Ah, alone at last. Is there anything sweeter? You know that magical moment: when you shut the door of your accommodation and know that the rest of the world is a long way away. Some people call it cocooning, others consider it a retreat; increasingly, however, travellers are looking to indulge in the fantasy that they are the only people enjoying this little patch of paradise.
At Swell Lodge, it is more than just a fantasy. Not only does this new eco-luxury retreat on Christmas Island have a wonderfully isolated location on the island's untamed west coast; it also has only one chalet. Just one lucky couple gets to enjoy everything that Swell has to offer, from rainforest excursions to dinners cooked by a private chef.
First, of course, you have to get there. The quickest flight from Perth takes four hours (from Jakarta, it's less than an hour). The drive from the airport to the lodge is about 30 minutes but may take longer, depending on how often you have to stop along the way to sweep crabs from the road (more on which later).
Your journey ends deep in the Christmas Island National Park, on what appears to be a disused dirt road through old-growth rainforest. From here, guests follow a leaf-covered path that appears to wind its way deeper into the forest. In fact, 100 metres down the trail, you will round a curve and find your accommodation in front of you – and beyond it, a huge expanse of sweeping blue sea.
Step inside and you will find a retreat that defines laid-back luxury. Yes, two of the walls are made of canvas, but your chalet comes equipped with plenty of creature comforts. King size bed with jaw-dropping views? Check. Spacious deck? Check. Fridge equipped with complimentary wines, beers and snacks? Check, check, check. There is even a tiled bathroom complete with a piping-hot shower.
It is a place where you could comfortably while away the day, sipping a Margaret River red as seabirds such as boobies and bosun birds wheel and swoop at eye level while you keep one eye on the ocean for passing pods of dolphins. At night, you fall asleep at night to a soundtrack of waves breaking on the rocky reef below (light sleepers may occasionally be woken by a particularly large wave thundering onto the shore.) However, with so much to explore on the island, you are likely to spend most of your time adventuring.
Most Australians' knowledge about Christmas Island is limited to its detention centre – which is in the process of closing down and no longer houses any asylum seekers – and its phosphorus mine (also closing). What most people – including me, before my stay – do not realise is what an appealing destination it is. Not only does it have balmy mid-20s temperatures all year around; it is also remarkably beautiful.
Much of the island is covered with old-growth forest, complete with springs and waterfalls, fern gullies and dense stands of pandanus. There are coastal blowholes and roadside grottos where you can swim in seawater washing in through underground caves. There are plenty of scenic hikes; my favourites include an easy walk to the lovely waterfall of Hugh's Dale, and a longer hike to Dolly Beach, where we enjoy a picnic lunch that also lures some curious robber crabs.
Then again, no matter what you do on Christmas Island, you can expect to encounter some crabs along the way. The photogenic red crabs stage a spectacular annual migration to the sea when they are ready to release their eggs. (The baby crabs stage an equally spectacular migration when they swarm up from the water to the land.) These migrations, which start about October when the rains come, draw visitors from all around the world, which the locals find hilarious.
"The weather's bad, it's difficult to get around because so many roads are closed [to protect the migrating crabs]; it is the worst time of year to visit," one local tells me.
You don't have to come during migration to see the crabs, however. There are so many of them strolling along the road that we regularly have to stop to push them out of the way. The first time my guide demonstrates how to move a fist-sized crab out of the way – you nudge it gently with your foot – I am hesitant, wary of its huge pincers. However, once I discover how placid the crabs are, I quickly develop an effective crab-removal technique.
It's not just red crabs we see. The island is home to many other species, including my favourite, the blue crab, a shy creature that has a lovely pearlescent colour and congregates near freshwater springs. Then there are the robber crabs, alien-looking creatures that come in a startling range of colours, from violet to deep purple to orange. The largest specimens are intimidating; with bodies up to 40 centimetres long, they can weigh as much as four kilograms. Fortunately, they are just as laid back as their smaller brethren.
If you prefer your animal encounters underwater, the coral reef that rings the island offers good opportunities for both snorkellers and divers. The ocean floor drops away so quickly from the island that divers in particular can expect to see plenty of pelagic fish.
Most of the island's beaches are covered with coral rather than sand, but each one has its own charms. When we visit Darling Dales, a thundering tide is washing over a series of beautiful rock pools.
"During low tide, those rock pools are a lovely place to sit," my guide, Kirsty, tells me. When we head to Merriall Beach, she shares with me the unofficial rule – if there is a car already parked at the top of the trail, you go somewhere else. I find out why when we eventually make it down to the pretty beach, a small patch of sand surrounded by dense bush. This really is a place where three is a crowd.
Kirsty is just one of the locals who shows me around. Although the lodge has a dedicated staff, the owners have also recruited locals to guide various excursions. Kirsty, for instance, is a photographer who specialises in showing off some of the island's most scenic spots; another of my guides, Rosie, is a PhD student studying how the island's birdlife is affected by the local rat population. All the guides are personable and generous about sharing their knowledge and their experiences; the opportunity to interact with them turns out to be one of the highlights of the trip.
Swell Lodge is the brainchild of Chris and Jess Bray, who know a thing or two about desirable destinations, given that their day job is running photography tours in places as far-flung as Alaska, Namibia, the Galapagos Islands and Norway.
"I first came to Christmas Island when I was about six, and I remembered it as a tropical paradise. When I came back as an adult, it was even better than I remembered," says Chris.
The Brays plan to expand Swell Lodge to eight chalets, but promise that each lodging will be carefully separated from the next, to preserve that sense of seclusion. Still, now is the time to come and experience Swell in its first incarnation as a one-of-a-kind retreat.
You don't have to spend your entire stay exploring the island, of course. If you prefer to spend some time unwinding, the lodge can also arrange in-room massages or sunset yoga on your deck. However, your most regular visitor will be Felix, the charming French chef who cooks your dinner for you. When the other chalets open, Felix will have a restaurant of his own; for now, he does home visits. Every evening he cooks up a three-course meal on the barbecue on the porch, showcasing ingredients he has foraged that day. One day it is bitter melon, which features in a delicious gazpacho; another day, it is papaya, done in a curry that accompanies tuna wrapped in banana leaves.
Room service never tasted this good.
Ute Junker travelled as a guest of Swell Lodge.
Virgin Airlines flies twice a week from Perth to Christmas Island. See virginaustralia.com.au
Swell Lodge offers several packages, including the four-night Rainforest to Reef Explorer. Rates start at $2760 a person twin share, and include airport transfers, all meals and drinks, and daily activities, including guided walks, snorkelling on the reef and a free game of golf on the palm-studded golf course. Seven and three-night packages are also available. See swelllodge.com