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.