The simple pleasures of a Pacific island — with spiders and cannibal stories — enthral Max Anderson and sons.
'Who wants to hold the family pet?" asks the chief of the Futuna tribe. There's quiet in the small crowd seated on logs in the jungle.
"I will!" says the weevily eight-year old with the buzz cut. I regard the boy doubtfully as he springs from his log to stand before the bare-chested man in the warpaint and grass skirt.
The pet - a large golden orb spider - is placed in the boy's hand before it strides up his pale, skinny arm. The crowd shudders and, truth is, I fear greatly - for the spider.
True to form, the boy - who is mine - drops the arachnid on the black volcanic soil and bends to pick it up by two legs like it's a rubber toy. Aghast, the chief quickly rescues his spider.
I'm surprised the family pet isn't minus a limb and I'm astonished to learn why the golden orb is so cherished by tribes here on the main island of Efate and the 82 outer islands of Vanuatu. The chief shows us a wooden frame the size and shape of a paddle, its head thick with silken spider web. "It reflects the sun," the young chief says. "When we're out in our boat, we put it close to the water and small fish jump out and stick to it. We take the small fish and use them to catch bigger fish."
Another eight-year-old boy - this one with a round head and thick hair - urgently shoots his hand up and makes an "Ooh! Ooh!" noise. I also regard him with some anxiety for he, too, is mine and prone to lengthy expositions of irrelevance.
"Yes?" the chief says.
"Once, in Adelaide ..."
I groan in my head, "Oh, god, no, no!" The trouble is, this comes out aloud and the crowd turns to see the source of such mean spirit.
Before Vanuatu, overseas holidays with young children have been a breeze because I require only three basic ingredients: a resort pool, a resort kids' club and other kids. (Four ingredients, if you count a nutritious bottle of Bombay Sapphire.) Boys are happy, wife's happy, I'm happy. Then My Family's Crazy Gap Year screened on the ABC and spoiled everything. The globe-trotting reality show suggested children can actually benefit from making cultural connections outside the hibiscus-fringed barricades of holiday retreats.
Warwick Le Lagon at Port Vila is a 142-room lagoon-side resort with all my requisite ingredients, namely kind women wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with "Picaninni Crew" and large swimming pools whipped to a lather by excited (mostly Australian) children. But in spite of this, I decide to pre-arrange some non-resort family activities.
"Dad, can we go to the kids' club?"
"No, we've got family activities."
Their disappointed "ohhhhh" is rich and cadenced. "C'mon, you'll like it!" I say. "You enjoyed the village, didn't you?"
They can't deny it: the Ekasup Cultural Village, with its spider paddle, was a hit the minute we'd walked a dense jungle gauntlet with armed warriors hissing at us, rattling seed pods and firing fierce challenges in tribal dialect. There had been talk of hunting and war and cannibalism and the boys had soaked it all up. At the end of the two-hour show, I'd chatted to the chief about his business and the cost of education, while his kids had joined mine to play chasey around a magnificent banyan tree.
I'm not sure it can get any better. But it seems it can on this decidedly chilled-out island.
We take a cab to the Mele Cascades, a half-hour ride from the resort. The taxi driver is from an outer island and though wearing neither skirt nor warpaint, he gives a fascinating account of a life so different from ours. "To marry my wife I had to pay 40 pigs," he tells the boys through his rear-view mirror. "And a pig costs 400 Australian dollars."
I consider this an opportunity to test the boys' arithmetic but the poor chap tells us he's still paying off the price of his bride - and she's stuck on their home island, two days' sailing from Vila.
"How often do you see her?" asks the weevil.
"Once a year," he says.
"Can't you take your taxi there?"
"No. There are no cars on my island. My wife has never been in a car. Only ever in a canoe."
"Hmm," says the irrelevant one. "Like a war canoe?"
The waterfall trip turns into another family triumph. We walk an easy track, following a wide stream into a volcanic heartland that looks like it could harbour dinosaurs. It starts to rain - hard, warm rain - but this only adds to the adventure. We reach the waterfall, a great bumpy cascade hammering into a cusp of jungle. We find coves behind the falls where we call and scream behind the roaring curtains of water.
The boys declare it "wicked awesome".
Next day we walk into the wonky little capital, Port Vila, where the Vanuatu Cultural Centre makes more sense to the boys after the village visit. They learn that the chief's tales of cannibalism were quite true and discover the fabulous value of pig tusks, which connects with the taxi driver's story. They also watch a terrific video of the land divers of Pentecost Island, who throw themselves off 30-metre towers with their feet tied to vines.
"Can we go there, dad?"
"Gee, I'd love to."
On day five we take a boat about 200 metres offshore to a small island called Hideaway. It's a rustic little outcrop of basalt and sand with a basic but very pleasant resort. We have four hours to laze, swim and snorkel.
A glass-bottom boat takes parties out to the reef, where great fish schools cluster around chutes that release breadcrumbs.
A passenger from Queensland lowers his waterproof camera into the water to watch the feeding frenzy and a giant snapper momentarily swallows it. The weevil can barely contain his excitement when the camera - hurriedly retrieved with a great splash - replays its footage.
But Hideaway is a hit for a completely unexpected reason. It's home to "the world's only underwater post office", which is nothing more than a fibreglass bell submerged about four metres in the warm turquoise water. One of the island's divers is sent out to sit in the bell for an hour at noon; we take a deep breath and duck down to give him our waterproof postcard. He takes the card, gestures "OK" and shakes our hands.
