Vanuatu is the place tropical holiday dreams are made of. It's a place you cannot help but fall in love with, a place that before you leave, you are already planning your return.
Vanuatu was hit hard by Tropical Cyclone Pam last year but a year later Port Vila on the main island of Efate is almost back to its former glory.
Life on the island is simple, the people are in no rush and everything is easy and relaxed.
For a week I see the best Vanuatu has to offer, with one of my good friends. We arrive exhausted after a few hard months of work and daily grind, and within hours we are transformed.
We divide our time between Mangoes Resort just out of Port Vila and The Terraces, boutique apartments just next door. Mangoes is an adults-only resort consisting of 29 bungalows and apartments.
Our bungalow had a panoramic view of the lagoon, a private plunge pool and an array of luxurious, locally-made treats.
Managers Becky and Tom, a young Kiwi couple who moved to Port Vila a year ago to take on the role, are spectacular hosts. Over our welcome dinner with perfectly chosen food, matched wine and a specially designed cocktail we pick their brains about island life, what to do and how to get there.
The Terraces boutique apartments are owned by the same people who run Mangoes. Set atop a cliff, they epitomise style and luxury.
Our two-storey apartment boasts views of Erakor Lagoon. It has a private plunge pool and a magnificent infinity pool, in which we sip chilled Champagne as the sun goes down.
While there is a lot to do on Efate, there is also a lot to do at Mangoes and The Terraces. Do not leave without indulging in a massage. I've had many around the world but this is the best by far.
The masseur comes to your room, sets up the table and you sink into bliss for an hour, with nothing but the sound of the tropical breeze in the background.
Also book in for a yoga session. Held in the gym at The Terraces (next to the tennis court for any racket and net fans) Claire Barkhuizen put us through our stretching paces for an hour.
Even if like us, you're bad at yoga, it will leave you feel refreshed and ready to take on the day.
SIX DAYS, SIX HIGHLIGHTS
Mele Cascades: A 15-minute bus or taxi ride from Port Vila. Pay your entry fee, about $25, and walk 20 minutes through lush native bush to the most beautiful waterfall and rock pool. Take your time, take it all in and then have a nice cold dip at the top. Parts of the track are steep and others slippery as you cross streams but there are plenty of guide ropes to cling to. Well worth the sweating and puffing once you dive into the pristine water beneath the cascading cool water.
Island drive: Get yourself a car and drive the circumference of Efate along the Coastal Rd. The scenery is spectacular and there are plenty of places to stop for a picnic, including beautiful Eton Beach. The drive takes about three hours in total, but you could easily lose a day stopping at look-outs, taking photos and meeting the always-smiling locals as you wind your way through villages. Driving on the right-hand side of the road is an adventure in itself, but take it easy, and slow down for villages.
Blue Lagoon: If you don't visit this famous swimming hole when you're in Vanuatu, you're a fool. The entry fee is $6 and you can stay as long as you want. Languish in the fresh water - even if it's packed with tourists you can still find a nice spot to soak and, if you're brave, try the rope swing. There's usually a local on hand to show you how it's done, grab the rope, hold on and swing for your life.
Francesca's: About 30 minutes north of Port Vila is one of the island's best places to relax with a cocktail. The beach club, bar and restaurant is in a superb location overlooking Havannah Harbour and boasts a delicious food and drink menu. The food is Italian (the owner and namesake hails from Bologna in northern Italy), there's live music every Sunday and the happy hour features wonderful concoctions such as the house special, designed by Francesca herself .
Hideaway Island: Start with a Tusker (Vanuatu's local and amazing beer) at The Beach Bar and watch the locals drag their fishing nets in, then jump on the "ferry" across to Hideaway. Grab some snorkelling gear and check out the undersea creatures in the marine reserve - strikingly coloured fish, starfish and the stunning coral reef, then lounge with a book and a Tusker or cocktail in the sun. It's the perfect place to unwind. The ferry to the island is free but entry once you're there is $15.
Check out a fire show: There are plenty of shows at resorts around Efate, but we're told the best is at The Beach Bar on Friday nights. The show starts at 7pm and is free. Table bookings are essential, otherwise park up nearby and watch the local dancers do their thing with flames. The bar also runs movie nights, where a big screen is set up on the beach. A great outing for the whole family - cocktails for mum, beers for dad and a movie everyone can enjoy.
Get yourself to Erakor Island for a day. The white sand beach is beautiful and there's something for everyone. Hire a stand-up paddle board or kayak and navigate your way around the island, park up on a lounger and read a book, head to the spa within the resort and treat yourself to a massage or head to the seaside playground with the kids. There is also a great restaurant that sits on the water - an ideal place to dine at sunset.
WHAT TO EAT, DRINK, DO
Mangoes seafood platter. Coconut crab or lobster, prawns, local fish and calamari oozing flavour and literally straight from the sea that day. Match this extravaganza of ocean produce with a chilled sauvignon blanc and an entree of Mangoes polenta chips and it's a meal you won't forget in a hurry.
Try kava from a local bar. We were led down a dirt track to a tin shed where kava was served out of a drum. We drank it, followed by ice cold Tuskers, overlooking the lagoon at sunset. The taste wasn't to everyone's liking but the setting and view were perfect.
Learn a few words in Bislama. The English-based Creole dialect is an official language in Vanuatu and it doesn't take long to pick up a phrase or two. Try these out: tankiu tumas (thank you very much) or mi wantem wan beer (I would like a beer) or evri samting I gud (everything is good).
Wander the Port Vila produce market. Pick up something fresh to snack on. It's a bustling place but still has a relaxed feel. Here you can buy bananas, mangoes, coconuts and other fruit and veges grown by the locals.
Talk to the locals. They are the friendliest people, always happy to help, and offer advice. If you can, visit a village outside Port Vila and see how the locals really live. They are warm, accommodating and will bowl you over with their generosity.
The staff at Mangoes and The Terraces are experts at luxury and comfort.
● Fresh tropical flowers appear in your room each day.
● A surprise bottle of Champagne appeared in our room, perfect for sunset in the Infinity pool.
● An array of beautiful handmade products (body oil, soap, cacao nibs) were gifted to us, made by the team at The Summit, a local company that produces fair-trade, eco-friendly skincare products.
● Late-night arrivals are not a drama. Staff help you straight to the room and check in can be done the next day.
● Bookings for tours can be made at Mangoes reception - easy peasy adventures.
● A rental car is available on site for road trips around Efate.
TIPS AND TRICKS
● Take (and use generously) mosquito spray. They are vicious.
● Don't haggle at the markets or with drivers. It's not done in Vanuatu.
● When souvenir shopping, make sure the products are made locally.
● Go easy on the kava, it's more potent than you think.
Flights courtesy of Air Vanuatu. Accommodation, rental car, yoga and massage services courtesy of Mangoes Resort and The Terraces.