Cocos is just over 2700 kilometres from Perth, Western Australia, in the Indian Ocean. There is a regular chartered flight once a week, so we boarded amongst returning locals, government officials and a handful of tourists for what was an all-day flight. We flew via Christmas Island, stopping only long enough to drop off and pick up a few people, and arrived late in the afternoon.
The islands are spectacular from the air - a perfect coral atoll with calm lagoon in the middle, waves crashing on the fringing reef all around the edges, and millions of coconut palms. The airstrip is on West Island, where we had decided to stay. There was a choice of accomodation - West Island Lodge or Clunies-Ross House on Home Island (much more expensive!).
The lodge is an extension of the single-men's quarters, with a couple of rows of motel-style rooms offering simple accomodation and a communal dining room with buffet service. The accomodation at West Island Lodge is all-inclusive, since there is no alternative source for meals. The food was a little bit institutional, but offered a reasonable variety each night. The main restriction was the set meal times, dictating when you had to be back at the lodge.
What do you do on a coral atoll? A lot of swimming and skin-diving, lots of walking on the reef, and a bit of walking around the settlement, to start. We also hired bicycles and cycled the length of West Island, but the strong winds tended to make this less than pleasant as soon as you headed into them. We were grateful for the small library we carted along in our luggage, since the settlement was poorly lit and there was little if anything to do at night.
The islands are home to lots of crabs. Not in the profusion you can see on Christmas Island, but there are lots of land crabs, their burrows undermining the golf course and pitting the earth all around the settlement.
The reef is exposed at low tide, and offers endless fascination, with rock pools, delicate little crabs clinging to the edges and small moray eels shooting between your feet, panic speeding them on their way. The swimming isn't too great near the lodge - OK for snorkling over the reef at high tide. There is a beach further up the island, about an hour's walk from the lodge, where the reef has broken up a bit and you can swim and skin-dive in deeper water. We found better snorkling at the far end of the island and on Pulo Maria, the next island in the chain, a thigh-deep wade away from West Island.
A couple of times a week you can get the ferry to Direction Island, to spend the day swimming and/or diving. This island offers the best diving, with "the rip", a deeper channel where the water races through at speed, and the coral and fish are more varied and numerous. Geoff really liked it, but I am a weaker swimmer, and absolutely hated the lack of control I felt in the fast stream of water. I did swim across to the other side of the rip, but turned back and headed for shore immediately, before I was washed into the lagoon!
Direction Island was used as an observation post during the Second World War, and the debris of war is still visible. Direction is also one of the few places you can see remnants of the large trees that used to grow in its impoverished soils. There are a few trees still growing, and the strangest driftwood lines the shores, left from the roots of the old trees.
We stopped off on Home Island on our way back from Direction. There is a cafe in the kampong, but the locals are aloof from the visitors, and we felt a little out of place. We got talking to Stephen, one of the tourists staying at Clunies-Ross House, and walked back with him to have a brief look at the homestead. Stephen was part of a bird-watching group who had flown to Christmas Island from Indonesia on a special chartered flight, just to see the bird-life on these remote islands.
Cocos was possibly a bit too quiet and unvaried for us - a week was long enough. It would have been better if the winds weren't so strong; we found it less than pleasant pushing against the breeze when we cycled away from the settlement, to the extent that we restricted our trips on the worst days. We were quite ready to head off to Christmas Island on the next week's flight.
Having been there, I can add a little bit of extra tourist details.
Visitors are more-or-less isolated from the Malays, at the wishes of the local population. The Clunies-Ross homestead, which is on Home Island and just outside the kampong, no longer functions as a tourist lodge as far as I know, and all tourists stay on West Island.
The local Malays used to go to N. Keeling to collect birds eggs (to eat). It is a restricted area now - a sanctuary - and you need a permit to visit. Our recollection of the boats at Cocos was that none of them would be suitable to go to N. Keeling anyway - it is a long way from the other islands and the locals tend to use aluminium dinghies to get around these days. You would certainly have to organise a visit from the West Australian mainland (ie. the bureaucrats are here, not there).