This Indonesian Island Is a Respite From Bali. At Least for Now.

An hour into what turned out to be something of a white-knuckle adventure in rough seas, Leo turned flush and announced that he wanted off the boat. I have subjected my children to a host of unpleasant travel experiences around the world, usually while pursuing some elusive undiscovered paradise, and I wondered if Gili Air would be worth the bother.

Photo

Life on East Beach.

Credit
Dave Seminara

After a brief stop on Gili T, our speedboat docked right on the beach at Gili Air, and Leo was relieved to step onto terra firma. As we gathered our bags and started up a sandy path toward our hotel, a cidomo, the Indonesian term for a horse-drawn cart, trotted by and tooted what sounded like a clown’s horn. There were no cars or scooters in sight, and for the first time in Indonesia we could let the kids walk on their own.

Our moods brightened further upon discovering that our bell-shaped bungalow at the Sunrise Resort had a loft with hammocks and was steps away from an exquisite beach where Europeans in Speedos and bikinis mixed with conservatively dressed Indonesians. (Unlike Bali, the Gilis are predominantly Muslim.)

Neil Hands, a Scot who founded the resort 24 years ago, briefed me on Gili Air’s emergence. At 22, he washed up on this five-square-mile island a “lost soul,” his dream of becoming an Olympic skier extinguished by knee injuries.

“I stayed in a thatched-roof hut on the beach that came with three meals a day for five dollars,” he said over cups of coffee at the Sunrise’s beachfront bar. “There were only three other foreigners here, just a handful of homestays, and if you wanted a cold beer, you had to wait for the ice man to come from Lombok every few days.”

Mr. Hands was seduced by the island’s drowsy charms and within three months he bought a coconut plantation and built what has evolved into a 30-room resort. He said that, despite setbacks after the 2002 and 2005 terrorist attacks in Bali, that Gili Air’s popularity had grown steadily until about seven years ago, when a handful of ferry operators introduced “fast boat” service to the islands, cutting travel time from Bali roughly in half. Since that sea change, dozens of small hotels, homestays, and restaurants have opened. The growth had been limited to small businesses before this year, when a 200-room hotel opened.

In the week to follow, I found out that changes are…

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