All aboard to discover 'Bali Hai'

By Catherine Masters

Crystal Clear: The Island Passage offers a luxury cruise with adventures, such as snorkelling straight off the boat. Photo / Supplied
Crystal Clear: The Island Passage offers a luxury cruise with adventures, such as snorkelling straight off the boat. Photo / Supplied

If you were that way inclined all you'd have to do is lean off the back of the boat, put a net in the water and you'd have sardines for breakfast.

We're moored near Oyster Island off Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu, mostly Kiwi couples and some Queenslanders.

It's dark, we've been fed a fine three-course meal by the onboard chef, the stars are out and the fish are jumping and milling about by the boat, drawn to the lights.

They've pretty much been jumping since we boarded the Island Passage in Luganville at the run-down little port on the island of Espiritu Santo.

It was a jolly nice feeling chugging away into the crystal clear, unspoilt channels of Vanuatu where we're going for our six-day Secrets of Bali Hai cruise aboard the beautifully decked-out 42m New Zealand catamaran the Island Passage, which carries just 20 guests.

The name of the cruise comes from the island of Bali Hai in James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, which was based in Vanuatu.

This is a luxury cruise with a difference. The cat is small enough to feel a fast intimacy with the other guests but big enough to feel stable and safe. Step aboard and there's a sense of spaciousness you don't get on most boats this size, from the wide wood-panelled dining-lounge-bar area to the spacious cabins with their wide-screen televisions with access to any amount of movies you fancy, though I doubt you'll find the time.

When we anchor for the night the daylight is nearing an end but this is our first day and we want to experience Vanuatu so though it's deep we jump off the back of the boat into the ocean.

The water is so salty the eyes sting but put your head under and see a rich, clear blue straight from a travel documentary.

Soon, the sun sets over the island causing gorgeous pink and grey streaks in the sky, then a near instant darkness falls. They don't really do twilight in these parts.

On the way here we saw pilot whales and flying fish, later in the trip we will encounter dolphins, a striped sea snake and turtles, and some lucky passengers will also see the rare sight of a stingray launching itself out of the ocean.

The next day the adventures begin. We motor for a while then go ashore to the mouth of the Riri Riri River where we head inland to the Matevulu Blue Hole, a huge freshwater pool made a spectacular turquoise from the limestone.

The cool thing is, to get there we're travelling by traditional dugout canoes hewed out of breadfruit trees.

Along the way, there's a moment of high drama.

The guides push our little convoy of half a dozen dugouts for quite some way before the water is deep enough, then they jump in and paddle while we sit back and relax. Pascal, the guide on my dugout, is 17 and ripples with muscles. All is peace as we glide slowly through the jungle, sunlight filtering through the trees and dappling the water.

Little fish dart through water so clear it's like looking through glass. Long vines reach down to skim the water and we hear only our own voices and the gentle splash of the paddle and marvel at the wild watercress growing along the banks.

Then all of a sudden we come to a mini-rapid. This is where the salty seawater meets the outward flowing fresh water from the Blue Hole and as the waters meet they churn.

"Cool," I say, to Pascal, thinking we will shoot over this rapid by dugout, but he replies "too strong" and orders us off the little boat. We soon see why.

We climb the river bank and clamber up to a bridge while the guides plus a couple of the Kiwi lads try to pull the dugouts upriver against this tough current.

It's harder than it looks. As we watch from the bridge, one of the dugouts spins out of control. It crashes into one of the other boats, almost trapping one of the Kiwis.

The guides are yelling and yelling, yet on the other side of this tiny but tough rapid the water is calm and inviting.

Eventually the canoes are pulled through, peace is restored and we hop back in and soon we come to a deep pool of stunning blue surrounded by jungle green.

We swim and snorkel, seeing the roots of the trees and plants growing below the water around the edge.

Flip on your back and float and just for a moment you are completely alone in a deep hole in the middle of a jungle looking up through the trees to the clouds.

Not bad for the first day, eh?

Getting there

Air Vanuatu flies to Port Vila three times a week, on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. The Sunday flight is operated by Air New Zealand. From Port Vila to other islands you take a small domestic plane.

Cruising

Island Escape Cruises offer three and five-night luxury cruises on the Island Passage around Vanuatu from May to October. The three-night cruise starts from $1350 per person. The five-night cruise starts from $2695 per person. Check out the website.

Further information

See the Vanuatu Tourism Office website at vanuatu.travel

Catherine Masters travelled to Vanuatu on the Island Passage's inaugural trip there, courtesy of Island Escape Cruises, www.islandescape.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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