Vanuatu: Diamond in the rough

By Michelle Coursey

As the van, packed with already-sweaty tourists at 9am, heaves along a Vanuatu road, littered with potholes the depth of volcanic craters, the thought crosses your mind that this is a tropical island with character.

Vanuatu has all the prerequisites of your usual Pacific idyll: white-sand beaches, coral reefs, iridescent sea-life, and palm trees aplenty, and as I stepped off the plane into the sticky heat of Port Vila, I was expecting a typical island getaway of much hammock-lying, beach strolling and snorkelling.

But this 83-island archipelago offers something more substantial to weary travellers than just a lounger on which to rest their head and a cocktail to cool their heels. Although there are plenty of sleek resorts, the relaxed, happy-go-lucky essence of the people and place remain unchanged, much as they have through French colonisation and US war occupation.

Kiwi Glenda Kitney (who moved to Vanuatu from Auckland with husband Ray three years ago) says it was that laid-back way of life that lured them to Port Vila where they now own and operate Melanesian Tours and Transfers. Pointing out sights such as the 24-hour waterfront fruit and an arts-and-crafts markets as we make our way through Port Vila, Glenda expertly navigates the bumps and craters in the road.

The one road around this, Vanuatu's main island Efate, has not been upgraded for more than 50 years. The only thing more menacing than the potholes is the erratic driving of everyone else trying to avoid them.

My home for the next few days, Mangoes Resort is also Kiwi-managed - by former Cantabrian Callum Rhodes. Mangoes is a tranquil spot nestled amongst fruit trees, overlooking the main Erakor lagoon. Perhaps one of its greatest recommendations is that it is child-free, meaning the peace is unbroken by shrieks from the two luxurious pools.

Through no fault of Callum's (in fact a dab hand at giving directions for the haphazard routes you can walk on the island), I spent part of the first day wandering apparently lost along a jungle track, convinced I had stumbled on to the set of Lost or more likely Survivor, which was filmed here in 2004.

Eventually, I found my way to Le Meridien resort for lunch, and back again in time for an afternoon nap in my cool room, before dinner at Mangoes'. Such are the rigours of island life.

Despite my first effort, walking around Port Vila is easy and lets you experience the island more personally than through a car window.

From Mangoes to the town centre, a ten-minute stroll takes me through the run-down, crumbling hospital, and past small villages where the locals live in ramshackle housing among the coconut trees. Having said walking is easy, the public transport system is also an experience not to be missed.

Any small van, people-mover or ute might be used as a bus, and any kind of car can operate as a taxi - simply look for a "B" or a "T" on the number-plate to indicate which is which. And don't worry about making it to a bus stop, or calling a cab; simply look at the driver and they will pull over, pick you up, and take you wherever you need to go for 100 vatu (about $1.30).

I decided on the taxi option to carry me to Erakor Island Resort & Spa, situated on a tiny island in Erakor Bay. Once my taxi drops me off I'm ferried, for free, across the sea to the resort. Once there I'm lathered in honey and cucumber for a facial treatment using all local products, and administered in a small hut with the ocean breeze streaming through. No "sounds of the sea" CDs needed here - the real thing outside almost lulls me to sleep as I'm pampered.

It's been a taxing day so another rest is necessary before dinner, which is at the newest hotel in town, The Sebel; a modern construction which stands out against the dusty, un-maintained visage of the other properties that make up the busy metropolitan area.

In delicious French provincial style, the hotel's Crystals Restaurant delivers a five-star dining experience that sets it far above anything else in terms of dining in Vanuatu. The mouth-watering local Vanuatu beef eye-fillet is a must for any steak lover, and the spectacular views across the waters of Port Vila are the best in town.

On my final day I am packed into a van, and bounced all the way across to the other side of the island with nine other tourists for a day on the Coongoola yacht, a fabulous 23m ketch that carries us across Havannah Harbour to Moso Island: where we visit a turtle rookery, and even hold Hawksbill turtles (some as small as the palm of my hand) being raised in captivity as part of a conservation project.

The highlight of the day, though, is arriving at the isolated Sun and Moon Bay, a perfect white-sand cove on the opposite side of Moso, where we spend the afternoon snorkelling around nearby reefs teeming with rainbow-coloured fish and devouring a barbecue lunch, before stretching out on the beach to read a good book.

Back on the boat, we go for a short sail and tuck into a platter of fresh island fruit, watching the coastlines of the islands go by and contemplating the aqua-greens and blues of the ocean beneath us.

After three days seeing the many sides of Vanuatu, I am not so surprised to discover the islands were, in 2006, voted the happiest place on Earth on the Happy Planet Index website. Despite the country's slightly worn appearance, the locals seem content and don't bend their world to suit the throngs of Western tourists who are coming here in ever-increasing numbers. Instead, they welcome you into their relaxed lifestyle and culture, in a manner that will have many yearning to return before they even leave.

IF YOU GO

Most locals speak English, but the other two official languages are French and Bislama.

Visitors can travel to other islands - a popular option is an overnight trip to the volcano situated on Tanna Island.

Best coffee: Try grabbing a caffeine fix at Chantilly's on the Bay: a two-minute walk from town, with a restaurant balcony overhanging the tropical waters.

Best snack: Pop into the Numbawan Cafe on the waterfront in Port Vila central - a busy, thriving eatery great for breakfast or lunch, or a cold drink.Best shopping: Check out the arts-and-crafts market in central Port Vila for handmade goods and souvenirs. Otherwise there is a basic selection of duty-free shops that make up "town".

Getting there: Air New Zealand operates up to three direct flights per week from Auckland to Vanuatu, with additional flights operating seasonally June through August. There are good connections from all 26 domestic points around New Zealand. For more information about flights, or to book your next holiday, call 0800 737 000 or visit any Air New Zealand Holidays store throughout the country.

Michelle Coursey travelled to Vanuatu courtesy of Air New Zealand.

- Herald on Sunday

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