Vanuatu: slow lane of the South Pacific

by Stephen Squires

Breakfast on tropical-fruit smoothies, admire the island views, see newborn turtles on a beach, stroll to the evening fruit market… Life in and around Port Vila, Vanuatu's capital, is a real grind

As the plane descends into Port Vila, Vanuatu's capital, the low cloud that seems to rest stubbornly several thousand feet above the archipelago clears – yet every passenger continues to ask their travelling companions the same bizarre question: have you seen any land yet? Eventually the lush forests on the steep slopes appear below revealing no signs of human habitation, begging a second question: does anybody actually live here?

Efate is not the nation's largest island, but it is the primary destination for tourists and the place where I decided to base myself for a four-day break from wintry Melbourne, Australia. Accommodation options in the southern hemisphere's winter are extensive and cheap, with many resorts offering rooms at bargain prices. Staying at Lagoon Beach Resort, we benefited from a near-private beach and free run of all amenities. This, along with Le Lagoon Resort, Poppy's on the Lagoon and Le Meridien, is situated on an idyllic river that streams from an enormous and stunning lagoon situated about 200m upstream and accessible via a quick paddle in a kayak.

A must-do experience is to sample the local transport. Buses are frequent and well-used by the locals, so expect to find yourself as the stranger in a creole world. They are lively and allow for a tourist to experience real Efate community life – a completely alien experience for visitors from almost every other world capital. Port Vila itself is more-or-less one main street with a few shops, tour agencies and cafés. I recommend that you take yourself towards the waterfront overlooking Iririki Island, advertised as one of Vanuatu's most luxurious places to stay, and enjoy the view from the small cafés nestled behind market stalls which serve all your favourites and smoothies blended from local tropical fruits – perfect for a breakfast treat.

However, don't waste too much time in Port Vila as there is plenty to see and explore. During my short stay, I took a bus to Hideaway Island a few hundred feet off the "mainland". I arrived with the sole intention of diving down to the world's only underwater post office and post box! Be warned, before considering a diving break in Vanuatu: while visibility is fantastic, there are relatively few fish to marvel at off Efate (Espiritu Santo is the best location in Vanuatu for those looking to experience the South Pacific's underwater delights). A short sail away from Efate is Tranquility Island. As its name suggests, it will give you the full "Robinson Crusoe escape" experience and provides visitors with the opportunity to get face-to-face with newborn turtles.

Restaurants in Port Vila are limited and cater almost exclusively for Western travellers. At either extreme of Port-Vila's main street are places specialising in BBQ grill cuisine (choose the local ribs and you won't be disappointed). A late-night stroll is pleasant, with the central fruit and vegetable market open 24 hours, six days a week. From the jetty next to the market,  everyone can make use of the free shuttle boat to Iririki Island where you can enjoy cocktails and music from local bands.

On departure, you will be reminded of your isolation as you browse the departures board, which is almost redundant of purpose: I left on a day with just two scheduled flights (to Brisbane and Nouméa) from the country's only international airport.