Feel like a trip to London and Paris? You’ll find both on Kiritimati in mid-Pacific, also known as Christmas Island (Captain Cook arrived on 24 December 1777, in ‘naming’ mood). The world’s largest coral atoll extends to a substantial 640 sq km (247 sq mi) and makes up 70 per cent of the land area in the scattered island republic of Kiribati. Its villages are London, Tabwakea, Banana, Poland and Paris (now sadly in ruins). And no, you don’t have to take a Geiger counter – the radiation from Britain’s 1950s H-bomb tests on Maiden Island, 320 km (200 mi) south of Kiritimati, has long dissipated on the four winds.
Many place names on Kiritimati date from the tenure of Emmanuel Rougier, a French priest who leased the island between the two World Wars, planting nearly a million coconut trees as his contribution to the islanders’ future. London is the main village and has a modem port facility handling exports like coconuts, copra, seaweed and tropical saltwater aquarium fish. There is little tourism, because the island is a long way from anywhere and – despite some good beaches and a splendid lagoon – doesn’t have much to offer that’s worth going that far for, other than sport fishing and the opportunity to observe millions of nesting seabirds.
There is a hotel, but most of the Micronesian inhabitants live without electricity, running water or sanitation. This is one of the most primitive places on earth, but the people are very friendly and live a traditional community life, sheltered by thatched huts skilfully constructed from coconut palms and pandanus trees, subsisting on coconut products and the fruits of the sea.
Population: 5.000 (2005)
When to go: Any time, as there is no rainy season (indeed little rain at all). Avoid El Niño periods if you’re a bird watcher – the birds vanish.
How to get there: The weekly Aloha Airline flight from Honolulu to Cassidy international Airport (a three-and-a-half hour flight). Cruise ships visit frequently.
Highlights: A lung-bursting climb to see the panoramic view from the island’s highest point, La colline de Joe (Joe’s Hill), at a dizzying 12m (40 ft) above sea level.
Fly fishing in the lagoon for that most prized of quarry species – bonefish.
Colourful cultural presentations to visitors from cruise ships on the main wharf at London – or uninhibited singing and dancing that takes place with the slimmest excuse.
The renowned Cook Islet Bird Sanctuary at the entrance to the enclosed lagoon.
You should know: This is the first inhabited place on earth to see in each New Year.