14 incredible days on Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) Islands
Island hop between these extraordinary locations on an unforgettable 14-day adventure.
By Sue Gough Henly, Georgia Rickard
Get close to unique birdlife, bizarre crab migrations, coral reefs, turtles and whale sharks on this 14-day itinerary. Go deep sea fishing and kitesurfing and relax on some of the world's most beautiful beaches. On these islands, closer to Asia than mainland Australia, you'll discover a distinctive Malay culture and dine on unique Chinese island cuisine. The ideal time to visit Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands is during the south-east wind season between April and November. This coincides with the annual red crab migration on Christmas Island (October to November) and the Hari Raya Puasa (end of Ramadan) cultural celebration on Home Island in the Cocos (Keeling) islands.
What to expect
- See rare birdlife and an extraordinary crab migration
- Bask on exquisite white sand beaches
- Snorkel or dive on pristine, remote coral reefs
- Time: 14 days
- Distance: 1,000 kilometres (684 miles)
- Transport: plane, boat, car and bike
- Nearest major city: Perth
- Price: $$$$
Day 1: Perth to Christmas Island
Take the four-hour flight from Perth to Christmas Island, 135 square kilometres (52 square miles) of steep cliffs, tropical rainforest, rare birdlife, national parks and crabs. Sir David Attenborough labelled Christmas Island the "kingdom of the crabs", and for good reason. This fascinating place is home to an abundance and diversity of land crabs not matched anywhere else on Earth. Tens of millions of endemic red crabs live here, and you'll see them everywhere: in trees, on footpaths, under boardwalks and on beaches. There are also another two dozen species to look out for, including endemic blue crabs (you'll find them inhabiting the island's wetlands), and the harmless, but enormous robber crabs. Named for their propensity to stealing anything that catches their eye, these colourful, basketball-sized creatures are often seen on forest floors and on the island's roads.
Pick up your hire car (4WD is essential as the roads outside the townships are unsealed) and drive to the island's main settlement (known simply as Settlement), where you'll check in to comfortable motel-style accommodation at The Sunset. Then take the 10-minute drive to Territory Day Park, which sits at the top of a mountain crest and offers spectacular views of Settlement and the popular adjacent swimming spot, Flying Fish Cove, below. Enjoy a two-kilometre (1.2-mile) return rainforest walk around the park and get your bearings before taking the 10-minute drive to Tai Jin House, a grand manor that was originally the residence of the island's British administrator. You'll find a permanent exhibition detailing Christmas Island's fascinating history. Enjoy dinner with the locals at the Golden Bosun Tavern, a relaxed pub by the water serving tap beer and affordable meals.
Day 2: Christmas Island
Today you'll explore Christmas Island's remarkable underwater world in the area's warm, translucent waters. Because the island is perched on the edge of the Java Trench (the Indian Ocean's deepest point), it offers some of the world's best wall dives in exquisitely clear water. Divers are likely to see large pelagic fish such as tuna, barracuda and reef sharks, as well as some of the 88 coral species and 600 fish species living here, spinner dolphins, and green and hawksbill turtles. Between November and April it's possible to swim with whale sharks on their annual migration. During the October to November's red crab migration – a sight that Sir David has called one of the most memorable moments of his television career, due to the millions of crabs that move down to the water like a giant red carpet – you can take a tour with Indian Ocean Experiences and watch the female crabs spawn. Afterwards, play golf on the lush fairways of the nine-hole Christmas Island Golf Course. Or take a short, steep rugged walk to the Golf Course Lookout, where you can watch red footed boobies, endangered Christmas Island frigate birds and golden bosuns soar past as you admire the spectacular views along the north-east coast. Visit the nearby Mar Chor Nui Nui Temple facing out to sea and dedicated to the Sea Goddess. Enjoy dinner at the Chinese Literary Association, which is not a bookstore but a restaurant serving authentic Chinese fare. Christmas Island's population is 60 per cent Chinese.
Day 3: Christmas Island
Today you'll visit the remarkably pretty Dolly Beach. Enjoy breakfast at your accommodation, then pack a picnic and drive 16.5 kilometres (10 miles) to the beginning of the Dolly Beach walking track, where you'll take the leisurely one-kilometre (0.6-mile) boardwalk through rainforest to arrive at this special place. Dolly Beach is a powdery white stretch of sand framed by a dramatic grove of coconut palms and surrounded by shallow, azure waters complete with a coral reef. Pack a snorkel; you can borrow one at your accommodation. Be sure to take a dip in the natural rock pool in the middle of the beach (it's nicknamed Dolly Beach Spa for the gentle waves that swoosh into it, creating bubbles) and look out for the area's robber crabs as well as the turtles that nest here all year round. Afterwards, drive 11 kilometres (7 miles) south through the rainforest to the Blowholes, where you'll see a dramatic natural performance. The waves here spurt upwards through hundreds of holes in the rocky coastline, creating airborne jets of water in a landscape of black rock pinnacles. Return to Settlement via the stunning Margaret Knoll lookout, which offers panoramic views of the island's east coast and is a perfect site to watch seabirds soaring.
