Ask Lonely Planet: Soak up sights and culture on island time

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Witness the naghol (land diving) custom at the island of Pentecost, Vanuatu. Photo / Air Vanuatu
Witness the naghol (land diving) custom at the island of Pentecost, Vanuatu. Photo / Air Vanuatu

A friend is sailing to Vanuatu and has invited us to join him in exploring the islands. I have stayed at Port Vila and Efate, on Espiritu Santo and Tanna. We're interested in seeing more of the distinct cultures on the different islands. What other islands would you suggest visiting?
- Blue Cook

Shawn Low, Lonely Planet's Asia-Pacific travel editor, writes:

I'll list a couple of islands you might consider visiting, starting from south and working up north.

Epi, which is close to Efate, is a 444sq km small island that's filled with adventure. You can snorkel in Lamen Bay, home to dugong and sea turtles. Sea kayaks and outrigger canoes are available for rent. Other activities include reef fishing and spear fishing (locals take you out at night). The eastern side of the island is also home to two submarine volcanoes that cast a deep scarlet glow at dusk.

Further north, the slightly larger Ambrym is a good place to soak up local craft and culture. You can find some of Vanuatu's best tree-fern carvings and tamtam (slit drum or gong made from a carved log). Mt Marum and Mt Benbow attract volcanologists from all over the world, and the island is also a source of the country's sorcery - you can witness traditional magic ceremonies at villages.

The island of Pentecost is the place to witness the naghol (land diving) custom that is spectacular and breath-taking.

The men spend weeks building towers from off tall trees (up to 35m high). Each diver selects his own liana vines to bind it to themselves. They dive off a platform while women sing and dance below. The falling body stops short of hitting the ground and only their hair is meant to touch the ground - an act that symbolises the fertilising of the ground.

There are many more islands worth visiting but these should be a good start.

Overseas reunion

A school reunion European adventure for a group of about 60 girls is my task to plan. A cooking school in Italy is one alternative to the villa experience that has been suggested. Can you recommend any options, especially in Umbria or Tuscany, that would also give us time each day to explore the area? There could be six to 10 of us in a group and it would be wonderful if we could be accommodated at the school, perhaps a large villa.
- Elaine Birk

Shawn Low, Lonely Planet's Asia-Pacific travel editor, writes:

Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance and home to Machiavelli and Michelangelo, is a good base to be in. Divina Cucina is run by United States-born, Florence-based Judy Fancini. She offers programmes including tours, tastings, marketing and, of course, cooking in a villa.

Faith Willinger offers tours and tasting sessions. Mama Margaret and Friends Cooking Adventures also does three- to seven-night food experiences in Tuscany.

In Umbria, consider checking out these businesses: Let's Cook in Umbria is run by Raffaella out of his country farm; Umbria Cooks 4 U has access to a villa and can organise private cooking lessons if you decide to rent your own villa.

Note that the staff at these businesses will probably be able to help you find a villa to stay in (if they don't already provide one).

* This week's winning letter is from Elaine Birk, who receives a copy of Lonely Planet Discover Italy ($55).

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