Vanuatu: Mad about island magic

Elisabeth Easther finds more to love about Vanuatu on every visit.

Paddle in dug-out canoes and dip in pools at the foot of thundering waterfalls. Photo / Supplied
Paddle in dug-out canoes and dip in pools at the foot of thundering waterfalls. Photo / Supplied

Vanuatu, less than three hours by plane from Auckland, is my favourite archipelago in the whole world.

The first time I visited, I wanted an adventure. I was travelling alone, hitching rides on freighter ships, stopping in tiny villages to plant yams, paddling in dug-out canoes and spearing fish the traditional way - or at least trying to.

I enjoyed the enchanting encounters with elders who talked about the days when black magic was practised widely in the New Hebrides, before those pesky missionaries arrived. I particularly recall the story about witch doctors flying between islands to settle scores.

In my impressionable 20s I believed it wholeheartedly - Vanuatu can do that to you. Now my trip is marginally less adventurous, but just as much fun.

Most tourists focus their attention on Efate, so all flights from New Zealand land at Port Vila, the exotic capital nestled peacefully into the curved harbour.

And there is so much to do on Efate, aside from the obvious lounging around. The Mele Cascades are glorious, about 20 minutes from Vila by public transport (if you don't take an organised tour). Pay a nominal entrance fee then walk the easy paths to the waterfalls, stopping to marvel at impossibly large trees and sweeping sea views before taking a dip in the pools at the foot of the thundering falls. Bold souls can abseil down them.

There are great lunch places, too - one beside a pool teeming with fat fish fed on leftovers.

Not far from Mele is Hideaway Island, where the snorkelling is fabulous.

For a lazy day, go to Le Lagon Resort and Spa, a hotel on steroids with 30ha of tropical gardens, vast pools, a swim-up bar and a 12-hole golf course. Spend the day eating, drowsing, bathing and being served pleasantly affordable fodder, while watching a procession of brides being paddled across the harbour to grooms pacing on the sand. Nuptials are big business here.

There's no problem finding lodgings on Efate, although we love Poppy's on the Lagoon with its pools and lush gardens. Poppy's has well-appointed kitchens, which means dining on simple food by sea views at a time that suits you.

I love the French-Pacific feel from the years when Britain and France ruled the islands together in what was known as a condominium. Despite independence in 1980, the place still does a mean croissant. And the produce in the local markets will blow your mind - handwoven baskets filled with vegetables and fruit, crabs, prawns and live chickens, too, if you're game. And everything tastes so good.

And Bislama, the native creole language, is enchanting. It is as endearing a communication as you could hope to hear - a combination of English, French and various languages of Vanuatu. For brassiere, say "titi blong basket"; for piano, "you hit him, he cry out"; and my favourite expression, rather than saying, good idea, try "nambawan tink tink" - number one think think.

A rough-cut diamond in the crown of the Pacific, Efate is a jewel to savour over and over. Even if the voodoo's all but vanished, the magic will always be there.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air Vanuatu flies regularly from Auckland to Port Vila.

Further information: Melanesian Tours has seamless service. Email your flight details and they're at the airport waiting for you with cool drinks and necklaces. Nothing like seeing your name on a whiteboard at arrivals to make you feel like a minor league rockstar.

Accomodation: Poppy's on the Lagoon has a sweet little beach, great rooms and kind staff, plus they can organise every kind of trip. Great for families and one of the few Pacific resorts to cater to people in wheelchairs.

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