Day 4: Christmas Island
Fifteen kilometres (nine miles) from your accommodation, you'll find the Dales, one of the few places on the island with permanent flowing water, providing a significant habitat for the island's endemic blue crabs. Take the boardwalk through Tahitian chestnut trees, strangler figs and banyan trees. On your way, look out for the blue crabs, which are an incredible sky blue colour, and follow the freshwater stream to Hughs Dale waterfall, where you can enjoy a shower (pictured). The Dales is one of Christmas Island's two Ramsar protected wetlands. If you are feeling adventurous, follow another trail from Hughs Dale to Andersons Dale, a small gorge with a stream that flows to the sea. After spending the day here, drive to nearby Martin Point for spectacular sunset views and loads of frigate (booby) birds.
Day 5: Christmas Island
Spend the day deep sea fishing for big sailfish, tuna, marlin, swordfish and wahoo just a few hundred metres off shore from the boat launch at Flying Fish Cove. Back on land, cool off in the sandy-floored pool beneath a sunlit cave entrance at the Grotto, just a 10-minute drive from the Settlement. Enjoy an authentic Chinese meal at Lucky Ho outdoor restaurant in Poon Saan, and, if it's a Saturday, take in an evening movie under the warm, tropical sky at the Outdoor Cinema.
Day 6: Christmas Island
Pack a picnic and drive nine kilometres (six miles) to white coral Lily Beach, one of the island's most accessible and protected beaches, surrounded on both sides by cliffs. At low tide explore the rock pools or swim into the deeper blue water. After lunch stroll the 1.5-kilometre (0.9-mile) limestone karst-lined boardwalk to Ethel Beach. Along the way you'll likely see lots of nesting brown boobies with their fluffy white chicks at close range. These adorable birds are relatively unafraid of humans (and accustomed to cameras), so quietly snap some photos of this rare birdlife encounter, then hop back in your car and take the 20-kilometre (12.5-mile) drive to South Point. This once-thriving community of phosphate mine workers is now a ghost town, but you can see the historic railway station here and visit the Soon Tien Kong Temple, which islanders still visit to practise Chinese Taoism. Stay to catch the sunset before returning to Settlement and enjoy dinner at Rumah Tinggi Bar and Grill. It's an upmarket restaurant housed in a heritage building on the oceanfront.
Day 7: Christmas Island
Pack a picnic lunch and drive the 30-minute 4WD track towards West White Beach on a tour with Indian Ocean Experiences. From the car it's a solid one-hour walk with a short cliff descent (rope provided) to reach this secluded long beach edged by a series of rock pools, but well worth it. This is one of the most remote beaches on Earth, where few feet have stood. Make the most of the silence by beachcombing, watching the rock pools for tiny blenny fish that play, mate and chase each other, or watching the crabs that run to and fro in the wash.
Day 8: Christmas Island to Cocos (Keeling) Islands
This afternoon you're flying to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, so spend your morning doing some last minute shopping for Christmas Island art at the Wild Papaya gallery, and shopping for souvenirs at the Visitor Information Centre before boarding your 90-minute flight. You'll disembark directly onto the Cocos runway, in the middle of the West Island golf course – your first clue that the Cocos (Keeling) Islands are rather unusual. An almost perfect circular atoll of 27 islands, each blanketed with coconut palms and surrounded by white sand beaches, Cocos, as it's known to locals, is home to only two inhabited islands: Home Island and West Island. The airport is on West Island. Check in to your accommodation at Cocos Castaway on West Island and have a sunset drink at the Cocos Club before dinner in the beach garden at Tropika Restaurant, which serves a terrific buffet each night.
Day 9: Cocos (Keeling) Islands
On the opposite side of the atoll to West Island you'll find Home Island, where a small, unique indigenous population of about 450 Cocos Malay people live. The Cocos Malay people are believed to have been settled here in 1826 – as slaves and members of the harem of Alexander Hare, an English explorer – from various parts of Asia, predominantly Malaysia and Indonesia. Today, the Cocos Malay people speak a mixture of English, Malay and Cocos Malay, practise Sunni Islam and maintain their own unique dress code. A two-hour cultural tour of Home Island – only 20 minutes by ferry from West Island – offers fascinating insight into the way these friendly locals live. Discover Cocos Malay traditions, try basket weaving, learn a few Cocos Malay words and visit the museum. Cultural tours take place on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; the restaurant is open for lunch daily and dinner only on Wednesdays. You might consider timing your trip to the Cocos (Keeling) islands to coincide with the Hari Raya Puasa celebrations that mark the end of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, when visitors are invited to join locals in wandering from house to house in the Home Island streets, partaking in celebratory open feasts.
