A family getaway to Vanuatu finds relaxation and the real deal, writes Sam Aldred.
In the middle of the winter gloom — somewhere between the back of the sofa and the bookcase — we found a week, a spare week.
It wasn't quite a golden ticket and it might have been down to some mysterious HR leave calculations but we had a week, so we booked flights and took a holiday.
"Vanuatu," said my sister in Manchester, "you really know how to live."
This was outstanding, I hadn't even cropped, coloured and filtered my photos yet.
"Vanuatu," said our friend down the road, "you are such adventurers."
I let that hang in the air and didn't tell them we were staying at the Holiday Inn.
Vanuatu it was going to be, the flights were satisfyingly priced and fellow #adventurers who'd already been, had given it the thumbs up. We were off to Efate, the most populated of the 83 islands that make up the nation state and home to the capital, Port Vila.
It was dark when we arrived, but the airport had an easy flow with a sleepy customs queue and from here it was just a short ride to our lodgings and bed.
When we woke we knew we were in a Pacific Paradise Inc. For one, the view looked so much like the photos that we felt like checking the windows in case there was a giant travel brochure tacked to them; for another there was a man in a Holiday Inn-approved "tribal" outfit doing the gardening.
We went to say hello and then headed off for breakfast.
Now, about breakfast . . . some people say children can take and take from you until you are a tired, empty husk that just can't take it anymore. To those people I say wait until you've seen my kids at a breakfast buffet.
They took the croissants, they took the fruit, they took the eggs, they took the bacon, frankly, they took the lot. Fortunately, even they tired of breakfast, eventually leaving us to drink coffee and watch them from afar spotting starfish at the edges of the lovely Erakor lagoon.
We had five days in Efate and wanted to take in as much of the island as we could while reserving the right to sit in the surrounds of our resort.
We reserved that right for much of the first day but grabbed a taxi in the late afternoon and took a 30-minute ride to a spot that had been recommended for dinner. The Beach Bar was full of charm and did a great line in wood-fired pizza and cold beer and once it got dark they put on a fire show followed by some smart moves by the local village break-dance crew.
By the next day, we'd established the pattern for the rest of the holiday — eat three breakfasts, persuade the 4-year-old to run up and down the beach until exhausted and then we'd head out for the day.
Travel was either by taxi or the local bus service, which consists of old mini vans circling the island and picking up and dropping off on demand. It's simple enough to figure out — it's a fixed fee per trip and any van with a "B" on the number plate is for hire.
You'll also want to take the occasional boat, and a drive and a short boat ride from Port Vila is the tiny Hideaway Island, where we spent a happy day snorkelling on the reef, feeding the fish and annoying honeymooners.
Also available are more substantial tours to outlying islands and we had a tick-the-box perfect day trip to Lelepa, a small, sparsely populated island off the north coast of Efate.
On arrival, we took a stroll through the forest and then had a few hours to ourselves on a white sand beach with a reef straight off the shore.
The biggest thrill, however, was mooring off the marine reserve and swimming with huge fish, among stunning coral and perfect visibility.
Back on the mainland there is much to do — Port Vila has a big, open-air market and the bustle of a trading post and tourist centre, with good places for food, coffee and general bric-a-brac shopping.
There are plenty of other spots to explore — we packed a picnic and took a bus out to the Blue Lagoon, a deep waterhole of turquoise water where you can swim and take on the locals at a game of diving-off-the-rope-swings (insider tip — you'll lose).
Nearby Eton beach was another favourite to spend a sunny family afternoon.
We loved Vanuatu — if you want a pure flop-and-drop holiday you might get a better club sandwich elsewhere, but these beautiful islands felt more authentic.
Sure we were tourists, having a tourist time but it was simple and easy to get out and explore the island and feel like you were part of something that was more than just a resort.
My only regret was not having more time to visit the rest of Vanautu, next time for sure — we just need to find another week first.
Getting there: Air Vanuatu flies from Auckland to Port Vila on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Accommodation: The Holiday Inn on the Erakor lagoon has a range of room sizes suitably for families, along with activities and pool areas.
Further information: See vanuatutravel.info.