A stay on a tiny coral cay with horse-drawn taxis tops off a Bali family holiday, writes Andrea Jones.
We've barely swum 50 metres from the beach right in front of our hotel when the first turtle paddles into view. The snorkelling kids snap into action following it forage leisurely through the coral, then paddle upwards. It pops its tiny head above the water and silently opens its beak, drooling seawater as it gazes into the sunshine.
"Did you see that?" my son says. He and his friend fall about mimicking the turtle's comic, gaping gestures. During an hour of snorkelling, many of this turtle's extended family comes into view, along with schools of brilliantly coloured reef fish that flit in and out of the purple, blue and gold coral. It's the easy access to this vibrant underwater show that draws travellers to the Gili (which means island), a strand of three tiny coral cays between Bali and Lombok. The largest of the three, Gili Trawangan, is ideally suited to a three or four-day addition to a Bali or Lombok family holiday. It's just a half-hour boat ride from Lombok and, depending on where you set off from Bali, anywhere from a half an hour to 2 hours by fast boat.
With no cars on the island, this is a great place to decompress and share family time if your kids are old enough to swim. When your boat docks, you're in the heart of what passes for the island's town, a strip of cafes and dive shops and a hub for younger backpackers in the centre of the east coast. Bags are loaded into a cidomo, a horse-drawn carriage, for a lolloping journey along leafy pathways to your accommodation.
Nothing takes very long to get to since "Gili T" is just three kilometres wide and two kilometres long. In fact, you can walk around it in two hours. The northern end is the best location for families as it's quiet and offers some of the best snorkelling. Here you can also savour spectacular red and purple sunsets framed by Bali's towering volcano, Mount Agung, on the left, and Lombok's Mount Rinjani on the right. "North Beach" has a rapidly growing string of four-star resorts and stylish private villas, along with great beachside restaurants.
When the tide is up, pull on your fins, grab a snorkel and see which fish and turtles are out to play. As the coral reefs are so close to the shore, it's easy to swim out from the beach (tip: use the mooring floats where the tourist boats pull up to guide you to the best snorkelling sites). You can also hire a fishing boat for a private tour of the best snorkelling sites of all three Gili for just 800,000 rupiah ($73) for five hours. There's no surf to speak of so when the tide's in the swimming is delightfully warm and safe. When it's out, the shallows reveal a fascinating world of star fish, tiny crabs and sea creatures. It's worth noting that since most of the beaches are coral, reef shoes are essential.
After that, lounge in one of the bales - cushion-strewn platforms with thatched roofs that are built into the sands along stretches of the beach.
Feeling peckish? At dusk, take a 20-minute stroll into the night markets in the main town. You can feast on freshly caught and grilled seafood for about $15 for four people.
Alternatively, the beachfront cafes lining the main road offer Javanese and Western food from about 30 cents a plate. Do grab an ice-cream from the roadside carts where the friendly vendors let children sample endless flavours while they make up their minds.
One afternoon our kids plonk in a wonky bale just outside the town. As the sun sets, the vibrant colours lighting up the sky keep us enthralled. It's magic and we abandon thoughts of dinner.
As the sky darkens, the manager of a little bar behind us lights a bonfire alongside our lounge, chuckling it will give us some light when the island's erratic electricity falters. He's as warm as the flickering flames in the dusk and so we drift back to his bale every night.
One evening his wife picks up a guitar, a neighbour improvises a drum from an empty 20-litre water cooler and my son and his pal are offered rice-filled plastic bottles to play percussion while she sings. The kids adore it. And they're charmed, too, by a local teenager, Jerry, who tells stories in the firelight about his family on Lombok. How different his life is to theirs.
Along with swimming with turtles, my son still talks about Jerry and how, one evening Jerry said to him gravely, "When you grow up, the most important thing is to always be good to your mum. Remember that". My son thought Jerry was terrific. So did I.
The writer travelled at her own expense.
Several beaches in Lombok and along Bali's east coast offer fast boat access. The most popular is from Bali's Pedang Bai, a 2-hour crossing. Make sure you're on a large boat, because small boats can be rocky and unreliable. Eke Jaya operates large, airconditioned boats - Rp660,000 ($60) one-way online, but by haggling on the ground you can pay just Rp250,000 ($23).
Alam Gili hotel on North Beach has a Javanese-style cottage called "Fish Suite" for families (up to four) from $US125 ($133) a night. See alamindahbali.com. Find private family villas from $180 a night at vilondo.com Take reef shoes, as most of the beaches are coral.