It took Vanuatu’s tourism industry a little while to recover from Cyclone Pam in 2014 – one of the most devastating in memory – but recover it did and visitors today will be rewarded with plenty of memorable experiences.
Smaller and less developed than Fiji, Vanuatu, the former condominium ruled as The New Hebrides by France and Britain (to chaotic effect – each had its own legal, education and health systems in an island nation of some 200,000 souls) until independence in 1980, has a charm all of its own.
The capital, Port Vila, took the brunt of Pam’s 360kmh savagery but little of this fascinating and super-friendly archipelago was left untouched.
That said, it wasn’t long before the nakamal were operational. These are the “kava bars” where you can drop in for a bowl, taking your pick from the varieties on offer. Watch out for the Tanna kava.
Kava’s a pounded root, a mild narcotic – in this case from the volcanic island of Tanna – and its soporific effects can be immediate and embarrassing. This is NOT the muddy water yaqona of Fiji fame but a considerably more concentrated brew.
My first introduction to it was on Efate where the crushed raw root was dumped into something resembling a Fijian tanoa before being mixed with water.
The effect was devastatingly debilitating. Stick to the nakamal product. It’s less risky and is made from reliable drinking water.
And if you insist on “wash down” (the Fiji habit of finishing a kava session with alcohol, usually beer) be sure to have a comfortable couch within easy staggering distance.
On Port Vilas’s island of Iririki, from where the British High Commissioner could view his French counterpart’s “mainland” dwelling before setting off to work each idyllic morning by personal barge and where large cast iron whale pots once abounded, the cyclone damage was frightening.
Iririki, once my personal favourite place in the Pacific and now home to a vast array of visitor activity and accommodation, has changed. As a reporter covering the Jimmy Stephens rebellion that punctuated that country’s painful birth into independence from Britain and France, I found someone willing to ferry me over to Iririki from the yacht club.
The island at that time – 1980 - had a missionary settlement, a heavy smattering of iron whale pots and the already semi-ruined high commissioner’s residence with papers scattered in most un-Foreign Office manner.
Among them was a guest list and budget for one of those awful diplomatic dinner parties at which the staff cost a fraction of the wine price.
It’s a bustling tourism haven today of course, whale pots, missionaries and residence all gone.
Vanuatu is an archipelago of Melanesian islands, a treasure trove of multicultural history. Each island (and often district) has its own unique character.
The islanders themselves are unique. Most are trilingual with English, Bislama (the local version of tok pisin) and their village language. Many can add fluent French.
Vanuatu is home to spectacular World War II relics, above and below the water line as well as volcano hikes (check with the tourist information office for the latest alert level), eco lodges, posh resorts, a wealth of cultural experiences and, of course, fish and seafood.
The steak, reared locally, is rightly world famous, coming from what began as the “cattle under trees” project in the 1980s when it was found that certain breeds could do well amid the decaying copra plantations. Their only threat was - and is – falling coconuts.
The result is a steak whose flavour can only be found here.
And I maintain the coconut crabs are the best anywhere.
I’ve been back many times since that first visit and will be happy to return yet again. I’ll just check the cyclone alerts website first.
Published under license from Well Travelled