Last week I was required to go to Christmas Island to work on an investigation as part of the job that actually earns me money, rather than my hobby of eating and drinking which drains my cash and takes up much of my down time; of course I took the opportunity to check out the food offerings.
Apparently a few restaurants and cafés have closed in recent times as trade has dropped off with the fall in the number of refugees in the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) and consequent loss of staff looking after them, but I was still able to try out a few.
The Island is an interesting place – at first glance you could be in a kampong in Malaysia – the buildings look the same, the weather, the surrounding vegetation – I guess it can only be called jungle -coconuts floating in the ocean, and the signs around the place are in English, Chinese and Malay. Tropical weather too- while I was there temperatures moved between 23 or so and 29, humid sure, but not oppressively.
The trip up via Cocos takes an awfully long time and when I arrived and settled in to the motel, everything seemed to be closed – the pub across the road was serving drinks but the restaurant was shut.
So night one was a packet of salt and vinegar crisps and a couple of Fat Yaks sitting outside under the stars, warm, sultry; it was pretty good actually. I have written more about the pub below.
Along the road from Settlement to Kampong, the Chinese Literary Association building houses a restaurant looking out over the ocean, Le CLA – you can sit inside but why would you. The veranda at the back has the view, a breeze, and took my eye. At lunch they serve only various noodle dishes – bee hoon, kway teow and the like. Since char kway teow is a long standing favourite of mine generated by many visits to Malaysia and Singapore I jumped at the chance to try it here.
A selection of beers as well as a couple of whites take pride of place in the fridge – Houghtons White Classic seemed to be the go so I grabbed a bottle, retired to the deck, took in the sights and in a jiffy along came my plate of noodles.
And what good noodles they were – this a classic Malay dish and it had all the smoky flavours and aromas, slippery flat oily rice noodles, egg fried through, prawns, soy, belachan and a little bowl of pickled chilli to spice it up. Good street food, it hit the spot, and I was more than happy with it.
I came back to Le CLA later in the week for dinner – again sat out on the balcony, a few fans providing a soft breeze in the warm evening. Looking towards the ocean the trees along the footpath were lit up by fairy lights creating a magical touch.
At night they serve more substantial Chinese dishes and I ordered sambal fish, steamed rice and stir fried sweet potato leaves in garlic. The fish came in a light batter, was tender and moist and lifted by a fairly mild chilli sauce. It was well cooked and again a good example of Asian street food.
The vegetable dish heaped high with glistening green leaves and stems, lightly cooked to retain some bite, and infused with a lot of fried garlic and seasoning. It was a great accompaniment to the fish, providing contrast and texture.
Washed down with a beer or two, this was another very good meal.
Almost directly across the road from the motel where I was staying- the curiously named VQ3 – is the Golden Bosun Tavern – Golden Bosun being a bird that is unique to Christmas Island (along with the gloriously named Abbott’s Booby).
The tavern consists of an undercover, but still outdoor, bar with a number of high tables and stools – some under the veranda roof, others for the smokers under the stars, and along the side closest to the ocean another covered veranda with tables and chairs, making up the restaurant area.
I spent a couple of hours at the bar over the days I was there, sipping on a Fat Yak or Little Creatures Pale Ale, or two, reading a book, and taking in the view across the ocean. It is very popular spot, filling rapidly from around 4PM, and it is all very friendly and pleasant.
One night I dined at the restaurant – a view of bobbing and glimmering lights from boats and ships anchored off, or cruising past the Island. The food is what you expect of a pub – steaks, burgers, pizza, pasta and the like – on the night I was there a special of local wahoo (tuna) caught my eye.
Two grilled slabs of firm, moist fish, atop a stack of well cooked, crisp chips showed that the kitchen had sound seafood skills, and a bottle of white to wash it down was a fine companion.
I would certainly recommend the Golden Bosun both as a drinking spot, and to eat simple but well cooked pub grub.
Up the hill towards the phosphate mine which is the economic heart of the place with the IDC almost empty, is the area known as Poon Saan and this is where you will find another well located Chinese restaurant, Lucky Ho.
Again they have a large front covered deck with tables and chairs and a view across the houses opposite to the water.
