THE blaze of white sand licked by the surf was dotted one recent sunlit afternoon with fishing boats and their local owners, a pack of bored men in flip-flops who each kept one eye on their hand of cards and the other on the pale tourist cargo streaming from the docked speedboat onto the main road of the island of Gili Trawangan, east of Bali, in search of beach, beer and bungalow.
From the midst of the throng, the full force of this island’s transformation from tiny fisherman settlement to global tourist haven became resoundingly clear. The wail of that ubiquitous island ambassador, Bob Marley, seemed to be coming from every bar and cafe, whose stools overflowed with a sunburned masses gazing at the cerulean water, leafing through guidebooks and sipping Bintang beers.
Tiny Trawangan and its more relaxed sisters, Meno and Air, make up the Gili Islands, an archipelago in Indonesia’s Bali Sea that lies just off the coast of Lombok and is reachable only by boat. (The voyage from Bali takes about 90 minutes by speedboat.) Known as the “party” island and the largest of the three, Trawangan has developed a hedonistic reputation as a miniature Koh Samui, with all-night full moon parties and an array of illegal substances openly for sale.
But in the last few years, this island has begun to go chic, with villa resorts and upscale eco-lodges that have proliferated like a luxe algae bloom, attracting the moneyed and the stroller-laden to their personal pools and solar power for some clear-conscience pampering.
It was one of these that I was destined for, a just-opened complex of villas called the Trawangan Resort at the edge of the island’s frenzied development, where goats graze beneath tattered D.J. party posters and bar reggae fades on the breeze. A horse-drawn carriage known as a cidomo — cars and mopeds are banned — soon arrived with the baggage. After checking in, I headed into a maze of high concrete walls that wound away from the beach to a pair of wooden doors, which opened onto a villa with a private pool, cabana and bed sheets that, for its nightly price, one hoped hit the stratosphere of thread counts. The resort was so new that kinks still had to be worked out — hot water was absent from my room and the electricity failed during a brief storm.
The resort is the latest of around 10 similarly luxurious accommodations to open its doors in the last few years, adding spa treatments and horseback riding to the usual diving andsnorkeling diversions long favored by the backpacker set. A bicycle ride around the island, which takes only a half-hour, leads away from the hubbub of bars and young local men hawking “cannabis” on the southeastern end of the island toward isolated beaches and new eco-villas, their wide patios offering views of palm trees and the ocean.
The Gili Islands were largely uninhabited until the middle of last century, as they lack fresh water sources. Even today, all fresh water and provisions from beer to beef are brought by boat from Lombok.
Boulong, 36, a fisherman and snorkeling guide who grew up on the Gilis, recalls his grandfather telling him how settlers came to Gili Air and then slowly moved on to the other islands to fish, build mosques and start families. As a child, Boulong remembers seeing the first tourists, backpackers from Bali, coming for the day to revel in the solitude of the Gilis’ beaches and turquoise waves — still the main attraction for today’s tourists.
Yet even as stressed-out foreigners arrive seeking refuge from the outside world, the Gilis have suffered modern problems. The vast reefs that encircle the islands bear scars from decades of blast fishing, in which underwater explosives were used to kill large numbers of fish but also destroyed the coral. During the rainy season, runoff from Lombok and Bali sometimes brings lost sandals, plastic bags and other trash to Trawangan’s beaches.
Locals and expatriates are trying to stop this environmental damage from spreading. Blast fishing has been abandoned, and environmentalists on the islands have pioneered a technology that uses a small electric current to accelerate coral growth, leading to a rebirth of marine life. Delphine Robb, who came to Trawangan seven years ago from France for a diving course and never left, runs the Gili Eco Trust, a local environmental group that encourages resorts and fishermen to go green. The dive shops support the trust’s reef restoration projects financially, and resorts are composting and switching to nonchlorinated pools.
“Things are changing in a positive way as people understand they need to combine business with caring for the environment,” Ms. Robb said.
On a snorkeling trip, recent successes were abundantly clear: puffer fish flitted among new coral growth as a hawksbill turtle poked around near some psychedelic parrot fish. There are more than a dozen dive sites, and sea turtles, stingrays and thousands of reef fish abound in deeper water.
The Gilis are recovering from political crises, too. When Muslim extremists bombed a nightclub in a popular Bali resort town in 2002, killing more than 200 people, tourism on the Gilis evaporated. But the allure of the islands has proved impossible to resist, and a subsequent bombing on Bali in 2005, in which more than 20 people died, had only a minor impact on the return of divers and surfers. Indeed, local businesses report that recent political unrest in Thailand seems to have sent beach-hungry travelers to Trawangan in search of white sand and increasingly glamorous accommodations.
“When I first arrived, Trawangan was nothing but backpackers and divers,” said Dianne Somerton, an Australian who owns the upscale Kokomo resort, which opened in 2009, and the Beach House resort and restaurant, where she was eating dinner alongside beer-swigging surfers and families feasting on jumbo prawns. “Now Bali is so overloaded and Lombok never took off, but the Gilis really have.”
As night fell, restaurants near the dock grilled up mahi-mahi and barracuda while bartenders poured cocktails. Some establishments offer a more diverse menu: “Bloody fresh magic mushrooms send you to heaven n’ back again — no transport needed,” proclaimed one bar sign. Around midnight, an inebriated Australian man hovering near the D.J. at the Blue Marlin bar asked a group of revelers, “Want to see my friend drink 2.5 liters of alcohol in 10 seconds?” By then, the quiet of my pool beckoned, and I joined families with sleepy children on the journey home.
Those behind the recent surge of development on Trawangan say they want to preserve the island’s natural beauty even as it gets more luxurious, since untrammeled beaches and tranquil waves are what ultimately draw tourists.
“Nobody wants Jet Skis or any of that Mediterranean resort nonsense,” said David Street, manager of the Scallywags Resort, a 10-room boutique hotel that opened on Trawangan in 2009. “People come to the Gilis to let their hair down and get horizontal, but there’s enough here to feel they’re not stuck on an island.”
2 OTHER GILIS
The most undeveloped island, Meno offers a blissfully chill vibe, where a ban on parties means that the only sounds are the whisper of the surf and the muezzin’s call to prayer resounding through the trees. With just a smattering of bungalows and one dive shop, people come to Meno to read, tan and forget, for a while, their everyday lives beyond its shores.
Home to the largest local community and closest to Lombok, Air is a blend of both worlds. It draws primarily families and honeymooners to its growing collection of villas and bungalows, many of which offer stunning views of Mount Rinjani, the volcano in Lombok, which at 12,000 feet is among Indonesia’s largest. A weekly party, combined with Trawangan’s rather frenzied development, is also luring the backpacker crowd here.
IF YOU GO
Travelers board a boat in Bali to travel to Gili Trawangan. There are a dozen speed-boat companies that make the 90-minute voyage twice a day from Padangbai, Bali, to the island, for $60 each way, and fishing-boat taxis to the other islands cost around $20.
WHERE TO STAY
Gili Eco Villas (Trawangan; 62-0361-84-76-419; giliecovillas.com) is a new resort of seven villas a 10-minute cidomo ride from the main strip of the island known as Sentral. Rates start at $95 for a one bedroom in low season and $145 in high season.
Kokomo Resort (Trawangan; 62-0370-64-2352; kokomogilit.com) is luxury right in the heart of the action. Rates start about $165 a night.
Scallywags Resort (Trawangan; 62-370-64-5301; scallywagsresort.com) is a short distance from Kokomo and rooms start at $85 or $135 depending on the season.
News Source: NYTIMES
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