Cocos Keeling Islands is Australia’s secret wonder

It takes just under five hours to fly from Perth to one of Australia’s most remote territories, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

And even though I’m aiming to reach a remote paradise that’s closer to Indonesia than mainland Australia, I know within moments of arriving that I’m in for something special.

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

Below sea level, it’s just as brilliant: the lagoon that joins the coral atolls is a colorful universe with more than 500 species of fish that bring the untouched reefs to life. Just under 600 people call Kokos home and only two islands – West and Home – are inhabited. Each has its own way of coastal life, making the Cocos Islands an enticing place to explore and exploit. (No phone reception helps.)

I feel privileged to be here. Cocos can only accommodate 144 tourists, which makes this island even more unusual.

FIRST DAY: Noon

I arrive at Cocos (Keeling) Islands West Island Airport and pick up the hirer outside the terminal. It is recommended to leave the keys in the vehicle (arranging a spare key from the mainland would be a saga).

A short drive to Cocos Cottages, 600m away. Simple detached log cabins border the airstrip, which is also the world’s only golf course on an international track. From my balcony, I’m engrossed in watching the last link to civilization – the Virgin Australia plane I disembarked – roaring up to Christmas Island, 980km to the east. How’s that for a party in the first place?

in the afternoon

Time to chill and discover coconut at my own pace. I do not need a license to rent a dinghy from Cocosday and lead my sea adventure. I sail to a small undeveloped island, Pula Blan, for a gourmet Cocos Picnics feast under swaying palm trees. Beach, snacks and bubbles – I could get used to these trips.

DAY TWO: In the morning

There’s no better way to understand a place than to plunge into the deep, and this lesson includes a scuba mask. I joined instructor Dieter Gerhard from Cocos Diva for a dive in the heart of the archipelago, the lagoon. It is part of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands Marine Park, one of the largest marine sanctuaries in the world.

Beneath the blue waters of the marble-effect lagoon are thriving hard and soft coral reefs that are considered habitats of international importance. We visit the Cabbage Patch, a dive site famous for its large coral garden that resembles leafy greens. Reef sharks and green turtles pop out of curious corners of the garden and I am taken aback by their smooth movements over the falling reef wall.

one

Between dives, we enjoy a picnic on Direction Island, the favorite playground of the locals. The island has minimal facilities – eco toilets, wood-burning grills, walking paths and shaded picnic tables – which gives it a feel. Residents here take the $5 round trip ferry for their slice of leisure paradise, swimming at Cossies Beach – once voted the best beach in Australia.

I head to the tip of the island to complete a drift snorkel called “The Rip”. The current flows over an underwater reef with abundant marine life. Because the rip can be fast, only confident swimmers should attempt this natural joy ride.

in the afternoon

I continue to familiarize myself with the inhabitants of the Cocos Fins, spotting black diamonds in the crystal clear waters. It’s obviously mating season as 12 manta rays float above the ocean floor. Their formation looks like a parade, with the female in the lead and the males behind. Wanting to make the most of this rare event, we grab our snorkels and watch the gentle ocean giants below us, the rays indifferent to our intrusion into their slow courtship.

Evening

Tropika is a relaxed restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating, serving halal-certified coconut Malay dishes. It is considered a cheap meal on the island – a generous serving of beef rendang and coconut rice was priced at $20.

To wash it all down, I head across the street and join in the fun at Club Cocos. The only pub on the island sells alcohol duty-free; just don’t expect an exciting party over cheap drinks. The relaxed bar is the place to interact with the locals as they unwind after a busy day – most likely participating in all sorts of adventure activities on land or sea.

DAY THREE: Morning

I grab a freshly baked treat from Salty’s Grill & Bakery and drive to the Wild Coconut Discovery Centre. I wear a beanie as I walk through a coconut plantation with farmer Tony Lacy to appreciate the island’s industrial history.

The education continues as I catch the 30-minute ferry to Home Island for a cultural tour. Led by local guide Ossie, the tour provides an insight into the Malay culture of Cocos with a home-cooked lunch on the beach, cart rides through the peaceful village, coconut shelling and basket weaving demonstrations.

Evening

For sunset I head to Surfer Girl Restaurant & Brewery, sit outside under the floodlights and watch the waves as the sun goes down. Tonight is pasta night and I’m going for girasoles with seafood – a bowl of creamy carbs doesn’t disappoint.

FOURTH DAY: Morning

It’s time for the “Tour de Cocos”, roaming the West Island on two wheels. Phat Tours Cocos offers guided e-bike tours, off-road tours and visits to secluded beaches and towering coconut groves. We stop to recharge at The Big Barge Art Centre, a multi-purpose venue in a beautifully restored boat. I order an iced coffee, sit in a rocking chair and sway over the sandy shore.

How to get to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands

Virgin Australia operates two weekly flights – Tuesdays and Fridays – from Perth to Cocos (Keeling) Islands Airport via Exmouth (refueling stop). Holidays in the Cocos (Keeling) Islands can be combined with a stop on Christmas Island, which is a great opportunity to explore both territories.

The writer was a guest of the Tourist Association of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

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

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