Dip your toe in the water

By Patrice Gaffaney

Somehow, I've managed to go 40-blah years without strapping a snorkel to my face and exploring the colours and sea life beneath the water.

On the jetty at Vanuatu's Iririki Island Resort, a few hundred metres out from the main town of Port Vila, the water was so clear and the fish so colourful I decided this was my chance. The island had an invitingly named Snorkellers Cove and I planned to branch out.

A minute later Mr Australia rushed up: "See that ladies? A banded sea snake. It's the second one I've seen. You're not going snorkelling are you?" I stared through the clear water and sure enough, there it was, curled around a little stone.

Noticing I was frozen to the spot in terror, Mrs Australia chimed in: "Oh, don't listen to him. Their mouths are too little to be able to break your skin."

How does that Tui ad go? Yeah something?

My fellow journalist and travel companion on this five-day trip to the Pacific paradise that is the Republic of Vanuatu tried valiantly to hide the mirth in her eyes. A snorkeller of old, she happily weighed the odds of coming face to face with a sea snake, decided it was worth the risk and spent a glorious hour exploring the not-so deep.

No snakes to be found but enough Nemos to keep film studios in business for years, with tiny pockets of dazzlingly bright coral to boot. Oh well, another time.

That other time came the next day during a trip to Pele Island. Our four-wheel-drive truck bounced its way from Port Vila to the top of Efate Island along a road that was built by the Americans during World War II.

The potholes looked as if they dated from 1942, but our Ni-Vanuatuan driver Richard carefully negotiated each one with a laugh of apology and an explanation that the rains had created havoc and they hadn't got around to repairing them yet. Piles of gravel lay hopefully by the side of the road.

Everywhere was lush and green.

About 20 minutes out of Port Vila the power poles ran out. Richard told us all the villages and islands from this point, including his own, relied on lamps for lighting and open fires for cooking. Not far from our destination we drove through one of the island's biggest coconut plantations. The tall, stately palms stretched for miles on either side of the road, their fronds swaying gently in the breeze.

Our truck bounced on, up hills that were so pitted they resembled dried-up river beds. Richard pointed out an island just off the coast that was used as the setting for the reality TV programme Survivor Vanuatu. Its pristine white sands looked inviting; its remoteness didn't.

Just over an hour after we left Port Vila we made it to North Efate and my bones stopped rattling. A boat was loaded with our barbecue lunch and we jetted our way through deep blue waters to Pele, an island ringed with white-sand beaches.

Villagers, mainly children, met us when we landed and the open fire was roaring, ready for our lunch of steak, chicken and sausages plus salads made by local women.

My colleague donned her snorkelling gear, fed bread to the clown fish and was dazzled by purple and yellow coral. I tried, admitted defeat when a Nemo came so close it morphed into a banded sea snake and I had to be hauled back on to the boat, terror in my eyes and panic in my heart.

So I sat dangling my hand over the side and thought about the other time I had been to this part of the Pacific. It was in the late-70s, I was on a cruise and we called at Port Vila, capital of what was then the New Hebrides, for a day.

The New Hebrides were jointly ruled by France and Britain so I was able to practise my secondary-school-level French, enjoy a few French pastries and buy a few souvenirs before being whisked back to the cruise ship.

Give or take the odd concrete-block development, Port Vila seemed pretty much the same. Resorts have proliferated and first-class accommodation is available at all of them. Ours was at Iririki Island, 300m from the shore, which means a boat is available 24 hours a day to ferry you from shore to island. We were pampered in air-conditioned fares, which comprised four-poster beds and verandas with sea views.

This year marks the republic's 25th anniversary and has been declared the Year of Tourism. An inaugural, four-day Jazz in Paradise Festival was being held during our visit.

Port Vila is the perfect place to escape the bitterness of a New Zealand winter, and if you want the added bonus of sitting around a pool in one of the many top-class resorts, sipping locally produced Tusker beer or an appropriately named cocktail with soothing jazz as entertainment, this will be the time to go in future years.

In between the jazz sessions is the time to explore the town and its food and craft markets. A dizzy array of fruit and vegetables are on sale - mandarins, pawpaws, yams, snake beans, bowling-ball sized grapefruit, bunches of sugar bananas, coconuts, banana leaves, a variety of root vegetables such as taro and kumala (kumara), and bunches of all sorts of nuts.

The French influence is still visible in the town, with excellent pastries and coffee on sale in cafes, and French wine and bread in the supermarkets.

But so, too, is the 21st century. As I wandered along the main street I could have been anywhere. When the souvenir and artefact shops stopped the other type of shops started, each selling T-shirts, bum bags and scarves with "Survivor Vanuatu" on them, knock-off Von Dutch T-shirts and handbags, plus the same from any European designer you could name.

It was a far cry from where I was, metres out from a pristine beach. As my colleague rejoined me on the boat with tales of the coral and fish she had seen and we headed back to Pele Island, I found myself thanking Mr and Mrs Australia. Yes, I'd been a wimp and chickened out of snorkelling. I still don't know whether banded sea snakes have small jaws or not. I don't really care.

Instead, I experienced one of the white-sand islands that are true Vanuatu, and it's a welcome development that they are included as part of day trips from most of the Port Vila resorts or tour companies in the town. The islands receive revenue from the companies and, on Pele, the money is being used to build a new church.

Once back on shore and after time to let the sun warm our bones and dry us out, we wandered through the village where we met the chief, stopped to chat to women weaving mats from coconut leaves and I tried to set aside my First-World-meets-Third-World awe at their basic living conditions (corrugated iron shacks divided into bedrooms, with a separate corrugated iron room for the kitchen).

After that it was back to the boat and shore for the bounce back to Port Vila, where we caught a couple of jazz acts.

No, I didn't master snorkelling. But there's always a next time. And next time I won't listen to those Australians.

Getting there

Flight Centre has packages to Vanuatu, including return flights from Auckland on Air Vanuatu, return airport transfers, four nights' accommodation at Iririki Island Resort and a buffet breakfast daily from $1269 a person, share twin.

Airport taxes, fuel surcharges, insurance and other charges are additional.

Price subject to availability until November 9.

What to do

Swim, snorkel, sunbathe, then explore. Ferries and buses operate tours around the island of Efate, on which Port Vila is based.

The Pele Island tour is operated by Destination Pacific Islands and runs on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, leaving 8.30am and returning at 5.30pm. It costs 7200 Vatu ($90) adults, 3600 vatu ($45) children under 12.

Other day trips include Hideaway Island for diving and snorkelling, and the Mele Cascades Waterfall, a series of rock-pools visible as you wind your way through tropical rainforest. The spectacular falls at the top cascade more than 50m.

Eating out

Most resorts have top-class restaurants. Melanesian feasts are popular.

What to buy

Look for crafts at the craft market on the Port Vila waterfront and in selected shops. Alternative souvenirs include peppercorns, vanilla beans, kava and coffee ( remember MAF regulations). Keep an eye out for date-stamped Coca-Cola bottles from World War II.

* Patrice Gaffaney travelled to Vanuatu courtesy of Air Vanuatu, Iririki Island Resort and Flight Centre.

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