Cocos Islands

Cocos Islands

The Australian Maldives offer an antidote to civilization


Originally published on on January 2010

Photos by Robert La Bua

Photos by Robert La Bua

There’s no such thing as a bad view on the Cocos, but the one at the eastern edge of West Island, the main settlement, is liable to make you do a double-take. The sand, soft as flour, is dazzlingly white. The water, ten shades of blue, is teeming with colorful marine life. Above, an azure sky—the same one that’s filled with a zillion stars at night. If such a pristine setting were featured in a film, it would be dismissed by the audience as a computer-generated image of perfection.

Welcome to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, population 650-700, depending on who’s in town. Part of the Australian Indian Ocean Territories—little-known and oft-forgotten bits of land halfway between Perth and Sri Lanka—only two of the 27 islands are inhabited; the rest are reminiscent of Gilligan’s Island. Think of the Cocos as the Australian Maldives, just without the humidity. There’s no cellphone service, and the internet is unreliable at best. Free from the tyranny of modern communications, visitors quickly adjust to the rhythm of local life, where the primary means of communication isn’t an email to the person two cubicles over but rather a big blackboard on the side of the Cocos Club, the center of social life.


Naturally, water is the main attraction here, and the sea is clean and astonishingly beautiful. Even for those who have visited countless tropical islands around the world, the Cocos impress with their unspoiled natural assets. Superb diving provides opportunities for encounters with sunken ships, huge manta rays and exotic fish usually seen only in an aquarium. If you’d prefer to stay dry while observing the underwater world, book a spot on a glass-bottomed boat excursion. Or, for the ultimate sunset over a vast expanse of sea, land and sky, try one of the superb “canoe safaris” offered by Ashley James, who adds fine foods and flutes of champagne to the picture.

The air is as pure as the water, and the two elements combine to create a dream kitesurfing environment. Zephyr Kite Tours brings a steady stream of adventurers to enjoy the warm, shallow waters and brisk air currents—perfect conditions for this sport. Beginners can communicate with instructors onshore via transmitters connected to their helmets, getting advice at the moment it matters most, rather than waiting for a crash and a limp return to shore before finding out what went wrong.

One of the most unusual experiences to be had in the islands—or anywhere else in the world, for that matter—is a weeklong walk around the circular atoll led by one of the Cocos Malay elders. The trip begins from Home Island and crosses the lagoon at low tide, progressing island by island, camping in rudimentary pandongs and finishing on West Island.

Couples looking for a dreamy place to begin married life have made barefoot weddings in the Cocos increasingly popular. Organized by longtime resident Kylie James, the weddings are the ultimate romantic getaway. After a ceremony and reception on a gorgeous, uninhabited island, guests depart to leave the newlyweds alone for their first night together—just the two of them and a bottle of champagne. Kylie sees that every arrangement is taken care of, from hair and nails to catering and cake. What better way to start a new life than with a worry-free wedding in a blissful paradise such as this?

Travel Tips

Cobham ( flies direct to the Cocos Islands from Perth two-four times a week. Alternatively, fly to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore then catch the weekly Malaysia Airlines charter on Saturdays. Contact Island Explorer Holidays ( for flight info. The settlement on West Island is small, and all of the attractions in town are within walking distance—even the airport. The Cocos Tourism website lists every possible accommodation option ( Tropika Restaurant, the only full-scale eatery, offers fantastic lunches and buffet dinners with a wide selection of dishes, including the freshest fish. The one supermarket isn’t all that super (bread must be pre-ordered), but you certainly won’t starve. For information about Zephyr Kite Tours, see