Cocos Keeling Islands is Australia’s secret wonder

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From Perth, the flight to one of the most remote areas of Australia, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, takes just under five hours.

And although it is an effort to reach this far-flung paradise, closer to Indonesia than mainland Australia, I know within moments of arriving that something special awaits me.

The beautiful, chain-shaped archipelago comprises 27 low-lying islets, many of them surrounded by coconut palms and fringed by white sand and brochure-blue waters. Escape reports.

Below sea level, it’s just as brilliant: the coral atolls’ shared lagoon is a colorful universe with more than 500 species of fish inhabiting pristine reefs. Just under 600 people call the Cocos home, and only two islands – West and Home – are inhabited. Each has its own style of coastal life, making the Cocos an alluring place to explore and let off steam. (No phone reception helps.)

I feel privileged to be here. Cocos only has space for 144 tourists, which makes this island holiday even more exceptional.

DAY ONE: Lunch

I arrive at Cocos (Keeling) Islands Airport on West Island and pick up my rental pickup truck outside the terminal. It is recommended to leave the keys in the vehicle (obtaining a spare key from the mainland would be a breeze).

Cocos Cottages, 600m away, are just a short drive away. The simple, self-contained chalets border the airstrip, which is also the only golf course in the world on an international runway. From my balcony, I watch intently as the last link to civilisation – the Virgin Australia plane I had just disembarked from – begins its roaring flight to Christmas Island, 980km to the east. How about some front-row entertainment?

Afternoon

It’s time to cool off and explore Cocos at my own pace. I don’t need a boating license to rent a dinghy from Cocosday and steer my own sea adventure. I travel to the tiny, undeveloped island of Pulu Blan, where I enjoy a gourmet coconut picnic under swaying palm trees. Beach, snacks and champagne – I could get used to these trips.

DAY TWO: Morning

There is no better way to get to know a place than to plunge into the cold water, and this lesson involves a diving mask. I accompany the diving instructor Dieter Gerhard from Cocos Dive to dive in the heart of the archipelago, the lagoon. It is part of the Cocos Islands Marine Park (Keeling Islands), one of the largest marine reserves in the world.

Beneath the blue marbled waters of the lagoon, reefs teem with hard and soft corals, considered a habitat of international importance. We visit Cabbage Patch, a dive site famous for its vast coral garden, reminiscent of leaf green. Reef sharks and green sea turtles emerge from the odd corners of the garden, and I am fascinated by their gentle movements over the steep reef wall.

One

Between dives, we stop for a picnic on Direction Island, the locals’ favourite playground. The island has minimal facilities – an eco-toilet, wood-fired barbecues, walking trails and shaded picnic tables – which gives it a special atmosphere. Locals make the $5 round-trip ferry trip here to enjoy their slice of paradise in their free time, and swim at Cossies Beach – once voted the best beach in Australia.

I venture to the tip of the island to do the drift snorkeling trip called “The Rip”. The current runs over an underwater ridge rich in marine life. As the current can be fast, only experienced swimmers should attempt this natural excursion.

Afternoon

I continue to familiarize myself with the finned inhabitants of Cocos and spot black diamonds in the crystal clear water. It is evidently mating season, as 12 manta rays are floating above the sea floor. Their formation looks like a showpiece, with the female in front and the males behind. Wanting to make the most of this rare event, we grab our snorkels to observe the gentle giants of the ocean below us. The rays take our interruption of their slow courtship behavior in stride.

Evening

Tropika is a casual restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating that serves halal-certified Cocos Malay dishes. It’s considered a cheap meal on the island – a generous portion of beef rendang and coconut rice cost $20.

To wash it all down, I head across the street and join the hustle and bustle of Cocos Club. The island’s only pub sells duty-free alcohol; just don’t expect a wild party atmosphere just because the booze is cheap. The relaxed bar is a place to chat to locals relaxing after a long day, probably doing all sorts of adventurous activities on land and sea.

DAY THREE: Morning

I grab a freshly baked treat from Salty’s Grill & Bakery and head to the Wild Coconut Discovery Centre. I put on my hard hat and walk through a coconut plantation with farmer Tony Lacy to learn about the island’s industrial history.

The education continues as I take a 30-minute ferry to Home Island to join a cultural tour. Led by local guide Ossie, the tour offers insight into Cocos Malay culture with a home-cooked lunch on the beach, buggy rides through the quiet village, coconut shelling and basket weaving demonstrations.

Evening

For sundowners, I head to Surfer Girl Restaurant & Brewery, sitting outside under fairy lights and watching the waves roll in as the sun goes down. Tonight is pasta night, and I opt for the seafood girasoli—the bowl of creamy carbs does not disappoint.

DAY FOUR: Morning

It’s time for the “Tour de Cocos,” a tour of the West Island on two wheels. Phat Tours Cocos offers guided e-bike tours that take you off-road to deserted beaches and towering coconut plantations. We stop to refuel at the Big Barge Art Center, a multi-purpose space in a colorfully restored boat. I order an iced coffee, sit in a rocking chair, and rock across the sandy beach.

Getting to the Cocos Islands (Keeling Islands)

Virgin Australia operates two flights a week – Tuesdays and Fridays – from Perth to Cocos (Keeling) Islands Airport via Exmouth (fuel stop). It is possible to combine a Cocos (Keeling) Islands holiday with a stopover on Christmas Island, providing the perfect opportunity to explore both areas.

The author was a guest of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands Tourism Association.

This article originally appeared on Escape and has been reproduced with permission

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