Tropical island holidays have never really tempted me. When I daydream of escaping my day to day routine, my mind draws me not to a recliner on a sandy beach (although it sounds most pleasant), but to exotic adventures in ancient places, adventures in the market alleys of Morocco, or exploring the jungle temples of Peru. I have perfect, sandy beaches at my doorstep and sitting still for any great length of time is something I can achieve only with great strength of will. That is not to say I haven’t taken holidays to island destinations. I’ve visited Vanuatu for a close friend’s (most excellent) wedding where we surfed and explored and then shared their nuptials overlooking tropical islands and colourful reefs.
I’ve spent time in Indonesia on community service tours where we volunteered our time and support to schools and orphanages in West Timor and Flores. I’ve spent weekends at any number of resort towns and islands along the Great Barrier Reef on breaks from work. Inevitably though, each of these sojourns to island havens was for some purpose other than just existing on a tropical island – seldom was the purpose to relax and unwind. Even on the times I have travelled purely for relaxation (such as a trip to a resort in Fiji on a five day break), I found myself seeking adventure and touring the jungles and rivers of the island within a day rather than sitting, cocktail in hand beside a clear pool on a manicured lawn.
I’ve thought long and hard about what might be causing my inability to relax in the way accepted by traditional travelling stereotypes when it comes to relaxation, and this week I may have finally found an answer. Coconuts. The answer is coconuts – or more specifically coconut palms (although date palms would probably rate too). Each idyllic tropical paradise I’ve sampled has had them, but in numbers too small to have the restorative effect I associate with a true island getaway. This week I’m on Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean and the coconut palm to population ratio is just right – through the roof!
Everywhere I look, there are palm trees spilling off the incredibly limited land space and into the azure waters of the lagoon. I think the reason I can’t relax at your run of the mill luxury island resort is that a few obligatory stereotypical island images have been conspicuous only by their absence. Firstly, the palm tree leaning over the water, is something I’ve stumbled across far too rarely to truly let my heart rate drop to a level where a beach towel and a mojito could sustain my interest for hours. Another important image is palm trees crowded together so closely that they twist and writhe in the wind, seemingly spilling over the beach, and if there are a few palm trees horizontally protruding onto the sand, all the better. Again, this is a sight that greets me around every headland on Cocos.
In Fiji there were palms, and I spend some delightful sunsets under their curving trunks, however the resort at which I stayed had cleared most of the local vegetation (far too much jungle for the level of relaxation I was seeking) in favour of manicured gardens, pathways and a selection of dive pools, plunge pools and wading pools equipped with swim up bars. Here in Cocos, no such works have cheapened the waterfront. The West Island’s motel (which lies across the road from the airport) in a low key affair offering basic (yet clean and comfortable) rooms, pleasant outdoor dining and – most critically – clear views of a palm tree-packed headland.
I’m not sure why, but any beach from which palm trees erupt from the sand almost in juxtaposition to the surf breaking over the fringing reef is pleasing to my soul in ways that could never be achieved by a corona and a swim up bar (http://www.einsteinsbarbershop.com/?p=70). Despite this green and jungled vista, the moment that made me realise what was constipating my relaxation vibrations came elsewhere on the island. Down the road from the motel (there are only about 6km of sealed road on Cocos), I took a kayak outrigger safari during which the trade winds whipped up enough spray for me to feel like I was an extra in a pirate movie (although the outboard motor made things a little easier). After receiving most of the Indian Ocean across the face, we stopped at Julie and Ash’s shack which lay nestled beneath the palm groves encroaching upon the beach (which is the Launchpad for their tours).
It was in this inviting grotto that my coconut epiphany struck me from above. I walked through the small bar to a corridor cut from the palms that completely obscured the sky and stopped the light rain that was falling from reaching us. Wandering on, I emerged metres later as the trees fanned out into a beachside clearing which allowed enough room for a collection of bamboo couches and recliners overlooking the crystal clear water lapping white sand. I took a seat beside the bar and sipped a drink as the light faded and the sound of the breakers on the reef provided a rhythmic soundtrack. The palms crisscrossing and leaning all around added to the thick under-layer of fallen fronds, creating a close, quiet atmosphere that was removed from the rest of the world. The lagoon was visible, glimpsed along the tunnel of coconut palms – adding to the mystique of the scene. Cocooned among coconuts, I felt as relaxed as I can remember… At least I would have if it were not for the 30 students that I’d brought with me!