Vanuatu has recipe for success

By Paul Ellercamp

One of the richest experiences of travel is the random discovery of something special. On a local bus in remote Vanuatu, two French tourists mention they're lunching at Oyster Island. Would we like to join them?

"What's Oyster Island?"

The isolated, eight bungalow resort sits 20km north of Luganville, the main town on the northern island Espiritu Santo - an area known for its diving on World War II wrecks.

But Oyster Island is out of left field. Champ gauche, as it were.

It's an unprepossessing place, and it looks like it's aimed at backpackers. Eight small bungalows snooze on the beachfront. A central dining room sits behind a little beach. Watching from across the lagoon 200m away, you wonder if it has electricity.

To get there, you have to "kilim gong" - bang the empty gas bottle hanging from a tree by the water - and the resort owners get into their tinny and putt over to pick you up.

But the point of Oyster Island is not its "resort experience". The point is its dining.

The little resort in the middle of nowhere is run by two French chefs, Jean-Pierre Rodot and his wife Anna.

Trained in Paris, the couple ran the dining room at the Four Seasons Hotel at Uluru, in central Australia, for 14 years before deciding they'd "rather live near water". So they moved to Oyster Island.

Vanuatu is one of half a dozen Melanesian states around the Southwest Pacific. We know about Fiji, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, maybe even the Solomon Islands. What sets Vanuatu apart is its colonial heritage.

Vanuatu was, in its earlier guise as the New Hebrides, a condominium run jointly by the English and the French.

The French influence means food, pastries and bakery, particularly, and restaurants. But there's more than that.

Vanuatu's fresh vegetable and fruit markets are lively places. Its coffee is excellent. There's a thrivingbeef industry.

With all this and South Pacific seafood, the potential is immense.

This is our third visit to Oyster Island - this time with 10 colleagues, survivors of the 2.6km Espiritu Santo Aore Swim the previous day.

We've learned to book ahead, so Jean-Pierre and Anna are ready for us. We're the only guests for lunch. In the dining room a long table is set.

We leave menu selection to Jean-Pierre, in his crisp, white chef's jacket embroidered with his name, boardshorts and thongs.

In the kitchen, we lift a tea towel to find dozens of oysters freshly opened. Half are served au naturel, the rest are grilled with garlic and onion.

He summons us to his stove, where he's stirring cockles cooked in white wine, onions, oil and garlic.

After the oysters and the cockles, Anna brings out prawns and chicken in a mild curry sauce with rice, then fish with paw paw in coconut milk. There's manioc, a local root pureed with garlic, like mashed potato.

Then half a grilled lobster each, not as big as on previous visits, but those didn't include eight courses.

We want a picture and ask Anna and her helpers, Steline and Marie. Jean-Pierre is busy in the kitchen with something that he can't leave.

We discover what: the dessert is a bombe with local fruits - passionfruit and the magnificent pamplemousse, Vanuatu's sweet grapefruit. Oyster Island's eggs come from out the back.

Gastronomic epiphanies are not unknown in Vanuatu. On the waterfront in the capital, Port Vila, an hour's flight south of Oyster Island, Jean-Pierre and Anna's son, Christophe, runs the Cafe du Village.

On the front and backstreets of Port Vila, there are legendary establishments, like L'Houstalet, where the speciality is flying fox.

Micheners on Iririki Island enjoys panoramic views of Port Vila across the harbour.

Flying fox, we've found, is an acquired taste - rich, dark and gamey the way it's done at L'Houstalet.

Coconut crab is so popular that the Vanuatu government now restricts its harvest to protect it from over-exploitation. One visitor reports ordering coconut crab at Port Vila's waterfront some years back, then being invited outside to choose his crab from half a dozen live ones tethered to a tree.

The French gastronomy mixes with the balmy, breezy South Pacific ambience to provide an experience quite special.

Over the hill, on the neck between Port Vila's two back lagoons, the walk from the carpark at Vila Chaumieres snakes through palm trees lit by soft green lights, the wind whispering through the palms.

Vila Chaumieres' dining area sits on piers over the water. The lighting illuminates the palms on the far shore. Fish and other weird Pacific creatures mill around below. They know they'll be fed, the seagulls of the South Pacific.

Along the lagoon, the dining at another French establishment, Sunset Bungalows, also sits over the water. If you shifted your chair, you could swim between courses.

In the middle of town on the waterfront are the Port Vila markets, running 24 hours every day, except Sunday. You can buy fresh produce there, or you can eat with the locals - fresh lap-lap, a tapioca-based mix sandwiched between banana leaves and grated "chief bananas", topped with a chicken wing and local spinach. Or tuluk - pork rolled in vegetable pasta sheets made from manioc.

In many of the waterfront restaurants, be enthralled by the haunting lilt of the Melanesian mamas' singing gospel, drifting across the harbour from the markets in the late evening and the morning's early hours.

This, too, is one of those special travel experiences.

NEED TO KNOW

Getting to Vanuatu

Flight Centre has Vanuatu packages, including return airfares from Auckland and seven nights' accommodation, from $810 per person, share twin.

Phone Flight Centre on 0800 747474

Oyster Island Resort

Email address below.

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