NF8 (Air Vanuatu to Melbourne). Three direct flights per week.
It's an easy drive through early afternoon traffic to the airport, 5km north of downtown Port Vila. Public transport doesn't exist in Vanuatu, with private buses and taxis servicing the airport. I arrive by minibus transfer from The Palm House boutique hotel near the island's most westerly point. Traffic is minimal and the drop-off outside the departure terminal without fuss.
I'm not expecting to find a glitzy, modern airport with air-conditioning, indoor waterfalls and movie cinemas so I'm not disappointed when I walk into a clammy, ageing concrete shelter. A $66 million runway upgrade is on track for completion before the end of 2019, ahead of an expected bounce in inbound passenger numbers. And a new international terminal to be built on the opposite side of the runway, separating it from the domestic terminal, is also in the pipeline.
Most airlines allow you to check in online but there seems little point in doing so, given there's no separate queue for depositing luggage. Electronic check-in machines are not yet available either. However, with absolutely no one queued at the check-in desk when I arrive 2.5 hours before my flight, I'm through to the departure lounge before I can say mi laekem ples ia tumas ("I like this place very much"). If this is how island time works, I'll take it any day.
Immigration and customs checks are completed in 10 minutes. The immigration officer even smiles when he hands my passport back. It's a story I'll tell my grandchildren one day.
FOOD AND DRINK
Don't plan on quelling hunger pangs here; the choices are limited. A drug store sells cold drinks and snacks, and the banana bread from a small café next to a Spartan corner bar comes highly recommended. Even the food offerings inside the Harry Bauer Club Lounge – a work-in-progress, admittedly – are limited to trays of packaged cookies.
If you're left with a few vatu and they're burning a hole in your pocket, spend them on duty-free alcohol. Even though the duty-free is even cheaper if you buy them from several outlets in Port Vila, it's still much better value at the airport than in Australia. An example? A one-litre bottle of Hendrick's gin cost half as much in Bauerfield's Paris Shopping Duty Free store compared to the duty-free outlet I browsed through on arrival at Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport. No wonder expats go troppo here. If you'd prefer to give than spend, a book donation library in one corner contributes towards animal welfare.
Harry Bauer's Airport Club Lounge opened late in 2018 as part of an international terminal upgrade and is available to business class passengers and Priority Pass holders. Temporary guest invitations cost $25, which you will have to drink plenty of alcohol to get much value out of. It does have air-conditioning, comfortable armchairs, free Wi-Fi and a limited selection of magazines though.
ONE MORE THING
Bauerfield International was named after a hotshot American WW2 fighter pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Harold Bauer, who was shot down in 1942 during the Battle of Guadalcanal. He was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honour and a Purple Heart.
OUR RATING OUT OF FIVE
Mark Daffey travelled courtesy of Air Vanuatu, Vanuatu Tourism, White Grass Ocean Resort & Spa, Tanna, and The Palm House, Efate.