Vanuatu – An island paradise01/03/2013
How an island paradise should be
by Gary Dickson
I love the visual orgasm you get when your plane starts to descend at one of the many island paradises we have in this part of the world. The colour of the sea changes – deep cobalt blue then a shade lighter as the continental shelf thrusts its way upwards and finally that truly magnificent azure that allows the sea to really show off the majesty that is below.
My Air Vanuatu flight from Auckland to the capital of Vanuatu, Port Vila, was no exception. I could almost smell the suntan lotion and taste my first long island iced tea!
The Republic of Vanuatu – population not much more than 220,000 distributed across some 83 islands forms a truly majestic South Pacific archipelago. Independence for the Condominium of The New Hebrides, from France and Britain, was finally achieved on July 30th 1980 – Vanuatu was born. Much drama in the months leading up to this day resulted in what is historically referred to as “The Coconut Wars”.
Today, the islands are typical of many of its neighbours. One main central location where produce selling and business is done (Port Vila), many pristine resorts where overseas visitors dive, snorkel, drink and eat their way through their annual holiday plans and a local people that are as friendly as you will find anywhere. Central Port Vila is alive daily with smells of a Pacific Island market.
Smack in the middle of Port Vila it is a must to simply walk around and take in the ambiance and flavours. Fresh produce abounds, as you might expect, along with the noise, smells and din that go hand in hand.
Rickety taxis ply their trade up and down The Lini Highway (the main road). You can easily hail one down if you are tired of pounding the streets, but make sure you check the price before you get in – and barter with them.
Most resorts shouldn’t cost you more than 500 Vatu (about NZ$7) to get to from the city centre and even then I felt like that might be too much. And don’t be fooled – the cabbies, unlike their Sydney counterparts, are pleasant and always willing to impart some sort of information about their tropical paradise to you or suggest a place to get a great meal.
Why not try and learn the odd word of their national language while you’re there? Bislama (pidgin English) is remarkably easy to understand. It is often difficult to compare eateries in the islands as each person’s palette is different and what might appeal to some is a “no go zone” for others.
All the main resorts have their own high quality restaurants and bars but I did happen across two or three places that I found exceptional and worth a mention. Whilst I wasn’t staying at Iririki Island Resort I did go to a function there one night and can highly recommend the prawns – any way you can get them. You can read more about Iririki Resort on page 78 of this issue – my thanks to Dan and his team for their hospitality and a wonderful night’s entertainment.
Mangoes Resort was suggested to me as one of the places to eat! Michelle Clements and her team not only provide their guests with fine cuisine but locals and tourists alike can also avail themselves of the menu – even if they aren’t staying there. The setting of the tropical garden, the décor and aromas only add to the occasion. Be sure to indulge (because that’s what it is) in the Coconut Crab, Lobster, prime Santo beef and the, soon to be world renowned, Mangoes Cheesecake. I guess the $7 cab ride back to my hotel doesn’t feel that bad after all – I was certainly unable to walk!
Mangoes Resort is a couples retreat – exquisitely laid out and styled. You will not want for anything here and it is close enough to the city centre if you feel you need to interact with other people. But why would you? Vanuatu is renowned for its famous Santo beef, as was evident with the meal at Mangoes, but I just couldn’t get enough of it. I was informed, by one of my many friendly cabbies, that Le Café du Village right next to the Sebel, smack in the centre of town, would be a great place to indulge my new found “addiction”.
Aussie ex-pat, Merv Ward, greeted me with the, by now all too familiar cold local brew – Tusker beer. Merv escaped the rat race of Sydney a few years back and has carved a very fine niche for himself in a prime location. The view out over the lagoon to Iririki island whilst the sun made its last desperate grasp on the day is beyond words, but what was the Santo going to taste like? I was fast becoming a food critic (soon to appear on Masterchef NZ). One word – superb! Okay, so Merv does do other food as well, and he does them bloody well too, but superb is all I have to say.
The hospitality of the host, as I found in all the places I visited in Vanuatu must be commented on. Genuine, good old-fashioned service with a smile – and why wouldn’t you smile, when your “office” has a view like his. Accommodation providers in Vanuatu are numerous. More than I actually expected to be honest. But I guess they need to cater for the 100,000 visitors that landed on their shores over the past year. The country’s year-on-year percentage increase in visitor numbers is second only to Rarotonga and I was quickly finding out why.
Iririki Island Resort, Poppy’s on the Lagoon, Benjor Beach Club, Mangoes, The Sebel, Breakers Beach Resort are just a few of the top end range accommodation providers – and these are all within a few minutes drive from downtown Port Vila – or boat trip, in the case of Iririki. What’s very exciting about the majority of them is that they are able to cater for wedding parties of varying degrees. Maybe it’s time I renewed my vows – trouble is I think I have misplaced the piece of papyrus they were written on!
Poppy’s on the Lagoon Resort would be one of my options. Located, remarkably enough, on a lagoon – Erakor Lagoon that is! A few short minutes cab ride from the central melee that is Port Vila. Joanne Wade and her family can look after you, your family and whoever else you want to bring along to what was fast becoming one of my favourite destinations of all time. They also have another property on the southern island of Tanna, renowned for its active volcano.
A remarkable excursion up the volcano at night will have you in awe of Mother Nature’s power. Just don’t let OSH know what’s going on, or not going on as the case was. Poppy’s can organise your transfer to and from Tanna, whether it be on a domestic flight or a personal pickup in a private Seaplane that whisks you and your loved one away, from the very beach where Poppy’s is located. (I think I need to find that piece of papyrus).
Despite an intrinsic dislike for helicopters I always find myself drawn to booking one almost everywhere I go. I am glad I did so again with ex-pat Kiwi, Simon Bothamley, who owns and runs Vanuatu Helicopters. There are,of course, other aerial ways to view Vanuatu but Simon assured me his was the best. I bet he says that to all the punters. Trouble is – he was 100% correct. Simon offers a variety of excursions – Scenic, romantic or adventure. My scenic flight was enough to leave a taste for more but I overheard a couple who had just returned from the Adventure flight and they were buzzing about it. You get to experience Simon’s true skills as a pilot as he flies you down a jungle canyon (fast) to experience the manoeuvrability of the helicopter as it swings through the corners.
If a more tranquil experience is your preference then you must join Paul Mabee and his team aboard Island Escape Cruises. The stunning 140 foot Island Passage plies its trade in the waters of Vanuatu from May to October. The rest of the year it is either based in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf or the Marlborough Sounds – you can read more about it on page 66 of this issue.
Finally, back to my place to chill-ax. Breakas Beach Resort is a high class facility and has recently added 16 fully self contained villas. The place is immaculate and it was the perfect place to end each day of my stay in Vanuatu. Private, sophisticated and relaxing – with a lagoon view to die for! No need to ask how those Tusker beers went down at the end of each “gruelling” day in paradise.
Many times I have seen written, and indeed have done so myself on occasion, a person writing a travel story on a particular place “intends to return to these shores again soon”. Often I think, it’s a throw away line because they couldn’t think of a way to finish off the recollection of their journey.
Trust me – I intend to return to these shores again.