Swinging above the clear blue of the lagoon, I felt like Tarzan as I flew through the air and splashed into the cool depths. Untouched rainforest crowded the banks and a short distance away small children swam and washed their clothes. This was my first time in Port Vila, Vanuatu, and before I got here, I knew very little about this island nation.
My first surprise was the short flight: about three hours flying direct from Auckland to Port Vila, the capital city, on the island of Efate.
I stepped out into the welcoming Pacific heat, freed for a while from Auckland's winter. First to go was my Auckland-appropriate but Vanuatu-inappropriate Kathmandu jacket, which quickly found its new home in the bottom of my luggage. Second to go was my preconceived ideas about Vanuatu. The Ni-Vanuatu are proud - and, of course, happy: this was twice voted the Happiest Place in the World by the New Economics Foundation.
I spent my first morning in Port Vila walking down main street and interacting with the locals and, yes, they were friendly. The people were welcoming and there wasn't any pressure to buy anything at the must-see fresh markets, which are bursting with fruit, flowers, meat and vegetables. "Mamas" in beautiful dresses sell hand-painted art and souvenirs.
Port Vila felt safe and the locals are community orientated. Everything moves a bit slower in Vanuatu and before the week was over I was fully adjusted to island time.
The French influence isn't as obvious here as it is in New Caledonia but many streets and restaurants have French names. More than 100 distinct languages are spoken in Vanuatu and Bislama (Pidgin English) is one of the official languages. Most speak English but I quickly picked up some basic Bislama words: "Nabawan" (number one), "blong" (belong) and "tangkiu" (thank you). Vanuatu has been slammed by cyclones over the past few years, but the only damage I could see was some washed-up boats in the harbour.
Arriving at the beautiful Ramada Resort Port Vila, which opened this year, I was given a cold towel and fresh fruit. The early flight and tropical heat caught up with me so I napped my way to acclimatisation.
I made the most of the buffet breakfast, which left me full for most of the day — but I still enjoyed the restaurant in the evening: you must try the tasty prawn soup. The resort has a lounge bar, sports bar and pool bar to enjoy a swim-up cocktail while the sun is setting.
I tried them all. Some guests, clearly feeling inspired to work off all that food were trying the stand-up paddleboards and kayaks out to the open water. The mask and snorkel were good enough for me.
It was down there that I saw Nemo. Clownfish are common in the waters of Vanuatu and I encountered plenty on a 90-minute excursion with Reef Explorer. We toured the reef in a glass-bottom boat before diving in to snorkel among the tropical fish. The water is very clear and the temperature ranges between 24C - 28C.
I swung like Tarzan above the waters of the Lololima River, roaring with joy before hitting the freshwater surface — cooler than the ocean. I paddled the river with Ecotours Vanuatu.
Paddling the kayak is easy and doesn't require any strenuous effort. The rainforest glides by and you can feel the joy of the local children who live their lives in this paradise. The guides were passionate about sharing their local environment, and quick to point out interesting birdlife. We loved sitting in the crystal-clear lagoon, swinging on the Tarzan rope and eating the fresh fruit from guide Pascal's garden.
Vanuatu looks glorious from the water, but some of the most stunning views on Etafe can only be had by buzzing through the treeline. The Vanuatu Jungle Zipline course takes you across an 80m canyon and waterfall, making for great, nail-biting video if you own an action camera or GoPro.
After all that swinging and kayaking and snorkelling, we felt the need for a cooling ale.
The Banyan Bar has become a Port Vila institution and you'll often find Kiwi and Australian expats drinking beer by the water's edge. The fairy lights in the trees with an accompanying wood fire make a romantic start to an evening before dinner at Tilly's restaurant.
This place is perfect for a relaxing, mid-priced holiday for a couple or young family.
There are plenty of activities available for those who are looking for adventure.
And when all the adventure is done, like this Tarzan, you may just want to chill out.
Air Vanuatu flies from Auckland to Port Vila and has a Couples Escape package on sale. The first person travels for $753 (Economy Class, return) and the second person for $653. Available on selected dates until July 29. On selected dates between August 2 - March 23, the prices are $652 and $552.
Accommodation: Ramada Resort features Junior Suites with panoramic lagoon views and large balconies.