpriced, thanks to a 400% government tax, while local spirits will give you a belter of a headache,” he adds, tapping his shiny forehead.
I’m afraid I don’t listen, though. And after a night on the local whiskey while dancing to weird Eurodance tracks, I wake up in my £10-a-night beach hut with a belting hangover that I’m convinced only a swim will alleviate.
Beneath the surface of these waters lies a land of coral, glistening fish and the odd aged turtle, gracefully patrolling the seabed. I glide beside one of these wrinkled fellas, trying to capture a second of eye contact, but he’s more interested in pursuing another diver and spurns me with a haughty flick of his flipper.
I spend the next few days wallowing on the beach, floating in the limpid waters and tucking into seafood barbecues, before hopping over to tiny, palm-fringed Gili Meno. It’s so tiny, it takes just over an hour to walk its periphery. From the sea, it looks postcard perfect, like a classic Robinson Crusoe idyll.
A 10-minute sojourn across the waters and a cimodo (horse and cart) drive takes me across its centre, past warungs and lodgings, to its haven of barefoot luxury, Mahamaya Boutique Resort. Owned by enterprising British brother-and-sister team, Alison and Dave Roberts, its smart villas and cocktail bar are like nowhere else on the island, where sleepy beach shacks rule and evenings are spent quietly playing cards before bedding down by 10pm.
“We’re taking you to a wedding,” says Ali on arrival. “A proper Meno knees-up.” Shortly after dusk, surrounded by jungle and crouching on plastic matting, I’m staring at the seated bride in her gaudy, gypsy-wedding-style dress as she and her husband-to-be face the gathering of kneeling locals, quietly inspecting their gift boxes of bananas and sweet rice cakes. Her black hair is elaborately styled; her eyes ringed with eyeliner. “She’s not allowed to show any happiness at this point,” says Ali. “She’s supposed to look morose about leaving her family for her new family.” And just to add to the surreality of attending a stranger’s wedding, I’m ushered towards the bride and groom, surrounded by their families, for hand shakes and congratulations, like we’re long-lost friends.
It doesn’t take me long to fall head over heels for Mahamaya’s charms. It’s a place to cast off from shore each morning and float cheek-to-cheek with turtles. Mooch on over to the spa for an afternoon massage. Flop on a sunbed and dangle your feet in the pool for a cocktail or three. And quaff fantastic wines and gourmet food as the sun goes down. Top class.
This has been adapted from my original piece published in the March 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)