You don't have to drive far out of Port Vila to be a long way out of Port Vila. Expats, it seems, would sooner fly to Vanuatu's outer islands than drive an hour, or less, out of town.
Alan Prisk runs a restaurant and snorkelling business in a place called Mangaliliu. Most expats, he says, have never heard of Mangaliliu. I time my drive out from Vila and it takes me 22-and-a-half minutes. Greg Pechan's hotel, The Havannah Vanuatu, is another 15 minutes up the road from Mangaliliu, so expats have Buckley's chance of finding it. Although, in their defence, it wasn't so long ago the road here from Vila was made from crushed coral and when it rained you needed a tractor to get out.
This seems to suit everyone just fine. Locals stick to Port Vila and the coast they frequent on the city's southern side, while those who venture this far feel like they've probed deep into Vanuatu's outer islands, all within an hour of the airport.
I'm going even further into the great unknown: Emua Wharf is another 15 minutes up the road and there, a bloke in a boat will take me on a 15-minute sea voyage. All up this expedition is taking me a grand total of 67-and-a-half minutes (I'm about four hours and 37-and-a-half minutes from Sydney Airport). Enoch, the boat captain, is pointing as he bails water. "That's Pele Island," he says. Behind it huge triangular peaks of larger islands that extend to a blue sea horizon make all this look like French Polynesia.
There's not much on Pele but dreamy, empty beaches and there's barely 200 people spread across four villages. There's no cars – but then, there's no roads. A few simple bungalows for tourists to stay in sit by the water's edge.
Mine's within one of the island's villages. As the sun sets, I walk to the water to watch. Two tiny children light a fire for me where I sit. The oldest – all of six or seven years old – studies it proudly. "We make this for you," he says. I'm not quite sure why – it's 30 degrees even now at dusk – but I don't wish to seem rude so I sit beside it watching turtles swim as the light fades (sea creatures are plentiful here, protected under the Nguna-Pele Marine Protection Area set up by local villages).
One fish that wasn't so lucky is grilled for me and served with chili on the verandah of my bungalow. I sit and listen to the village go about its evening business – there's no electricity (solar power is used where possible), but a full moon lights the place so I can watch the show. Children shuffle past after washing in the sea, while a local lad fills the village's communal kava bowl from a bore beside my place. Roosters crow (who said they save that for dawn?), toddlers squeal and ladies catch up on gossip they missed from the day. All these sounds of life, seemingly from another century to the one I live in, soothe me and I'm out cold by 8pm.
Next day, my morning swim is interrupted by the "school bus". Enoch uses his runabout to take children across a narrow passage to Nguna, the next island over. It's the Big Island round here, home to 1300 people, three schools and about seven bungalows and guest houses. No one seems quite sure on the exact number.
When he's done delivering kids, Enoch takes me across, too. Nguna is bisected by two extinct volcanic craters, and I intend to hike to the top of one of them today – Mount Marrow, 472 metres. My guide greets me and we begin through a network of muddy trails which children use to get to school. Locals walk by carrying machetes, working the island's cabbage, yam, banana and taro plantations. We pass by schools of corrugated iron and concrete, prettied up by gardens of frangipani and bougainvillea. We walk till the villages stop, then we climb higher. At the top of an old caldera, I can see across the Shepherd Islands – 10 volcanic islands spread out in the sea between Efate and Epi.
Options along Efate's coast aren't limited to these kinds of sweaty adventures. Enoch boats me back to Efate, where I'm driven to Greg Pechan's hotel. The Havannah Vanuatu isn't built in the middle of a village, instead it straddles a prime piece of Havannah Harbour. Its villas are built above the water so that I can watch dugongs and turtles from my jacuzzi, even my bed. And I can see straight out at the volcano I climbed this morning.
This part of Efate was occupied by US forces during World War II when an air base was built to launch attacking raids on Japanese troops entrenched in the Solomon Islands. And though this is where some of the first European settlers on Vanuatu came (to grow cotton from the 1860s), it wasn't till a decade ago that Efate's main Ring Road even came out this way. Locals still tend to forget it's here.
Yet The Havannah is one of the country's most luxurious hotels. I spend my first evening here out on its sprawling Gatsby-like lawns which fall away to the water below. Couples (it's adults-only) sit here as the moon rises and dinner (often) is served on the beach, while a bonfire burns. "We used to come up here for picnics with the kids, from Port Vila," Pechan tells me. "The road was all coral, and you'd be lucky to make it up some of the hills on the way here."
Next morning I make the short journey south to Alan Prisk's Back To Eden. Hideaway Island, just off the coast from Port Vila, has long been regarded as the best place to snorkel on Efate and Prisk guarantees I'll see at least a handful of turtles, and if I timed it better (between July and October), I could have watched humpbacks breach 50 metres from the shore. He takes me on a snorkelling tour with local guide, Elvis. True to his word, we see a handful of turtles, following them along narrow avenues of vivid-coloured coral unaffected by coral bleaching. When we're done, we eat fresh tuna steaks at Prisk's restaurant, washed down with local lager, Tusker, as I look back out over the water wishing for whales.
On a Sunday afternoon, I venture from my hotel a few minutes south along the waterfront to Francesca's Beach Club for happy hour. There's a bloke playing guitar and Havannah Harbour regulars sip wine beneath a thatched roof and a frangipani tree as chefs prepare Italian/Melanesian fusion dishes in a big open kitchen. A stairway runs down to the water where children play, and dugongs venture when they don't.
As tourists and cruise passengers are, right now, exploring every bar, cafe and restaurant in Port Vila, I'm here, half an hour away, with Melanesia to myself.
OTHER ISLANDS WORTH VISITING
Fly an hour south of Port Vila and walk to the rim of the world's most accessible live volcano, Mount Yasur. Though there's daily flights, coming here is like going back in time. Locals live a more traditional lifestyle than other islands, while the snorkelling and diving is some of the best in Vanuatu.
Fly an hour north and you'll find Vanuatu's best beaches, including Champagne Beach (rated among the world's top 10 beaches). The inspiration for James A. Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, Santo is home to Vanuatu's highest-end resorts, but it's also where locals bring bows and arrows to town. Dive the world's most accessible wreck dive, SS Coolidge.
There might be two tiny airports on Epi, but there's no sealed roads and few vehicles. It's easy to get here on a day tour from Port Vila. There's few tourists to share the island's pristine bays, such as the the stunning 1.5 kilometre-long Lamen Bay, with – just dugongs. There's also numerous hikes available to the island's volcanic peaks.
Craig Tansley travelled courtesy of Vanuatu Tourism and Air Vanuatu
Air Vanuatu flies daily from Sydney to Port Vila, and four and three times a week from Brisbane and Melbourne respectively, from $580 return. See airvanuatu.com
A stay in one of four villa types at The Havannah Vanuatu starts from $849 a night including meals and transfers. A stay at Sunset Frangipani Bungalow on Pele starts from $43 a night. See thehavannah.com; shefatravel.weebly.com/acccomodation3.html
Tour companies can help you explore Pele and Nguna; Back to Eden can arrange snorkelling tours; Francesca's Beach Club offers Italian eats and local treats. See vanuatuecotours.com/outerislandtours/nguna-pele-island-explorer-tour/; backtoedenvanuatu.com; francescas.com.vu