Day 10: Cocos (Keeling) Islands
On nearby Direction Island you'll find Cossies Beach, which, with its creamy white sands, palm-fringed edges and bright blue water, is one of the most beautiful beaches in Australia. To get here, take the 30-minute ferry from West Island to Direction Island (Thursdays and Saturdays only) and orient yourself on the fascinating three-kilometre (1.9-mile) walk around the island. You'll find plaques describing the island's history, including the sinking of SMS Emden, a German ship, during the Battle of Cocos in World War I. Cossies Beach is also home to one of the islands' best land-based drift snorkels, the Rip, in which you can drift above corals, giant trevally, turtles, parrot fish, reef sharks and more. Hire snorkelling gear and receive a detailed brief on snorkelling the Rip before you board the ferry, back at West Island's Visitor Centre, or wait until day 12 when you'll snorkel the Rip with a guide on your dive excursion. This afternoon, join the locals for the Thursday afternoon game on the nine-hole golf course, the only golf course in the world located on an international runway. Then enjoy dinner at Maxi's by the Sea.
Day 11: Cocos (Keeling) Islands
West Island is home to a relatively small population (about 100 people), but there's plenty to see and do. Start today with a takeaway coffee or chai latte from Maxi's by the Sea, then embark on a motorised outrigger canoe safari exploring the southern islands of the huge lagoon, where you'll see lots of marine life including turtles, dolphins and tropical fish. The four to five-hour tour departs at different times each day (depending on the tide). You may find yourself enjoying a Champagne breakfast on a floating pontoon, learning about the islands’ history and culture, going snorkelling, strolling on deserted beaches, exploring some of the uninhabited islands and viewing turtle breeding sites. It is estimated there are 30,000 green and hawksbill turtles living in the middle of the atoll. Walk out to the end of West Island's town jetty on the north of the island in the late afternoon to see dozens of them swimming in the shallows. Have dinner this evening at the Flying Fish Cafe (located next to the Cocos Club), which serves fresh-out-of-the-sea tropical fish such as coral trout and sweet lip.
Day 12: Cocos (Keeling) Islands
The waters around Cocos (Keeling) Islands are a diver's paradise, and today you'll experience this first-hand on a dive with Cocos Dive. There are more than 25 different dive sites around the atoll, including some with shipwrecks and historical artillery. Marine life that you might encounter includes sea fans, sea anemones, soft corals, black corals, manta rays, dolphins, sharks, moray eels, nudibranches, parrot fish, wrasse, and if you are lucky, the Cocos pygmy angelfish. You may also see Kat, the only dugong to make Cocos his permanent home; he arrived several years ago and has never left. After you've finished your morning dives you'll stop at Direction Island to enjoy a light lunch at Cossies Beach and a relaxed snorkel at the Rip with your guide before enjoying another dive. At the end of your day you'll be returned to West Island. Head to Tropika Restaurant to enjoy another buffet dinner of Cocos Malay and Western dishes.
Day 13: Cocos (Keeling) Islands
The Cocos (Keeling) Islands is one of the best kitesurfing locations in Australia. If you are visiting when the south-east trade winds are blowing, from July to October, join a kitesurfing clinic. Beginners can learn all the basic safety techniques in flat shallow water, where you can simply stand up if you fall over, while more experienced kitesurfers can practise how to jump higher and do back and front rolls. If it's not kitesurfing season, try your hand at fishing – you can buy hooks and handlines at the Visitor Centre, where you'll also be provided with tips on the best spots to fish that day. Alternatively, dedicated fly fishers will be pleased to know this is one of the best places on Earth to practise bonefish fly fishing. December to March is peak season for this, but fish can be caught all year round. Simply bring your own equipment and you can fish from the shore. As the day moves towards its end, head to "the old jetty", on the north end of West Island, where you can usually spot a variety of larger marine animals swimming around its base, including giant trevally, reef sharks, manta rays and lots of turtles. If you've managed to catch anything, cook your catch for dinner at one of the barbecues at Trannies Beach, the Spot Beach or the Gun Club Beach - there are free public barbecues at almost every beach on West Island, but these three offer great views of the setting sun each day. Alternatively, enjoy the locals' Sunday special at the Cocos Club – it might be pizza, hamburgers or something else altogether.
Day 14: Cocos (Keeling) Islands
Spend your final day exploring West Island at your own speed. Most accommodation offers bicycles, but if you prefer you can hire a car or scooter from Cocos Autos Car Hire in town. Next, head to the Visitor Centre to hire some snorkelling gear, then set out for the day: West Island is just 14 kilometres (nine miles) in length and ringed with beaches worth exploring. As you make your way to the northern end of the island, be sure to stop at Trannies Beach or Pulu Maria Beach, both of which have shallow reefs that are perfect for using your snorkel. The Big Barge Art Centre is a community art space that is a work of art itself. It's housed inside a restored wooden copra boat, and inside you'll find the work of local artists that you can admire and buy if you so wish. Owner and artist Emma Washer offers regular art classes here, though you'll need to pre-arrange one. Afterwards, return to town for a final drink at Cocos Club, where you can toast the sunset one last time and vow to return.