Tropical islands are what most people envision when they imagine paradise. For every mountain-lover who dreams of jagged peaks and rocky slopes, there are a hundred people whose computer screensaver at the office is palm trees and blue seas. The combination of soft white sand and clear water is beguiling. However, the intangible feelings symbolized by this natural beauty are what really compel people to daydream: the languid pace of life, the gentle back-and-forth of a hammock nap, and the solitude of a deserted island. It is these feelings though that can be harder to find. After all, there are many places on this globe that mix sunshine and beaches, drawing massive amounts if tourists in return. The challenge is finding one without the touts, without the commercialization and the eye-watering costs of Instagram-darlings like the Maldives.
This is why I was surprised to discover an island somewhat like that so close to Bali, one of the world’s premiere tourism destinations. This island is called Gili Asahan (Gili meaning “island” in the Indonesian language). Directly east of Bali is the island of Lombok, which has lately become known as “Bali before it became Bali”. In other words, one of Lombok’s central draws is that it has not yet firmly on the Southeast Asia tourist trail and lacks the mass-tourism that Bali has experienced over the past decades.
Off the southwest coast of Lombok there is a sprinkling of tiny islands, including Gili Asahan, that have recently become known as the “Secret Gilis”. While that moniker is perhaps a bit much, there is no doubt that the Secret Gilis are a stark contrast to Bali and their more famous cousins that lie off of Lombok’s northwest coast (Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno And Gili Air). There are no charter boats to Gili Asahan and no tour operator will organize a package vacation there. There aren’t any beach bars, no reggae pumping out of stereos and no big hotels. However, if you are looking for your own piece of the tropical idyll, places like Gili Asahan will suit you well.
You’ll need to first take the public ferry from Bali to Lombok. It departs the port at Padang seemingly whenever it feels like it (or maybe it was particularly late the day we took it?) and slowly chugs across the Lombok Strait. Almost all of the passengers on board appeared to be from Lombok, many with bags of goods that they either brought to sell or recently purchased. Docking in Lombok, we then hired a car to take us from the port to the southwest of the island, where the Gili Asahan Eco Resort had a small boat waiting.
Anticipations rose as we rumbled away from the big island and toward the archipelago and we were only to happy to roll up our pants and hop into the warm, shallow water once we got to Gili Asahan (no docks here). As far as I am aware, there are only two places tourists can sleep on the entire island and Gili Asahan is was our home for the next few days.
It’s hard to separate the island from the Eco Resort in our minds, since it was where we had our meals and spent much of our time. Additionally, the Resort meshes seamlessly into the island and seems to represent much of what the island is about. Ecological conservation is a pressing issue on an island with extremely limited resources and facilities like Gili Asahn and the resort takes it seriously. Sea turtles are common to the area’s waters and the resort has huge tubs to protect hundreds of baby turtles. While we weren’t able to figure out the specifics of this, one of the staff members did allow us to check out the happy swimmers and even hold a few (though only for a short time, for their own health).
Aside from the Resort, Gili Asahan is populated by a scattered settlement of local fishermen and their families. Lombok, like most of Indonesia, is devoutly Muslim and Gili Asahan, which sees comparatively few tourists, is no exception. As a result, the local villagers are extremely friendly but fairly conservative compared to their counterparts in the more famous Gili islands up north.
The resort offers the opportunity to hop in one of the outriggers and paddle out to neighbouring islets. When I was a kid I spent a lot of hours dreaming of deserted islands and pirate treasure in the Caribbean, so I was thrilled to do something like this. As a proud Canadian I was familiar with canoes but this was my first time in a dugout outrigger canoe. It was also my first time paddling on saltwater, with currents and real waves to deal with. Nevertheless, it felt like a dream to push off from the shore and begin our little journey out, the water so clear and blue it felt like we were flying above the corals below.
A staff member back at the resort had suggested one island to stop at for lunch and so we landed there, jumping and splashing out of the canoe and pushing it up the soft sand to beach it. We had a picnic lunch prepared, bundled up in the bottom of our canoe with our snorkels and masks, so we had that and soaked in the views. Ambling around the tip of the little island we came to something like a sandbar, which was carpeted with dozens and dozens of tiny palm-sized starfish. The sea life is one of the best aspects of this area and even directly offshore of the resort are great clusters of coral and fish.
Back on the main island of Gili Asahan, a commanding view of the island can be had from a wooden gazebo atop a grassy knoll, rising up from behind the resort itself. Watching the sun melt into the Pacific at sunset is the best way to let the day slip into night.