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.