A comprehensive menu is offered – black pepper beef, honey pork, salted spare ribs, sesame chicken, kong pao chicken, coconut prawns, black bean prawns, claypot fish, sizzling squid, combination omelette, hokkien noodles, ginger scallops, gravy bee hoon, among the 170 odd dishes listed.
Satay prawns, sambal fish and vegetarian fried rice seemed the go to me and out they came in pretty short order, along with a glass or two of the house white – a quite crisp and nicely chilled SSB.
The prawns retained a firmness to the bite, with moist, sweet flesh, lifted by the spicy satay sauce – chilli heat, lots of peanut flavours, very good indeed.
The sambal fish, lightly fried, moist, tender, served with a zesty sauce full of onion, lemongrass, chilli and garlic flavours. It was another well executed dish.
Vegetarian rice, glistening from the oil, carrot, bean and other vegetables scattered through the al dente grains provided good support to the seafood dishes.
Lucky Ho is something of an institution on the Island, and from the food that I enjoyed, I can see why.
Further on up the hill the recreation centre houses a small cafe turning out light meals -salmon steaks, burgers, sandwiches and a selection of cakes and muffins – and pretty good coffee – my two visits to have a cup evidenced a pretty good barista – even if the more experienced one was away at the time.
The coffee was good strength, the right temperature, had good crema, and was smooth and without a trace of bitterness.
More eating spots
There are a few other places that I didn’t get the chance to try – Smash Coffee Shop in Poon Saan apparently, according to the locals, serves up the best coffee around – however the owner had taken a few weeks off and it was closed while I was there.
Above that shop is the Seasons Chinese, but again when I was free to go, it was closed.
In the Kampong area a couple of places got good reviews from people I spoke to – the Artisan bakery and Halal Café – but I was not able to sample their wares.
The final spot I tried was at the airport on the way home- the CI Charities Stall – which served up a pretty good tuna and mayo toastie along with a cold beer while I waited for the flight.
The Island is not that large and is easy to get around on sealed or compacted roads – and there are a lot of other tracks suited only to 4WD. I had a Mitsubishi AWD and tootled around a bit – out to South Point to an old temple on cliffs overlooking the ocean.
Staring out to sea, with a waft of incense from the temple, was quite spiritual, even for an old agnostic like me.
Most of the coast is pretty unforgiving – a lot of volcanic rock and crashing waves – but it has a certain attraction – maybe what Yeats referred to as a “terrible beauty”.
However there a few swimming beaches – I drove down to one, Lily Beach, a small cove with stony beach and some sharp coral – but relatively sheltered from the waves.
Above the beach is a boardwalk through the thick vegetation and leads to rocky cliffs above the cove with large-winged birds floating on the air currents above.
Despite many signs exhorting drivers not to run over the robber crabs, I saw no sign of such a beast – I did spot one crab scuttling across the road and stopped to photograph it – my photo was dismissed by a local as “only a red crab”.
Of course the red crab migration later in the year is one of the great natural wonders of CI – when millions of these land crabs move to the ocean to mate and spawn – and roads are closed to prevent unnecessary carnage. Maybe the one I spotted was going early to beat the rush.
The outdoor cinema, down a bit from Lucky Ho, looks to be as nice a spot to watch a movie as you could imagine – at least the equal in my mind of Somerville at UWA and Sun Pictures at Broome.
Flying Fish Cove along from Settlement is the major port area – ships come in to load up phosphate from the mines in the hills which has been transported down on a covered conveyer belt system to the bulk storage area.
Further along the cove a jetty and small beach provides swimming areas, along with barbeques, and boat launching area. It is a pretty little spot, especially at dusk.
Well my time on the Island went by fairly quickly – the only downside is the pretty poor phone and internet connectivity, but the Tourism Association offers a hot spot where you can hook up and catch up with the world. Did I mention it is a duty free island? The first time I went into the supermarket and noticed the prices of the spirits on sale I realized this.
Christmas Island is a great spot to visit I reckon, and if by chance I get the opportunity to return I will certainly make a point of trying out those eating houses I missed and any that have cropped up in the meantime.