Delightful locals and sustainability on a shoestring make the tiny island of Pele a dream destination, finds Isobel Marriner.
The low boom of a conch-shell trumpet sounded out across the water as our motorboat dipped through the waves and a pod of spinner dolphins shot into the air close by, practising their acrobatics.
Jumping ashore on the crunchy and palm-fringed beach, we were greeted by a young chief who placed garlands around our necks and a shyly smiling group of schoolchildren. We had come to Pele, a tiny dot at the top of Vanuatu's main island, Efate, and it was like stepping back into Eden.
Pele is about an hour's journey from Port Vila, and the trip had begun with a safari around the eastern side of Efate. Our young guide, Ronald, was friendly, enthusiastic and cool in his beaded dreadlocks: his anecdotes were educational, but also personal.
Just out of Vila, we passed the driver's village, then Ronald's village: he explained that the second was made up of people forced to leave the northern island of Ambrym due to volcanic activity - his father among them. They had been given land by the larger village and allowed to settle there.
Ronald explained the significance of Vanuatu's multi-coloured flag: black for the dark-skinned Melanesian people, green for the colour of the bush-clad islands, yellow for Christianity, which had shone its light on the country, red for the blood spilt by the Ni-Vanuatu people in their struggle for independence, and a boar's tusk emblem, which is the sign of prosperity in Vanuatu, its symbolism echoed on the label of Vanuatu's famous Tusker lager.
We drove past the Tusker brewery - sadly with no time to stop - past tourists frolicking in the water at the pretty Cascade Falls; and past groups of Ni-Vanuatu going about their business: each time they would stop and wave, with big, beaming grins for us strangers.
Our minibus began an ascent up an exceedingly steep road. It had recently been tar-sealed (thank goodness), but as the gears began to strain, we wondered whether we might have to get out and get it to the summit under people-power.
However, it was the little minivan that could and, as we reached the top of Klems Hill - named after an American serviceman who had been in Vanuatu during the war - it became clear that if walking up the hill would be breathtaking, the view from the lookout near the top certainly was. From dizzying heights, the eastern side of Efate lay spread beneath us, with Port Vila in the distance, our ship a tiny toy boat in the harbour.
Back in our small paradise, island guides took parties off to the reefs, diving deep to chase the fish, including huge coral snapper. ("Not so good eating," said Ronald. "I like tuna.")
Walking round the village with Ronald and the quietly-spoken chief, we were given leaves the village children use to make stickers: they have tiny hooks on the underside and stick to your clothes like natural Velcro.
Ronald bantered a little with a more portly islander about how masculine success is measured by the speed you can climb a coconut tree.
"He is much faster than me, I used to be an island boy: now I am a town boy," then disproved this by shimmying up the tree in seconds.
Those beautiful schoolchildren who had welcomed us provided our farewell concert: there was no accompaniment, the chief would sing the first line in low tones to make sure his choir was perfectly in pitch. "Thank you for coming to our island."
As our party reluctantly turned to go back to the mainland, the kids lined up to get their reward: a lollipop each from the chief.
The locals here are making big attempts to ensure their gorgeous surroundings remain as pristine as possible; where once they used groundwater wells, there are now large tanks for collecting rainwater and solar panels power a small generator.
Pele is part of the Nguna-Pele Marine Protected Area, the first marine reserve in Vanuatu, and there are signs around the village in the country's Bislama pidgin - "No kilim pikinini blong totel" - don't kill the baby turtles.
The locals are aware of the importance of protecting the fragile ecology, but they live a simple life and are dependent on donations to fund their efforts.
Back on ship, we spoke to a Ni-Vanuatu staff member who told us he loved his country but had to work abroad to make a good living. Vanuatu was beautiful, he agreed, but in many places its beauty was in danger of being destroyed by rampant mining.
In a country which offers so much to the traveller, with its abundant marine life, rich cultural experiences and hospitable, friendly people, surely tourism would be a preferable alternative to the unfettered raping of the land for its resources?
In many places, such as Pele and its surrounding islands, the villagers are working hard to keep the environment pure; they are happy to welcome those who come to appreciate Vanuatu for what it has to offer.
Further information: Pele Island lies off the north coast of Efate, Vanuatu's most populated island and site of its capital, Port Vila. P&O has recently introduced two new shore tours from Port Vila: the Pele trip and a visit to the turtle sanctuary at Tranquillity (Moso) Island. See pocruises.co.nz for more information.
Isobel Marriner cruised Vanuatu as a guest of P&O Cruises.