Ute Junker winds down on a little-known Indonesian island.
The new jetty on Gili Meno is impressive, a tall construction that stretches way out into the strait. Yet our little boat sails straight past. Like many visitors to Gili Meno, we’re transferring from nearby Lombok on a small boat, and the jetty, designed for bigger vessels, looms above us.
Instead, we make a wet landing. Our captain beaches the boat on the brightly shining sand, we remove our shoes and wade ashore. My shoes will stay off for the rest of my stay.
During my time on the island, every guest I see arriving makes the same barefoot landing.
I’m told there are regular fast-boat transfers that do use the jetty, but I never spot one. I can’t help but see the jetty as an indication that this tranquil island has big plans.
For years, Meno has been the underachiever of the Gilis, a trio of islands off the coast of Lombok beloved by backpackers.
The largest island, Gili Trawangan, or Gili T, has long been colonised by the party crowd. Their dance parties have also spread to Gili Aire. Gili Meno, just two kilometres long, has remained largely immune, with some low-key accommodation supplementing the islanders’ fishing income.
But now the islanders – all 300 of them – have opted to appeal to a more sophisticated tourist, the type that pays more and parties less. The type that might want to come to Karma Reef, a former backpacker hideaway that’s had a major makeover.
Karma Reef is Gili Meno’s new flagship property, housing just 10 couples. The adjoining Karma Beach Club functions as restaurant and bar, and the resort also has a small spa tent.
The resort’s big selling point is its accommodation – traditional two-storey rice houses, called lumbungs. They offer attractive indoor-outdoor living just steps from the water. The bedroom is upstairs; down the winding staircase you find the bathroom and an al fresco living area.
I quickly learn two things about going to the bathroom at night. The first is to switch the light on; the stairs twist at a sharp angle.
The second is, if you’re not the type who favours nightwear, grab a sarong, as the walk exposes you to anyone walking by.
And that’s the catch with Gili Meno. There are no boundaries. The island’s main thoroughfare circumnavigates the island, hugging the shore and passing through small villages, past restaurants and bars. It also runs right through Karma Reef, which means when you step out from your lumbung in the morning, you may run into guests from other hotels snapping selfies.
This feeling of being part of everyday life is part of Gili Meno’s charm. As you lie on your lounger, you may spot roosters scratching the ground, children peering at you shyly, wiry men passing, laden with timber. Honeymooners may be less enamoured of this.
The beach at Karma Reef is small but the water is crystal-clear, with plenty of fish for snorkelling, although the coral has suffered serious bleaching. The resort can organise snorkelling expeditions to other sites.
An island walk offers a break from lounging, so one morning, a friend and I decide to stretch our legs. By now, I’m so into the barefoot vibe, I forget my shoes.
It’s easy going as we skirt stretches of white sand, wandering through small villages.Sometimes we have to jump out of the way of the jingling one-horse carts, the only form of transport.
After an hour we stop at a beach bar. My Indonesian friend declares she’s had enough of walking, and asks staff to call a carriage.
As a local, I expect her to negotiate a good price but the drivers have the racket sewn up and the jolting ride costs about as much as a cab ride in Sydney or Melbourne.
It doesn’t take long to sink into Gili Meno’s slower pace of life.
Nights are as laidback as days; the best place on the island to eat or enjoy cocktails is the neighbouring Karma Beach Club.
Light sleepers may find Gili Meno is not the place for them. On the nights there’s a party night on Gili T, you may find yourself awake until the music ends at 3am. After that, it’s not long until the muezzin on the next island starts his call to prayer. But if that wakes you up, get up to catch the sunrise over the water – spectacular.
The writer was a guest of Karma Reef.
Garuda Indonesia fares start at $845 return to Lombok, via Bali. See garuda-indonesia.com
Karma Reef rates start at $215 a night, twin share, including breakfast, or an all-inclusive package at $376 a night, twin share.