The quinessential tropical island scene, on West Island in the Cocos Keeling Islands. Picture: Iain Gillespie

Our plane dips out of the clouds and below is the sight of a cobalt lagoon around which are the 27 islands that make up the Cocos Keeling Islands.

About 2750km north-west of Perth, the Cocos Islands offer a chance to experience picture- postcard palm-fringed white sands which fade into warm, clear waters. Capt. William Keeling was the first European to see the coral atoll in 1609 on his way to England from Java. More than 200 years later, Englishman Alexander Hare established a settlement, and was soon joined by a former employee, Scotsman Capt. John Clunies-Ross. Clunies-Ross quickly established coconut plantations, operated by workers brought in from various parts of Asia, with production of copra and coconut oil, and accommodation based on Home Island.

Charles Darwin visited aboard HMS Beagle in 1836, developing his theory of atoll formation, and the islands were annexed by Britain in 1857. Thirty years later, Queen Victoria granted Cocos to the Clunies-Ross family.

Since settlement, the location of the Cocos Islands has made them strategically important. Direction Island was host to a cable station, built in 1901, which provided an important link between Durban in South Africa and Perth (the cable hit mainland WA just north of Leighton Beach). The station was a target of enemy attacks during both world wars and in World War II, about 8000 Allied troops were stationed on the islands.

Today, the islands are an Australian territory and the Australian military continues to maintain a presence in the form of a RAAF forward operating base.

Having disembarked and cleared the airport, we are swept up by Ray Marshall in his bright orange open-sided bus for a tour of the West Island. Ray runs the nearby Cocos Seaview Apartments and operates AAA Cocos Tours as a sideline.

His raw style of commentary imparts a unique understanding of the islands' past, present and potential. Included in the tour are visits to a number of splendid beaches, including popular Trannies Beach, named after a nearby communication transmission facility.

Ray also takes us to the Big Barge Art Centre. The very talented resident artist, Emma Washer, displays her colourful works in a handcrafted barge set in a picturesque coconut grove.

The day nearly over, dinner is a delicious Malay-inspired meal at Tropika restaurant.

Next day, it's an early start for our motorised canoe safari with Kylie James, from Cocos Island Adventure Tours. Leaving from the Yacht Club Beach, we traverse the peaceful lagoon in the direction of South Island. We soon arrive at a secluded beach complete with floating pontoon furnished with lounges. Kylie breaks out a breakfast of smoked salmon, bread and croissants, accompanied by a couple of bottles of sparkling wine.

It would be very tempting to stop here for the day, occasionally dipping into the inviting water but, after a pleasant break, we are off to explore South Island. Kylie is well-versed in Cocos history and has plenty of interesting stories to tell as we walk into the thick jungle. During World War II, a group of Sri Lankans was stationed here, tasked with keeping watch for approaching enemy vessels.

The tour continues to a number of beaches, deserted but for hermit crabs. We snorkel on the shallow reef, abundant with colourful fish life and the occasional reef shark. A gentle rip ushers us along, eventually delivering us up on to the shore where kite surfers are taking advantage of the start of the season.

That evening, we catch the Cahaya Baru ferry to the other inhabited island, Home Island. Here, the Rasa Disayang Restaurant offers a local smorgasbord of honest, tasty fare on Wednesday nights.

The following morning, I am with Geof Christie on his glass- bottomed boat in the lagoon. Below us the bright coral drifts by the boat's viewing window with the occasional sight of one of the lagoon's 30,000 turtles. We cross the water to a snorkelling spot next to Prison Island. It is the quintessential cartoon desert island - a few coconut trees circled by white sand, barely 20m wide at high tide. It seems unbelievable that not too long ago it housed a jail.

Geof's been "on island" for 25 years and he knows the Cocos thoroughly. He and partner Pam Jones also run Cocos Birds tours, offering half-day outings exploring the islands and beaches, pointing out many of the rare species found on Cocos which attract birdwatchers from far and wide.

And after a quick snorkel, Geof has a treat in store.

Sharks - mainly harmless reef varieties - are not a rarity in the lagoon and, over the years, Geof has been handfeeding about 20 of their number. As soon as we anchor in the deeper water, a few hundred metres from shore, his grey-skinned friends circle our boat, hoping for a small feed of fish or a scratch on the back from Geof. It's an amazing scene. Geof suggests I jump into the water boiling with hungry sharks to get some photos. I politely decline.

Our last stop is Direction Island for lunch. Home of the now- decommissioned Cable Station, it is uninhabited except for the occasional visitor from the yachts moored nearby.

But there is a great swimming beach and a shady picnic area. It's a favourite lunchtime spot for scuba-dive groups taking a break from the stunning reef close by, and a ferry service operates on Thursdays and Saturdays.

The vibe on Cocos is always relaxed and friendly - even the hire car has a sticker on the dashboard requesting that the driver leave it unlocked with the key in the ignition - and that afternoon I'm invited to take part in the weekly stragglers golf competition, at the golf course which runs parallel to the airport runway.

This is golf Cocos-style, a form of "best ball" where everyone plays on each hole simultaneously. There are almost 30 of us, arranged into teams, and it appears chaotic - I just hit the ball when told. The final hole involves teeing off over the thankfully quiet runway. Visitors are encouraged to take part in the fun-filled Thursday afternoon tournament and clubs can be hired.

Later, we take another ride on the Cahaya Baru ferry to Home Island to meet Ossie Macrae, who runs Cocos Island Tours, and take his Home Island Cultural Tour.

More than 600 Cocos-Malays live on Home Island and, isolated from the outside world for more than 100 years, these former coconut- plantation workers and their descendants have developed a unique Islamic culture. Ossie talks us through some of the fascinating history of the island and its friendly people. Lunch is included, as are demonstrations of local crafts. A visit to the museum gives us some understanding of the copra industry, producing dried coconut for extracting oil, which ceased in the 1980s.

Ossie has also been working with organic farmer and former winemaker Tony Lacy to produce locally made food items, such as salt and chutneys, under the name Cocos Tropical Foods, with the aim of creating much-needed employment.

Back on West Island, we have time for a barbecue at Yacht Club Beach with some locals as the setting sun turns the lagoon to red.

If lazy days on tranquil tropical beaches, exploring uninhabited islands or snorkelling and diving on fish-filled reefs sound like your idea of perfection, this laid-back paradise is waiting for you.

FACT FILE

Cocos Islands' accommodation is made up mainly of holiday cottages, many self-contained and all on West Island. Cocos Seaview Apartments offers private suites with ocean views, each with a queen-sized bed, ensuite, modern kitchenette and air-conditioning. Facilities also include an outdoor entertainment area, barbecue, laundry facilities and free use of bicycles for guests. Prices are from $170 per night. cocosseaview.com.

For more on visiting the Cocos Keeling Islands, go to cocoskeelingislands.com.au.

Iain Gillespie was a guest of the Cocos Keeling Tourism Association.

The West Australian

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