Sculpted with inlets, lagoons and islets, and flanked by vertiginous hillsides, cloaked in emerald hues, Port Vila’s setting makes its one of the most photogenic in the South Pacific. Colonial vestiges linger, with faded French architecture festooning the rambling streets of the city centre and adding zest to its café scene. The French Quarter proper, stretches to the north from central Vila, including Sacre Coeur Cathedral and a clutch of gorgeous colonial-style houses with wooden-louvred windows.
But Port Vila is irrepressibly a South Pacific city. Directly across the waterfront, the landmark Iririki Resort has been resplendently rebuilt, following the pounding it took from Cyclone Pam, several years ago. Over 400 people were employed in the reconstruction of this iconic resort, which you can easily access via the free ferry which beetles across the waterway, around the clock. From early morning Monday through to midday on Saturday, Vila market is a colourful, frenetic emporium of fresh produce, handicrafts and trading verve.
All of the stalls are staffed by ni-Van women sporting colourful Mother Hubbard dresses. It’s a hive of activity and no doubt local gossip, but the ultimate destination to bag some rock-bottom priced produce to build your own picnic. Coconuts, pawpaw and gargantuan-sized grapefruit are a steal. Seasonal treats include wild raspberries in September and succulent mangoes go on sale from November.
Fresh passionfruit hits its prime between March and May. You can also sample some local eats with the market dining, whereby ladies whip up enticing bites like herb-coated fish with rice, while you wait. Don’t bother bargaining here – it’s not the done thing. Prices are fixed and clearly marked. For a ringside seat on Vila’s watery charms, with unobstructed views across to Iririki, take a seat at Le Café du Village, a local institution, which oozes Mediterranean-style charm and equally charming service.
Now under the command of Simon Truman, this blue and white landmark eatery serves up an expansive and cosmopolitan menu, spanning European and Asian specialties, to suit all tastes. Favourites include the Thai beef salad, Spanish seafood soup, pork and prawn spring rolls, and lobster. It’s an ideal place to relish the freshest local seafood and Vanuatu’s famed organic beef. The extensive wine list features great drops from New Zealand, Australia and France. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner from Tuesday to Sunday, it’s an experiential must.
Also on the cuisine front, if you get the chance to wrap your laughing gear around coconut crab, when in season, go for it. A meaty, flavoursome variety of crab and utterly revered in Vanuatu. You should also try the national dish, laplap, which is a mix of taro roots and yams grated into a doughy paste. That’s slathered on taro, soaked in coconut cream and added to meat or fish. One of Vanuatu’s finest tasting fish is poulet. It’s like a red snapper – very fleshy, not oily and very few bones.
Plus, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can always sample fruit bat. I declined. Heading north from Port Vila, the island’s mountainous coastal ring road offers up lush and scenic vistas and a cross-hatch of village life snapshots. (A full circumference of Efate takes three hours.) The roadside lookout from Klem’s Hill (200 metres high) is a standout. You’ll want to slow down when passing through villages, where locals will cheerfully give you wave, dogs aimlessly wander and ramshackle roadside stalls groan with local produce.
Take a jaunt to the Mele Cascades, about 15 minutes north of Port Vila. The NZ$25 entry fee might make you wince, but it’s worth every cent. A twenty minute walk through lush and fragrant native bush leads you to the most sublime 35 metre high waterfall and gin-clear rock pools. Some stretches of the walking track are steep and slippery, but if you work up a sweat, you’ll be royally rewarded with a liberating dip in the pristine water.
I’ve always thought you can judge a lot about a destination by the taste of its coffee, and Vanuatu smashes that one out of the park. Vanuatu is home to Tanna Coffee, Arabica-style organic coffee, proudly grown on Tanna Island, in the fertile soils of Yasur Volcano, and exported worldwide. It’s an intense, earthy coffee, but perfect for an Espresso hit. Mele Bay is home to the Tanna Coffee Roasting Factory, on Devil’s Point Road. Coffee aficionados should take a tour of the factory and taste the refined flavours for yourself. Nearby, the Summit Gardens boast 6 hectares of gardens which are ablaze with tropical floral species. It’s also the launch pad for Vanuatu Jungle Zipline, which shoots across the lavish tropical canopy.
If you’re travelling with kids, Hideaway Island in Mele Bay is the perfect introduction to Vanuatu’s techni-coloured and thriving underwater world. Snorkelling equipment is available for hire at the resort and the island is an effortless ferry hop from the mainland. Alongside ogling the fish life, the perennial hit with families is the opportunity to write and mail waterproof postcards from the world’s first Underwater Post Office.
Heading further north to Havannah Harbour, Francesca’s Beach Club, Restaurant and Bar is a signature destination, just a stone’s throw from The Havannah Resort. Francesca Grillo hails from the epicurean mecca of Bologna and alongside serving delicious Italian food, her cooking classes are equally alluring. If that sounds like too much hard work, surrender to her one of her long, languid degustation lunches while soaking up the iridescent sprawl of Havannah Harbour. Book well in advance. www.discovervanuatu.co.nz
By Mike Yardley.