Peace and pampering: Vanuatu comes of age

Heidi Davoren finds peace and pampering on the island paradise of Vanuatu

A new contender has emerged in the hunt for South Pacific tourist dollars.

The once sleepy municipality of Vanuatu has come of age, taking on rivals Fiji and New Zealand for top spot in the beauty stakes.

But this island paradise offers more than just eye candy for the nature lovers amongst us.

More than 2000 ex-patriot Australians now call Vanuatu home and it seems they've been doing their bit to lure tourists to the region by establishing dive centres, resorts, restaurants, cafes, galleries and day spas.

At Champagne Beach, the Jurassic-style foliage drops away to reveal brilliant blue ocean and sand as soft as talc. The colours so vibrant and scenery so intense it's like walking in a painting.

Coastal land is being snapped up by developers and savvy entrepreneurs as the potential for wealth creation entices those keen to take advantage of this tax-free haven.

Aussie and Breakas Beach Resort owner George Winslett is one who hasn't let the opportunity pass, building an impressive resort along 2km of private beachfront at Port Vila.

Pikininis (children) under 15 years are not permitted at Breakas, so there's no risk of being dive-bombed in the infinity pool or asked for ID at the swim-up bar.

Be warned however, the indoor/outdoor shower takes a little getting used to. A wall of carefully constructed coral pieces allows you to keep your dignity intact while the open roof provides an opportunity to commune with the birds, the moon and the stars while rinsing off in your birthday suit.

Port Vila itself is an odd mix of the tropical-meets-Paris-meets-Pall Mall as the French and English influence lingers from colonial days. It's a deceiving location that combines the unforgiving realities of the third world with the self-indulgent excesses of the West.

In an unassuming little cafe called Au Pache Mignong, hidden behind shutters on the main street, visitors are greeted with decadent French pastries and creamy cappuccinos.

Across the road the market stalls waft of citrus and coconut, fish and fresh herbs and locals who drive a hard bargain. Posh little art galleries with immaculate window displays sit next to clothing sweat shops overflowing with ni-Van women who struggle to be heard over the whir of sewing machines.

Visitors can gorge on delicacies of coconut crab and lobster mornay and sip on French Champagne in restaurants such as Vila Chaumieres – a divine location.

The sights and sounds of city life are captivating but the real beauty lies on the outskirts of Port Vila where the magical Mele Cascades waterfall has carved out its home in the mountainside.

A hike up the side of the waterfall will reward you with a breathtaking view of Efate Island and if you're the adventurous type, you can cool off by abseiling back down the falls to the pristine pools at its base.

Natural wonders are almost a dime a dozen amongst the 83 islands of this archipelago with eight active volcanos, hot springs, coral reefs in a kaleidoscope of colours, freshwater blue holes and national parks.

One such treasure is hidden away on the island of Espiritu Santo, about forty minutes drive from Luganville and a gem that's hard to keep secret.

At Champagne Beach, the Jurassic-style foliage drops away to reveal brilliant blue ocean and sand as soft as talc. The colours so vibrant and scenery so intense it's like walking in a painting.

On the opposite side of the island and ten minutes by water taxi from Espiritu is Aore Island Resort, a tranquil little community that offers a true sense of island life – without the hordes of tourists.

Fares (huts) hug the coastline and the hypnotising sound of lapping waves lulls the weary traveller to sleep at night.

At Aore the service is personable, genuine and thorough. A walk through the nearby plantation with local guide Michele will afford many fascinating revelations about the origins of traditional bush medicine ni-Van style.

The most culturally enriching experience however is courtesy of the local “custom village” where visitors are greeted in the traditional ni-Van way – with lots of screaming, flying spears and shrieks from the jungle as the males do their best to scare the wits out of you.

Mesmerising tribal customs such as water music and basket weaving are highlights, along with kava and fire making, and traditional song and dance.

The mantra in Vanuatu is “island time”; no one is in a hurry and nothing will ever depart or arrive when it is suppose to, so make the most of the laid back lifestyle and explore this captivating region at your leisure.

Air Vanuatu now flies direct from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne to Santo. The writer was a guest of Vanuatu Tourism.