Jetting into Vanuatu, across the sapphire sea and the crisp palette of lagoon blues, all the hues of tropical holiday daydreams are there to greet you, writes Mike Yardley.
Across the gleaming archipelago, outdoorsy adventures lie in wait in Vanuatu. I was particularly excited about experiencing the unsullied, non-commercialised bliss of Lelepa Island, which fringes the west side of Havannah Harbour, on the main island of Efate. Day tours, including banana boat transfers from the mainland, are superbly operated by Lelepa islanders, packaging a kaleidoscope of authentic experiences and insights into one magical day. This is how tourism should be. After being dutifully collected from The Havannah Resort, under a cerulean blue sky, we zipped across the glittering harbour as a pod of dolphins playfully splashed about seemingly on-cue, before walking ashore onto Lelepa’s sugary sands.
Sensational sands of Lelepa Island
The beach that I was deposited at was the sweep of sand immortalised by Survivor 15 years ago, much to the titillation of reality-television viewers. Screen tourism’s pulling power lives on. Amongst my group of day-trippers, a lovely couple from Europe were impelled to visit Lelepa Island because of the TV show! Local residents, Japin and Aaron, guided us on a fascinating rainforest tour, pointing out some signature botanical attributes. Draped in sycamore trees, this is the specimen that is used for carving the trunk into an outrigger canoe. It takes one day to complete the mission. Japin pointed out a vine called One Day Rob, from which the juice is extracted and tipped into sea. It apparently makes the fish “drunk” and easy prey to catch.
As gentle winds fanned the multitude of swaying palms, Aaron emphasised the deep spiritual significance of the cycad palm, or namale, as the locals call it. It’s a revered symbol of peace in Vanuatu. Every village chief will have a namale growing outside his house and it’s enshrined on the national flag. I was also led over to a cliff face of volcanic rock and limestone, which is home to scores of massive coconut crabs. Living in the rock stack, these aggressive critters are a celebrated delicacy in Vanuatu. But as Aaron grimly observed, snaring and subduing one of these crabs takes skill and agility. They only come out at night and if you’re not careful, they can crush your finger with ease. I was happy to take his word for that. A recent study concluded that they are the crustacean kings, with a pinching force nearly on par with the bite force of lions. They can generate 90 times their body weight in force, which is why they can crack open a coconut so easily.
The Famous Fels Cave
After enjoying a delicious lunch of local beef, chicken, crisp salads and succulent tropical fruits, I enjoyed a spot of snorkelling and kayaking in the crystalline, turquoise-tinted waters. Then it was on to Fels Cave which brimming with rock drawings of men, fish and birds that date back to 900 AD. According to legend, the mighty chief Roi Mata died in this cave in the 16th century. It’s the size of this cave which surprised me, 60 metres long. Up until the 1840s, it served two key purposes: as a cyclone refuge but also as a hospice, where the village elders would spend their last days of their life. If these cave walls would talk – just imagine the stories! The locals illuminate the cave with candle-light for tourists to walk through, adding to its evocative atmosphere, along with the hundreds of squealing fruit bats that dangle from the cave ceiling! Our group were then whisked to the southwestern shoreline of Lelepa, which is studded with spectacular coral gardens. I don’t think I’ve experienced such an extraordinary level of neon-coloured coral intensity quite like this in the South Pacific.
Turtle Sanctuary on Moso Island
Another highly enjoyable jaunt is to take in the Turtle Sanctuary on Moso Island, which is situated right next to Lelepa, flanking the western side of Havannah Harbour. The Hawksbill Turtle Conservatory is based at Tranquillity Resort. The sanctuary is currently home to 200 juvenile turtles, raised from hatchlings until they reach one year old. Founded by Own Drew about 15 years ago and staffed by volunteers, I was guided through the conservatory, marvelling at the multitude of tanks swarming with young turtles. All the hatchlings are gathered up, just as they reach the waterline on Moso Island’s Helipad Beach. The eggs are laid between to October and December and about 60 days later, the hatchlings will break free from their eggs. The temperature of the sand determines their gender. At 28C, they’ll be female. But at 27.5C, they will be male.
After nurturing them through their first year, the turtles are tagged and released from the beach where they hatched, into the ocean. So far the sanctuary has released over 1500 turtles into the ocean and some of them have been identified are far afield as Fiji and Sydney. Sun told me that without their intervention in that formative and perilous first year, very few would survive. Only 1 in every 10,000 Hawksbill Turtles make it to adulthood. WWF ranks Hawksbill Turtles as the fourth most endangered species on the planet, behind the Amur Leopard, the Black Rhino, and the Cross-River Gorilla. You’ll feel uplifted by the noble endeavours at the Turtle Conservatory.
Havannah harbour on Samoa point
If blissed out seclusion is a biggie when it comes to your tropical island fantasises, enjoy a five star splurge, lapping up the luxurious delights of The Havannah. Thirty minutes north of Port Vila, this exclusive boutique resort overlooks Havannah Harbour on Samoa Point. A stunningly gorgeous white sand peninsula, named in honour of the first missionaries who came to Vanuatu from Apia. Awakening to the chortles of a frisky rooster at dawn, from my waterfront villa, I marvelled over dugong, dolphins and turtles cruising the iridescent waters.
Luxury resort The Havannah
The Havannah epitomises secluded boutique luxury, with just 17 elegantly designed villas gracing its lush and manicured grounds. I basked in unfettered tropical bliss in a deluxe waterfront villa, fully air-conditioned, blending traditional style with contemporary comfort. In addition to the spacious separate living areas, indoor-outdoor bathrooms, walk-in rain showers and private decks with thatched roofs and daybeds, my villa also sported a private infinity plunge pool. Plus – direct access to the sugar-soft sand and crystal-clear water. The Point Restaurant, with its supreme panoramic harbour views serves up award-winning cuisine using the freshest local, organic ingredients. When in season, plump for coconut crab, a meaty, flavoursome variety of crab which is rightly revered in Vanuatu. A fabulous tasting fish is poulet, like a red snapper – very fleshy, not oily and very few bones. Few places in the world have stamped such a lasting impression on me, quite like The Havannah.
Fly to Vanuatu with Air Vanuatu
Air Vanuatu flies three times weekly, direct from Auckland to Port Vila. Go now. May until November sees Vanuatu at its glorious best: the dry season is sun-soaked and low in humidity. Home to a staggering 83 islands, this glorious archipelago is ripe for exploration and relaxation. For further information on holidaying in Vanuatu, head to www.vanuatu.travel