Robert Zhao Renhui’s Travel Black Book

Nature's splendour

Artist Robert Zhao Renhui enjoys Christmas Island's unique ecology

Who: Singaporean visual artist Robert Zhao Renhui, 33. The bachelor's work is on display as part of the Prudential Eye Awards 2016 exhibition of contemporary Asian art at the ArtScience Museum till March 27.

Favourite destination: Christmas Island, Australia

Why: Visiting Christmas Island is like going back in time. It was administered by Singapore until 1958 and some parts of it look like Singapore in the 1970s. There are even a few apartment buildings which were built by the Housing and Development Board in the 1960s and they are still standing strong despite experiencing many cyclones.

It's a strange feeling walking in a place which feels like Singapore, but is Australian. Just under 500km from Jakarta, even the food is very South-east Asian.

I have been there thrice in the past year and plan to go again because it is a great place to relax and I enjoy the island's unique ecology.

It is best known for its annual crab migration from around October to December, when the roads are closed because they are covered with millions of red crabs making their way to the ocean to spawn.

It is also home to giant robber crabs, the biggest land crustaceans in the world, and amazing sea birds. Many of the species there are found nowhere else in the world.

Christmas Island is one of the best places in the world for diving too.

Favourite hotel

Hotel options are limited on the island. I like the newly opened Cocos Padang Lodge at the Settlement (www.christmas.net.au/cocos-padang-lodge.html), a nice self-contained lodge in the centre of town near restaurants and a supermarket. It costs A$190 (S$193) a night for one bedroom and A$230 for three bedrooms.

There, you will have sunset views of the Pacific Ocean and get to see the island's prettiest bird, The Golden Bosun, flying around in the afternoon.

Favourite places to eat

Food options are also rather limited. Le CLA (Chinese Literary Association) on Gaze Road is a Chinese restaurant with a Malaysian chef, so the tastes are familiar. You can get mee rebus, laksa, chicken rice and many Singaporean and Malay dishes. Its Hokkien Prawn Noodle is great and a meal there costs about $20 a person.

The Artisan Boulangerie & Patisserie (Block 409 Jalan Patai, Flying Fish Cove; tel: +61- 4-4813-0418; www.facebook.com/TheArtisanBakery) is the place for breakfast, tea and delicious pies which sell out by early afternoon. The chicken pie (A$7) is my favourite.

Also try the wahoo fish and chips at Seaview Fish and Chips restaurant in Poon Saan (Poon Saan Shopping precinct; tel: +61-08-9164-7275). The wahoo is a local fish and you can see people fishing for it at the blowholes or along the trek to Ethel Beach.

Favourite sights

One of my favourite sights is the blowholes along the southern coast during the crab migration period. When large waves crash into caves in the cliff, spectacular plumes of water are thrown up through holes at the top, shooting air and sea water out of the ground.

The track there is covered in red crabs making their way to the blowholes and, most of the time, you will have the place all to yourself.

Christmas Island is a place for nature lovers. The parks are well marked and the walking tracks are good. You will be amazed by what you can see if you go through the forest slowly.

During the monsoon season, thousands of moths cluster on certain trees and the whole tree appears to sag from the weight of the moths. They disappear just as quickly as they appear. It is spectacular to see them swarm into the air when the wind disturbs them.

Best museum

Up the hill by Flying Fish Cove is the Tai Jin House, the original home of the island's administrator. It is now home to the Christmas Island Historical Exhibition, which tells the story of the island's history and its people. Ask the tourist infor- mation centre for opening hours.

Best hidden find

I like exploring the old Christmas Island Resort which has been closed down. It has an abandoned pool where you can see the Christmas Island Frigatebirds swoop down for drinks throughout the day. It is quite a spectacular sight to see these big creatures so close, hovering around you.

Best entertainment

On Saturdays, catch a movie at the open-air cinema at Poon Saan.

Favourite walk

I highly recommend the trek to Dolly beach - an hour's drive on steep, rocky tracks, then a 45-minute downhill walk to the isolated beach.

Turtles nest there all year round, coming out of the ocean at night to lay their eggs. I have seen turtle tracks on the beach more than once.

The trek is quite easy and the tracks are well-marked, so you do not need a guide.

Trips in the region

Visit the beautiful Cocos Islands, an Australian territory south-west of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, about halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka.

Virgin Australia stops in the Cocos Islands on its way to and from Christmas Island, so visitors often combine the two in one trip.

Best time to go

Most people go to Christmas Island for the crab migration season, from around October to December. But be warned that during that time, the roads are closed, making access to other parts of the island difficult. There is much more to see on the island than crabs. So I believe the best time to go is outside the season.

Getting around

Life on the island is slow, so it is best to take your time walking or driving around. Except during the crab migration period when the roads are closed and getting to most places involves a one- to two-hour trek, for most of the year, a four-wheel drive jeep from Soong Car Rental will get you anywhere.

There is a tourist information centre in Flying Fish Cove where one can find maps and information. It is also where you can hire a guide, which is recommended if you are going on one of the longer, tougher treks. Download the Christmas Island Birds app by Parks Australia for an introduction to the native birds and a good map of the island.

Ideal length of stay

A four-day trip is just enough to experience the basics of the island, but a full week is a nice and relaxing amount of time to enjoy all the sights.

How to get there

Virgin Australia operates a flight from Perth to Christmas Island on Tuesdays and via the Cocos Islands on Saturdays. Charter flights from Jakarta also arrive on Christmas Island two or three times a month.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 07, 2016, with the headline 'Nature's splendour'. Print Edition | Subscribe