The Gili Islands are three small, I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-photoshopped islands just off the coast of Lombok. Beginning in the 1980s, travellers have been coming to the Gilis for the sun and the sand and the diving and the debauchery offered by these reputedly police-free bits of paradise.
Getting to the Gilis involves a boat trip from either Bali or Lombok and there are lots of operators to choose from. For these types of island transfers I usually just show up at the pier and pick the company with the least aggressive touts. But for the Gilis I did my homework because about once a year, one of these boats sinks.
That’s right. Sometimes people go down with the boat, sometimes it’s just the luggage. But still.
I used Tripadvisor to compare options and found negative reviews for many of the heavily advertised companies. Actually I read enough harrowing stories to make me question whether I really needed to go to the beach at all. But then I found BlueWater Express, a British-owned fast boat company with consistently positive feedback and no press coverage about breached hulls or broken windshields. I couldn’t find a travel agent in Ubud who sold BlueWater tickets so I booked through GiliBookings, a handy site that compares availability and price for several of the fast boat companies. BlueWater Express was the most expensive fast boat option, but you can’t put a price on my laptop’s safety.
My USD$56 one way ticket included the one hour minibus transfer from my hotel in Ubud to the pier at Padang Bai. Pickup was scheduled for between 6:30 and 7:00am and the minibus showed up at 6:55am, having already picked up the six other passengers. The BlueWater office was clean and the staff were friendly and organized when they issued my ticket and tagged my bag. I killed an hour drinking Nescafe; the Aussies drank beer.
The boat was clean and new, only two thirds full, and we pulled out of the harbour one minute ahead of the scheduled 9:15am departure time. Water bottles were provided and one of the staff walked down the aisle offering each of us a mint and a Gravol. The route ran parallel to the Bali coastline for the first 20 minutes, past small beach resorts, green hill terraces and two volcanoes. The sea was choppy when we turned to cross the Lombok Strait but the boat stayed low in the water and I didn’t really feel the waves. The entire crossing was smooth enough for people around me to eat, sleep and watch The Hangover on their iPads.
One hour and 15 minutes later the boat slowed and cruised to shore at Gili Trawangan, the most developed of the three islands. I hopped off the boat into water as clear as they said it would be and my bag was the first to be offloaded onto the sand.
A few days later I took BlueWater back to Bali. Again, the booking and check in process was very professional, right down to the computer-printed passenger manifest and an on time departure. This time the on board staff did a safety orientation as we got underway, showing us the locations of the life jackets and the fire extinguisher, and explaining that there were three self-inflating life rafts stored behind the boat’s low ceiling. I stayed on the boat while passengers got off at Padang Bai and continued on to Serangan, the harbour further south. The sea was a bit rougher for this extra 45 minutes but still manageable. We disembarked at a pier and waited 10 minutes inside an open air waiting area with free wifi. When our luggage arrived the crew divided the passengers into groups based on hotel location, and sent us off in air-conditioned transfer vans.
So it wasn’t the bile-raising experience I was expecting. No opportunities for daring heroics. No drowning laptops. And a big step up from the rusting pile of metal that took me to Ko Chang.