To my left dense forest to swallow everything in its path if not for the busy roadway that halts its creeping tendrils. To my right I see glimpses of the turquoise Pacific Ocean between simple huts with thatched rooves and walls woven from bush materials and fancy neighbouring resorts offering deep sea fishing adventures.
Just over two hours flying time from Brisbane, Vanuatu is one of Australia's closest island neighbours and a nation of contrasts. In town, ladies in colourful traditional island dress sell fish on woven mats, sitting beside teenagers in shorts and t-shirts staring at their iPhones. Passengers on a day trip from a mega cruise ship flood the handicraft markets, casino, shops and bars bringing vital tourism dollars. While just outside Port Vila a small village makes a meagre income showing tourists how to hull coconuts. Children who finish schooling after Year 8 play in front of a regional university that supports undergraduates from 12 Pacific Island nations.
You can fly by helicopter to your own private island or get back to nature exploring wild forest and remote waterfalls on horseback, sip French Champagne from crystal glasses or chug down a bottle of the local Tusker beer.
During a day trip along the single stretch of roadway that is the only access route around the entire circumference of Vanuatu's main island of Efate, our driver regularly beeps his horn at other cars, pedestrians and people seated at roadside stores. In Australia such liberal use of your horn might earn you a stiff middle finger wave but here it is a sign of friendship. A warm hello to match the tropical weather.
Australians, in particular, are in for a special welcome. "Thank you too much," our local 'Ni-Vanuatu' guide Thomas says with a wide grin as he points out a new roof on a village school house.
"This was damaged by Pam (the cyclone), but you fixed it."
We round the corner to see a maternity block he also praises us for. Next is a section of roadway built with Australian Aid that Thomas gives full credit for as if we'd personally laid the asphalt,
"Thank you too much. The taxes you pay built this road. Thank you too much. Australia is like our big brother, you always look after us."
The unexpected praise and genuine warmth for Australia and Australian visitors is humbling, as is the simplicity of island life which continues to guide deep spiritual and family connections throughout this South Pacific archipelago of more than 80 islands.
It has been three years since Cyclone Pam swept across Vanuatu but its beauty is undiminished, a most perfect tropical island setting for anything from a family adventure to a romantic weekend getaway (yes, it's that close!).
Here's a checklist of tips to help you make the most of a Vanuatu vacation...
Any minivan with a B on its number plate is a bus service. There are no bus stops, just flag down the driver and they will take you anywhere within Port Vila for 1500 VUV (about AUD$1.50).
Taxis have a T on the number plate and are un-metered so agree on a price with the driver beforehand. Your hotel can advise what is a fair rate. Have plenty of spare change as drivers often cannot break larger notes. It is very safe to walk around Port Vila and the locals are friendly and helpful.
Take your pick from five-star luxury and boutique bungalows over the water to adults-only retreats or family friendly resorts.
We stayed at Mangoes Resort for a great couples' getaway. Set high on a clifftop overlooking the lagoon, Mangoes is only minutes from Port Vila yet offers ultimate peace and quiet, an excellent restaurant, exceptional customer service and very good coffee.
TIP: order the house-made muesli with fresh fruit for breakfast and the coconut fish curry for dinner.
Use your resort activity booking service. They make all the arrangements for you and all you need to do is turn up on time for your pick up. Yes, you can hire a car but by booking a hosted tour you get great local commentary, tips and access to villages and secret spots only locals know.
Coordinate visits to tourist hotspots like Mele Cascades or Blue Lagoon on the days the cruise ships are not in town. You can go for a swim or enjoy the facilities at any of the island resorts or the casino, however it is expected you buy a drink, something to eat, or pay a small entry fee.
- Order fish or seafood at every opportunity. It's super fresh, sustainably caught and supports local suppliers.
- Vanuatu beef is excellent, as are the island's fruits and vegetables.
- The local Tusker beer goes down well with salted cassava chips after a hard day relaxing.
- Snack on coconut, banana and bunches of fresh raw peanuts bought from the market stalls.
- Fruit bat lovers turn away now...you can get them served with red wine sauce at L'Houstalet Restaurant, Port Vila, along with pizza, garlic snails and steak.
Must do adventures
- Native Round Island Day Tour - It helps to get your bearings, highlights hot spots to visit later, provides access to private villages and the hosts Tom and Noah share wonderful personal commentary and history of Vanuatu on the way.
- Club Hippique Horse Riding Tours - Meander through forests to secluded waterfalls or to the ocean where you can swim with your horse to cool off. If you're not an experienced rider book the half day or pay with a sore backside the next day. Totally worth it though!
- Coongoola Day Cruise - Cruise on board the classic timber tall ship Coongoola (built in Brisbane circa 1940) through Havannah Harbour to Hideaway Island turtle sanctuary, before mooring at a secluded coral cove where you can snorkel the reef in crystal clear water or relax on the fine white sand after a barbecue lunch.
- Avoid downtown Port Vila on cruise ship days. It's hectic, the locals leave and prices go up.
- Choose tours or activities that employ or are owned and operated by 'Ni-Vanuatu' (locals). By doing this your money directly supports village communities and goes toward schooling and health care which are not free.
- Take small change or school supplies instead of sweets, when visiting villages to gift to the children. If you love Tusker beer as much as we did, buy a carton at the supermarket to save on your resort bill.
- Grab some duty free wine or spirits at International Terminal to enjoy on your holiday. You can take up to two litres person.
Need to know
- No visa required for Australian passport holders for a maximum stay of 30 days.
- The best time to visit is between April and October when the weather is milder.
- There are no dangerous sharks (great whites, bull sharks or tiger sharks), snakes or spiders in Vanuatu so explore, snorkel or dive with confidence.
- Save your hip pocket and the planet by ditching plastic bottled water, the local water is safe to drink.
- Take strong mosquito spray. Use it liberally. Keep doors closed at night and spray your room before sleeping.
- The Vanuatu vatu/Australian dollar conversion is approximately 100/1.