We shoot up to the surface and rip out our snorkels - not to catch our breath but to laugh. Never has so much pleasure been afforded by something so simple.
On the last day I think I outdo myself: we join an off-road island tour driving "fun buggies". The weevil and I buckle into our feral 250cc off-roader, while wife and irrelevance boy take to another. All of us are given ridiculous (probably useless) safety helmets but the boys are ecstatic with their hard hats protruding with horns and spikes.
In a line of a dozen vehicles, we power across fields and beaches, kicking up mud, sand and cow poo on a four-hour drive. Frankly, if the noise of the machines was unleashed on any other island I suspect legal action would be taken. But on rough tracks through the thatched villages of Efate, it brings kids running to high-five us as we slow our vehicles.
When we return to the resort lobby, the boys gather around me, their flushed, mud-spattered faces looking happily up into mine. "We love you, dad," they say, taking turns to embrace me. "Thanks for the best holiday ever."
Actually, not a word of this last bit is true: they badger me until I agree to let them go to the kids' club, then they race off towards the kind women in red T-shirts - screaming and karate kicking all the way - which at least leaves me and the wife to sneak off to our room for an appointment with Dr Bombay.
82 reasons to visit Vanuatu
VANUATU is a destination that does the "Pacific island" thing to perfection, with welcoming people living a laid-back life on volcanic atolls in a turquoise ocean. The main island, Efate, is a favourite on the cruising circuit and it's a popular resort destination with Australians, who fill the properties in and around the capital, Port Vila.
But word is getting out that here is an island chain offering more than a whistle stop or a resort lobby luau.
For those who have made the three-hour flight from Australia's east coast, Efate feels like old-school south Pacific, with its little rusted-roof capital and curious colonial legacy (the place was jointly administered by the French and the British and is something of a linguist's paradise, with more languages spoken per head than anywhere in the world).
Beyond Port Vila, village life dominates and kava ceremonies and Sunday church singing continue whether you're there or not. Staying in smaller boutique properties (such as the Havannah and Eratrap Beach Resort) is increasingly seen as a way for visitors to be part of island life.
Perhaps owing to the cursory cruise ship modus operandi, Vanuatu's 82 other islands have been largely overlooked. And this is where the real adventure — and possibly the future of Vanuatu — lies.
The Australian representative of the Vanuatu Tourism Office, Kate Brown, says visitors to the outer islands can gain "an insight into cultures that have remained largely unchanged for centuries, while also taking in incredible holiday experiences, like diving on a shipwreck, or visiting one of the world's most accessible volcanoes".
The islands of Tanna, which has an active volcano, and Espiritu Santu are new stars with a number of boutique properties and intimate resorts. But other islands — including Malekula, Pentecost, the Banks and Epi — are still largely untouched by tourism. According to Brown, these are "attracting more adventurous travellers because they offer a safe, unique and unspoilt frontier for adventurous Australians to explore".
Pentecost is the home of the "naghol" land divers. Naghol takes place between April and June and is a perilous rite of manhood, which is unlikely to succumb to the plasticising effects of tourism because nobody would leap from a 35-metre tower tied to an inelastic vine for anything other than deep-seated personal reasons. There are also adventure hikes offered on the island.
In November on Rah Island in the Banks group, villagers make a 400-metre fishing net from coconut leaves and drag it out to sea. They form a large semicircle and close the net on fish, which are trapped at low tide. This bounty forms the basis of a two-week festival, which presumably sees one comfortably fed in an environment that perfectly accords with the overused epithet "island paradise". Four-day visits to Rah Island can be arranged through operators such as Vanuatu Custom Travel; see vanuatucustomtravel.com.
Like most islands that rely on imports, living costs are relatively high on Vanuatu (at least more expensive than, say, Bali or Fiji); as a rule of thumb, costs are roughly in line with those in Australia, with some more on top at the resorts.
Air Vanuatu has a fare to Port Vila from Sydney (3hr 30min) for about $560 low-season return, including tax. Melbourne passengers fly Qantas to Sydney to connect and pay about $800. For about the same fare there is a weekly non-stop flight from Melbourne to Vanuatu (via Sydney on the return).
Warwick Le Lagon is a four-star, 142-room resort. It's the biggest on the island and a touch tired but it has great staff and beautiful gardens alongside the lovely Erakor Lagoon. Prices vary by season but look for specials: we booked a six-nights-for-three deal through Flight Centre costing $1106 for all of us. Be aware the resort has expensive drinks and many small hidden charges (a $20 initial fee for Kids' Club, for instance). But the meal deal, for $60 a person a day, allows children under 13 to eat free; see lelagonvanuatu.vu.
A visit to Ekasup Cultural Village costs 3825 vatu ($40) for adults and 1910 vatu for children five to 15, which includes transfers, a two-hour presentation and a drink. Phone +678 24217.
Hideaway Island Marine Park Adventure costs 3950 vatu for adults and 2950 vatu for children (aged 5-15), which includes transfers from hotels to the island, a glass-bottom boat tour, snorkelling and lunch. See hideaway.com.vu.
To the Mele Cascades, expect to pay about 6000 vatu for a taxi from Port Vila hotels. Entry to the falls is 1000 vatu for adults and 250 vatu for children.
Buggy Fun is a four-hour adventure tour from the jungle to the beach for 8000 vatu a person (one child rides free in a family of four). The price includes transfers, buggies (licence required, children must be six or older) and a barbecue lunch. See buggyfunrental.com.vu.